The Karen Files

Category: Florida (page 1 of 2)

Safari Wilderness

In February, George and I were offered the opportunity to go to Safari Wilderness, a sister company to the Giraffe Ranch. They were impressed with the blog post and video I had created for the Giraffe Ranch and asked if I would be interested in doing one for them as well.*  Aside from being incredibly flattered, I was thrilled at the chance to try something new!

I did recall later that I had visited Safari Wilderness once before, several years ago when my sister, her husband, and their two young daughters were in Florida for a wedding. I didn’t do a blog post for that trip which may be why I didn’t realize initially that it was the same place, but I did create a video of that trip for my sister which I will share along with two new videos at the end of this post.

And now… let’s go on safari!

Entrance to wilderness safari

First, I want to give you a little background. Safari Wilderness is located in the middle of a protected preserve known as the “Green Swamp” in Lakeland, Florida. It is surrounded by cattle farms, giving you that “middle of nowhere” feeling as you are driving to it.

View of wilderness safari grounds

The day we chose for our adventure couldn’t have been more perfect! It was neither too hot nor too cold and the clouds were huge and puffy, which helped to keep the sun from getting too intense and made for some dramatically beautiful pictures.

Behind the scenes wilderness safari

Have you ever known pictures of farm equipment to look this magnificent?

When compared to the Giraffe Ranch, Safari Wilderness is quite a bit larger with more animals and more room for them to roam. The pricing for each site is about the same, with each having the same basic adventure options like the vehicle tour or the camel tour. They do each have their own unique adventure options not available with the other – for Safari Wilderness, the one that most appealed to George and I was the kayak adventure, which gives you the opportunity to observe the wildlife and many bird species from the water. You also get to make a stop at “Lemur Island” to hand-feed grapes to the lemurs that reside there.

If you don’t want to spring for the kayak trip but really want to feed the lemurs, never fear! Just like the Giraffe Ranch, Safari Wilderness has optional add-ons available, and feeding the lemurs is one of them. I can’t speak highly enough about my experiences with feeding the lemurs, both at the Giraffe Ranch and Safari Wilderness. It is definitely worth spending the extra money on.

Lemur from above

As of now, I’ve fed these fuzzy little primates five separate times, and it has still not gotten old. I don’t even think it’s possible to get tired of feeling their soft little hands gently gripping your fingers as they semi-patiently wait for you to give in to adorableness and hand them another treat.

Lemur holding my hand

I could talk about lemurs forever but because there is so much more I need to get to, I must move on! As a family-owned working ranch, Safari Wilderness has free-range chicken and they bale their own hay, raise cattle for beef, and even breed, raise, and sell guinea pigs as pets. They keep their tours limited to twice a day and purposefully keep them small to ensure their animals don’t become overly stressed.

Beautiful rooster

For this trip we took the traditional vehicle tour, which made it easier to compare and contrast the differences of the two sister ranches. Our vehicle was a converted open air bus with comfortable padded seats, which we shared with a group of about 10 other safari-goers. The bus did have a canopy cover for shade – believe me, that is a valuable feature for dealing with the strong Florida sun!

Safari jeep with no one on it yet

As far as mosquitoes go… well, we were in the wetlands. Mosquitoes are pretty much a given. If you are very sensitive to mosquito bites I’d recommend putting on bug spray before you go on the tour (but please, not while on the bus if you want to be respectful to those around you who may be sensitive to sprays). I didn’t think to bring bug spray, and while I did see mosquitoes and I’m certain I was bitten, I didn’t react to the bites as I normally do. Usually if I’m bitten my skin develops itchy red welts that last for hours, but this did not happen here. Perhaps the mosquitoes here were a different species that I am not sensitive to, or maybe I was so enthralled with the beauty of everything I saw outside of the vehicle that I just didn’t notice the itch.

Branch on ground with water and blue cloudy skies

Our driver and guide to the safari was a woman named JJ, who was absolutely wonderful.  She was incredibly knowledgeable with a great sense of humor, and her chemistry with the animals was endearing and even comical at times. It was her interactions with the animals that really added a lot to the charm of the tour. She entertained us with stories of her days working in the circus (including Ringling Bros., which, while now closed, still has an awesome museum in Sarasota that I recently blogged about!). She also gave us interesting insights into the animals we “met” and happily answered any questions we had.

Some of the first animals we saw were the water bucks – named not because they spend a lot of time in the water, but because they use water to defend themselves against threats – they are capable of running through the water much quicker than their natural predators. To help us identify them, JJ pointed out a couple of their defining features:

  1. They have adorable heart-shaped noses.

A female waterbuck sitting in shade looking at us

  1.  On the aptly named “ellipsen” water bucks, they have white ellipse-shaped marks on their rear ends, which JJ artfully described as looking like “they just sat on a wet toilet seat”.

Ellipsen waterbuck eating

One frequent visitor to the bus were animals known as the “nilgai” which means “blue bull” or “blue cow”, named because the males turn a beautiful bluish gray color as he matures.

A male nilgai bluish gray in color

The nilgai were one of the animals we were asked not to feed from the bus, due to their tendency to become a nuisance to tours when they get used to being fed by visitors. However, JJ assured us that each of the animals on the ranch is fed, and fed well. They are given grain and hay each day, and have mineral licks in various spots throughout the grounds.

Nilgai looking for a handout

Of course, that didn’t stop them from begging to be the exception to the “don’t feed the nilgai” rule!

Nilgai looking up at camera

Another persistent visitor to the bus were the llamas, which were one of the animals we were permitted to feed. They hammed it up and did their best to look as cute as possible to compete with each other for the treats. But, really, how could you possibly choose between these adorable faces? I fed them all!

Llamas looking adorable

llama looking up at is with smiling teeth

“Perhaps you will give me another treat if I bat these gorgeous eyelashes a few more times!”

Llama with open mouth waiting for a treat, nilgai looking on in background

The ostriches were another animal that we couldn’t feed off the bus but, much to the delight of everyone on the tour, followed us around anyway, attempting to trick JJ into giving them snacks.

Wilderness Safari tour guide disciplining ostrich for stealing food

“You know very well that you don’t get fed off the bus! Don’t you give me that look!”

Did you know? The male and female ostriches have very different coloring, but unlike with most birds, the feather coloring differences are not to attract mates. Instead, the coloring assists ostrich parents with protecting their young – the dark coloring of the males is perfectly suited to keeping eggs hidden from predators at night, while the light coloring of the females is better for blending in during the day. For attracting mates, male ostriches develop a bright reddish-orange coloring on his beak and legs, which he shows off with some clever birdie dance moves to drive the ladies wild!

Male osterich with red legs

While in ostrich territory, JJ pointed out an ostrich egg and described just how strong they are – a human could stand on one and it would not break. During this conversation, a memory stirred about an experience I had in high school…

After learning a new trick where you could surround a chicken egg with your hand and squeeze as hard as you could and it wouldn’t break, high school Karen decided to share this new knowledge with her friend. Her class had just completed the assignment of carrying around hard-boiled egg “babies” for a week, making it the perfect opportunity for high school Karen to impress her friend with the “eggs-periment” The friend in question refused to believe that it was true, so high school Karen challenged her to try it for herself.  With only a bit of hesitation, the friend began to squeeze the egg, becoming more and more amazed as she increased the pressure. Just as the words “Wow, you were right!” were escaping her lips, the egg broke in her hand, spilling egg guts everywhere. The shocked look on her face had high school Karen in hysterics, and she to this day has no idea why the trick didn’t work that time. Was the egg weakened from being carried around for so long? Or perhaps it had a micro crack on it’s shell? The world may never know.

Back to the ostriches! One persistent myth about ostriches is that they bury their heads in the sand to hide from predators. This is actually not true; in reality, they will run quickly in a zigzag shape while throwing their wings around to scare off the threat. They are also pretty tough when they have to be – they’ve even been known to take out lions when challenged or when protecting their young!

