“Is Wild Florida ethical?” is the question I asked when I saw it listed on my Kissimmee itinerary. You really just never know with animal attractions these days. I’m glad to say that after some research beforehand, chatting with Sam Haught, one of the park’s co-founders, and visiting the area myself, I found it to be a lovely experience!
Before I started my trip with Kissimmee, I sat down and went through my activities to prepare. This means following on social media, looking up their websites, and making sure all my ducks are in a row.
When it comes to animal attractions or parks, I’m always extra cautious because I know there’s a lot I don’t know when it comes to their welfare. Honestly, unless I know with 100% certainty they’re ethical, I tend to avoid them.
When Kissimmee sent me an itinerary with Wild Florida on it, I almost replied back that I’d prefer not to go. I just wasn’t sure how much to trust the attraction.
Then I decided, you know what? That’s not really fair to them. Especially if they do take so much time, energy, and precaution when it comes to protecting their animals.
So I started to dig in and do some research. Their website doesn’t offer a ton of specific information about how they care for them. I was even more nervous looking at their wildlife park and animal encounters sections. Generally, I find petting/holding/anything with a naturally wild animal to be circumspect even in the best of situations.
Since I didn’t find anything on their site nor did the search “Is Wild Florida ethical?” come up with any real results, I went to the review section of TripAdvisor to see what I could find. Reading them actually relieved some of my concerns and made me want to visit.
It wasn’t the 5-star reviews, either, but the way Wild Florida responded to negative reviews and concerns. They gave long replies detailing how and why they have the animals they do. They even encouraged a visitor to come back so they could walk through and explain each animal situation.
To me, that’s about as transparent as you can get, and I decided to do the tour and mentally make a list of questions to ask while I was there.
A Visit to Wild Florida: The Airboat Tour
Before going to the wildlife park, we did the airboat tour. Now most people, when they question things about Wild Florida, this isn’t one of them at all. However, I wanted to include it because I think it further highlights how much they take care of their environment.
The airboat tour is a nice little trip into the Everglades where you’ll roam about and enjoy nature. Wild Florida’s intent is that you see the Everglades as they might have been seen centuries ago. This means you may see some gators swimming or lounging about. One thing you’ll definitely see are some beautiful landscapes.
We saw a few gators above water, but they immediately went under if we got too close. On cooler days, you might find them lounging in the sun!
I appreciate that the airboats don’t try to do any crazy tricks or spins so as to not disturb the wildlife. They also limit tours to 4 per hour and close the whole park on Sundays. This gives the environment, the animals, and the workers a full day every week to relax.
It’s just a really nice ride. Even in the heat, the movement of the boat will keep you pretty cool. Just remember to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes against the wind. If you need them, there are also noise-canceling ear covers since it does get loud.
A Visit to Wild Florida’s Wildlife Park
Now, here’s where people tend to get hesitant, which I understand. And as Sam said, you’re just not going to please everyone.
First, let’s start with regulations.
When I asked Sam, he said they must answer to the following:
- Department of Environmental Protection
- County Health Department
- Florida of Wildlife Commission
- Every customer who comes in with questions or concerns
That, to me, is a lot of third parties making sure everything is running well and the animals are treated properly. And of course, you don’t want to forget that the people who work there love these animals.
Secondly, how exactly does Wild Florida acquire their animals?
They don’t do anything illegal, like some black market trade, if that’s what you’re thinking. Each animal comes to the park for some reason or another, and Wild Florida is considered one of the best places to home these creatures.
For example, they acquire their alligators from trappers. Trappers basically go out and, well, trap nuisance gators (like ones found in people’s pools) for profit. Once alligators are trapped, they can no longer be relocated or released into the wild. From Florida’s Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program:
Why does the FWC not relocate nuisance alligators in Florida?
Florida has a healthy and stable alligator population. We have about 1.3 million alligators in Florida. Alligators live in all 67 counties, and they inhabit all wild areas of Florida that can support them. The removal of nuisance alligators does not have a significant impact on our state’s alligator population.
Relocated alligators often try to return to their capture site. They can create problems for people or other alligators along the way. If an alligator successfully returns, capturing it again would be necessary and likely more difficult the second time.
