Local family buys 199 acres in NE Orange for nature preserve & eco-tourism

Highlighted in blue are the nearly 199 acres recently acquired in northeast Orange County's Fort Christmas area, planned for conservation and a eco-tourism attraction.

A local family that owns an airboat eco-tourism business paid just under $2.2 million for roughly 200 acres in northeast Orange County, with plans to preserve it while introducing a wildlife buggy tour.

Derrick Lockhart and father David Lockhart currently operate Midway Airboat Rides, a tour service on the St. Johns River near S.R. 50. Derrick had been hunting on the property in recent years, and thought it would be a perfect fit for an eco-buggy ride attraction he had been brainstorming.


Located in the census-designated area named "Christmas," well east of Lake Pickett and the sprawl of suburban subdivisions, Lockhart's affiliate Fort Christmas Acres LLC bought a combined 198.89 contiguous acres last month at 23018 and 1664 Fort Christmas Road, near the Christmas and Coward ranches.

"This is like a retirement project for my father and something I've been working on for a few years. I had done a few of these buggy rides myself, and they were OK but I always had ideas of how to make it a lot of fun," Lockhart told GrowthSpotter. "This is a beautiful piece of land with some nice (tree coverage), some wetlands, deer and turkeys already on it, and the previous owners had a cattle lease we'd let continue.


"We thought about putting some new exotic animals out there, maybe an area with some wild boar that is contained, or maybe some bison," he continued. "With the way development is going in east Orlando, I figured the worst-case scenario is it will be worth something 20 years from now."

George Viele and Robin L. Webb of NAI Realvest represented the seller Barber Farms, Inc. of Belle Isle and its related trust in the transaction, which took 12 months to close. The Barber family were long-time cattle farmers in Florida with roots dating to the early 1800s.

The property is zoned Agricultural by the county and will be left as such, said Lockhart, because that zoning should allow them to build basic necessities to run an eco-tour business, like a barn to store equipment.

The buggy vehicles that Lockhart envisions would be adapted 4x4 trucks with tires standing four to seven feet tall. They'd drive at a slow pace and with minimal noise to observe the wildlife on the property.

Plans to start the business are fluid now, said Lockhart, with the family focused on drumming up additional equity to invest in building the vehicles from scratch.

He expects to build a storage barn first, possibly a pre-fabricated option, and would look to hire a construction service of barn vendor to lead that.

The Lockharts sourced a $1.089 million loan directly from the seller, which matures in March 2024.

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