A Weekend in Orlando: Rare plant day trip, puddle splashing, and Disney cheer

View of Lake Tibet-Butler

We weren’t even supposed to be in Orlando this weekend. The original plan was for my partner and I to go to Bradenton early Sunday morning and stay until Monday night. However, for a variety of reasons, our weekend ended up looking drastically different, and we did in fact stay in Orlando for most of the weekend.

A few days prior, one of my friends invited me to come look for a plant that had captivated many of us in the Florida nature community.

The second I saw this image of Parnassia grandifolia, it went straight to the top of my plant bucket list. Nonetheless, I was surprised that the opportunity to see it happened so soon, given that it is only found in 4 counties in Florida!

We thought we’d see the plant and then head to Bradenton for the rest of the weekend, but we felt preemptively exhausted at the thought of spending a night away from home and not being able to recover from a busy week at our own pace, so we canceled the entire Bradenton portion of our plans in favor of staying in Orlando and “spending most of the weekend resting.” We weren’t very successful at the resting part, but we still ended up finishing our weekend feeling replenished!

Sunday in Orlando and Marion County

After about 5 hours of sleep, our alarms went off early in the morning. We arose, packed a picnic, and then hopped in the car to drive an hour and a half to the GPS coordinates we’d been given for a rural location in Marion County. (In the interest of protecting this species, whose conservation status is classed as vulnerable, I won’t be sharing the exact location.)

Grass of parnassus flower

Rare plant trek

Tim and I pulled up behind a line of cars a few minutes before 9am.

In total, there were 9 of us who trekked through the densely forested area. The person leading the group had been here before and knew exactly where to find the plant (and pointed out a few other notable plants along the way).

It felt very “jungle expedition” and made me think of the writer of The Orchid Thief venturing into the Florida swamp to look for the rare ghost orchid.

There were several of the plants across the water, but I hadn’t prepared to get wet, so I focused on the one plant on this bank of the stream. It was so beautiful!

I leaned pretty far down to get a closeup shot of the bloom, but Tim had my back!

After emerging from the forest, some of the group drove to a nearby trail to go on a hike. Tim and I were both wiped out from our early morning and opted out, instead heading home.

But of course after a little while in the air conditioned car, we had a bit of an energy boost and decided to make a quick stop at Tibet-Butler Preserve on the way home.

Tibet-Butler Preserve

Back in Orlando, we arrived and sat on one of the rocking chairs outside the environmental center, eating the sandwiches we’d packed and watching the gopher tortoise that was roaming in an enclosure below.

After refueling, we changed into the rain boots we’d acquired last weekend for this very purpose and made our way onto the flooded trails.

We explored a different section this time and found a trail with such high flooding that it was too deep even for our boots. With low energy levels, we decided to turn back and head home, satisfied with the 10-20 minutes we’d had of splashing through the puddles before this trail became impassable.

At home, we spent a little time decompressing before we decided we had the energy to go out on another adventure.

Holidays at the Magic Kingdom resorts

It was after 7pm when we left home, so it was already dark. We weren’t totally sure what shape the night would take, but we decided to park at the Magic Kingdom parking lot and explore the Disney resorts to admire the holiday decorations.

As a reformed “Disney adult,” I know the Walt Disney World property very well, but I definitely have lost interest in spending as much time at the theme parks as my passion for nature and sustainability grows.

Even so, I do still enjoy an occasional Disney day, especially when I can do it at my own pace. I’ve always been overwhelmed in crowded places with lots of sensory input, so even at the height of my Disney obsession, I usually preferred strolling around the hotels versus dealing with the chaos inside a theme park.

Disney's Polynesian resort with holiday decorations

On this particular resort hopping adventure, we walked from the parking lot over to the Polynesian, then to Grand Floridian (the usual walkway was closed for construction but we managed to follow signs and made it between the 2 hotels on foot with no issues).

