Our tour bus veers away from the futuristic monorail, away from the Polynesian Village and Contemporary Hotel, into a ribbon of green that very few tourists ever see.
Welcome to the Disney Wildlife Conservation Area. No admission ticket is required. No crowds jostle to get in line at the next ride.
As we veer off the beaten tourist path, Rachel Smith, conservation programs manager at Walt Disney World, shows the group a gopher tortoise nesting area deep in the woods.
“A lot of these habitats serve as important long-term sites for our resident gopher tortoises that leave here on-site on our property,” Smith said. “So I thought we’d stop at a few. You can see active burrows behind me.”
Smith says this site in the past has served as new home for gopher tortoises that were removed from their homes elsewhere by development. So now, new tortoises go to other Disney properties, such as the 8,000-acre Disney Wilderness Preserve to the south.
This may look rural, but just beyond the distant tree line, the chug of the tourist train and sounds of Disney’s Animal Kingdom reverberate in the distance.
But don’t expect to pay for a ticket and take a bucolic break from the Magic Kingdom to come here. This was a special tour for members attending a nearby conference on the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
“We want our guests, as they go over on the Skyliner and they look down as they’re going from resort to resort or from park to park, to feel the wilderness that surrounds them,” said Zak Gezon, conservation manager with Disney. “And you can look down and see the headwaters of the Everglades that are right here on property and see where it begins.”
Gezon said from the very beginning of the attraction in the 1960s, Walt Disney had a vision of what it would look like.
“And wildlife was a big part of what he saw in himself as a human and the impact he could have on the world,” Gezon said. “And he hand-drew what Walt Disney World could look like. And it included a spine that went from north to south and east to west and allowed for wildlife to live in harmony with humans in this space.”
What that hand-drawn map means is The Happiest Place on Earth is now one of the only places in this part of Florida that allows wildlife to migrate from the vast green areas to the south of Orlando to the Green Swamp. That preserved stretch between Orlando and Tampa is a key part of the corridor that is envisioned for protection.
“It’s almost 9,000 acres,” Gezon said of the conservation area. “They see everything from otters and coyotes and 35 species of native bees — one out of every 10 species found in Florida. And 72 species of butterflies, scores of migratory birds.”
Gezon said he can see the irony of Disney World preserving a sliver of green from the development that it spawned beginning in the 1970s.
“We try really, really hard to be the best stewards of the environment within our control,” he said. “And within our property, having almost a third of it dedicated to wildlife and looking at land management and the way that we navigate all of our business practices to be nature-positive means a lot to us. And we would really like to influence everybody else outside of the berm as well to be as nature-positive as possible.”
But the development catering to Disney visitors beyond its borders is outside their control.
Jason Lauritsen, chief conservation officer of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation, says the Disney corridor is critical to the future movement of wildlife in this part of the state.
“Fifty years ago, there were lots of ways for wildlife to go back and forth. I-4 became that significant impediment,” Lauritsen said. “There were only a couple of spots remaining five years ago. Now we’re down to one. There’s really one functional corridor. So if we hope to have a meaningful overland connection between the northern Everglades and the Green Swamp, this is it.”
Mallory Lykes Dimmitt, executive director of the corridor foundation, traversed this conservation area along with fellow members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition in 2018. They paddled under Interstate 4 and north on Reedy Creek, coming up against a golf course and the sounds of roller-coaster rides in the distance.
She says she’s grateful that Disney had the vision to preserve a wild space.
“They’ve been a wonderful partner,” Dimmitt said. “And that’s what we need everywhere in the corridor, is have everybody think beyond their immediate property boundaries and how we can be working across those boundaries to sustain these connections so that they’ll last in perpetuity.”
That way, what they call “The Last Green Thread” can stay open forever, so wildlife in Florida can thrive well into Tomorrowland.