By Susan and Simon Veness
Two weeks in the theme parks is like eating cheesecake for dinner every night. Fantastic for 3 or 4 days in a row, but then you need a little something to break up the intensity. A gator-spotting tour with Boggy Creek Airboats the perfect answer to Orlando’s theme-park overload, and a terrific chance to see the natural side of Florida.
You don’t have to stray far off the beaten path in Orlando to find yourself in the countryside, and one of best places to stray is down Poinciana Boulevard toward Lake Tohopekaliga, situated at the headwaters of the Everglades and known to locals as Lake Toho. That’s where you’ll find Boggy Creek Airboats, a family-owned business that has been thrilling passengers with their wildlife tours since 1994, from a vast array of birdlife to alligators of all sizes.
We asked John P. Ruggeri, once an outdoorsy boy from the Bronx in New York City, to give us the inside story on his job as an airboat captain in Central Florida. John responded to an ad posted at the Sea School office in Saint Petersburg, and in 2008 he began showing visitors the natural side of Lake Toho, and his career as an airboat captain began.
What made him want to become an airboat captain? John says, “Back in 1999 I was working for Federal Express and I purchased the book, ‘The Perfect Storm’. On my day off, I picked it up at 6:00am and before I knew it I was done with it, and it was 6:30pm. That book motivated me to make a career change. I had been on boats since I was 13 and always desired to be a captain.”
With such unpredictable working conditions, John sees a lot of funny things. “Just a few weeks ago I had a family from Make A Wish on my boat. They were in the front row and all was good. I was navigating through a flock of coots, which are small duck-like birds, when one of them miscalculated its flight path and landed right in the front row! The family went hysterical laughing. It happens. Another time, at our East Lake Fish Camp location, I had a full boat and was cruising through the normal tour when all of a sudden the whole back row went nuts. Everyone was lifting their feet and moving towards the right side. I stopped the boat only to find out that during the controlled slide along the water that captains do to give guests a thrill, a small bass jumped into the back row.”
John shared his secret to knowing where to find the gators, especially in different weather or seasonal conditions. “You have to know what to look for. Sometimes the most subtle signs are missed, like grass flattened out in a certain area or nest locations during the summer time. Water levels are a big factor. The higher the water, the deeper into the brush gators can hide. Also, we are a cohesive team and we network and share information amongst ourselves.”
When he is out on a tour, what is the question he’s most often asked by guests? If you’ve ever been on an airboat ride, you probably already know the answer. In fact, you may have asked the question yourself. If you haven’t been on an airboat ride, it’s probably the question you’d ask the first time you try it. “The first question is always the same: “Will we see any gators?” My answer is always the same: maybe. I always try my best on every ride, but sometimes the gators are just stubborn.”
What’s the best thing about being an airboat captain? “Everything,” John said. “There’s no better feeling!” From a guest perspective, there’s no better feeling that flying across the lake with the wind in your hair, and when the captain slows the boat down and comes to a standstill in front of a nest of baby gators or a big fat adult gator with nothing but its eyes peering at you from above the water, it’s a genuine thrill and a real gift.
We’ve toured with Boggy Creek Airboats time and again over the years, and every ride is different. From the natural beauty of a thunderstorm developing on the horizon with lightning crackling in the distance, to the piercing red glow of the gators’ eyes during a night-time ride, to the immense joy of watching children discover a magical world where the animals are real and the frogs don’t turn into Princes if you kiss them.
If you’ve toured with Boggy Creek Airboats at their Southport Park (Lake Toho) location before, make a day of it and head out to East Lake Fish Camp, on Fish Camp Road just off of Big Bass Road, a mere 10 minutes from Orlando International Airport. Different lake, different experience, with the added attraction of a homestyle restaurant for a hearty breakfast or lunch. And when you check in for your ride, tell ‘em Simon and Susan say hello!
ASK SIMON AND SUSAN
Nichole Canty asks: I’m planning ahead for October and want to know what age is appropriate for taking children to Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando.
Simon and Susan say: It depends on the child, but we think age 15 or 16 is a good time to give it a try. The event is extremely intense, very gory, and it’s worth taking the word ‘horror’ seriously. Halloween Horror Nights is one of our favourite seasonal events, but it certainly isn’t for the timid, or for young children. There’s a reason why Universal doesn’t offer children’s pricing for the event! That said, you know your children best. If they absolutely revel in the macabre, aren’t put off by lots of (fake) blood, and understand it’s all make-believe, they may be fine at age 13 or so. But realistically, it’s not ideal for pre-teens. Enjoy! It’s a fantastic evening of terrifying fun!
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