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 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.
Creatures from birds and turtles to deer and yes, alligators, will likely peek out to see who or what has caused all the ruckus.
“It’s very rare, but if you’re a lucky group, you might get to see river otters,” Miccosukee descendant Alex Tigertail, manager of Tigertail Airboat Tours, 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.”
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.
Take a Ride
Ready to catch some air? Check out some favorite Florida Everglades airboat tours.
Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures, Kissimmee: South Florida gets all the glory, but you can experience the wetlands and wildlife of the headwaters of the Everglades in Orlando’s backyard with Boggy Creek. The attraction is complete with a 70-foot mine, Native American village replica, and BBQ eatery.
Kissimmee Swamp Tours, Vero Beach: This tour operates out of Middleton’s Fish Camp Too 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 of course, gators.
Wild Florida, Kenansville: Part airboat company, part adventure park, Wild Florida showcases the headwaters of the Everglades on their tours, rounding out the fun with a drive-through safari, animal shows and encounters, a petting zoo, and swamp delicacies at the Chomp House Grill.
Capt. Duke’s Airboat Rides, Christmas: Capt. Duke’s invites you and your gang to climb aboard one of their private airboats for a jaunt into the Central Florida Everglades, a thrilling experience that will get you up-close and personal with alligators—and perhaps snakes, bobcats, raccoons, and bald eagles.
Wild Willy’s Airboat Tours, St. Cloud: Wild Willy’s promises their jungle isn’t concrete, but the real deal, complete with enormous alligators, soaring Bald Eagles and the endangered snail kite. Glide across the headwaters of the Everglades in their high-performance airboats on their highly acclaimed, educational tours; afterwards, pose for a picture with one of their resident gators.
Spirit of the Swamp Airboat Rides, Kissimmee: Remember your camera when you go for a spin in the gloriously wild Central Florida Everglades with this tour company that offers private, intimate tours for groups of four or more.
South Florida, Eastern Region
Coopertown Airboats, Miami: Blast through nine miles of sawgrass and hardwood hammocks with the occasional stop at an alligator hole. After your adventure, refuel on gator tail and frog legs at their sit-down restaurant.
Everglades Alligator Farm, Homestead: A heart-stopping 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.
Everglades Holiday Park, Fort Lauderdale: This South Florida destination features airboat tours as well as kissing-close photo ops with alligators, turtles, snakes and mammals. Don’t miss the utterly unforgettable, spine-tingling Gator Boys Alligator Rescue show.
Everglades Swamp Tours, Fort Lauderdale: Explore the Everglades on a private or group tour with Swamp Tours’ experienced guides to get an insider’s glimpse of the River of Grass.
Tigertail Airboat Tours, Miami: Located on the Miccosukee reservation and operated by a Native American family, you’re guaranteed to get a blockbuster trip with Tigertail, one of only a handful of companies allowed to drive airboats through Water Conservation Area 3-A, deep in the heart of the Everglades.
Sawgrass Recreation Park, Weston: 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. Nighttime excursions, souvenir and food packages are available.
South Florida, Western Region
Corey Billie's Airboat Rides, Naples: Journey into a 200-acre preserve for a tour that’s “one part education and two parts fun” with native Floridian guides.
Jungle Erv's Airboat Tours, Everglades City: This company’s small airboats are ideal for winding under the mangrove tree canopies on an Everglades expedition. While you’re there, kick back on the Everglades City Boardwalk; hold your breath watching a live alligator show; and visit the Animal Sanctuary.
Speedy's Airboat Tours, Everglades City: With a maximum of six passengers on each of their airboats and access to a private section of the Florida Everglades, Speedy’s is dedicated to giving you the trip of a lifetime.
Wooten's Everglades Airboat Tour, Ochopee: Airboat Tours! Swamp Buggy Rides! Alligator Shows! An animal sanctuary! Wooten’s offers them all and more. Make sure to watch the Live Alligator Show, where you can hug your own alligator.
Everglades City Airboat Tours, Everglades City: Everglades Airboat Tours promises a thrilling journey on a twisted path through mangrove tunnels. Their tours are small and personal—just the way they were when this family-owned business began in 1982.
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.
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