The Wonder Gardens of Bonita Springs look great at 85 years old.
Started in 1936 by the Piper family as a roadside attraction along the then newly constructed Tamiami Trail, the three-acre property is filled with botanical specimens as well as birds and reptiles that add even more color to the site.
Starting with the historic wooden entrance building, the first impression is of old Florida.
It’s a theme that President and CEO David Rahahe: tih Webb – an eighth generation Floridian and citizen of the Tuscarora / Meherrin nation with both parents – embraces. Next month he will be celebrating his first birthday with the Wonder Gardens, now run by a non-profit organization, but he grew up in the area. In high school, he worked for a veterinary clinic that looked after the animals at Wonder Gardens. When he took on his new role last fall, he knew he wanted to elevate many aspects of the place, drawing on his experience working at attractions such as the Naples Botanical Garden and the Conservancy. of Southwest Florida.
His first project was to transform the courtyard just behind the entrance building into something similar to the old Parrot Jungle in Miami by adding lots of colorful birds under umbrellas to greet people.
“I wanted people to be immediately excited about this kitschy old Florida,” says Webb, “and there’s nothing better for that than parrots. “
He also made improving animal care a priority. Seven exhibits have been redesigned or built over the past year, including the now lush Grande Avière and the Little Birds Aviary. The projects were funded by donations from supporters and feature rust-resistant aluminum and stainless steel as well as all original materials still usable.
The staff focus on enriching the animals, making sure the animals feel entertained and have ways to mimic natural behaviors. This includes solving puzzles or climbing to find their food, digging if it’s something they would do in the wild, and shredding bird toys.
Animals also eat better, getting commercial diets designed for their species. Visitors can purchase pet food from the gift shop, with a certain amount allocated each day for alligators, peacocks, ducks, koi, and turtles. Guests can also pay for a meet and greet with Lorikeet, held twice a day, and hand feed these Australian birds with nectar.
There are over 300 animals in Wonder Gardens, and all of them are rescued, rehabilitated, or unreliable.
The flamingos are one of the biggest attractions, and Mr. Webb is working to expand the older flock with younger birds of breeding age.
He also replaced the very large alligators with a more manageable group of young and juveniles. It adds a filtering marsh pond next to the main alligator pond that will help clean up the water and educate visitors about these ecosystems.
Other species around the gardens include Russian turtles, finches, cockatiels, lovebirds, bronze turkeys, bourbon red turkeys, Peking ducks, golden weavers, pythons, and Chinese golden pheasants.
Recently, the gardens have added an Eclectus Parrot, Military Macaw, Turaco, and Catalina Macaw.
Make sure to say hello to Umbrella Cockatoo Casey or he’ll pout (and scream!).
One of the most anticipated changes is the return of otters later this year. The exhibit will feature a clear acrylic tunnel and a wheelchair-accessible play cave for children to explore while otters play and swim around them.
Otters are among the most popular exhibits in zoos and aquariums, says Webb. “This will be a state-of-the-art exhibit unlike any other in Southwest Florida,” he adds. “A place like Wonder Gardens should try to have an exciting new attraction every three years. We may have a lot of people who haven’t been here for a while.
Another big draw is the incredible variety of trees at Wonder Gardens.
The centerpiece of the property is a banyan tree about 40 feet tall and 100 feet wide, probably planted in the 1930s. Staghorn ferns hang from many trees, there are about a dozen varieties of palms, a very large African tulip tree, a communal tree and a collection of bonsai donated a few years ago.
Animals take advantage of the many fruit trees, including pineapple, star fruit, mango, banana and jackfruit.
Mr. Webb is particularly fond of the different types of bamboo around gardens. He shares that legend says the original stock can be attributed to the Koreshans, who lived in the area in the early 20th century, or Thomas Edison, who was known to share the saplings he had grown on his estate. in Fort Myers.
With such a variety of animals and plants, there are some very interesting volunteer opportunities. Mr. Webb says the volunteers help with preparing animal feed and cleaning exhibits, pruning and moving plants, and doing clerical chores. As he expands education programs, which included a summer camp this year, he expects to launch a docent program.
The Wonder Gardens is a popular spot almost every weekend for weddings, birthdays, and other facility rentals. It is also sought after for photoshoots near the big banyan tree or the flamingo pond.
The attraction received a record 80,000 visitors last year, which Mr. Webb credits to people wanting to be outside during the pandemic. As Wonder Gardens draws to a close in its 85th year, all of these new exhibits and changes just might help it reach 85,000 in the blink of an eye on its birthday. ??
In the KNOW
Gardens of Wonders
Or: 27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs
Hours: Until September 18, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily; from September 19, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Admission: 13-64 years old, $ 12; 65 and over, $ 10; 3-12 years, $ 7; children under 3, free
Info: 239-992-2591 or www.wondergardens.org