A male ostrich looking serious

Of course, as the owner of a very tough little cockatiel, this doesn’t surprise me at all. Would you mess with either of these birds?

Ostrich vs cockatiel

The definite highlight of the tour was feeding the water buffalo. These gentle giant beasts delighted everyone on the tour with their large soulful eyes and their long skinny tongues which they used to take the food from our fingers.

Water buffalo sticking tongue out

They continued to circle the bus and accepted food from anyone who offered it until we had no more to give.

Water buffalo with open mouth

Water buffalo with eyes closed and mouth open

The zebras were another memorable part of the tour. Though we couldn’t feed them, they cleverly devised a scheme to get some treats their own way. Let me explain – Safari Wilderness has different sections throughout their grounds which are separated by large gates. These gates require that the guide get out of the bus to open the gate, then get back into the bus to drive through, and finally back out of the bus to close the gate behind us. In what appeared to be a group undertaking, JJ was shooing a couple of the zebra away from the gate so they wouldn’t try coming through. While she was distracted with closing the gate,  a third zebra managed to sneak up to the bus and help himself to the bucket of food, purposefully knocking it over so the pellets would spill to the ground for all three zebras to enjoy.

Zebra stealing food from jeep

Three zebra eating food

JJ took it in stride, saying that they let the zebras get away with it because it beats the alternative of them trying to run through the gates!

Now, while we’re on the subject of zebras – let’s talk about zedonks! Just like with the Giraffe Ranch, Safari Wilderness also had a resident zedonk (part zebra, part donkey). Because zedonks tend to be very protective of their herd and will make a big racket if they sense a threat, Safari Wilderness decided to give their zedonk the important job of being part of the “border patrol early warning system”, – meaning its main home is inside the double fence section that circles the property.  Don’t feel bad for the border patrol animals though, the fence circles all 265 acres of their property so they have plenty of room to roam!

A Zedonk behind a fence

Next up – the forest buffalo! They are kept fenced apart from the travel areas because they have a tendency to get aggressive when stressed out, and vehicles driving around them multiple times a day would be quite distressing.  Forest buffalo are red in color, which might seem counter-intuitive for a prey animal that lives in the (green) forest, but because their main predators are big cats (such as leopards) which can not distinguish between red and green, they have no problems blending in with the trees.

Forest buffalo in trees

The wildebeest, also known as the “blue gnu”, are funny looking creatures which JJ aptly described as looking “like they were thrown together out of spare parts”.

Two blue gnu or wildebeest behind fence

If these guys look familiar to you but you can’t quite place them, you may be thinking of an old viral YouTube video showing what happens in a standoff between wildebeest and crocodile. Or, if not that, you might be remembering a National Geographic episode showing these animals during their “great migration” in Africa – and “great” it certainly is! Wildebeest travel in groups so large (think millions), that they can be seen from outer space.

Throughout the tour we found ourselves in the company of various species of cattle, many of whom would walk up to the bus while licking their lips, hoping beyond hope for a special treat.

Cows licking lips

Cow at jeep door hoping for handout

These big-horn beauties are called “angola” or “watusi” cattle. Can you imagine having to have such large growths coming out of your head? It doesn’t seem to bother them though!

Long horned angola or watusi cattle

Now for a guessing game! Can you tell me what kind of farm animal this fella is?

sheep that looks like a goat

If you said goat, NOPE! It’s actually a sheep. Sheep can sometimes look quite a bit like goats, but JJ told us a little trick on how to tell them apart: goats have tails that are usually pointing up, and “goat” ends with a “t” – the tail on the letter is up. Sheep usually have tails that are pointing down, and “sheep” ends with a “p” – the tail on the letter is down. Burn that to your memory, because you never know when it might come in handy!

And now (hooray!) it’s time to talk about lemurs again. During the tour we drove past Lemur Island, though we couldn’t get up close and personal with them in our land-based vehicle. We did, however, get to see the delightfully entertaining spectacle of them playing together!

Lemurs having fun playing

You might be wondering, “how do they get the lemurs to stay on the island? Can’t they swim?” Actually, they can’t. They are in a class of primate called “simian”, and apparently, simians can only swim if taught. So if just one lemur made it to the island who had a knowledge of swimming, he’d quickly teach everyone else and Safari Wilderness would have quite a messy situation on their hands!

Three interesting lemur facts:

    1. All ring-tailed lemurs have 13 rings from the day they are born (so unlike with tree rings, you don’t count them to see how old the lemur is).
    2. The only place that you would find lemurs in the wild is on the island of Madagascar (yes, it’s a real place, not just a cartoon!).
    3. Lemurs have a matriarchal society – which means it’s the FEMALES that run the show!

Post Tour:

After the vehicle portion of the tour had ended, those who had chosen to participate in one of the optional add-ons split off from the rest of the group. Besides the lemur feeding (which I already talked about), George and I had two other extras – hand feeding the guinea pig colony and feeding the petting zoo. For the guinea pig feeding, I had pictured in my mind that it would be us sitting in the middle of the colony and feeding them as the swarmed around us. But alas, that is not how it went down. We stayed on the outside of the pen and fed them from there. It was fun to watch them run around and listen to them squeak, but I think this option might be more interesting to the kids. I remember that when my nieces had been here many years ago that they were fascinated by the guinea pigs – even more fascinated by them than the baby cow that happened to be wandering around.

swarm of guinea pigs

The one major difference from the first time I went with my sisters family that I do remember – the guinea pigs were inside previously, but now have moved to the outside. They do have protective netting over the outdoor pen and a little “cave” where they can all hide from extreme weather…

or nosy cats.

cat snooping around guinea pig pen

Did you know? There are some countries that actually consider guinea pig meat a delicacy! You can easily find videos of people trying this “delicacy” for the first time on YouTube. However, we were assured that these “pet” guinea pigs were not the same breed that are normally eaten – the “food-grade” guinea pigs are a bit bigger. Of course, I couldn’t help asking what barbecued guinea pig might taste like… the answer? “Probably chicken.”

Next up, feeding the petting zoo! Once again it was not quite what I expected… While we did enjoy feeding the goats and the pigs, the “petting” part of the description was a bit misleading. The animals were behind a wooden and wire fence that was fairly high, so the animals were partially hidden, and there wasn’t much petting going on. It is an inexpensive option though, at only $5 a person, so it would probably be a fun thing for the kids to do!

Feeding goats

After we returned from our petting zoo feeding, everyone from the tour was given the opportunity to feed the camels, regardless of if they purchased tickets for the petting zoo.

Camel with mouth open looking like he is singing

Three fun facts about camels!

  1. Unlike llamas, camels actually don’t spit, despite what you may have heard from certain cartoon genies. Instead, if you make a camels angry, they just might vomit on you.
  2. Contrary to popular belief, the humps on the camel do not contain water – they are actually fat reserves, which can be used as a food or a water source when needed.
  3. Remember the 40/40/40 rule for camels: they can live to be 40-50 years old, they can drink 40 gallons of water in one sitting, and they can run up to 40 mph.

Two camels with beautiful sky

One more extra that is definitely worth a mention is feeding the budgies. We didn’t do it this time, but I’ve done it in other places before and I have loved it! I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of birds flying closely to them… and even if you are a bit nervous about the idea, I say give it a shot, at least for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These little guys are pretty small (with tiny little poops if that has you worried) but they are oh so cute! It is so cool when they fly over to you and land on your hand or arm and nibble on the treat stick provided. I actually grew up with pet budgies as a kid, at one point we had a total of 10 (we started out with just two, but decided to put in a nest box to see what would happen…  you can figure out the rest!) I have fond memories of them having races with each other, flying from the kitchen to the living room, landing on the lamps, and then flying back again.

Parakeets or budgies

This is about the point where we fed the lemurs, but I already spoke about that at the beginning of the post so I don’t want to repeat myself… but I will mention that I took video of the feeding with my GoPro on a chest strap, and I thought the video turned out really fantastic! I’ll share the link to that at the bottom of this post.

