Touring the Florida Everglades by Airboat
By Dalia Colón
You can paddle, walk and even bike through various parts of The Florida Everglades.
But there’s nothing like the sensation of an airboat ride: the excitement of the propellered engine revving like a motorcycle, the airplane-like buzzing of the boat at full speed, the jarring, delicious silence when the driver cuts the engine as the boat glides along what Marjorie Stoneman Douglas nicknamed the River of Grass.
Whether it’s your first time on the water or you’ve sailed around the world, an airboat ride through The Florida Everglades is like nothing you’ve ever experienced.
“There’s really nowhere else in the world like here,” said airboat tour guide Jack Blanco of Coopertown Airboats. “It’s something you’d have to see for yourself.”
Companies offer large-group of private tours. Some airboats aren’t much larger than a minivan, while others hold dozens of passengers.
After you settle into your seat, the engine will rev up like an airplane ready for takeoff.
What to Expect
“You’re going at a pretty fast speed, and the noise of the boat does stir up the wildlife,” said Allyson Gantt, chief of communications and PR for Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks.
“It’s very rare, but if you’re a lucky group, you might get to see river otters,” Tigertail said. But he cautions riders to calibrate their expectations. “You can’t really guarantee anything in nature.”
That said, an experienced tour guide will know where the gators and other bucket-list animals hang out; he or she will cut the airboat’s engine to allow for photo ops, leaving you gliding in blissful silence.
“The most significant sensation is gliding over the water,” Gantt said. “It feels different than being on a regular boat.”
This calm affords you an opportunity to savor the breeze and to notice the nuances of nature that surround you: the carpetlike sawgrass prairie, the majesty of the cypress trees, the spatterdock floating atop of the water like lily pads in a children’s book illustration.
The speed and the stillness. The intense wind and the gentle breeze. Ominous alligator scales and the cotton candy pink of the roseate spoonbill. It will all leave you in childlike wonder.
“The Everglades is just an amazing place,” Gantt said. “There’s always more for people to learn about it. To me, it’s fascinating to learn how everything is connected in the web of life.”
Take a Ride
Ready to catch some air? Check out these Florida airboat tours:
Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures: South Florida gets all the glory, but the headwaters of the Everglades actually start in Central Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. Experience the wetlands and wildlife of Orlando’s backyard. Prices start at $28.95 adults $24.61 for children for a 30-minute tours. Longer tours, sunset cruises, “you drive” tours and nighttime experiences are available; prices vary. 2001 E Southport Road, Kissimmee, (407) 344-9550.
Coopertown Airboats: Ride through nine miles of sawgrass and hardwood hammocks, with the occasional stop at an alligator hole. There’s also a sit-down restaurant and gift shop on the property. Adults $23, children 7 to 11 $11, kids 6 and under free. 22700 Southwest Eighth St., Miami, (305) 226-6048.
Everglades Alligator Farm: A thrilling airboat ride is merely the appetizer at this theme park. Other activities include reptile shows, gator feedings and a photo op holding a baby alligator. For $25, you get a 20-minute airboat ride, three reptile shows and admission to the farm. Private tours are also available. 40351 SW 192nd Ave., Homestead, (305) 247-2628.
Everglades Holiday Park: This South Florida destination features airboat tours and up-close 45-minute animal encounter photo ops with alligators, turtles, snakes and mammals. For $33.99 for adults or $21.99 for kids ages 3 to 11, you’ll get a one-hour airboat ride, admission to the Gator Boys Alligator Rescue show, professional group airboat photo and group photo op with an alligator. Field trips, birthday party packages and animal encounter packages are available. 21940 Griffin Road, Fort Lauderdale, (954) 434-8111.
Everglades Swamp Tours: Embark on a tour of the southern Everglades, with prices starting at $50 for adults or $25 for children ages 6 to 12 for an hourlong group tour. Longer and private tours are available. Or if airboats aren’t your jam, you can rent a tandem kayak from the company for $30 for the first hour and $20 for each additional hour. Broward County Rest Area on I-75 N Mile Marker 35, Fort Lauderdale, (305) 849-0135.
Kissimmee Swamp Tours: This tour operates out of Middleton’s Fish Camp Too and Campground on Lake Kissimmee, so unlike many Central Florida airboat companies, it’s untouched by urban sprawl. Keep your eyes peeled for whooping cranes, deer, wild pigs and more. Choose from a 60-minute tour ($49 adults, $35 kids) or 90-minute tour ($64 adults, $44 kids). Mention the website for a discount of $4 per person. Children 3 and under ride for free.
