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Disney World provides an important corridor allowing Florida wildlife to migrate

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The world's most visited theme park has become one of the most important links in a wildlife corridor spanning the length of Florida. As Steve Newborn of WUSF reports, Disney is now protecting land from the sprawl it ignited a half-century ago.

STEVE NEWBORN, BYLINE: In the woods next to Disney's Magic Kingdom, Rachel Smith hears a woodpecker.

(SOUNDBITE OF WOODPECKER CALLS)

RACHEL SMITH: It's a pileated.

NEWBORN: Smith manages conservation programs at Walt Disney World. Even in these woods, you can hear the hustle and bustle of the nearby park as Smith points out a tortoise nesting area.

SMITH: A lot of these habitats serve as important long-term sites for our resident gopher tortoises that live here on property.

NEWBORN: A lot of Disney property is actually wild green space, with visits from migrating Florida panthers and black bears, including one that shut down parts of the park in September when it was spotted in a tree. Zak Gezon is a conservation manager with Disney. He says this occasional wildlife sighting blends with the theme park experience.

ZAK GEZON: We want our guests as they go over on the Skyliner, and they look down as they're going from resort to resort or park to park, to feel the wilderness that surrounds them. And you can look down and see the headwaters of the Everglades that are right here on property and see where it begins.

NEWBORN: He says from the very beginning of the attraction in the 1960s, Walt Disney had a vision of what it would look like.

GEZON: And wildlife was a big part of who he saw himself as as a human, and the impact he could have on the world. And he hand drew what Walt Disney World could look like, and it included a spine that went from north to south and east to west, and allowed for wildlife to live in harmony with humans in this space.

NEWBORN: These green spines mean the happiest place on Earth is actually one of the only places left in this part of Florida that allows wildlife to migrate from the Everglades north to Orlando to the Green Swamp near Tampa. These patches of preserved areas are what members of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation want to protect across the state. Jason Lauritsen is with the foundation. He says the Disney corridor is critical because of continued rampant development that started in Central Florida when Disney came to town.

JASON LAURITSEN: Fifty years ago, there were lots of different ways for wildlife to go back-and-forth. Now we're down to one. There's really one functional corridor.

NEWBORN: And preserving it is one of the top priorities of the foundation. Beyond Disney, it's encouraging other landowners to protect wilderness areas on their properties. Mallory Lykes Dimmitt is the group's executive director. She hopes Disney will preserve this wild space forever.

MALLORY LYKES DIMMITT: And that's what we need everywhere in the corridor, is to have people think beyond their immediate property boundaries and how we can be working together across those boundaries to sustain these connections that they'll last in perpetuity.

NEWBORN: The Corridor Foundation calls the stretch the last green thread. That's because it's desperately needed for Florida wildlife to thrive.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Newborn in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CIRCLE OF LIFE")

CARMEN TWILLIE: (Singing) The circle of life, and it moves us all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.