But before we get to videos, let’s finish out the tour with the walking portion! After the extra add-ons were completed, JJ walked us around the immediate area to look at the pigs, turtles, porcupines, and other animals they kept up in front.

Piglets with their mom

We chatted with the porcupine for a short while (who was, by the way, very disappointed that JJ forgot to bring him some grapes). Those teeth almost make him look like a cross between a porcupine and a beaver.

Porcupine with paws on fence

Did you know? Porcupine quills are actually just hardened hair, which they can’t shoot out at predators. In reality, if a porcupine feels threatened he would stand up and shake his quills which creates a rattling noise that would hopefully scare off the intruder. If that doesn’t work, they turn, backing into the threat. This is how the quills break off and get stuck in other animals.

We saw a few more lemurs, including this beautiful chocolate lemur. His eyes were almost hypnotic!

Chocolate lemur

“Look into my eyes. You will bring me grapes, and hundreds of them. And you will do it now.”

At the very end of the tour, JJ brought out a ferret, giving anyone who desired a chance to hold him and stroke his belly. It was then I learned that apparently in some states, ferrets are illegal as pets, and even the states that allow them as pets require that they all be fixed.

Ferret getting belly scratched

And at last, that is the end of our Safari Wilderness adventure! George and I took our time looking around the gift shop and taking pictures outside before heading home, so ours was the last car left in the parking lot (leading to a very picture-worthy scene).

Empty parking lot at end of safari

Now – when comparing my experience at the Giraffe Ranch vs. my experience at Safari Wilderness, I honestly can’t choose one over the other. They each had their own unique differences that were fun to experience. The Giraffe Ranch had the feeding of the giraffes and the optional add-on of feeding and bathing the rhino, both of which were really awesome experiences. However, Safari Wilderness was larger, had more animals and a beautiful landscape. They also had the feeding of water buffalo, and let’s not forget how amazing our tour guide was! The pricing between Giraffe Ranch and Safari Wilderness are about the same, but Safari Wilderness had the inexpensive add-on options of feeding the guinea pigs, feeding the budgies, and feeding the “petting zoo”, at only $5 for each of these. From what I recall, the cheapest add-on option at the Giraffe Ranch was the lemur feeding at $25 (which is the same price at both places but I still say that price is always worth it!)

OK, now let’s get to the videos! There are a total of three this time: two from this trip (the lemur feeding portion seemed like it deserved its very own video) and the third is the video from when my nieces were in town. It’s nice to compare the experience with kids vs. without – because each experience really is completely different. It’s great to see children experience animals like this up close for the first time, and to see the joy and wonder in their eyes, but it’s also nice to experience it sans kids, interacting with the animals without worrying about whether your child is having fun!

Video 1: Recent Tour – No Kids!

Video 2: Recent Tour – Lemurs!

Video 3: Previous Tour – With Kids!


*Full disclosure – Safari Wilderness let us experience this adventure for free, but I don’t believe the people we interacted with were aware of that fact; this meant we had the same experience any paying customer would have. I did, however, pay for the adventure when I went with my sister and her family.

Ringling Circus Museum

I can only recall visiting the circus once as a child. Because I was at the big top as just a wee tot, my memory of the show itself is hazy, but I have a clear vision of a crowded arena and of being captivated by the glow of hundreds of light-up novelty toys glowing in the dark – like fireflies on a warm summer night.

artistic rendering of my memory of the lights in the circus patron crowd

For many reasons (which I will not get into on this post), the circus has fallen out of favor in recent times. This ultimately lead to one of the most recognizable shows – the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus – shutting its doors forever in 2017. The day may soon come where there are no circuses left to entertain the masses, but with any luck, the nostalgia will still remain.

What is all this circus talk is leading up to? Will this be a post about a trip to a circus?  The answer to that is yes… and no. We didn’t go to a circus per se, but we did go to the next best thing. A circus MUSEUM!

The Ringling Museum is yet another Florida gem that, until recently, I had no idea existed. It’s located in Sarasota on a huge plot of land which previously belonged to the late John Ringling and his wife Mable. It was also used as the winter quarters for the circus in the early years of the Ringling Brothers. If you’re interested, this map shows a layout of how the space was used, and also gives you a pretty good picture of the massive size of the property.

For $25 (adult pricing) you get access to the original Circus Museum, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and 66 acres of surrounding property including Mable Ringling’s beautiful rose garden and a number of other gardens and landscapes located around the estate. Because we were short on time and the museum property closed at 5, we declined to purchase the optional guided/self-guided tour of the the mansion (named “Ca’ d’Zan”) where John and Mable had lived.

Expert tip – if you decide to visit, make sure you get there early. The hours are 10-5, but there is so much to see! There are also multi-day packages available if you don’t want to squeeze everything into a single day.

Our first stop was to the original circus museum. We walked past the heavy curtains which separate the museum from the rest of the world, pausing to let our eyes adjust to the dim lighting. It’s strange… I know that we were in a public place and that there were plenty of other people in the room having their own museum experiences, but when I think back my impression is that it was only George and I, exploring the exhibits alone.

Paintings of sideshow artists at ringling circus museum

You are greeted by painted representations of the “freak show” artists as you enter.

After you get your bearings, one of the first features you might notice is a large pea-green section of train. This is “The Wisconsin”, a luxury private rail car once owned by the Ringlings.  John and Mable had sold the car many years ago, but it was recently re-acquired and restored by the Ringling estate. It’s now one of the major attractions of the museum. While you can’t get on board to explore the inside, you can peek through each of the windows to see the multiple bedrooms, staterooms, kitchen and dining areas and, of course, bathrooms  – all of which have exactly as much glamor and showiness you might expect from the wealthy of nearly 100 years ago.

Ringling Museum Train

The Wisconsin in all her majesty

Looking down the hallway in John and Mable Ringlings Private Train Cars

Looking down the hallway from the back of the Wisconsin

Bedroom on the train

John Ringling’s private room

Steps away from the Wisconsin sat a cannon-equipped car, once used to shoot brave (or foolhardy) performers into the sky.

bruno zacchini's super repeating cannon

Why yes, that is a cannon on my car… but I’m also happy to see you!

Important side note – they frown on people trying to climb into the cannon to see if it still works – so don’t try it, no matter how tempting it is.

As you continue to walk deeper into the museum, you can see much more circus equipment, performing props, and parade wagons – the latter of these immediately made me think of those little boxes of animal crackers I ate as a child. Do they still make those?

Animal crackers (life-sized)

In one of the eerier sections of the museum, there are life-sized outlines of behind-the-scene circus folk performing their everyday duties. The shadows cast by the cleverly placed spotlights created an ambience that left me feeling as if I had wandered into a two-dimensional circus of ghosts.

Spooky circus

Spooky circus 2

Another side note – there is an excellent half hour movie shown in the museum about the early life and beginnings of the Ringling circus, and specifically John and Mable Ringling. I highly recommend that you leave yourself time to see it.

Lights from circus show (turned off)

“Perhaps we can frighten away the ghosts of so many years ago with a little ILLUMINATION!”

Tall man on stilts

Who’s taller now, hmmm?

As strange and wonderful as I came to expect this museum to be, there were still some exhibits that left me scratching my head wondering, “What in the world?” One example – there was a bird cage with an old shoe in it. The description said only that it belonged to Lou Jacobs and it was used in the “Greatest Show On Earth”. Lou Jacobs was a clown who worked in the Ringling Bros. Circus, so perhaps the shoe was his pet bird? I suppose if you use your imagination and squint your eyes real tight, it does look a bit like a canary.

Yellow shoe in a bird cage

“I tawt I taw a puddy tat!”

Then we come to this horse, which seemed to have sunken halfway into the floor. Was it quicksand? Tar? Horse leg theft? Or did the statue builders just get lazy? We may never know. I do have to admit that at the time, I didn’t think to look for a description around the horse. I took the picture specifically so I could make a Never Ending Story reference in the photo caption.

