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Going wild in Orlando

Sustainability in Orlando

Words by Joanna Booth

It’s easy to associate responsible tourism with remote areas of wilderness, but the way we holiday in busy urban centres can have just as much impact. And if you didn’t expect the Theme Park Capital of the World to be leading the way when it comes to sustainability, prepare to be surprised.

Orlando is ranked as one of the greenest cities in America by EcoWatch, with a host of behind-the-scenes initiatives improving the environment for residents and visitors alike. From increasing its use of solar energy and retrofitting buildings to make them more efficient to providing 12,000 free trees for citizens to plant, local government is walking the walk as well as talking the talk.

Protecting Wildlife

You don’t have to travel far from the lively downtown core to find habitats that support a rich range of native wildlife. A host of protected areas lie within easy reach, with wetland, prairie and forest ecosystems supporting everything from deer and bobcats to the famous local alligators, easily spotted from an airboat tour of the Everglades, the northern reaches of which begin just south of Orlando. Birdlife is particularly bountiful: cranes, woodpeckers and eagles like the Hal Scott Regional Preserve and Park, while egrets, ospreys and peacocks flock to the Lake Apopka Restoration Area.
Even the most famous member of Orlando’s wildlife, Mickey Mouse, is doing his bit. The Disney Conservation Fund has protected one-third of the land originally purchased for Walt Disney World Resort as a permanent conservation area and helped to establish The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve – 11,500 acres of restored wetland and upland habitats. At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, nearly 40 Guam kingfisher chicks have hatched, significantly raising the world population of these critically endangered birds, and works are currently ongoing to build two new 75MW solar farms. When they come online, two of Disney’s four parks will be powered by renewable energy.

Cranes, woodpeckers and eagles like the Hall Scott Regional Preserve, while egrets, ospreys and peacocks flock to Lake Apopka

Supporting people

Sustainability isn’t just about environmental protection; supporting people is equally key. Universal Orlando is committed to making the experiences at its parks accessible, with lifts and ramps making as many areas as possible wheelchair friendly, sign language interpretation for live-action shows and a quiet room available for those with cognitive disabilities. 
Give Kids The World Village is an 84-acre, non-profit storybook resort where children with critical illnesses and their families from all over the world can take free, week-long holidays enjoying the accessible rides, theatres, pools and playgrounds. Alongside fundraising or donating, there are volunteering opportunities on offer even for visitors to Orlando, so you can give back during your vacation. Orlando is also committed to being an inclusive destination, welcoming all travellers regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or life stage. Its local residents represent a melting pot of cultures and you can learn about one of the first self-governing, all-Black municipalities in the U.S. at The Hurston in Eatonville, feel the influence of Orlando’s Asian American community at the multicultural Mills 50 dining and entertainment district, and discover Hispanic and Latino heritage at the Orlando Museum of Art. Orlando has earned a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, which measures the LGBTQ+ inclusiveness of cities’ laws, policies and services, and has regular pride celebrations and events.

Greener Choices

Savvy choices will make your trip to Orlando more sustainable, often without you even noticing. Sixty Orlando hotels have been recognised by the Florida Green Lodging Certification Program, so there’s plenty of environmentally responsible places to stay. For example, Rosen Hotels & Resorts, which has seven properties in Orlando, converts its used cooking oil into biodiesel to power its maintenance vehicles, and financially supports education initiatives and cancer charities. Loews Hotels implements several green practices including food donations, eco-friendly linen washing policies, back-ofhouse recycling, and efficient technology, such as low-flow shower heads and fluorescent light bulbs.

If you’re travelling during the summer holidays, you can enjoy Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining event, which runs throughout August. You’ll enjoy a range of three-course, prix-fixe dinners at some of the city’s best restaurants, and $1 from each meal served will be donated to one or more deserving local charities.

You can even shop more sustainably on your trip, from custom vegan cosmetics at Rouge Beauty Lab to self-care and wellness products at Oh Eco. Orlando also has a host of fantastic vintage clothes shops – try Etoile Boutique in the Milk District, The Owl’s Attic and The Lovely Boutique in the Audubon Park Garden District and Diversion in Ivanhoe Village. Even your souvenirs can reflect Orlando’s increasingly sustainable way of life.

Good news from Orlando

Orlando has pledged to transition its electric grid to 100% renewable energy by 2030 for municipal operations, and city-wide by 2050.

There are 500 nesting compartments for the declining purple martin songbird at Walt Disney World Resort, where more than 4,100 eggs have been laid in the past five years.

18 hotel brands in Orlando donate their unused soap to Clean the World, a non-profit that distributes recycled soap products to homeless shelters.

The latest piece inFlorida’s growing rail network has opened at Orlando International Airport; Miami can now be reached by train in under three hours.

4 Faves in Orlando

Learn about the planet at the Orlando Science Center

From a Tiny Green Home showing off the benefits of recycling, renewable energy and composting to an exhibition on food systems and how to make them more sustainable, this family friendly attraction is packed with fun, interactive ways to learn more about the world. Coming later this year is Life, a new nature and conservation exhibition that will tell the story of conservation through the animals that share our planet.

Kayak through the local swamps and rivers

Join a local kayak company and paddle through the hidden waterways found a lot closer to the city centre than you’d expect! Join anything from a two-hour guided tour to a multi-day kayak trek, and look for a company that is staffed by passionate and knowledgeable experts – being certified as Florida Master Naturalists is a good benchmark and demonstrates a commitment to the highest levels of environmental stewardship. Expect to see otter, alligators, turtles, giant wading birds, deer, and wild boar as you paddle through the local waters and navigate the Wekiva River or Okefenokee Swamp.

Explore Orlando Wetlands Park
This vast man-made wetland has a dual purpose. As well as providing advanced treatment-removing nutrients from reclaimed water, it also hosts a range of ecosystems, from marsh and wet prairie to hardwood cypress swamps, which have been created by planting 2.3 million aquatic plants and 200,000 trees. Stop off at the education centre to learn more, or come armed with downloadable checklists of flora and fauna to spot – from armadillos, bobcats, turtles and alligators to colourful butterflies and birds – before heading off to explore on foot, bike, horseback or on the free tram tours.
Watch Manatees in their natural environment
Manatees may look well-insulated, but these slow-moving vegetarians have only an inch of blubber and are badly affected by the cold. As a result, in the winter months many flock to Blue Springs State Park, just north of the City of Orlando, where a spring maintains the crystal-clear waters at a constant temperature of more than 22ºC. It’s a safe haven for these creatures, who are threatened by habitat loss, pollution and collisions with boats, so many choose to calve here. Stroll the extensive boardwalk to watch them without bothering them.
Want to find out more?

Read more from the Sustainable Florida supplement of Charitable Traveller, and find out more about the Sunshine State’s sustainability practices, or head to the Orlando page to find out more about sustainability in Orlando.