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Places We Protect

Disney Wilderness Preserve

Florida

Cypress trees standing near the shoreline of Lake Russell against a cloudy blue sky.
Disney Wilderness Preserve Lake Russell © Nisheeka Blackstock/TNC
CCI
CCI Center for Conservation Initiatives © TNC

Disney Wilderness Preserve is one of four campus preserves under TNC Florida's Center for Conservation Initiatives, advancing conservation through education and training, outreach and volunteerism, science and research, and land stewardship. Learn more

Overview

Description

“Landscapes of great wonder and beauty lie under our feet and all around us. They are discovered in tunnels in the ground, the hearts of flowers, the hollows of trees, fresh-water ponds, seaweed jungles between tides, and even drops of water. Life in these hidden worlds is more startling in reality than anything we can imagine.”—Walt Disney

Home to more than 1,000 species of plants and animals, the preserve is an essential part of the Everglades ecosystem. It contains 3,500 acres of restored wetlands that act as nature’s “sponges,” capturing rain, filtering out nutrients and replenishing our groundwater.

Although the preserve is not affiliated with Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, The Walt Disney Company provided funds for restoration and wildlife monitoring on the preserve and continues to partner on a number of on-site projects today.

Disney Wilderness Preserve in Central Florida stands as a testament not only to Walt Disney’s love of nature, but also to the power of cooperation, perseverance and innovative thinking.

Access

OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

To confirm our operating schedule please call 407-935-0002.

Hours

Monday and Tuesday closed; Wednesday to Friday open 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Highlights

At Disney Wilderness Preserve, you can hike, bird-watch and enjoy old Florida’s natural beauty.

Size

11,500 acres

Explore our work in this region

Photos from Disney Wilderness Preserve

Tag your preserve visits on Instagram with #DisneyWildernessPreserve to have your photos featured here!

Barred owl perched in a tree at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
Green lily pads on the surface of a natural pond in the wetlands at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
Longleaf pine trees against a beautiful orange sunset at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
White-tailed deer in a meadow at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
Beautiful orange pine lily wildflower in bloom at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
Parent and sandhill crane baby colt sharing seed at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
Florida scrub-jay perched at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
Three white cattle in a pasture at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.
The Disney Wilderness Preserve nature trails lead to a peaceful overlook of Lake Russell.
Butterfly orchid in bloom at The Disney Wilderness Preserve.

