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Natural attraction

Florida had visitors long before Cinderella's Castle was built.

The original Florida tourists, those who left their Northern homes in the late 1800s in search of sunshine, enjoyed the state's natural environment, particularly its rivers and springs.

In fact, it wasn't until 1971 that Mickey Mouse showed up and spread his magic across the middle of the state.

Though amusement parks, with their roller coasters and cartoon characters, get most of the attention these days, there also are attractions that focus on the ecological and cultural aspects of Florida.

More than ever, nature tourism is making strides here. Visitors and locals want to learn more about the state's environment and their role in it. It's one thing to see a dolphin do tricks at Sea World; it's quite another to spy one speeding through Tampa Bay.

Visit Florida, the tourism marketing agency for the state, defines nature tourism as "responsible travel to natural areas which protects the environment and sustains the well being of the local people while providing a quality experience that connects the visitor to nature."

More simply: "It's a good time for the whole family and doesn't cost you an arm and a leg," said Kerri Post, vice president of product development at Visit Florida.

A nature tour can be anything from a guided canoe ride on the Hillsborough River to a bird watching opportunity or a visit to a butterfly garden. Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, ecotourism is not the same thing as nature tourism. True ecotourism supports conservation and biodiversity and always includes some form of education.

Two Tampa Bay-area nature tours have proved particularly popular lately. DolphinQuest at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and Flatwoods Adventures at the J.B. Starkey ranch in Odessa give visitors close encounters with Florida's fauna and flora.

DolphinQuest

They heard the question practically every day at the Florida Aquarium: "Where are the dolphins?"

"We would point out to the bay and say they were out there," said Florida Aquarium spokeswoman Sue Ellen Richardson. "What's neat now is we can go out there."

In May, the aquarium started offering visitors the chance to see dolphins by boat. DolphinQuest tours take place on a 64-foot, 49-passenger catamaran docked behind the aquarium.

Each tour lasts about 1{ hours and is moderated by an aquarium staff educator who shares facts about Tampa Bay and its wildlife. The dolphins aren't fed in order to make them come close to the boat, as they are at some other attractions. Passengers have to keep an eye on the water and look for fins.

Tour takers hit the jackpot on a recent DolphinQuest trip. Two bottlenose dolphins came so close to the boat, you could hear them breathing. For the times when the dolphins aren't so close, the aquarium supplies about 15 pairs of binoculars for passengers to use.

When the weather is clear, there's about a 90 percent chance of seeing dolphins during the tour, said Pauline Schwalm, one of the tour educators. Most of the time, it's a matter of spotting fins and getting out of the way as passengers trot from one side of the boat to the other when a sighting is announced.

About an hour into the trip, the boat passes by the Alafia River Banks Bird Sanctuary, two islands that are home to as many as 20 different bird species each year. No one is allowed on the sanctuary, which is maintained by the Audubon Society. From the boat, passengers can spot pelicans, roseate spoonbills, white ibises, egrets and other birds.

If it gets too hot or too windy on deck, passengers can retire to the boat's air-conditioned cabin, where bottled water, soda, sunscreen, disposable cameras and souvenirs are sold.

Flatwoods Adventures

The goal of Flatwoods Adventures is to show visitors the natural side of Florida by touring a working cattle ranch in Pasco County.

The tours take place on the Anclote River Ranch, the property of J.B. Starkey Jr., who owns more than 1,000 head of cattle and 3,400 acres.

Visitors ride a customized open-air "range buggy" on a two-hour trip through saw palmetto and longleaf pine flatwoods, pasture and oak hammocks. The driver-guide points out native foliage and animals along the way and talks about how Florida's pioneers settled the land and how the Starkey cattle operation works.

Chances are good that visitors will spy a woodpecker, fox squirrel, wild turkey or white-tailed deer in their natural habitats.

Farther along the path, riders get out of the buggy to walk through a cypress swamp on the ranch's elevated boardwalk. About 30 plants are labeled for identification. You might see an alligator cave.

The tours are heavy on education and history, especially about Florida's native people and the state's first cowboys. If he's around, ranch owner Starkey may crack his whip and you'll find out where the "crack" in Florida Crackers came from.

There are covered picnic benches for those who want to eat lunch before or after the trip. A gift shop on the property offers intricate baskets made from pine needles, books about Florida, T-shirts, home decor items and folk art trinkets.

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