Forever Florida and Crescent J Ranch
4755 North Kenansville Road
St. Cloud, FL 34773
Admission: Free admission and parking; there is
a charge for most activities
Hours: Daily 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Location: Take US 192 east from Kissimmee for about 24 miles to Holopaw; turn south on US 441 for about 7 miles to the entrance on your left. (The address given above is the corporate office.)
Did you know that wild hogs kill more people than any other wild animal? Did you know that red carpet lichen grows only where the air is especially pure? Did you know that the berries of poison ivy plants are the sole source of vitamin C for the animals of Florida’s forests? These are just a few of the fascinating facts you’ll learn as you explore a patch of the “real Florida” that is as much a family affair as it is a tourist attraction.
Forever Florida was founded by Dr. Bill Broussard as a living monument to his son Allen, a devoted ecologist who died well before his time. The attraction combines Dr. Broussard’s ranch (he’s a tenth generation rancher as well as an ophthalmologist) with a swampy wilderness tract next door that had been sold in parcels as part of a classic Florida land scam back in the sixties. It was in these woods, that young Allen fell in love with Nature and found his vocation. Also part of Forever Florida is the former country retreat of another doctor, whose house will be converted into a bed and breakfast and whose private grass airstrip welcomes fly-ins so long as they call ahead.
You begin your visit to Forever Florida at the Visitor Center, which contains a gift shop and restaurant. Near the Visitor Center are a free petting zoo and pony rides ($8 by reservation). But the real attraction here is access to the nearby wilderness, much of which has remained untouched by the hand of man, despite the fact that this part of Florida was a thriving logging center in the nineteenth century.
You can reach the wilds in a number of ways: by foot, on horseback, or on a wacky-looking green “Swamp Buggy” designed by Dr. Broussard and unique to Forever Florida. Most people choose the last alternative.
Your tour vehicle is a 32-seat open-sided coach raised well above the ground on large tractor tires. The bucket seats are comfortable and the tour guides extremely knowledgeable experts, many with degrees in biology or ecology.
There are tours at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. On the tour I took, we sighted white-tailed deer, armadillos, gators, wild turkey, and gopher tortoises. We even sighted some of those elusive wild hogs, albeit in hog traps. One lucky tour group sighted the Florida panther that roams this preserve. There are fewer than 30 left in the wild, so don’t count on seeing one on your visit. Photographers should make sure to bring along their best telephoto lenses.
The highlight of the tour is the narration by your guide. These folks love this scruffy patch of Florida wilderness and it shows. They mix an in-depth knowledge of the local ecology with a passion for its preservation. You will leave this tour knowing why you should never buy cypress mulch for your garden and why wild hogs (descended from those abandoned by the Spaniards when they discovered there was no gold in Florida) should be removed from the Florida ecosystem. In fact, you will see ample evidence of the damage the preserve’s estimated 800 hogs inflict on the local ecology. Those trapped hogs, by the way, are fattened up on yummy farm feed and then relocated elsewhere or given away to local groups for barbecues.
The motorized tours cost $25 ($20 for children 6 to 12; kids under six are free) and last about two hours. The guided horseback tours are offered daily, by reservation only, and cost $37.50 for one hour, $57 for two, and $73 for three; the three-hour tour includes lunch. There is no reduced price for children (age 10 and up only) on these tours. The hiking fee is a flat $5 per person per day, but at least one member of the group must be a member of a nationally recognized group such as the Audubon Society. This rule was instituted to cut down on littering by ignorant tourists.
The Cypress Restaurant offers a straightforward and familiar menu of country-style cooking, although you are not likely to find the Fried Gator Tail Plate on too many other local menus. It’s open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily and until 8:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The gift shop sells clothing, some interesting crafts, and books on Florida ecology and cooking.
Forever Florida offers an evolving menu of special events and programs. One recent offering was a two-night sleepover for kids that included a nighttime outing to find nocturnal critters. To celebrate Earth Day, the preserve hosted “Cracker Survivor Island” inspired by the TV show. Typically, when a special event is on, there will be a modest parking charge. Call ahead or check the web site to see what’s going to be on during your visit.
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