If your idea of a good time is catching bass or watching wildlife, you'll find plenty to keep you busy at Disney World.
The fish-filled lakes at Disney have produced largemouth bass up to 14 pounds, 6 ounces. Even when conditions are not optimal -- I fished the day after a cold front swept through Central Florida -- you and your buddies can catch numerous bass up to 5 pounds.
Fishing is done with Disney guides from a pontoon boat, which can accommodate up to five people. There are three two-hour trips per day -- at 7 a.m., 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. -- priced at $210, $195 and $180, respectively. The trips, which are geared for anglers of all abilities, include fishing tackle, a dozen live shiners -- additional shiners are available for purchase -- and soft drinks. All fish caught are released. Disney also offers bluegill fishing for ages 6-12. (Call 407-WDW-PLAY for information and reservations.)
Depending on where you stay at Disney World, you can be picked up by your guide at your hotel. I met guide Kevin Nielsen at the dock at the Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, which is where the fishing fleet is headquartered.
Nielsen motored across Bay Lake to fish a shallow, weedy shoreline where the water was warmed by the rising sun. After a couple of bites, he headed to his next spot, then another and another, each of which yielded a fish or two.
"There's so many good fish in these lakes," Nielsen said, "that if we don't get into them at a spot after a few minutes, there's no reason to stay there. I keep moving until we find a concentration of fish."
Friendly fishing guides
Nielsen grew up fishing for salmon and steelhead in Eureka, Calif. A top prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization, Nielsen was poised to make the club's big-league roster when he tore the rotator cuff in his pitching arm at the end of spring training. Rather than undergo surgery, which may not have helped given the severity of the tear, and take a year off to recover while his wife supported the two of them, Nielsen elected to leave baseball.
When he came to Disney World, Nielsen guided at Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon. Now he does most of his guiding on the lake at Downtown Disney, which doesn't have as many fish as the other lakes, but the bass there tend to be bigger.
Nielsen still knows his way around Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon, and he was as helpful and enthusiastic as he was knowledgeable about the lakes' top spots. Whether it was plastic worms, Senkos, crankbaits or shiners, Nielsen provided my companions, Trey Reid and Jason Lasecki, and me with whatever we needed. Whenever we hooked a fish, Nielsen was right there with the landing net.
At one spot, Nielsen held on to a piling to keep the boat in position so Reid and I could pitch our Senkos under the dock. While Nielsen chatted with tourists as they strolled along the dock, Reid and I caught bass up to 3 pounds, much to the onlookers' delight. Reid and I were pretty happy, too.
That afternoon, Reid and I fished with guide Tom Stocker. Using plastic worms and stick worms, we fished humps and ledges where bass like to congregate. Like Nielsen, Stocker was serious about putting us on fish and making sure we had fun. That attitude distinguishes the Disney guides from some guides I've encountered on public waters who only care about catching more fish than their customers.
Stocker said that if his anglers have a poor day, he'll try to take them out again at no charge because he wants them to have good memories about fishing at Disney World. One of Stocker's favorite memories was an outing that produced only one fish, but what a fish it was.
"I took out a family and there was a girl with Down's Syndrome who was in a wheelchair," Stocker said. "It was a rotten weather day and the fishing was tough. She caught the only bass, a 41/2-pounder. She and her parents were so excited.
"When we got in, I called my mom to tell her. She said, `Oh, did you catch a lot of fish?' I said we only got one, but this girl got it.'"
While you're fishing, you'll share the water with pedal boats, canoes, sailboats and mini-powerboats, all of which are available for rent. Horseback riding and bicycling are available at Fort Wilderness, where you have a good chance of seeing white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.
I saw deer and turkeys feeding along the edge of the fairways at Disney's Magnolia golf course. If you have trouble keeping your ball in play, there's no telling what you might see.
While looking for a tee shot after slicing it into the woods, I flushed a covey of bobwhite quail. They weren't quite the birdies I was after, but I was thrilled nonetheless.
Certified scuba divers can explore the 6 million-gallon aquarium at The Living Seas pavilion at Epcot, which features thousands of fish. All dive gear is included in the $140 fee. Those who aren't certified can use scuba-assisted snorkeling equipment. Call 407-WDW-TOUR for details.
Those who really want to get off the beaten path can visit the Disney Wilderness Preserve, which is 15 miles south of Disney World in Kissimmee. The preserve is a landmark mitigation project that came about when Disney was seeking to develop some of the remaining land in its 30,500-acre Disney World property. That development would have impacted 448 acres of wetlands.
Rather than create small artificial wetlands on the property, Disney proposed buying and restoring one large, ecologically important parcel to mitigate the loss of wetlands at Disney World. Working with state and federal agencies, in 1992 Disney bought 8,500 acres of a former cattle ranch and turned over the ownership and management of the preserve to The Nature Conservancy. Another 3,000 acres were soon added to the preserve as mitigation for expansion of Orlando International Airport.
The preserve has pine flatwoods, oak scrub, oak hammocks, cypress swamps and Lake Russell, which is fed by Reedy Creek. Wildlife includes wood storks, ospreys, wild turkeys, sandhill cranes, red-shouldered hawks and white-tailed deer.
Visitors can learn about the importance of restoring and protecting wild lands at the preserve's Conservation Learning Center and hike along five miles of trails. There is also a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk made from recycled plastic that winds through a cypress swamp to the edge of Lake Russell.
"Our focus is on restoration. Protecting the lands and waters," interim community program manager Kate Caldwell said. "But we're one of the few preserves that allows visitors and visitor education. People need a place where they can learn and be inspired."
The preserve also serves as what Caldwell termed a natural research lab. One project is studying wood storks by counting nests and chicks in the preserve's wood stork rookery. Another project is ridding the preserve's pastures of bahia grass, a hardy non-native grass planted for cattle, and replacing it with wire grass. For information, call 407-935-0002 or visit www.nature.org/florida.
Steve Waters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 954-356-4648.