Artax the horse in quicksand

Artax! No! You’re sinking! You have to move or you’ll die!

By now you are surely wondering, “All of this is semi-entertaining so far, but we’re talking about the circus here! Weren’t there any costumes?” Oh yes, impatient one. There were costumes.

Life-sized circus clown Circus dancer costume
Emmett Kelly holding mask to his face The Ringmaster

Circus museum floor

The circus propaganda affixed to the walls was another entertaining aspect of this wonderful place. The below poster in particular spoke to me (not literally of course, but with everything else I’d seen so far, that actually wouldn’t have been so far-fetched).

A hippo is a childs best friend

I want a circus hippopotamus for Christmas… Only a circus hippopotamus will do!

Two grinning children riding a saddled hippopotamus… What could possibly go wrong? While we’re on the subject of hippos, did you know how close America came to importing and using hippos for meat purposes in the early part of its settlement? I make sure to mention this interesting fact whenever I happen to be discussing hippos (which actually happens more often than you’d think).

Moving on! There were a few museum exhibits that encourage you to “play”… but again, and I can’t stress this enough, NOT the cannon.

Toy Cannon that was out of order

You can only play with this toy cannon…if it’s working.

I tried my hand (er, foot) at walking across the tightrope and made it all the way across on my first try! I’m thinking new career path? I was also able to squeeze myself into Lou Jacobs’ clown car. How I got out I still have no idea.

Sitting in the clown car

And now we are up to the most impressive feature in the circus museum – the miniature circus. We probably spent close to half our museum time marveling at this creation.  As a child, I had my own obsession with miniatures and had a dollhouse to place them in, but this setup made my dollhouse look like a dollhouse for ants.

Miniature Circus

This masterpiece, known as the “world’s largest miniature circus”, was built by Howard Tibbals, a circus collector who has been working on this big-tiny representation of the fictional “Howard Bros. Circus” for over 50 years. If you were to visit the Ringling Circus Museum and see nothing else, your time would not have been wasted.

Animal section of circus train

Not only can you see a mini-version of the show itself, but you’re also privy to behind-the-scenes action that you’d normally never see. There are circus folk relaxing between showtimes, elephants and other animals being fed, bathed, and trained, workers building components for the next big show (you can even catch some of them slacking off!), and so much more. The attention to detail on this circus is, for lack of a better word, awesome. The buildings are decorated with tiny posters, tiny tickets are in the hands of the tiny people, and though most people would never see it, there is even tiny money in the tiny cash registers. We learned that bit of trivia by watching an interview with Mr. Tibbals, which was playing in the background in one of the rooms.

Workers cutting logs for use in the circus, copper power lines above

Each time you visit the Howard Bros. Circus you are certain to see something new – either because you missed it before, or because Mr. Tibbals is still working on the circus today. You might even be lucky enough to see him working on the next addition in his museum workshop!

Goliath the Elephant Seal eats a fishie

Goliath the Elephant Seal

The unexpected details were so much fun to find. They had an elephant bathing in a creek! I got way too excited about this when I saw it.

Dumbo the elephant taking his bath

Hey Dumbo! You missed a spot!

And that, my friends, brings part I of my Ringling adventure to an end. But we’re not done yet! Feel free to take a break, get a snack or stretch. I’ll wait.

Oh, You’re ready? Fabulous – on to part II!

So, we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on this trip. We had spent a lot of time at the Circus Museum and the clock was ticking ever closer to 5… but we really wanted to visit the rose garden and see the Ca’ d’Zan before we left.

Path in the rose garden

The Mable Ringling rose garden is the oldest rose garden in Florida. As you walk down its paths, you are surrounded by floral fragrances and weathered statues.  The flowers all look to be lovingly cared after –  perhaps by the spirit of Mable herself? Many of the roses are labeled with species names and the years planted. I was shocked to see that some of the roses were dated back to the early 1900’s. I had no idea roses could live that long!

roses with statue in background

Roses in the rose garden
When we’d had our fill of roses, we began our journey to the mansion… a journey that was fraught with the perils of pine cones.

Watch out for falling pinecones

Coming up on the mansion… At this point I was glad I wore my comfortable shoes. Oh, who am I kidding. I always wear my comfortable shoes.

Ringling mansion

One thing that the Ringlings really did right with their ornamental decor was their choice of “guardian” statues that were placed on either end of some pathways. This one below was my favorite. I was almost afraid to cross their path lest they detect fear in my heart and obliterate me with laser beams shooting out from their eyes (another Never Ending Story reference!) .

Angry Statue

I wouldn’t mess with her… would you?

In contrast, this happy little character had no semblance of danger – in fact, I was half expecting it to jump up and lick my face to greet me!

Happy lion statue

And now, the Ca’ d’Zan! While we didn’t opt for the add-on ticket to tour the inside of the mansion, we were still able to wander around outside of it.

 Brick porch at ringling museum

Yes, that is a bride  and groom in the above picture. Funny story – as I got closer I realized I knew the bride from my office. Neither of us live anywhere near Sarasota or had any idea the other would be there – but I suppose such is the magic of the circus.

Beautiful windows at ringling mansion

A beautiful choice for the backdrop of wedding photos!

View from the balcony of the Ringling mansion, overlooking the water.

View from the balcony of the mansion, overlooking the water. Nice view the Ringlings had!

There was so much more to look at on the Ringling property. Garden sculptures and courtyard statues were everywhere. Towards the end of our walking tour, we came across these statues of animal heads which confused us at first… until it hit us that they were representations of the Chinese New Year animal zodiac!

Chinese new year statues

It was shortly after this point when a groundskeeper found us and told us that the museum and grounds were now  closed. We looked at the time and were surprised that it was after 5! What felt like minutes was actually hours.

And so, my friends, this post has come to an end… at least until I update it when I visit the parts that I missed!

May all your days be circus days.

Riding a bicycle in the sky during rainy season

Instagram Pictures:

Trip to #TheRingling #CircusMuseum in #Sarasota #Circus #Museum #SarasotaFL #Florida

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Dinosaur World!

Dinosaur World T-Rex

If you’ve ever driven down Florida Interstate 4 near Plant City, you probably couldn’t help but notice Dinosaur world. The boring views of asphalt, cars and trees is suddenly transformed to extraordinary as you pass by several prehistoric creatures towering over buildings amongst the trees.

Long Neck Dinosaurs

Whenever I happened to be traveling that way I would point it out to whomever I was with and suggest we stop to check it out. Unfortunately, no one ever seemed as intrigued by the place as I was. “Oh, that place is for kids” was what I most often was told. I figured they knew what they were talking about with me being more of a newcomer to Florida then they were, but I couldn’t help but think of a childhood movie favorite: “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”, where Pee-wee and his friend Dottie climbed up inside a giant dinosaur in a park and watched the sunrise from behind the dinosaur’s teeth. I figured this could be my chance to finally experience seeing the world from inside the mouth of a dinosaur!

Fast forward to six years after the first time I learned of its existence – my boyfriend and I were trying to come up with something interesting to do that weekend. We decided to finally check out Dinosaur World. He too had never been (despite living in the Tampa Bay area for most of his life) but had always been curious about it. With our plans agreed upon, we hopped into the car and headed off to Dinosaur World – for once as a destination and not just a drive-by curiosity.

Dinosaur World Entrance

Entering the prehistoric realm of Dinosaur World

I’ll let you know right off the bat that they did NOT have a dinosaur which you could climb up and sit in, but it was still an awesome place to visit – even without bringing kids. The best way I can describe it is that it is basically a botanical garden… but with DINOSAURS.

Near the beginning of your walk through the grounds you will find yourself face-to-face with a family of mammoths.

Wooly Mammoths
There are plenty of photo opportunities with these prehistoric elephants, the perfect chance for you to get that unique Facebook or Instagram picture that will make all your friends wonder, “Where the heck are they now?”