Peace River Charters: About 50 miles east of Sarasota is Arcadia, where you can enjoy an airboat ride along 20 miles of the Peace River. One-hour airboat tours cost $45 for adults and $29 for children 10 and under; half-day charters start at $400. In addition, activities include swamp buggy tours, horseback riding excursions, overnight camping, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, fossil hunting and more. 4192 SW Adventure Way, Arcadia, (863) 444-0693.
Sawgrass Recreation Park: Experience wildlife up close and from afar at this company that operates airboats and features exhibits of rescued animals. Be sure to get a photo op with a baby gator. General admission includes a 30-minute airboat ride, ear protection and entry into the zoo area; prices start at $22.95 or $12.95 for kids ages 4 to 12; kids 3 and under get in free. Nighttime excursions, souvenir and food packages and Florida resident annual passes are available. 1006 N US-27, Weston, (954) 389-0202.
Sea Serpent Tours: Explore the wild side of North Florida, for a change, during an airboat tour along the St. Johns River, Trout Creek and Six Mile Creek. Keep an eye out for alligators, turtles, manatees and more. An hourlong tour costs $74.95 per person on the 15-passenger Sea Dragon airboat or $99.95 per person on the six-passenger Sea Serpent airboat. Excursions via pontoon, kayak, paddleboard and more are also available. 6550 FL-13 N, St. Augustine, (904) 495-4200.
Spirit of the Swamp Airboat Rides: Experience the scenery of the Central Florida Everglades in an intimate setting with this tour company that offers private rides for groups of four or more. One hour $49.95 adults or $44.95 children 10 and under, 90 minutes $60 adults or $60 children, two hours $85 adults or $80 children. 2830 Neptune Road, Kissimmee, (321) 689-6893.
Tigertail Airboat Tours: Located on the Miccosukee reservation and operated by a Native American family, Tigertail is one of only a handful of companies allowed to drive airboats through Water Conservation Area 3-A. There are three tour options: 40 minutes for $35 per person, one hour for $60 per person or two hours for $85 per person. There’s no exact address, but the office is approximately 1 mile east of Shark Valley Visitors Center. (305) 439-2745.
Wild Florida: Part airboat company, part adventure park, this Central Florida showcases the headwaters of the Everglades in tours starting at $30.50 adults $27.50 children 12 and under for a 30-minute ride. Private tours, nighttime excursions and annual passes are available. But airboat rides aren’t the only attraction. The park also offers a drive-through safari, animal shows and encounters, a petting zoo, Chomp House Grill and more. Prices vary per attraction; combination packages are available. 3301 Lake Cypress Road, Kenansville, (407) 957-3135.
What to Bring
Ear protection: Airboats can reach noise levels upwards of 100 decibels. “It is definitely loud. For that reason, we do supply our customers with hearing protection,” said Jack Blanco, tour guide at Coopertown Airboats. If your tour company of choice doesn’t provide protection, bring earplugs or protective muffs, especially for children.
Wind protection: “It also is windy,” Blanco noted. “It’ll make a hot day feel a little cooler or a cold day feel colder.” Airboats cruise around 35 miles per hour, and with nothing shielding you from the wind, consider tying a jacket around your waist in case you get chilly. In addition, sunglasses can double as wind protection for your eyes. And guests with long tresses should bring a hair tie.
Sensible shoes: You’ll be walking on a slippery dock to get to the boat.
Bug spray: Insect repellant will help keep pests away when the boat is drifting. But once the boat takes off, you’ll leave mosquitoes in the dust. “If you can find a mosquito that flies at 35 miles per hour, you let me know,” Blanco joked.
Where to Eat
After the adrenaline rush of an airboat ride, you’ll have worked up quite an appetite. Some airboat companies, such as Coopertown, feature on-site restaurants. And you can’t go wrong with one of these tried-and-true Everglades eateries.
Camellia Street Grill: This no-fuss spot offers seafood, salads and housemade sangria. Order at the counter, and enjoy your meal on the waterfront patio. 202 Camellia St. W, Everglades City, (239) 695-2003.
City Seafood Restaurant and Market: Nosh on freshly caught stone crabs, oyster po’boys or a basket of frog legs at this waterfront breakfast-and-lunch spot. Be sure to hit up the on-site market to purchase take-home grouper, scallops, shrimp and more. Load up your cooler or have your seafood shipped home for a taste of the Everglades wherever you live. City Seafood 702 Begonia St., Everglades City, (239) 695-4700.
Rod & Gun Club: Filled with crystal chandeliers and original furniture from the Gilded Age, the main house of this lodge overlooking the Barron River feels like a time capsule. The menu comprises Florida classics like stone crab, swamp ‘n turf (frog legs with steak) and Key lime pie. Even the payment methods are from a bygone era: Only cash and personal checks are accepted. 200 W Broadway, Everglades City, (239) 695-2101.