To avoid creating a problem at the release site, nuisance alligators would need to be relocated to remote areas where they would not encounter people. These remote areas already have healthy alligator populations and the ones that already live there have established social structures. The introduction of a new alligator to these areas would likely cause fighting, possibly resulting in the death of a resident alligator or the introduced alligator. (Source)
Trappers either kill the alligators for profit or sell them to somewhere like Wild Florida, where they can live out their lives comfortably.
Sometimes, other animals arrive because of Wild Florida’s reputation as a good home. One of their deer (the one below, actually) came to them after animal control was called because he kept hanging out at a bus stop with children.
In general, all of the animals I heard about came to Wild Florida either through coincidences or through regulated channels. WF will place themselves on a registry if they’re looking to home a specific animal, and if one comes up, they’ll volunteer themselves.
Now, let’s get to the sizes for the enclosures.
I read that they seemed small, but all the enclosures I saw seemed to be a comfortable size. The Wild Florida crew makes sure their environment feels as natural as possible for them to sleep or play.
I’ll also add that they were developing more property to expand the park, so you’re free to ask them about their future plans!
The Sloth Encounter
One of the big things Wild Florida has is a sloth encounter where you can take a “slothie.” I did some digging around on this before I went, and it seemed okay depending on the circumstances. While I’m not big on things like petting zoos or animal encounters, I will say the way Wild Florida cared for the sloths was about as ethical as you can get.
What’ll happen is one of their caretakers will come in with some snacks they enjoy and see if the sloth wants to come out. In this case, my sloth’s, Chloe, was an assortment of vegetables.
If the sloth doesn’t want food and doesn’t want to hang out, they won’t. Wild Florida ensures that they only use positive reinforcement (i.e. food) for their animals and never negative. They never, ever force a sloth out if they don’t want to. If sloths don’t feel like coming out that day, they give guests a raincheck and move on.
Once the sloth is happily munching, you’re allowed to very gently stroke the top of their head to the top of their back. You can only do this while they’re eating.
The whole time, there’s a trainer (mine was Kayla, who was lovely) in there with you to make sure the sloth is being fed, is happy and not stressed, and to answer any questions you might have about sloths in general.
I forgot to write it down, but I also remember that they severely limit the encounters and keep a rotation so as to not overtire or stress out their sloths.
Overall, Chloe seemed content munching on her treats (and she was cheeky enough to refuse the ones she didn’t like). I’m pretty sure she barely even registered I was there!
The Gift Shop + Chomp House Grill
The gift shop is another one I saw people were horrified at because, yes, on sale are actual alligator products. However, the shop does not use their own gators for this. The gift shop items are basically “leftover” from alligators that are killed for their skins or meat via Florida’s gator farms.
They also do sell a gator dish at their onsite restaurant, Chomp House Grill, but, again, it’s not from their own gators.
Personally, I didn’t buy any of the gift items or try the dish at the Chomp House, and you don’t have to either. However, I did eat a pulled pork sandwich and own plenty of leather bags, so even if I wanted to judge, I’d have no room to do so!
Do I think every single animal rights activists would be thrilled with Wild Florida? Probably not. But I also think there’s a huge spectrum to animal rights activism that can veer into the ridiculous. I will say this though:
Everyone I met at Wild Florida truly cared for the animals and their best interests.
In a lot of their responses to negative reviews, they specifically mention how every creature and human at Wild Florida is part of a family. I honestly felt that ring true. The fact that they could discuss their animal backstories and welfare so transparently, tells me they’re truly invested in creating a good home for all their creatures.
Ultimately, I think it’s also fair to trust the people who are caring for them every day. These are the people who are feeding them, monitoring their health, and going through the paperwork to make sure they go above and beyond.
Again, I’m not the end-all, be-all expert on animal welfare. However, between my research before and after, chatting with employees at the park, and seeing it all for myself, I found Wild Florida to not just be ethical but a lovely place where their animals were loved and both employees and creatures seemed happy.
If you’re visiting Kissimmee, I definitely recommend you visit for yourself. As I said many times, they’re very transparent animal lovers, so if I missed asking a question you have, just ask them!
How to Visit
- Check their website to book
- Address: 3301 Lake Cypress Rd, Kenansville, FL 34739
- You’ll want to rent a car to drive since it’s about an hour from Celebration where I was staying.
Have you been to Wild Florida? What did you think?
Thank you again to Wild Florida for inviting me as a guest with Experience Kissimmee. All opinions are my own.