There was something so enchanting about walking through these beautiful gardens which were decorated with giant depictions of the (extreme) past. So what if science now says many dinosaurs actually had feathers? These were the dinosaurs I had grown up with! And they were HUGE!

Sizing up the dinosaur

That dinosaur doesn’t look so tough.

I was really impressed with how the whole place was set up. They put a lot of attention into every detail and the entire park was incredibly clean and well-maintained, which is exactly what you would expect from a botanical dinosaur garden.

Trash Can Shaped Like Baby Dino in Egg

FEED ME (Your trash)!

Even the trash receptacles had a dinosaur theme. I do have to admit that it took me a second or three to figure out what this brightly colored dinosaur baby with a hole in it’s chest was, but once I figured it out I was amused enough to take a picture of a trash can.

The day we decided to visit the park was not overly crowded, so we didn’t have to wait around to get a good look or a good picture of the cooler dinosaurs. I’m not certain how busy Dinosaur World normally gets, it was quite a hot day which could have kept some people away, but it’s also possible that there are many other people like me who notice it on their way to somewhere else and think that they would like to visit one day but it falls to the back of their mind.

We saw more dinosaurs that day than I could possibly identify. There were many old favorites, but also quite a few that I had never heard of before. They even had baby dinosaurs for that necessary “awww” factor.

There were also dinosaurs in the process of hatching…

Baby dinosaurs coming out of eggs

…with an empty egg perfect for climbing in (though not so easy to get out of as an adult!)

Climbing into a dinosaur egg with the dinosaur babies

Everywhere you went there was something interesting to see.

There were even dinosaur feeding stations – though I preferred to feed my dinosaur the old fashioned way.

feeding the dinosaurs

What kind of dinosaur is “koi”?

Ok, so many of the activities were obviously geared towards kids. They had a place where you could do a fossil dig and a gem excavation, which we didn’t attempt to do, but they also had a place they called “The Bone Yard” where you could pretend to be a paleontologist and dust sand off bones. It was empty when we walked by so we took the opportunity to sweep up some dirt and take some pictures!

Playing with dirt and bones

And of course the Bone Yard also had a section where you could see the fully dug up and put together skeletons of the dinosaurs.

Dinosaur skeleton

There was one unexpected section of the park that had a warning of graphic violence – young children and the faint of heart should not enter. It was within that area where you could see the violent nature of dinosaurs. This part of the park showed dinosaurs eating dinosaurs, some who were missing eyeballs and limbs. It was fascinating and disturbing all at once, but they did have it clearly sectioned off with warning signs of what was contained within so those with young sensitive kids could easily avoid it. This was one of the milder scenes – the predator has caught one of the smaller dinosaurs while it’s buddy escapes.

dinosaur eating dinosaur - wide shot

You’ll have to visit for yourself if you want to see the more violent parts!

Here are two dinosaurs who obviously liked to roam, as they had to put up a rope fence to contain them.

Do not feed the dinosaurs

However, upon closer inspection of the fence, it looked like an escape was a distinct possibility in the near future!

Frayed rope fence

This little guy just happened to be at the scene, which lead me to believe that it was his attempt to organize a jailbreak for the big guys. Why else would he possibly be there?

Lizard on the dinosaur rope

This odd-looking dinosaur caught my eye right away. Not because of it’s huge horns or it’s big red beak-like nose…

Horned Dinosaur

…but because of it’s incredibly sad-looking eyes. What could be causing a dinosaur this much emotional pain?

Close up of sad eyed dinosaur

This was another weird-looking dinosaur that got my attention. Doesn’t it look like it’s belting out a love ballad a la Frank Sinatra?

Dinosaur that looks like Frank Sinatra

At the end of our park visit (but before the gift shop!) there was a building that housed mechanical dinosaurs which moved and roared semi-realistically. It was quite dark in the room so I wasn’t able to get any pictures or video that was worth posting here, but it was interesting (and a tiny bit spooky) to walk through.

I left the park satisfied that I could finally say I had visited Dinosaur World. Would I visit again? It’s possible, though that would be much more likely if I were bringing kids or another curious adult who had always wanted to see it but never found anyone willing to go with them. Of course, if they added a 50-foot dinosaur with seating in the skull, I don’t think you could get me to leave!

Warning falling meteors may cause extintion sign

Instagram pictures for this adventure:


The Dade City Giraffe Ranch

In the eight years that I have lived in Florida, one of my top places to visit in the state has been the Dade City Giraffe Ranch.

So far I have been there three times, and each time I visit I have seen or experienced something new.

Looking at the lemurs at the giraffe ranch

First sister to experience feeding the lemurs at the ranch

Baby and momma feeding the Lemurs

Second sister feeding the lemurs at the ranch

I discovered the existence of the Giraffe Ranch in 2011 via a Groupon deal. It sounded interesting, and my sister was due to be visiting me with her baby daughter in the next couple of months, so I decided to purchase two tickets and give it a shot.

I am so glad I did it! My sister loved the experience, and it was memorable enough for me that I made plans to take a second sister and her infant son when they came to visit in 2013. My family doesn’t have the chance to visit me in Florida very often, so when they do I try to make it an unforgettable trip so they can’t wait to come back!

This year I wanted to  experience the ranch without children, so I decided to take my boyfriend, who, despite having lived in this area of Florida for most of his life, had never even heard of the Giraffe Ranch. I was excited to share it with someone new, and was looking forward to seeing what might have changed in the four years since I had been there. (Note – I have a video version of my most recent trip at the bottom of this post, so if you don’t feel like reading right now, feel free to scroll to the end and watch.)

I noticed a few changes right away when I booked the tour – they added a some new ways to experience the ranch. You could opt to do the original tour in the safari vehicle, OR for an extra charge you could choose to do it 1) by Segway, or 2) walking with a llama companion. I was soooo tempted to spring for the llama companion, but decided to pass on it this time. Now I have an excuse to visit again soon!

Another new optional experience that had been added was something called the “rhino encounter” – they allow you to feed, bathe, and pet a full-grown rhinoceros. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but when would I ever have another chance to touch a rhino? I had to do it!

There were also the familiar add-on options of feeding the lemurs and feeding the otters. I passed on the otters, but the lemur feeding was something I had done on both of my other trips, and opted for it again on this one. I love the feeling of their little paws as they take grapes from your hand – it’s like when a baby grasps your finger – albeit with with smaller and furrier hands.

Feeding LemursOn the day of our tour, we signed in and sat down for a brief introduction and history of the ranch from the husband and wife team who run it. They talked about how the ranch started, what we could expect, and they gave us some insight into the animals we’d be seeing. They were incredibly friendly and made sure that they had answered any questions we had before we got started.

On to the tour! The lemur feeding was our first stop. Those who opted to feed them were let into the enclosure with a couple handfuls of halved grapes. The lemurs we waiting excitedly as they saw us approaching their enclosure – they knew that approaching people meant feeding time for them! We spent about 10-15 minutes with the lemurs before heading out (there were also some interesting near turkey-sized spotted birds, and tiny deer-like animals wandering about in the enclosure who were all too happy to pick up any dropped grapes).

Lemur closeup - piercing red eyes

“Got any grrrrrrapes?”

Deer thing begging for food

“Might I trouble you for a grape, please?”

Monkey reaching arm out of cage

“That bag is rather fetching… you will relinquish it to me!”

After leaving the lemurs, we walked around the immediate area a bit, checking out a few of the smaller animals before the official safari portion began. There were the normal farm animals such as chickens and pigs, but we also saw ostriches, a couple of porcupines, a hungry hungry tortoise,  and some monkeys.  While I was looking at the monkeys and taking a few pictures, I noticed that one of them was verrrrrry interested in my camera bag, and tried to convince me to give it to him. You can see him reaching for it in my picture. Of course, I didn’t fall for his tricks, no matter how cute he looked as he begged.

chickens and pigs and piglets, oh my!

