Winter brings not just enviable weather to the state, but also some special opportunities available only at this time of year. Among these are special ranger-led tours in Florida parks.
Not only do state parks offer campfire talks, nature walks and boat and tram tours, as well as the many year-around activities, but also unusual adventures.
Several state parks, for example, offer moonlight canoe or kayak jaunts. You can see the largest concentration and variety of orchids in North America during Fakahatchee Strand swamp walks on the first three Saturdays of the month into March. Dutch Oven Bread Baking is offered at Koreshan Historic State Park on weekends to March. Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park runs prairie tours on eight-passenger buggies. Both adults and kids can go wading with a ranger at Gasparilla Island State Park to explore grass flats in late March and April. There are programs on the manatees at Blue Springs State Park, migratory birds at Alafia River State Park, and hammock walks at Fort Pierce Inlet State Park.
Dozens of special programs are offered. Advance reservations may be required for some events, and some have fees. For a list and details, go to www.floridastateparks.org, click on “things to do,” then on “ranger programs.”
Everglades National Park also puts on special programs in winter, some at its Homestead site, others at its Flamingo, Shark Valley or Gulf Coast locales. Among them are swamp tromps, tours of a Nike Missile Site, birding adventures, full-moon bike hikes, car caravans and starlight walks. www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/rangerprograms.htm.
NEW AT SEAWORLD
Coming to Sea World of Orlando in 2014 are several new special events.
Wild Days will showcase three weekends of interactive shows, up-close animal encounters and opportunities to meet leaders in animal rescue and rehabilitation. Dates: Jan. 11-12, Jack Hanna Weekend; Jan. 18-19, Sea Rescue Weekend; Jan. 25-26, Penguin Lovers Weekend with Julie Scardina.
Other special events include Bands, Brew and BBQ, with beer and rock and country music concerts on weekends Feb. 1-March 9 (a number of musical performers have canceled their appearances citing the Blackfish documentary on the life of marine mammals at the park); Just For Kids, live shows, kid rides and treats on Saturdays March 22-April 12; Viva la Musica, Hispanic festival with live concerts and cuisine on Saturdays April 28-May 17; and Sea World’s 50th celebration, which will bring new interactive experiences, shows and animal encounters starting March 21, marking the opening of the first SeaWorld park in San Diego.
KEY WEST FESTS
Key West will be a busy place late this month when it stages two festivals in a single week.
First, from Jan. 22 to 26, the city will host its fifth annual Food and Wine Festival. Duval Street will be turned into a culinary showcase on Jan. 25. Other highlights include a “Save the Turtles” event, a barefoot evening beach party, wine strolls, a dance party and the Master Chef’s Classic tasting and competition. www.keywestfoodandwinefestival.com.
On Jan. 25 and 26, nearly 100 craft artists will display their wares at the 29th annual Key West Craft Show in the city’s Old Town district. The juried festival draws as many 25,000 visitors. www.keywestartcenter.com.
Also this month, the 27th annual Quantum Key West Race Week Jan. 19-24 will feature yacht races with international crews.
PIRATES ON THE PROWL
Swashbuckling buccaneers will be out in force in late January when Tampa stages its annual blowout, the Gasparilla Pirate Fest. The festivities get under way Jan. 25, when “pirates’’ aboard the fully-rigged pirate ship Jose Gasparilla lands at the waterfront Tampa Convention Center.
The landing will be followed that afternoon by a 3.8-mile long Gasparilla Parade of Pirates and street festival. More than 90 floats and 14 marching bands will take part in the parade in downtown Tampa.
A number of other events, including art and music festivals, historical exhibits and foot races, come under the Gasparilla umbrella, which continues into March. www.gasparillapiratefest.com.
Two national/international sports competitions have chosen the Sarasota area for events in 2014.
• Sarasota will be the site of the 2014 USA Ultimate Masters Championships July 18-20, with 16 teams in each of three divisions competing.
Ultimate is a non-contact sport played with a Frisbee on a field similar to football, with two teams and two end zones. www.usaultimate.org.
• One of the oldest pre-Olympic competitions, the Modern Pentathlon, also is coming to Sarasota/Bradenton, the first time it will be held in the United States in more than 40 years. The region will host sveral other major Modern Pentathlon competitions: the World Cup Final on June 6; the World Cup #1 first round competition in 2015; and also in 2015, the U.S. Pentathlon Olympic Team trials in preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
The Modern Pentathlon combines five sports — equestrian show-jumping, fencing, swimming, running and pistol shooting. www.pentathlon.org.