Robert Is Here: Robert Moehling’s produce stand is more than a grocery stop. It’s an institution. Located near the main entrance of Everglades National Park, the stand is renown with everyone from local bicyclers to tourists for its hundreds of exotic fruits and veggies. Save room for a key lime milkshake. 19200 SW 344th St., Homestead, (305) 246-1592.
Joanie’s Blue Crab Cafe: Just a quarter-mile east of the nation’s smallest post office is this fire engine red building serving up gator nuggets, chicken wings, Native American-style frybread and vegan chili—a rarity in the seafood-heavy Everglades. Hours are spotty, so call before you go. 39395 Tamiami Trail E, Ochopee, (239) 695-2682.
More Activities Nearby
Ochopee Post Office: What’s almost as small as a postage stamp and much more fun? The nation’s smallest post office. Around 60 square feet, the building is tiny in size (there’s not even a bathroom) but a big hit with tourists seeking the novelty of mailing a postcard from the 34141 ZIP Code. 38000 Tamiami Trail E, Ochopee, (239) 695-2099.
Shark Valley Tours: To take in the beauty of the Everglades without the rushing wind, take an educational tour on a tram that’s quieter and slower (just 15 miles per hour) than an airboat. Another option is a self-guided bicycle tour along the 15-mile paved road; bring your own wheels or rent a bike from Shark Valley Tram tours. Baskets, helmets and children’s bikes are provided. Shark Valley Loop Road, Miami, (305) 221-8455.
Big Cypress Gallery: Experience the simplicity and splendor of the Everglades through the black and white nature photography of Clyde Butcher. If you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with a gallery-organized swamp tour or a lecture by Clyde himself. 52388 Tamiami Trail, Ochopee, (239) 695-2428.
Oasis Visitor Center: What was once a 1960s-era airport hanger and restaurant is now the official visitor center for Big Cypress National Preserve. Check out the educational film and exhibits, get your questions answered by staff and explore changing art exhibitions and artist demonstrations. 52105 Tamiami Trail E, Ochopee, (239) 695-4111.
More things to do: From bicycling to birdwatching, geocaching to slogging, the National Park Service suggests plenty of ways to explore the Everglades.
Where to Stay
Ivey House: Built in 1929, the inn features 18 charming guest rooms, wifi, free breakfast and a screened-in swimming pool. Ivey House is also home to Everglades Adventures, offering guided paddle tours, canoe and kayak rentals. 605 Buckner Ave N, Everglades City, 877-567-0679.
Homestead: If you’d prefer a larger hotel, then staying in Homestead is your best bet. This city in Miami-Dade County is just 10 miles east of Everglades National Park.
Campground: If you’re into no-frills camping—not glamping— then bring your RV or pitch your tent in a drive-in campground or backcountry campsite. For reservations, call Everglades Guest Services at 1-855-708-2207.
Why the Everglades Matter
In 1947—the year Florida’s Everglades became a national park—conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote, "There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known.”
Indeed, the 1.5 million acres of sawgrass marshes, mangrove canopies and spellbinding wildlife remain a mystery. In spite of, or perhaps because of that fact, generations of visitors have explored this crown jewel of Florida.
With nearly 700 miles of beaches, the Sunshine State has no shortage of natural beauty. But the Everglades are Florida’s pièce de résistance, a one-of-a-kind ecosystem that has enchanted mankind for thousands of years.
During the dedication of Everglades National Park on Dec. 6, 1947, President Harry Truman called the Everglades “an irreplaceable primitive area.”
Often misidentified as a swamp, the slow-moving river that comprises the Everglades is one of the world’s largest wetlands. Its nine distinct habitats accommodate delicate fauna like manatees, Florida panthers and more than 300 species of birds. And it’s the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles naturally coexist.
So it’s no wonder Floridians and visitors feel a passionate urge to protect the Everglades. But for Native Americans, the land holds even greater significance. There’s evidence that Calusa Indians inhabited the southern tip of Florida for centuries before Spanish settlers began arriving in 1513. During the Seminole Wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, the deepest, darkest corners of the Everglades became a refuge for the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians.
“They knew how to survive out here, so they went deeper into the Everglades,” notes Miccosukee descendant Alex Tigertail, manager of Tigertail Airboat Tours. “The [American] soldiers back then couldn’t survive in the Everglades.”
But if you find an experienced, cautious airboat driver and obey safety rules, Tigertail said, you’ll do more than survive the adventure. You’ll enjoy the ride of your life.