An ostrich with blue sky, a tortoise eating an apple, and two porcupines

Next we headed over to the otter area. We didn’t pay to feed them, but we were able to get just as close and watch the people who did pay as they fed them sardines – or are the anchovies? What’s the difference between sardines and anchovies anyway?

Otters in waiting

“Forget the pizza, we’ll just take the anchovies!”

After the feeding of the otters, it was time for the real safari to start. We boarded the safari vehicle and were off.

One of the first things we saw en-route was a small group of zebra… but take a look at the picture below. Do you notice something odd about the zebra in front?

Zebras with one odd looking zedonk leading the herd

Following the leader

A Zedonk - part donkey, part zebraTwo normal looking zebrasLets take a closer look… On the left  picture – two normal looking zebras. Nothing odd here.

The picture on the right – Wait a minute, that’s not a zebra! Actually, it is. Well, half zebra at least. It’s a zedonk – part zebra, part donkey. This little critter was not bred on purpose;  one of the donkeys managed to sneak in some private time with a zebra, despite all efforts to keep them apart. From that union came the zedonk!

Here’s another unusual zebra picture… check out it’s trippy stripe pattern!

Trippy zebra stripes

And now, on to the main attractions of the event… the feeding of the giraffes! This is such a unique experience – definitely one of the highlights of the tour. I can’t recommend it enough! The whole process is simple – each person gets a good helping of lettuce or greens, whatever the giraffes are eating that day. You then offer the food to the giraffes with your palms up, arms outstretched, they then bend their long necks down to reach the food, wrapping their tongues and lips around the goodies as they take them from you ever so gently… almost as if they’ve done this before!

Giraffe looking for goodies


Feeding a giraffe Feeding the giraffes

Giraffe grazing toward the future

Giraffe making faces behind my back

Is he making fun of me?

After the giraffes had their fill and everyone had the chance to feed them, we were off to feed and bathe the rhinoceros. It seemed kind of crazy that we would be getting close enough to a rhino to feed it by hand, but as we soon learned, they are a lot more docile than they look. While feeding him, he actually seemed even more delicate with taking the food than the giraffes had been. And he really seemed to enjoy getting sprayed by the hose as he ate. Lucky rhino… who among us hasn’t dreamed of eating a meal in the shower?

Feeding iceberg lettuce to a rhinocerous

Delicious lettuce going into the mouth of a rhinocerous

Bathing a rhinocerous as he chomps on some lettuce

We said farewell to the rhino and continued the tour. Next up – the pygmy hippos. Now THESE are creatures you wouldn’t want to get too close to. Hippopotami kill almost 3000 people a year (I doubt these two were implicated with any of the killings, though you still wouldn’t want to go swimming with them).

Two pygmy hippopotomai swimming and looking innocent
Speaking of hippos, did you know that early on in the colonization of America there was talk of importing  hippos to the marshy areas of Louisiana and breeding them for meat purposes? It’s true! The bill (appropriately called the “American Hippo Bill”) was actually introduced to congress. Don’t believe me? Google it, I’ll wait. It failed to pass the vote, but it did come close…  you have no idea how close you came to enjoying a nice hippopotamus steak!

The tour ended on a high note with a visit from the camels. These guys have faces that always make me smile. Their lips hang down in a perpetual pout as they amble up to the vehicle hoping for a handout, and sticking up their noses to the green beans offered.

Camel with the sun in the background

And now, as I promised in the beginning, here is the video version of my trip above. I hope you enjoy it! And if you are in the Tampa Bay area and looking for something unique to do, definitely check out the Giraffe Ranch at Dade City – and let me know what you think! http://girafferanch.com/


Instagram Pictures:


Can You Escape?

Can You Escape Tampa - front of buildingIn July for a friend’s birthday, myself and seven others got together to try out Tampa’s “Can You Escape” team adventure.

The gist is this: You and your teammates are all locked in a room. You have to search through the room to find all the clues that will lead to your escape – but you only have 60 minutes to do so.

This game was a ton of fun! It did get a bit tense at times, especially towards the end of the 60 minutes, but you have to learn to work together and share any clues that you find with your teammates in order to escape. We took some time to get the hang of that. Everyone kept wanting to do their own things and we didn’t always share with everyone the new things we had found.

Now, did we win? You bet we did did! We managed to get the door open with five minutes to spare. We were told afterwards that the fastest team to solve it had about 10 minutes left, so we have to get in a bit more practice before we could enter any competitions.

The theme we played was the “office” theme, which was the only theme  available to us at the time we went. They did tell us that they were planning on adding two new themes by the end of the year – including a London theme which would be there shortly.

No pictures of the room, I’m afraid. They made us all lock our purses and phones into lockers before we entered the room. We couldn’t be permitted to spoil the game for anyone else who wanted to go.

If you live near Tampa and want to check it out, here is their website:


The Sunken Gardens

Today I want to share with you two of my most recent videos, both done at the Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.

First up – I recently obtained a new digital camcorder and I wanted to play with it a bit. I did not use a tripod for this footage, though when I looked back at some of my clips I wished I had:

Next – more footage taken while at the Sunken Gardens.  This time I used a tripod, and these video clips were taken with a Sony 4K digital camcorder.  The quality difference is astounding!

Enjoy the Sunken Gardens! And go visit for real.

Skydive Tampa Bay

Last June I went skydiving at Skydive Tampa Bay in. I have made you wait very patiently with baited breath to see the video I told you I had.  I didn’t post about my experience right away because I wanted to edit the video before showing you. I finally got around to editing it 2-3 months ago!  Yay!  I have no idea why I waited 2-3 months to post the video on my blog. That, my friends, is a mystery.

But it’s here now. I don’t think I need to write much on this post – it is pretty much all explained by the video.  Enjoy!


iFly Orlando

This particular post is going to consist mainly of a video, as there really isn’t a whole lot that can be said about this adventure, it has to be shown.

A few weeks back a friend and I went to iFly, an indoor skydiving joint in Orlando.  Check it out at: http://www.iflyorlando.com/ifly-indoor-skydiving

iFly simulates sky diving without a parachute by shooting air in a vertical wind tunnel at speeds of up to 150 mph.  It does feel a lot like skydiving though it isn’t quite the same experience.

We paid for two one-minute flights each. That might make it seem like in four minutes we would be on our merry way, but the way it worked was that we didn’t get to go twice in a row, rather we were in a group of about 14 people and had to wait for everyone in our group to go once before we could get our second time.  There were a couple of very small children flying (kids 3 years and up were permitted to fly) and it was quite entertaining watching them have their gos. They were certainly braver than I was at that age.

Check out my flight experience on this 5-minute video – and be sure to stay tuned for the instructors turn at the end. There was awesome stuff going on there!

I would recommend this place to anyone who wants to experience skydiving without actually having to go skydiving. Scaredy cats, this one is for you!  This is probably the closest you can get to the experience without having to jump out of a plane, and you are completely safe the entire time – especially when compared to free falling from 10,000 feet.

Swimming with the Manatees

A couple Saturday’s ago, the Mchugh girls, Mr. Funk and I went snorkeling with the manatees at Crystal River with the Manatee Tour and Dive company ( http://www.manateetouranddive.com/ )

What an awesome experience! I have been snorkeling only twice before this. The first time was in Florida, which wasn’t a terrific experience – it was before I had my laser eye surgery and I didn’t realize before signing up that my glasses wouldn’t fit under the goggles. I wasn’t even able to see the barracuda swimming below us! The second time was in Australia where I also didn’t have a terrific experience – I could see, but I had gotten seasick on the way out to the barrier reefs. That was my first time being seasick, and despite what you may have heard from other people, getting seasickness is not a good time! This manatee snorkel was finally a good snorkeling experience for me.

We started our journey off with a way too long car drive. It was very early, but we were running late. My GPS informed us that we were going to be arriving about 15 minutes after we needed to be there. 15 minutes isn’t too bad… but unfortunately, we ended up hitting an unexpected pocket of traffic which pushed us to being 45 minutes late. Luckily the tour group waited for us to arrive before setting off on the river. I guess that wasn’t a huge surprise as we were the majority of the group.