At Grand Floridian, we went up to the gingerbread display, which also functioned as a shop and asked if they had any plant-based gingerbread cookies. To our surprise, they did! I forgot to take a picture, but it was a serving of 8 small ginger snap cookies, which were soft and spicy, coated with spiced sugar. Tim and I really enjoyed having a few of them as a snack, and we saved the rest for later in the week!

The walk from Grand Floridian to the Contemporary Resort (passing by the entrance of Magic Kingdom) is fairly long, but it was such a pleasant evening that we didn’t mind being outside on our feet for such an extended period of time. We wandered the resort a bit before walking back to the Magic Kingdom entry area, where we hopped on a boat to Wilderness Lodge.

  • Disney's WIlderness Lodge resort with holiday decorations
  • Disney's WIlderness Lodge resort with holiday decorations
  • Disney's WIlderness Lodge resort with holiday decorations
  • Disney's WIlderness Lodge resort with holiday decorations
  • Disney's WIlderness Lodge resort with holiday decorations
  • Disney's WIlderness Lodge resort with holiday decorations
  • Disney's WIlderness Lodge resort with holiday decorations
  • Disney's WIlderness Lodge resort with holiday decorations

At Wilderness Lodge, we admired all the decorations and cuddled by a fireplace for a little bit before catching a boat back to Magic Kingdom. From there, we walked the path back through Grand Floridian and Polynesian to get to our car in the parking lot.

We got back to our car minutes before midnight, having logged 8.3 miles of walking for the day! We went straight home, got ready for bed, and fell asleep almost immediately.

Monday in Orlando

While Monday is the second day of our weekend, it is not a weekend for most people, which we usually forget until early Monday morning when our apartment’s landscaping team wakes us up with loud leaf-blowing. We usually end up trying to snooze until 11 or so before finally giving up and starting the day.

Today was no different, but when we finally dragged ourselves out of bed late morning, I was feeling pretty antsy and wanted to go straight out into nature instead of taking it easy and trying to get some things done around the apartment as we’d previously planned.

Tibet-Butler Preserve (again!)

With a few more trails left to discover at Tibet-Butler Preserve, I wanted to don my rain boots and get back over to what was quickly becoming my favorite place in Orlando!

Having walked straight past the environmental center on our prior visits, we decided to stop in at the start of our trek today to brush up on our nature knowledge.

  • Vera Carter Environmental Center at Tibet-Butler Preserve in Orlando
  • Vera Carter Environmental Center at Tibet-Butler Preserve in Orlando
  • Vera Carter Environmental Center at Tibet-Butler Preserve in Orlando
  • Vera Carter Environmental Center at Tibet-Butler Preserve in Orlando

Then it was on to the trails!

I was determined for us to make it to Osprey Overlook, and we did, but not without wading through such deep water that I filled one of my boots. The view of the lake from the overlook was absolutely worth the wet foot, though!

  • View of Lake Tibet-Butler
  • View of Lake Tibet-Butler
  • View of Lake Tibet-Butler
  • View of Lake Tibet-Butler

Satisfied with the views and recoiling from the mosquitoes that weren’t even remotely fazed by our reapplications of bug spray every 5 minutes, we decided to head back to the car and go home to rest for a bit and then figure out our next move.

Holidays around Crescent Lake at Disney

Rather than put up more of our own holiday decor like we’d originally planned, we decided to get another dose of festivity at Disney. (We figured there’s no better place in Orlando to take in over-the-top decorations than on Disney property, and since it’s only 15 minutes away, it was way less work than putting up our own decorations!)

We parked at Hollywood Studios for easy access to the Crescent Lake resorts, and took the Skyliner to the back entrance of Epcot.

With a holiday festival having just started at Epcot, we were excited to try the seasonal plant-based food options.

We loved the peanut stew, impossible chorizo tamales, potato latkes, and black and white cookie. We also tried the roasted chestnuts, although they were undercooked so we didn’t enjoy them very much. We’d also brought our reusable popcorn bucket to get a cheap refill of maple popcorn from the Canada pavilion, which is a year-round offering.

