Finding magic in Florida

Jim Buchta
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

For more than a moment, I found magic in Orlando.

As I stood in the glow of Cinderella’s Castle on a crisp November night, fireworks filled the sky and the songs of childhood pealed when Tinker Bell, a human sprite in bright green tights and Day-Glo wings, popped out of a turret and zip-lined toward Tomorrowland like a cartoonish flare.

Thousands of stunned parkgoers clapped furiously as the light show dimmed — a perfect end to my first day in Florida with two nephews, a great-niece and Grandma Mary.

I’d promised the kids a trip to celebrate their teen birthdays, and for them — Minnesotans who love to swim and had never seen the ocean — Florida was an obvious choice. But how do you hit the state with children, even those who have edged into their teenage years, and not visit Mickey?

We couldn’t.

So I booked two days at a Disney resort — and a week on Sanibel, a tiny island in the Gulf of Mexico. For me, Disney was a perfunctory, though thrilling, prequel. I wanted the kids to see what Florida looked like before Walt Disney sprinkled his pixie dust on 30,000 acres of swampland.

But would the kids share my preference for Florida’s real-life vs. Disney world?

I wasn’t so sure when those fireworks tugged at even my heart. I grew more skeptical when we spent the next day at Discovery Cove, a kind of Wisconsin Dells-meets-Club Med where the kids could snorkel in a man-made lagoon without any of the risk of a real reef.

Midday, our group met with a naturalist and learned about the lives of dolphin at Discovery Cove. I sat on a manicured shore as the kids and Grandma Mary waded into the water and one by one, had their dolphin experience. They began with mammal-to-mammal kisses before the kids and Grandma Mary took turns holding on tight as a dolphin swam with them across the lagoon.

By 6 p.m. we were on the road to Sanibel Island, which is only a 3 1/2-hour drive from Orlando, but seems a million miles away.

Twinkling sand dollars

“This isn’t like Discovery Cove,” my nephew Brayden said the next morning. He was the first to wake and we walked along a boardwalk to the beach, where the tide was still receding, littering the beach with clumps of slimy seaweed and a few rotting fish.

Soon, Autumn, Justin and Grandma Mary joined us and we scoured the tide-soaked beach for bone-white sand dollars that twinkled like stars at twilight.

As the morning waned and the sun warmed, the kids ventured farther from that safe place where the sand meets the surf, and it wasn’t long before all three of them were neck-deep in the ocean for the very first time, alternating leaping and diving like the dolphins we hoped we’d see in the wild.

We started our days on the beach in front of our condo, where the waves delivered fresh piles of shells. We roamed, zombielike, with our heads tilted toward the sand, scanning the beach for treasures in a posture that locals call “the Sanibel stoop.”

Boredom, fortunately, was never an issue.

Wild kingdoms

About half of Sanibel is undeveloped. One day, we boarded an open-air tram that motored slowly along Wildlife Drive into the “Jurassic Park”-like heart of the refuge.

Several pink roseate spoonbills swooped by, and we stopped to watch a green ibis wade into the shallows and pause before extending its wings to create a shady spot in the water where small fish were lured before becoming lunch.

The next day, we chartered a fishing boat on Tarpon Bay, fully stocked with bait, snacks and drinks. We spent the day weaving our way through a prehistoric maze of bayous and mangrove thickets, motoring past shallow oyster beds and into calm bays where we caught fish with exotic names. Our next-day excursion was to one of several undeveloped islands that are nearby, accessible only by boat. We picked Cayo Costa (“key by the coast”), which is mostly a state park and has only a few off-the-grid houses.

Midway through the half-hour boat ride across Pine Island Sound, the captain goosed the throttle, and a pair of dolphins rode our wake, twirling and diving as we approached the tiny island. The teens, who had by now come to relish Florida’s natural beauty, were giddy.

On Cayo Costa, Grandma Mary parked her beach chair and umbrella along the edge of water. Autumn spread a towel on the sand and watched a hermit crab clumsily retreat to the water while the boys snorkeled in the choppy surf, hoping to see a stingray glide across the wrinkled seafloor.