Before we changed into our (provided) wetsuits, we were required to watch a movie teaching how not to bother the manatees. They are a protected species, and if you harass them in any way you can be fined or jailed. Of course, as far as I could tell, none of us came to annoy the manatees.

After we watched the video, we suited up in the wetsuits and got into the boat. We all looked pretty sexy.

The boat traveled for about 10 minutes before we saw any manatees. To pass the time, our guide and my friend Mr. Funk were wondering out loud what manatee meat might taste like. “I bet they are pretty fatty….” “No actually, you would be surprised, there is very little fat on them!”

Eventually we got to the manatee zone. They require that you keep boat speed to a minimum in manatee areas, as they have a tendency to travel close to the surface and can easily be injured by boat motors. If you look at the back of a wild manatee, more likely than not you will see scars from past motorboat injuries.

Just then the guide perked up. “OK guys and gals, look over there!” “There” there was a couple of manatees swimming around – or so he said, but I couldn’t see them from the boat. The guide dropped anchor and said, “OK, this is it. When you get in the water, make sure that you don’t touch the ground with your feet or you will kick up the sediment at the bottom and the water will look cloudier.” We all kind of looked at each other. The water seemed like it was really cold, and no one wanted to be first to get in. The water on this river is 72 degrees all year round, and as warm as that sounds, it can still cause hypothermia with prolonged exposure. The guide saw our hesitation and he followed up with “Don’t worry, I promise, the first 60 seconds are the worst, but then the water inside your suit will warm up.” I turned to Mchugh #2 and said “also, I heard that if you are really cold, you can always pee in your suit to warm yourself up.” This is a true fact, I learned that while in Surf Camp during my Australia trip – not that I peed in my suit of course. She looked at me as if I had lost my mind. “Um, yeah… I think I’ll pass on peeing in my suit.”

Mr. Funk decided to be the brave first soul to get in, and when I saw that he didn’t immediately freeze into an ice cube I got in next. The experience pretty much went like this: “Ahhhhh! Brrrrrr… cold… cold… chatter chatter… oh… my… god!!!! Oh wait, OK, it’s really not that bad…. lets find some manatees!”

I put my head in the water and began to swim towards the direction of the manatees. It wasn’t very easy to see underwater because the river was quite cloudy. Hopefully this wouldn’t result in me not being able to see the manatees. In order to get closer to these gentle sea cows, we would have to swim underneath a pipe sectioning off the area. None of us wanted to swim under it and have our snorkeling gear completely under water, but this time I was the first to, shall we say, take the plunge?

Above you can see me swimming like a fish. I don’t know who owns the house behind me, and I haven’t a clue as to whether they like the fact that the people of Manatee Tour and Dive are always bringing people to snorkel in their back yard. But no one came out to shake a fist at us shouting “You divers get off my yard!”

I was able to find one of the manatees, but he kept a pretty good distance from us. He was not in a friendly cuddly mood. You can see that the water wasn’t as clear as it could be, but I did try to take a few pictures anyway.


Snorkeling is incredibly relaxing. All you have to do is float face down in the water. I wonder if this is what mob victims feel like? Though I would definitely prefer being a snorkeler to being a victim.

I was swimming around looking at the manatees for another 15 minutes or so, hoping that one of them would come a little closer to me (I really wanted to get that money shot for my blog post) when I realized how quiet and empty it had gotten around me. I lifted my head up out of the water to see where everyone else had gone, but all I saw was this:

Where were all my people? I looked over to the boat and saw that everyone (minus me) was in it. I am also pretty sure they were talking about me. I swam hurriedly back to the boat. “How long was everyone waiting for me?” I wondered out loud. Mchugh #1 said, “We all swam back one at a time as we got bored and cold. We were almost going to leave you! The tour’s only two hours.”

I looked around all the chattering teeth around me. OK… I was a bit confused. Was that it? Were we all done? Is that all there is to a manatee tour? If that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing!

I was very disappointed. I didn’t think anywhere near two hours had gone by. Then Mchugh #2 said “I am NOT going back into that freezing cold water unless the manatees are doing back flips out there.” Oh! So that means we were not done. Hooray! We boated a little while longer until we got to the next spot.

Add Video

“This next place you have about a 25% chance of seeing a manatee, but the snorkeling is really beautiful. To get to the good spot, all you have to do is swim past those two white signs. There are all kinds of beautiful fish, turtles, and underwater plants.” Mr. Funk was the one who spoke what we were all thinking. “Ummm… The signs that say ‘danger’? Are you serious?” “Yes! It’s really pretty in there!”

Mchugh 1 and Mchugh 2 decided that the water was too cold for them to get back into. They had already been swimming with the manatees once before, and they were OK with missing the pretty and dangerous part of the river.

Mr. Funk was the first to jump in and he headed straight for the signs. I jumped in next, and almost immediately I saw this little guy:

Mr. Funk had swam right past him without even stopping. You can see his feet in the above picture. I figured maybe he was more looking forward to seeing the pretty part in the dangerous river. Me, I wanted to get to know this little manatee better! The water was plenty clear in this part of the river, and the manatee was very photogenic!

I named him Mr. Freckles because I wanted the most absurd manatee name I could think of. Also, Mr. Freckles is a friggin cute name! The picture below makes me feel as though he is professing his undying love to me. Or saying, “Who, me?”

I loved this picture as well, his pose is fantastic!

And here he is, taking a little rest on the bottom of the riverbed!

And you will be VERY happy to know that I did get some video of the manatee as well. Here it is (edited a bit):

Having seen enough for now of Mr. Freckles, and promising to visit him again on my way back, I decided to go off to the “pretty” area behind the danger signs. It was nice snorkeling. There were a lot of schools of fish and interesting underwater plants. There were also a lot of leaves floating around – this must be the only way you could tell it is fall in Florida.

The current was extremely strong in the river, pushing back against me as I was trying to swim. Perhaps this was the rivers way of saying “Nooo! Go back! Danger!”, but I am not known for listening to rivers.

Enjoy some of the pictures I took while snorkeling:

I was trying to get a cool picture here of both above and below the water. It didn’t turn out as good as I hoped it would though.


And some underwater growth:

Here’s a picture of me from underneath the water. My goggles kept fogging up on me for some reason. I am pretty sure the guide said something about what to do if that happened but guess I wasn’t paying close enough attention to him because I couldn’t remember for the life of me.

There were a whole group of scuba divers in the river along with us. That is what I want to do next… learn to scuba dive. I’ve got to wait for the Groupon though!

Finally I decided it was time to try to get back to the boat. I say try because… well… as most people who know me will tell you, my sense of direction leaves much to be desired. I did get a bit turned around before I finally made it back to the boat. I thought maybe if I just went in the direction of the current and let it carry me along I would easily find my way back, but I didn’t want to take the chance of floating aimlessly down a river so I had to ask directions from a passing scuba-ist.

After another quick stop to see Mr. Freckles I was back on the boat with my peeps. On the boat ride back we saw another manatee which had a floatie tied to its tail which marked its location. Our guide told us that it was a previously injured manatee that wildlife officials wanted to keep track of while it’s being rehabilitated. We were not permitted to swim with this particular manatee. We watched as it rolled around and around under the water (I was thinking about how Mchugh #2 said she would only swim with a manatee doing back flips and wondered if this would have been good enough for her). The guide told us that while it looks like he is playing and having fun, the fact that the manatee was rolling around like that was a sign of extreme stress. Wanna check out the video? Go ahead!

One last thing that caught my attention during my manatee tour. Check out these ducks:

Yeah, they are fake. But when I was looking at them, I thought they were real. “Wow! Those ducks have been perfectly still for a while!” Don’t laugh, my eyes were still blurry from the water and the camera can see closer up than I can. It reminded me of the time when a friend and I saw an iguana in the street and started directing cars around it so it wouldn’t get hit. When we finally went to pick up the lizard, we realized it was just a toy.

