By ATD’s Florida experts Susan and Simon Veness
Visitors to Central Florida may think of Mickey first, but they typically think of alligators second, and seeing them in their natural environment is indeed a five-star thrill. Being up close to one of these mysterious monsters, their beady eyes peering out at you just inches above the water, is even better.
And you can get this experience with an airboat ride, one of the Sunshine State’s unexpected gems. Not only is it exhilarating, it is also a great way to get up-close with the local wildlife, and nobody does it better than Boggy Creek Airboat Rides.
Margie and Chris Long are the pioneers in airboat rides in Orlando, and, more than one million guests later, their tours are a major attraction here. Located at the headwaters to the world-famous Florida Everglades, family-owned Boggy Creek began in 1994 with just one boat. Margie handled the admin while her husband Chris took visitors for a thrilling ride across East Lake Tohopekaliga, just off of Big Bass Road in Kissimmee. In 1996 they expanded to include a second location on Lake Tohopekaliga in Kissimmee (want to sound like a local? Call it Lake Toho), for a total of eight 17 passenger boats and four 6-passenger private-tour boats, and guests have been making their gator-spotting dreams come true ever since.
All of Boggy Creek’s captains are U.S. Coast Guard Master Captains, which is good to know from a safety standpoint, but more than that, they have a knack for finding wildlife, they know the history of the lake, the area, and the Florida Cracker (the original cowboys, even before Texas took over that claim to fame), and they know how to swing an airboat around just-so, giving riders a light, cooling sprinkle when it’s hot outside.
So what are your ride choices? First, there is the standard 30-minute Scenic Nature Tour (no reservations required, but we suggest weekdays over weekends to avoid any waits), and we think they’re an excellent choice for a morning ride, perhaps visiting Gatorland or doing a bit of shopping in the afternoon. The gators are easier to spot early in the day as they can often be found sunning themselves on the banks of the lake, warming up after the coolness of night (or all afternoon in the winter months). But don’t worry if you’re not an early-bird; you’re still likely to spot them in the water at any time of day. While it is possible you won’t see a gator (it’s nature, so it’s not on-call!), we’ve toured with Boggy Creek countless times and in all seasons and have never come away from a ride without having seen one.
Want something longer? We like the One-Hour Scenic Nature Tour to see more of the lake, and we’re big fans of the 45-Minute Swamp Excursion at Southport Park, which takes riders into remote areas branching off of the lake for even more opportunities to see wildlife. You can also book private tours by calling in advance.
And, if you’ve done a daytime ride before, we highly recommend booking the One Hour Night Tour. There is nothing quite like being on the lake in the dark (your captain wears a miner’s hat with a light, so don’t worry; it’s not scary-dark!), with the sounds of the swamp all around you and the occasional summertime heat lightning in the distance. Gator spotting becomes a whole new sport at night, too, and even the youngest children get a real kick out of watching as the captain’s lamplight hits the gators’ eyes, making them glow an eerie red. It’s heart-poundingly spooky, in the best possible way! We absolutely love night rides, especially with first-timers and kids. It really is an experience you’ll never forget. Reservations are required for the One-Hour Scenic tours at both locations, and for the One Hour Night Tour at Southport Park.
What can you expect to see during your tour? It depends on the time of day and the season, of course, but it’s common to see cranes, ospreys, ibis, herons, anhingas, and maybe an eagle or two, along with deer, turtles and alligators. Gators are more reclusive in summertime (which is where your captain’s expertise comes in), but spend a fair bit of the day sunning on the shore when it’s cooler, so don’t rule out a ride when it’s chilly. Just be sure to dress warmly in winter because you’re going to be skimming across the lake at up to 45mph!
A visit to Boggy Creek’s original location at East Lake Fish Camp (30 minutes from Disney) is a different experience altogether, both in terms of the lake and opportunities for seeing wildlife. Here you’ll also find a rustic-style restaurant serving up such oddities as fried gator nuggets, catfish and frog’s legs, along with more familiar fare of burgers, soups, sandwiches, pasta, steaks, pizza and salads. Want to brag to your friends that you tried a seriously Southern meal? Pair up the gator nuggets with a side of cheese grits and a glass of sweet tea or an ice-cold Budweiser beer. You’ll be saying ‘ya’ll’ and ‘yee haw’ in no time!
But don’t just take our word for it. Gary from Scotland told us: “It was a brilliant experience. I couldn’t believe how secluded it felt and how close we got to the wildlife. Our family got a really good taste of Florida and didn’t have to drive far to experience it. I would definitely do Boggy Creek Airboats again.”
East Lake Fish Camp is just 10 minutes from Orlando International Airport (40 from Sanford Airport) making it an excellent ‘final hurrah’ on the last day of your Florida holiday. Your hair will get blown around (don’t bother with a hat; you may never see it again), so bring a hairbrush and you’ll be show-ready for your return flight home.
Boggy Creek Airboat Rides are located at 3705 Big Bass Road in Kissimmee (their East Lake Fish Camp location) or at 2001 E. Southport Road in Kissimmee, just 45 minutes from the main tourist areas (as opposed to a nearly 8-hour round trip to the Everglades). Don’t have a hire car? No problem! Attraction Tickets Direct offers ride-only and tours that include transportation.
Attraction Tickets Direct are currently giving you the chance to experience a thirty minute Boggy Creek Airboat Ride for free when you purchase your 2014 Disney tickets with us! Read more about this amazing Orlando Airboat Ride special offer...