Get out of Orlando and into the Real Florida.
Less than a half-hour’s drive from Orlando’s theme parks, step back in time to a place where Cracker cowboys and Seminole warriors once ruled.
Kissimmee, a land of lakes, cypress swamps and vast wet prairies, hasn’t changed much in 100 years. You can still see alligators, bald eagles, bobcats and, if you’re so inclined, trophy-size largemouth bass.
Back in the 1800s, the primary modes of transportation were horses and dugout canoes. Fortunately for today’s travelers, the airboat has made it possible to cover the distance that once took a week in 45 minutes.
No one knows for sure who first thought of mounting an oversized fan on the back of a flat-bottomed fishing boat, but without this masterpiece of American ingenuity, few people would be able to experience the Real Florida.
The folks at Boggy Creek Airboat Rides started taking visitors for airboat rides back in 1994. They started off with a six-seater, but soon found the demand so great that they bought bigger boats that can accommodate up to 17 passengers.
The wading birds, gators, turtles and other critters have grown accustomed to the airboats buzzing about and go about their business as usual. So if you’re looking to see some wildlife, hop aboard for a half-hour tour.
If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, sign up for one of the night trips. And yes, those red eyes you see scattered across the lake belong to alligators. But don’t worry – they are well-fed and even better-behaved.
Find Boggy Creek Airboat Rides at Southport Park where, in 1872, President Chester A. Arthur and some friends held a ribbon-cutting ceremony before they hopped aboard one of the first steamers to travel down the Kissimmee River.
Camping is available at this 25-acre park that serves as the gateway to the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. This is a great place to kick back and relax, but forget about sleeping in; if the fishermen don’t wake you, the wild turkeys will.
Boating & Fishing Lake Toho
An Orlando vacation can be hectic at times, so plan for a relaxed day just for you out on the lake. Big Toho Marina, located at the north end of the lake in historic downtown Kissimmee, rents everything from fishing skiffs to ski boats.
So, hire a pontoon boat, pack it full of friends and family – and don’t forget the picnic basket – and spend a day on the lake. If you get there early enough, find a fishing guide and head out in search of fabled Florida bucketmouth. That’s what they call the really big largemouth bass, and Toho has its share.
In 2001, this 22,000-acre lake was the site of professional bass-fishing history when professional angler Dean Rojas shattered all tournament records when he caught five fish totaling 45 pounds, 2 ounces – in one day. For baseball fans, that’s like hitting four home runs in one game. Rojas took home a check for $110,000, not bad for a day’s fishing.
BASS, the world’s top bass-fishing tour, recently moved its headquarters to nearby Celebration, just a short drive to what many would argue is the world’s top bass-fishing lake. But you don’t have to be a professional fisherman to pull a 10-pounder out of Big Lake Toho. The marina has guides lined up and ready to go.
Try to get there before the sun comes up so you can get the marina’s famous “Big Breakfast.” But it’s okay if you miss it, as the cheeseburgers at lunchtime are nothing short of paradise.
The area has more to offer than just lakes and swamps. Outside of St. Cloud, you will find Forever Florida, a 4,700-acre conservation area that’s also a working cattle ranch. Explore this unspoiled wilderness by horse or open-air coach.
For the more adventurous, take Forever Florida’s new Zipline Safari, which lets you soar above the treetops and get a bird’s-eye view of the pine flatwoods, swamps and wet prairies.
All that action works up quite an appetite, so drop by Cypress Restaurant and get some gator nuggets and fried catfish. Once you’ve eaten your fill, pitch your tent at one of Forever Florida’s campground sites. Don’t even think about not spending the night; you’ll need a couple of days, maybe even a week, to see it all. And then there’s no doubt you’ll be coming back for more.
This article is brought to you by the Kissimmee Convention and Visitors Bureau. To plan your Kissimmee outdoors vacation, request a 2009 Kissimmee Visitor's Guide at 800-711-KISS or start planning your trip today at www.VisitKissimmee.com.