Anyway, we got back and changed out of the scuba suit and into our warm clothes and I just couldn’t help myself. I had to visit the gift shot and buy myself these:

You can’t tell me that these baby manatee pajamas are not adorable. I am such a sucker for pajamas.

Another awesome trip. I’m already planning on going back at the end of November or December when there are more manatees about. If anyone wants to join, let me know! Feel free to fly down to Florida. The weather here is fantastic in November and December.

Beach Horses!

For my last adventure, I went horseback riding with some friends. Before you yawn, this was not just any horseback riding, it was BEACH horseback riding! Check out the company’s website here – http://www.beachhorses.com/

This adventure was another wonderful Groupon opportunity that was purchased almost a year ago and I finally got around to doing it. Groupon is one of the best things in the world. Most of these things I have been doing I never would have even heard of before, so it is definitely great for companies to put their coupon on Groupon to create exposure for themselves.

I met up with my friends at a beach in Bradenton, which was about an hour drive from where I live. I pulled into a dirt clearing where a few other cars were parked – I was pretty sure I was at the right spot when I saw a horse trailer on the side of the road and horses frolicking in the water.

My friends and I walked up to the trailer to sign in and begin our ride. As we were walking up the beach, I could see another group of people in the water with the horses. I was excited, this really looked like fun! It was a hot sunny day, perfect for anything water related.

I was wearing pants, and looking at everyone around me wearing bathing suits, shorts, or dresses – I started second guessing my attire. When I was getting ready I had thought that if I am going to be on a horse, I probably didn’t want to wear shorts or a dress, right? The pants were very lightweight, but everyone else in my group wore either shorts or a dress. I was mentally kicking myself for the pants – but alas, it was too late now to change. I was stuck with the pants.

After signing a waiver or two, we were each assigned our horses. I was given “Sadie”, who was definitely the best horse. She had such personality, and a lot of spunk. “Well, get on!” said my horse guide. It was then that I noticed that we would be riding bareback. Wow, I had been horseback riding a few times before, but never have I been given the opportunity to ride bareback! How exhilarating, how thrilling… how… TERRIFYING! If you have never sat on a horse bareback, let me tell you how incredibly different it is. There is nothing to hold on to! Nothing at all to prevent you from sliding off the horse. Throughout the ride I was squeezing my legs together as tightly as possible because I really thought I was going to fall off.

“Uhhh, Karen, are you going to be alright?” Great. Apparently I looked just as uncomfortable as I felt. One of my friends was looking at me with humor and concern. Of course I played it off, and I think she bought it. “Yep! I’m great!”

In the picture below you can see I look as comfortable as if I was lounging around in a pair of flannel jammies. OK, I am also holding on for dear life. And giving Sadie a hug. I am a multi-tasker.

I tried as hard as I could after that to look and feel comfortable on the horse. “It’s just like riding a bike.” Lying to myself did help a little, though I still kept my legs clenched together as tightly as possible while we were on dry land with the horses. This was going to do wonders for my leg muscles.

For the first part of the hour, we walked across the beach adjacent to the water for about a quarter of a mile. This was fairly uneventful (I did see a dead fish – but that was about it). It was still really awesome; walking in the sand on a horse is a completely different experience than walking on a trail.

Next, the guides led us into the water with the horses. When we were in the water it was definitely easier to stay on. I wasn’t focusing as much on not falling off the horse – I was enjoying the fact that I was in Florida, on a horse, in the ocean, in September.

The water was the perfect temperature, and the horses seemed completely at ease in it.

As we were walking, there were a few times that I had to quickly move my leg to avoid bits of floating poo that had just appeared in the water – gifts from the horse in front of me. I guess when you are riding horses in the ocean, you might have to put up with some crap!

I brought my waterproof camera so you lucky people have the opportunity to see us in the water with our gallant steeds:

How I love my waterproof camera. After buying one during my trip to Australia a few years ago, I would never want to go back to a normal camera. We were riding around in the water and splashing about with our horses for about ten minutes when my friend’s horse decided that she hated my horse. Those big horse chompers got really close to my leg when that it tried to bite poor Sadie. After that near fiasco, the guides kept our two horses apart for the rest of the ride. Thank goodness for that, because I am sure that my leg would have become a casualty to a horse fight. Those kinds of things always happen to me.

Next, the horse guides invited us to each try something called “Horse Surfing”, where you would stand on the back of the horse as they trot along in the water. Your only job is to try to stay on without falling. Don’t worry, the guides assured us that it was not harmful in any way to the horse. They told us exactly where to put our feet, and there is really no extra weight on the horse than if you are sitting on it.

I was the first to try (being the brave girl I am) though I pretty much just stood up to prove I could do it, then sat right back down. I guess I am just as talented at horse surfing as I was at regular surfing – but at least I stayed on!

After most of us tried horse surfing, (which we all stunk at) we tried the next thing – horse skiing! We held on to the cartilage part of the horses tail while the trainer rode the horse around in circles and we tried not to let go. Thank heavens none of the horses had to “relieve” themselves during this bit. And again, don’t worry, this did not hurt the horses. We were not holding onto the horses hair, but the cartilage on their tails. I am sure that this place would have been shut down years ago if anyone thought the horses were being hurt… PETA is everywhere.

After horse skiing, our next task was to try to get back onto the horses. Yeah, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Of course, I was graceful as a swan pulling myself back up on the horse.

And now for the sad part of the story. It was about this time that I realized something was terribly wrong with my camera. It sounded like it was still taking pictures, but the view screen was completely black, and it had no viewfinder to fall back onto. I had no idea what was wrong with it, but I just kept taking pictures, hoping I was pointing it correctly. I figured that at least the pictures I had taken up to that point would be OK, and if I was lucky, the pictures taken after were OK too. I found out what was wrong when I got home. I opened up the camera and it was SOAKING wet inside. The waterproof seal had broken! I pulled out the memory card, dried it off, and plugged it into my computer, and thankfully the pictures were all OK – but the camera was kaput. How sad. This was the camera I had purchased in Australia after I broke my other camera by dropping it in the sand during my Frasier Island tour. But hey, on the plus side, at least the stories of how I break my cameras are all very interesting.

That was the end of our beach horse ride. The guides told us that we were going to race to shore with the horses as fast as we could, but we had to make sure to pull them to the side if they started overtaking the person in front of us or they might run over that person. Once again, this was not as easy as it sounded. My horse was still angry with the horse that tried to bite her earlier, and seemed to be determined to run that horse, my friend, and the guide in front down. The poor guide kept looking back at us and trying to speed up so Sadie wouldn’t trample them, and I kept shouting “I’m trying to pull her but she isn’t listening!” We did make it to the shore with no trampling injuries, luckily. Oh Sadie.

We got off the horses and said our thank yous to the guides, when suddenly a thought occurred to me. “Uh oh, we are supposed to tip them.” None of us had remembered to bring cash! It was incredibly embarrassing and I felt terrible. Our guides had really made sure that we had a good time, and they were incredibly knowledgeable and friendly. They were probably thinking “what dang cheapskates!” as we left. I just couldn’t go home without tipping them though. I would have felt guilty for weeks! So after we dried off and got into the car, we stopped at the closest store to take out some money to tip them. Unfortunately, when we got back our guides were gone, but the horse trailer was still there with a couple of people from the company. We just gave them the money and asked them to give it to our guides. I hope that it got to them and they realized who it was from. I’d hate to have anyone out there thinking I stiff them out of tips.

I really enjoyed this experience – it only lasted about an hour but it was worth doing. I would recommend anyone to do it if they find a coupon for it, otherwise it is a bit too pricy. This coming weekend I am heading out to Crystal River to swim with the manatees with some of my best friends. I can’t wait to photograph and tell you about that experience! That’s right, I have a brand new waterproof camera!

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