Visit Disney Wilderness Preserve

  • What to See
    • Animals—See rare birds such as the bald eagle, red-cockaded woodpecker, wood stork and sandhill crane and familiar favorites such as the Northern harrier and Eastern meadowlark. Disney Wilderness Preserve is also home to the Southeastern big-eared bat, Sherman’s fox squirrel, Eastern indigo snake and gopher tortoise. Even the Florida panther has been documented here!
    • Plants and Habitats—You'll find cypress swamp, freshwater marsh, scrub, flatwoods and oak hammocks at Disney Wilderness Preserve. A rejuvenated longleaf pine forest—replete with a lush understory of native grasses, saw palmetto and other shrubs—is one result of prescribed fire on the land. Stunning and important flowers here include the fall-flowering ixia, Catesby’s lily and terrestrial orchids.
    • Eco-Friendly Buildings—The preserve’s Conservation Learning Center and other buildings include green features such as:
      • Geothermal heating and cooling.
      • Freshwater catchment for irrigation and other non-potable uses.
      • Green forest-grown pine lumber from a Certified Sustainable Forest.
      • Wide porches and ceiling fans shield work areas.
      • Low VOC paint.
    • Lake Russell—This serene 540-acre sand bottom lake is undeveloped and can be visited by hiking on the Red Wilderness Trail. Reedy Creek flows into the lake from the north and water continues to flow south from Lake Russell through several lakes and rivers that lead to the Everglades. The water can appear dark and even black since it is naturally stained by decaying organic matter, but this is healthy and not harmful in any way.
    • Conservation in Action—Our wetland and upland habitat restoration activities at Disney Wilderness Preserve include eliminating non-native, invasive plants and grasses, controlled burns in fire-dependent habitats and using machines to remove excessive shrub and tree growth. You may notice evidence of these land management activities while visiting, including recently burned patches of fire dependent land that will quickly regenerate.
  • Hiking Trails
    • Hours and Location: Hiking trails are accessible behind our welcome center buildings, at the end of the 1.5 mile driveway into the Preserve. They are open to the public during preserve opening hours. Please note that staff lock the entrance gates to the preserve at closing time, so please ensure you’re off the trail and exit the preserve prior to closing time.
    • Trails: (download the trail map in English, Spanish, or the GPS-Enabled version for your smartphone.)
      • White Harden Trail: 0.5-mile short loop.
      • Red Wilderness Trail: 2.5-mile loop which offers access to Lake Russell and a closer look at the preserve’s natural communities.
      • Yellow Trail: 6-mile loop takes you through wetland and upland habitats. 
    • Rules: Pets, smoking, weapons and alcohol are prohibited. Please stay on the trail and do not collect plants or animals.
    • Safety: Please register at the Information Center prior to setting out and allow at least two hours to hike the trails (not including stops). For your safety and comfort, bring a trail map, drinking water, hat, sun protection, bug repellent and appropriate footwear. Always be aware of changing weather conditions. Water levels fluctuate based on rainfall and groundwater levels; trails may be wet at times. 
  • Our Conservation Work
    • Florida Scrub-Jay—The Florida scrub-jay is Florida’s only endemic bird, meaning that it is found only within Florida. These beautiful small blue birds have lived in the preserve’s scrub habitat since TNC acquired the land in the early 1990s. Florida scrub-jays are well adapted to the dry shrubby uplands, called scrub, found at the preserve where they use oak shrubs for cover, nesting sites, and food. Florida scrub-jays are federally listed as threatened, and conservation efforts at the preserve are underway to protect their habitat. Our conservation staff and volunteers regularly monitor their populations and communicate with other Florida scrub-jay monitoring programs to stay up to date on the most effective conservation practices.
    • Red-cockaded Woodpecker Translocation Program—TNC works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on a program to return the red-cockaded woodpecker to the preserve. As a result of these efforts, the relocated woodpecker populations are rebounding in the restored longleaf pine habitat.
    • Wood Stork Rookery—TNC partners with The Walt Disney Company’s Animal Kingdom to monitor one of the most closely studied wood stork rookeries in the United States. Hundreds of these ancient, endangered birds flock to the preserve each spring, where they roost in raucous splendor among old growth bald cypress trees.
    • Prescribed Fire—Fire has been returned to the preserve so that native plants and animals such as longleaf pine, Florida scrub jay and red-cockaded woodpecker can thrive. This critical and naturally occurring ecological process shaped the ecosystem long before roads and houses existed on the landscape. Today, the preserve’s land managers conduct prescribed fires to mimic fires that would have been started naturally by lightning every 1-3 years. In addition to following best practices in prescribed fire, the preserve hosted fifteen women from seven different partner organizations to participate in an all-female controlled burn, inspiring women to enter a field that has been traditionally dominated by men.
    • A Learning Laboratory—The preserve is a living laboratory where people work and learn together about healing the land and thriving in harmony with the natural environment. TNC has teamed up with scientists from the University of Central Florida and the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) to better understand issues such as climate change by measuring the amount of carbon stored in different habitats at the preserve. Sensitive instruments collect data on weather, water, energy and carbon storage. Scientific studies help document the value of natural habitats.
    • Partnering for Conservation—The preserve has become the centerpiece of the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. The collaborative approach that created the preserve is being applied to this project by bringing together state and federal agencies to envision a conservation area that includes both public and private land, the kind of wetland restoration pioneered at the preserve, and a combination of working and protected lands.
Two people look through binoculars.
Get Involved Explore opportunities to volunteer and attend events at the preserve. © Roberto Gonzalez

Get Involved

Learn more about volunteer opportunities at Disney Wilderness Preserve, and educational programs and community outreach.

To have the latest information on volunteering, educational opportunities, programs and activities sent to your email inbox, we invite you to subscribe to our preserve e-newsletter.

A backhoe removes invasive species from the soil.
Invasive Species Removal Heavy equipment removes invasive species to help restore the preserve's natural habitats. © M. Renda/TNC

History

Almost 30 years ago, The Walt Disney Company made a gift to the future of Central Florida by helping create Disney Wilderness Preserve.

The core of the preserve was once the 8,500-acre Walker Ranch—a cattle ranch situated at the head of the greater Everglades watershed. In the early 1990s, the ranch was slated for extensive residential and commercial development which would have spelled the end for the property’s degraded—but restorable—wetlands. This development would also have destroyed significant habitat for endangered plants and wildlife. The ranch was considered a prize jewel among conservationists because of its rare upland habitat and its border with Lake Russell.

Partnering with TNC, the State of Florida, and a number of other groups, The Walt Disney Company purchased the property and transferred it to TNC to create a nature preserve dedicated to wetlands restoration on an unprecedented scale. The transfer helped mitigate future impact associated with Walt Disney World expanding in Central Florida.

The preserve represented one of the earliest and largest wetland mitigation projects in the country. The Walt Disney Company provided TNC restoration funding in annual payments, an endowment to assist with operations, and additional support to build a green visitors center and learning facility.

In 1995, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority added an additional 3,000 acres to mitigate for airport expansion. In 2014, The Walt Disney Company purchased 3,000 acres of land bordering The Disney Wilderness Preserve, preventing this land from becoming a housing development, and began restoring the property, bringing the preserve to its current size.

Heralded as a model, the effort to create the preserve was a visionary approach to offsetting development by conserving environmentally significant lands. This innovative approach to environmental stewardship resulted in more than 70 mitigation banks throughout the state. 

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Explore Other CCI Campus Preserves in Florida

Need more nature? Visit TNC's other Center for Conservation Initiatives' campus preserves in Florida.

Find More Places We Protect

TNC owns nearly 1,500 preserves covering more than 2.5 million acres across all 50 states. These lands protect wildlife and natural systems, serve as living laboratories for innovative science and connect people to the natural world.

See the Complete Map

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