(Side note: for the best information on plant-based food in Orlando and at the theme parks, I follow the following accounts on instagram: @vegandisneyworld, @vegandisneyfood, and @orlandovegans)

Of course I didn’t even think to photograph anything we ate, so you’ll just have to take my word for it! In fact, I didn’t think to take a single picture the whole time we were at Epcot, but here is a photo from a holiday stroll at Epcot last year, where I was delighted to discover that the skirt I made was a perfect match for Minnie Mouse’s dress!

Ellie in a holiday plaid skirt that matches the dress worn by a display Minnie Mouse in a shop window

Once our bellies were full, we exited the back of the park to explore the Boardwalk and Yacht and Beach Club resorts. I’ve been going on holiday strolls at the Disney resorts almost every year for the last decade, and it is very interesting to track the changes in both the resorts and myself.

I found some of the displays this year to be a little underwhelming compared to previous years–the Grand Floridian last night and Boardwalk tonight in particular had changed out their ornament theme, and it felt very lackluster.

I also felt conflicted because as I move further in my sustainability journey, I find it really stressful to think about all of the waste generated this time of year. The resorts don’t need to refresh their decor scheme as often as they do and could simply reuse their decor for longer to reduce the amount of resources they’re using and waste they’re producing.

Gingerbread house at Disney's Boardwalk Resort

There’s also the matter of giant displays made from food products–on the surface, seeing the life-sized gingerbread and chocolate displays at various resorts is a cool novelty, but that is a lot of food waste being used for something so superficial that lasts only about a month.

I’m usually a little hesitant to talk about this publicly or outside of my own little sustainability/nature bubble because I know it can make me come across as a killjoy, but I think there has to be a better compromise where people can enjoy things like holidays, Disney, and holidays at Disney with a smaller footprint.

For example, the beloved winter train display at Yacht Club resort is an example of a holiday decoration being reused year after year without having to waste new resources every year.

Holiday train display at Disney's Yacht Club resort

We skipped Swan and Dolphin because there was a loud event taking place between the 2 resorts, and I was recovering from sensory overload I’d experienced at Epcot.

Although I thought that my sensory overload would keep me from being able to tolerate more theme park time, the quiet and cool walk between the resorts and the Hollywood Studios parking lot recharged me (and my earplugs were helping me a little bit too), so we decided to pop into Hollywood, arriving about 30 minutes before the park closed.

Out of all the Disney World theme parks, I actually think Hollywood Studios has the prettiest holiday decor scheme. I love the vintage aesthetic, and it really elevates a park that doesn’t have as much of a cohesive theme as the other Disney parks.

We browsed the holiday decorations before seeing a sign that had ride times displayed.

It was a shock to see Rise of the Resistance, the showstopping Star Wars ride that normally has a wait time of hours, posted at a 15-minute wait time, so we immediately speed-walked back to Galaxy’s Edge and got in line a few minutes before park close.

After our impromptu Star Wars excursion, we strolled out of the park to the car. We got home wiped out from our busy weekend, having walked the same exact distance today as we had yesterday–8.3 miles.

Although nature usually dominates my interests these days, it was nice to have a little bit of variety in the weekend. With sunset taking place so early and rendering 6ish waking hours unsuitable for nature expeditions, adding some novelty to our dark evenings made the lack of daylight much more bearable!

It was also really nice that most of the weekend was completely spontaneous! If you’d handed me this exact itinerary on Saturday, I would have made up whatever excuse was necessary to get out of such a full weekend (I really am a homebody!) but it was nice to be able to follow our instincts and do whatever we felt like in each moment.

I feel so grateful that there are so many incredible things to do in Orlando! And hopefully it goes without saying that I’m grateful to have an amazing partner to do many of these things with!

Do you have a favorite activity in Orlando? Does any of this sound like your ideal weekend? Let me know in the comments below!

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