By Gary McKechnie
It doesn’t seem normal when you’re on a boat that’s blasting its way across the water and, with seemingly solid land dead ahead, the boat never pauses, never hesitates, never swerves. Instead, the man at the controls maintains a steady clip and then flies over whatever’s in your path. No, it’s not quite normal. But it is incredibly exciting. When you’re on an airboat, you’re on an extraordinary vehicle that can navigate places where normal watercraft can’t go. There is no engine dragging behind it, so you can race through fields of water hyacinths. It’s stealthy enough to creep into dense swamps, but powered by a massive propeller it can also fly flat-out across wide-open lakes. An airboat is versatile and packed with excitement. Best of all, because airboat tours are found all across the state, you can travel far off the beaten path and see Florida as it was when residents were still paddling dugout canoes into the backwaters. Before you go, be sure to call ahead for specific directions — airboat tours are often at remote locations. Also, ask about prices, tour times, reservations, and duration of the ride. And be sure look for discounts in tourist publications and check their websites for online savings. Here are four airboat excursions I’ve enjoyed, followed by a list of others around the state.
8199 State Road 520, Cocoa, (321) 632-4199 www.twisterairboatrides.com
My first airboat ride began with the captain breezing under elevated Highway 520 before hitting the gas and launching a winding tour of the St. Johns River. Anticipating a tranquil excursion, the adrenalin leapt as he flew down a narrow avenue of water, slaloming around corners choked with water hyacinths and sliding up to muddy banks to point out lazy alligators. By breaking our ties with civilization, he had delivered us into an incredibly different setting where, miles from anywhere it seemed, we’d round a corner to see stray cattle had waded into the water and reeds. It was like sailing into a painting by the Florida Highwaymen.
Afterward, I found a way to continue this Old Florida experience. Since the airboats dock at the Cracker-style Lone Cabbage restaurant, I settled into a booth and, overlooking the St. Johns River, placed my order: gator tail and frog legs.
30000 Gator Tail Trail, Clewiston, (800) GO-SAFARI www.billieswamp.com
Clewiston is as remote a location as anywhere in Florida. But head 40 miles south from here to the Big Cypress Reservation’s Billie Swamp Safari and you’ll find yourself in a whole new world. With the surrounding Everglades keeping malls and highways at bay, there’s a peaceful Old Florida feeling here and an airboat ride is the best way to experience it. As you ride into the swampy setting and see egrets and herons, water buffalo and wild horses, you can’t help but think of the unconquered Seminoles who, to protect their heritage, fled from pursuing soldiers and sought shelter here. Speeding across the water and then shutting off the engine, the captain drifted close to a stand of trees filled with hundreds of egrets. Gliding into a narrow channel, it felt as quiet and still as it must have been in the 1500s.
Not only did the airboat ride allow me to witness this setting, the overall adventure made this experience unforgettable. From seeing two Florida panthers on the roadway to watching a brave Seminole wrestle an alligator to dining at the Swamp Water Café, and from taking a swamp buggy tour to visiting find the Smithsonian-affiliated Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and wrapping it up with an overnight stay in a chickee hut, Billie Swamp Safari is pure, undiluted Florida.
2001 E. Southport Road or 3702 Big Bass Road, Kissimmee (877) 304-3239 www.bcairboats.com
Had you been hanging out with friends in Kissimmee in the early 1960s, chances are you’d have been discussing cattle and fishing and rodeos and why some ranchers were selling thousands of acres of scrub pine to folks from California. Although Walt Disney would change Kissimmee forever, not everyone got the message – especially the folks at Boggy Creek Airboats. Each day, they’re still introducing guests from around the world to what Kissimmee looked like when Cracker cowboys were wrangling cattle near the waters of Lake Tohopekaliga. With two locations to choose from, I headed to the more remote Southport location. On a simple shoreline excursion, we sailed past cattle and great blue herons and flew over reeds and stopped for a while by an old island that once housed a pioneer family. I knew if I looked over my shoulder, just a few miles away were seven of the world’s Top Ten attractions. But here on an airboat, I was back in the world of fishing, cattle, rodeos, and Cracker cowboys. I loved the setting of Boggy Creek. It’s nice to escape to a destination where guests can rent a cane pole and fish from the dock, enjoy an old-fashioned picnic at an adjacent park, or simply enjoy Florida as it was – and still is.
12430 E. Gulf to Lake Highway (Hwy. 44), Inverness (352) 726-6060 www.wildbillsairboattour.com
Of the airboat rides I’ve taken, Wild Bill’s was the most… wild. Located eight miles east of Inverness, the setting doesn’t suggest much until you step aboard the airboat and see that your destination is the remote Withlacoochee River. When Michigan native Steve Brown was in the captain’s seat, he was in his element. After explaining what we’d see on the journey, in a flash he punched it past overhanging branches and then slid into settings invisible from nearby Highway 44. And after we cleared those narrow paths, the broad Withlacoochee presented more seldom-seen views of Florida. A few homes were scattered along its banks, a lone alligator cleaved a slow path in the middle of the river, anhingas stretched their wings, and osprey sailed overhead. An unexpected sight was the Wysong Dam that abutted by a ramp which, Brown explained, was built for airboats that can propel themselves out of the water and to the other side. We didn’t attempt it, but to demonstrate the airboat’s power, on the return trip Brown opened it up to inject a surge of pure adrenaline. A final stop? A small natural spring where we parked for several minutes and listened to a talk about the river and the nature of Florida. Paradise.
Even More Airboat Excursions
190 CR 488
4650 E. State Road 46
200 Collier Avenue
6901 Us Highway 192
929 Dupont Street
31000 Tamiami Trail East
804 Collier Avenue
621 Begonia Street
907 Dupont Street
4500 Joe Overstreet Road
3301 Lake Cypress Road
Photo by Gary McKechnie for VISITFLORIDA.com
This story first appeared on VISITFLORIDA.com