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Experience The Real Florida

Every year around 40 million visitors come to Florida for the sun, sea and attractions. Most visit the world famous theme parks or enjoy the fabulous palm-fringed sandy beaches.

However, while Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse is known the world ever, Florida is host to another mouse that is just as special and the key to exploring the real Florida.

The tiny Florida mouse - only found within the State - is one of the hundreds of species of animals, birds and other creatures that live in Florida's magnificent state parks.

The chain of 159 state parks is one of Florida's best kept secrets yet they offer a great day out for all the family ? and for a tiny fraction of the cost of spending a day at one of the theme parks. Just a few miles from Walt Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios is Wekiwa Springs State Park, an 8,000 acre natural oasis surrounded by urban build up.

If you stand on the deck outside the park's nature center and look out at the spring and the lush tropical vegetation beyond, you can enjoy a landscape that is much the same as when the first Spanish explorers ventured inland almost 500 years ago and even when the first Indians arrived almost 12,000 years ago.

Wekiwa is a Creek Indian word meaning 'spring of water' and today, the crystal clear spring discharges a staggering 43 million gallons of water every day into a lagoon that has a year round temperature of about 72 degrees.

Wekiwa Springs State Park is one of three parks in the area that make up the Wekiva River Basin State Parks, an area covering over 40,000 acres. Wekiva is the Creek Indian word for "running water" so the spring is Wekiwa and the river is Wekiva ? just to confuse you!

Admission to the park is just $5 for a car and all passengers so you can spend all day sunbathing, swimming in the lagoon, walking the trails, exploring the wildlife or renting a canoe and paddling up the quiet, winding river.

Visit the nature center at the start of your visit which will give you some idea of the wealth of wildlife to be seen within the park's boundaries. You can also learn about the park's rich history.

When dinosaurs roamed the rest of North America, Florida was still submerged several hundred feet below the sea. Instead of massive land animals, the warm waters above what was to become Florida were home to giant sharks ? more than 55 feet long. You can still find shark teeth and other fossils in the park although you shouldn't take them.

Around 10,000 years ago mammoth, mastodon, saber tooth tiger, camel, rhinoceros, giant ground sloth and glyptodonts ? a 1,000lb ancestor of the armadillo ? roamed the Florida countryside, having been driven south by advancing Ice Age glaciers.

Timucuan Indians were the first to settle the area and they established settlements throughout Florida. The Spanish arrived in the 1500s introducing horses and oranges as well as European diseases that killed most of the Indians. In the 18th century settlers began colonizing Central Florida and at the end of the Civil War a hotel was built at the springs and the first tourists arrived.

Today, the tourists continue to come and many of them are visitors from outside the U.S. in search of the other Florida. There are picnic areas with grills for barbecuing, family and RV camp sites with hooks up for power and water and primitive camp sites if you want to trek into the backwoods. There are mountain bike trails, hiking trails and horse raiding trails as well as nature walks.

Maps are provided free and all trails are clearly signposted so you can move from one trail to another depending on how far you want to walk or how keen you are to get back to the spring and jump in the water.

If you are out on the trails, you may see black bear, white tailed deer, raccoon, bobcat, gopher, armadillo and fox squirrel, the largest member of the squirrel family. Many people mistake fox squirrels for monkeys because of their size and the way they sit in the trees. However, there are monkeys in the state park ? descendants of "extras' in a Tarzan movie that escaped during filming many years ago.

The park's most famous critter is the alligator which can grow up to 14 feet and there are hundreds in the Wekiva Basin. You can usually spot them while out canoeing.

Gators are fascinating creatures. Their teeth grew continuously throughout their lifetime and they exert 2-3,000 lbs of pressure per square inch when biting down ? compared to humans who exert only 5 lbs of pressure when biting down with all their force.

Gators can also outswim you in the water and outrun you on land, achieving speeds of 35mph over short distances. Large gators can also jump vertically four to five feet out of the water ? a good reason not to mess with them!

There are many other interesting any interesting and unusual animals, birds, reptiles and insects to see in the park.

So, the next time you are planning a visit to Central Florida, say hi to Mickey and then enjoy a great and affordable family day out with Florida's other mouse and experience the delights of the real Florida.

Wekiwa State Springs Park is off Wekiwa Springs Road in Apopka, about 10 miles from all the main attractions. Visit their website at www.floridastateparks.org/wekiwasprings

Don Philpott spent 20 years as a senior correspondent with Reuters/Press Association wire service traveling the world on assignments. He has had more than 5,000 articles and 56 books published on travel, security, wine, food, and diet and health.

He recently completed a five year project writing a series of 22 travel guidebooks on Florida and the Caribbean. His latest book The Trailside Cookbook, was co-authoried with his wife Pam and was published by Firefly in March 05. He is host of http://www.wineinfo101.com, a wine and food appreciation website and senior editor of Florida Features which specializes in articles on Florida and the Caribbean. He is a member of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association and the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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