My husband and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary by shaking the paw of a 4 month old white Bengal tiger. We didn’t have to go to India to do it because the experience is available right here in Florida. We visited Amazing Exotics, a refuge for all species of wild animals, including monkeys, bears, lions and our favorite, the tiger. It is located one hour north of Orlando in Umatilla, Florida and has been featured on television shows such as National Geographic, Discovery, and Letterman.

We arrived there at noon on a cloudy, gray Saturday. Visits are by appointment only and you can select from various options. We chose the encounter that included personal interaction with monkeys and one of the big cats. All tours include a guided walk around the grounds to view the animals in their cages. The compound provides care for animals that have been retired from television or the circus, displaced pets whose owners could no longer handle them, and found animals without a home. In addition, space can be rented by owners in need of safe shelter for their unusual pets. During our visit the owner of several lions brought them a dinner of raw meat which they quickly devoured.

Our guide, Danielle, took us to see the monkeys first. They were loud and in some cases, very crafty. One shyly stuck his long arm out as if asking for a handshake, but Danielle cautioned us not to be fooled. She said the same monkey had recently grabbed her hand and didn’t want to let go. In another cage, a chimpanzee noted the presence of my husband by continuously rolling a barrel in a circle. He did this as a means of claiming his territory. After several turns, satisfied that the message was conveyed, he abruptly stopped. He threw the barrel at the cage, then peacefully sat down and waved to us.

Next, we saw the tigers. One huge white Bengal saw us coming and started making moaning sounds. We were told she loved to whine for an audience. It was so funny to see a giant cat, whose head was bigger than two of mine, complaining as if to a coffee buddy. Next to her cage was a very rare animal that looks like an ocelot but is called a clouded leopard due to its unusual pattern of spots.

After a walk around the grounds we were ushered back to the office and seated at a table that had a giant teddy bear on top of it. Two tiny monkeys in diapers were brought in and let loose on the table. They scrambled all over, up and down the bear while grabbing the fruit and cereal put out for them. This was our opportunity to get friendly with the monkeys and it was easy to do. They held hands with us, climbed on our shoulders and let us feed them.

After our initial encounter we went into another room, sat on the floor and two chimpanzees were brought in for us to play with. One took a liking to my husband and went right over to him and sat on his lap. He kept one arm around Tom and the other in the fruit bowl during the entire visit. In contrast, the other chimp ran around the room and across our laps, only stopping to grab a snack.

Last, we got to play with Hollywood, the tiger, and she was adorable. It was difficult to keep from wrestling with her because she’s like a big pussycat. However, the trainers don’t want her to learn behaviors that will be a problem when she’s older and bigger. We fed her a bottle, let her chew on our shoes, petted her and took plenty of pictures to record this unique memory.

The Sanctuary also serves as a training ground for people interested in a career working with animals. It provides a rare opportunity to get hands-on experience, both for interns and the public. We were impressed with the cleanliness, care and obvious affection given to the boarders. The Center relies on donations to pay for the cost of upkeep. Because food and essentials are so expensive there isn’t much money left for advertising so the public may not be aware of the treasure to be found here.

We left Amazing Exotics and drove a half hour to Mt. Dora where we stayed at the Farnsworth House. This bed and breakfast had an upstairs suite with a sitting area, outside porch, bed, bath and kitchen. Snacks and juice were left in the suite for us to refresh ourselves. We had access to the host’s movie collection and were welcome to use the hot tub located in the gazebo. Each morning we were served a gourmet breakfast that fortified us for a day of browsing among the antique shops of the town. In addition to neighborhood shopping, nearby Renningers Twin Markets offers everything from Happy Meal toys to antique furniture. A day can easily be spent wandering past the hundreds of booths.

We finished our day by dining at the Gables Restaurant. It is a small, cozy place surrounded by plants and local artwork and has indoor or outdoor seating. After dinner and wine we capped the evening with a visit to our lodging’s hot tub. After a twenty minute soak we could barely pull ourselves out to retire to bed.

It was a wonderful weekend because it combined relaxation, unique experiences, and a get-away-from-it-all atmosphere. Mount Dora also provides the opportunity to visit nearby Orlando and all the attractions it has to offer. Or, it could be just the antidote to spending too much time with the Mouse.

Article Information:
Amazing Exotics
352-821-1234, Call for appointment
Encounter Educational Seminar $54
Safari Educational Seminar $94

Farnsworth House Bed and Breakfast
1029 E 5th Ave
Mount Dora, FL 32757
Max. seasonal rates $150-$165 plus taxes

Renninger’s Florida Twin Markets
20651 US Highway 441
Mt. Dora, FL
352-383-8393 (Antiques) or 352-383-3141 (Farmers & Flea Market)
Free Admission

Gables Restaurant
322 Alexander Street
Mount Dora, FL 32757
Lunch $8-$12; Dinner entrees $15-$21


I am a world traveler and I support my passion by working as a student advisor and adjunct instructor at a private university. I have published a travel article in the Orlando Sun Sentinel Travel Section. My contact information is as follows: