Managed by The Nature Conservancy, the Disney Wilderness Preserve is a 12,000 acre showcase for habitat restoration and conservation in a region where development continues – with major loss of habitat – at a startling pace. Purchased to replace habitats erased by the construction of Walt Disney World, this preserve was largely a cattle ranch when it first opened. Using excellent land management practices, The Nature Conservancy has brought back healthy longleaf pine savannas in the uplands, and conserved a cypress-lined lake, a rare find in this part of Florida. While the trail system has shrunk due to land restoration and wildfire, it provides immersion into the longleaf pine habitat and a breezy visit to Lake Russell.
Length: 1 or 2.5 miles
Lat-Long: 28.129015, -81.430470
Type: Loop and round-trip
Fees / Permits: suggested donation $2
Good for: birding
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: yes, at the trailhead
October 2016 hours update: The preserve is open Monday-Friday from 9:00am to 4:30pm. Closed major holidays.
To reach Disney Wilderness Preserve, follow SR 535 south from I-4 at Lake Buena Vista. Turn right on Poinciana Boulevard after 2.9 miles. Continue 13.1 miles south, crossing US 17/92, to reach Pleasant Hill Road. You’ll pass the Osceola District Schools Environmental Study Center en route. Turn right on Pleasant Hill Road and immediately get in the left lane. After a half mile, make the left onto Old Pleasant Hill Road. Continue another half mile to turn left into the preserve entrance. You’ll follow the entrance road for 1.6 slow miles – watch for wild turkeys, caracara, and sandhill cranes along the way – to reach the parking area.
Starting at the education center, follow the sidewalk through the breezeway and past the restrooms and butterfly garden to get to the trailhead kiosk next to the pond. A small sign declares this the “John C. Sawhill Interpretive Trail.” A line of planted wax myrtle screens the back of the buildings from the trail, which offers a sweeping view of the pond. American lotuses float on the surface. Surrounded by smooth cordgrass, the viewing platform provides a place for early morning birding.
Entering the vast open longleaf pine flatwoods – which are indeed wet, as most in Central Florida are – the trail swings past the former entrance to the interpretive trail loop and turns right to start down a jeep track. Wild bachelor’s button peeps up along the trail’s edge and winged sumac show off a tinge of fall color with leaves turning to crimson. The trail climbs a slight rise, and you see a red trail marker as a confirmation blaze. Soon after, you reach an Exit sign at 0.6 mile. Don’t do it … unless you want to hike the shorter mile-long loop and miss Lake Russell. Keep walking straight ahead and you’ll find the turnoff to Lake Russell at the “Lake Russell” sign. Turn left and walk down to the lake. The trail slips down a causeway in the floodplain forest before it reaches this beautiful cypress-lined lakeshore, where there’s always a breeze. Benches and a picnic table provide a place to rest and relax beneath an ancient cypress.
Returning up the causeway, you reach the T intersection again. Turn left to continue around the loop. The trail passes a small pond on the left, surrounded by saw palmetto and tall grasses. The view is expansive around you, the saw palmetto short enough that you can see a mile or more in most directions. Cypress domes and strands look like mountains in the distance. For the remainder of the hike, there are only minor variations on this theme—longleaf pine savanna surrounds you, with puddles gathering in the trail in the deep tire tracks left by the swamp buggy, which is an alternate way of exploring the preserve.
At 1.3 miles, you reach a sign “Trail Continues.” The trail used to go straight ahead, but is now closed. Turn right. The footpath narrows to an actual trail with tall grass all around and a cypress-lined pond to the left. You head down a straightaway and then the trail makes a sharp left at a bench, working its way around the pond. The landscape is a little elevated here, as there are no wet spots in the trail and the saw palmetto have an orange tinge, indicating distress in a time of drought. Winding through the saw palmetto, the trail comes to a confusing junction with a bench. Look for the next trail marker. You pop out onto the original outer loop next to another “Authorized Personnel Only” sign. Turn right to continue on the loop. You’ve walked 1.8 miles.
This next segment of the trail tends to be wet. It’s lower than the surrounding landscape, so water gathers in sheets across the footpath. On a dry day, it’s not a problem, but on a wet day, you’ll have to wade. Watch the leopard frogs bounce out of your way, and keep alert for water snakes. The savanna opens up even more around you, and you catch a glimpse of the education center off in the distance. Meeting up with the junction with the shorter loop, the trail jogs left and goes through a drainage area, where it’s likely you’ll find standing water. It then rises up and makes a beeline across the savanna towards the pond at the education center. Heading around the pond, it meets up with the sidewalk at the trail kiosk marking the start of the interpretive trail. Turn left to exit, completing a 2.5-mile walk as you reach the parking lot.
|0.0||Start at education center|
|0.2||Former turnoff to interpretive trail||now defunct|
|0.3||Trail turns right on a jeep track|
|0.6||Junction with inner loop (Exit sign) go straight|
|0.7||Junction with Lake Russell trail||turn left|
|0.9||Junction with main loop||turn left|
|1.3||Junction with old loop||turn right|
|1.6||Bench at multi-trail junction|
|1.8||Junction with old loop||turn right|
|2.1||Junction with inner loop||go straight|
|2.5||Return to education center|