You could visit South Florida without paying homage to the Everglades, but why would you want to? And paying proper homage to the Florida Everglades requires an airboat ride.
In Fort Lauderdale, there are several airboat options. We tried the two closest to town: Everglades Holiday Park and Sawgrass Recreation Park.
They couldn’t have been more different–in approach, in boat style, even in Everglades “facts.” (Captain Rick said the Everglades is a river that is 50 miles wide and 100 miles long; Captain Paul said it’s 70 miles wide and 100 miles long.)
Choosing which one is right for your family vacation requires deciding whether you want more wind-in-your-hair exhilaration or more Everglades education with a few bursts of speedy exhilaration peppered here and there.
Everglades Holiday Park
This is home to a couple of “The Gator Boys” from that Animal Planet show that features such tricks as one of the boys putting his head in the mouth of a gator–and the gator biting down.
Our guide, Captain Rick, had his schtick down pat. He shared stories of coming to the Everglades with his grandfather at age 6. Grandpa called the Everglades his “backyard,” a name that Rick uses today. Similarly, he has his own names for other Everglades features–mosquitos are vampires while the sun is the “vampire protector.”
Rick is something of a “gator whisperer” who pulls his airboat up close to gators he calls by name. He shares his gator lore and clearly displays a love of the Everglades. While it’s hard to know if his “facts” are just that, his stories are entertaining.
He told great stories during our 75-minute airboat tour (15 minutes longer than the expected hour-long tour), but none better than the heart-breaking story of the poor alligator who lost a leg to a vindictive boater who seemed to aim for her. Rick says he saved her with the help of the tourists on his airboat that day, one of whom was a nurse from Sweden. We met the gator. She seemed happy enough to have Rick nearby.
The only downside of an airboat tour via the Everglades Holiday Park is that there was more talking than airboating. I was expecting an open-air, wind-in-your-hair ride through the Evergaldes. But the Everglades Holiday Park airboats are covered on top and open only on the sides. While being in the shade was something of a blessing on a hot summer day, it didn’t feel like a real airboat ride.
Sawgrass Recreation Park
This has the open air airboat ride I was expecting.
Our 30-minute airboat ride was swift and invigorating, although less appreciative of nature. Captain Paul stopped a couple of times to give us a front-row seat to the alligators living in the area, but he seemed to have less of a personal relationship with these gators. It’s not likely something I would have noticed if we haven’t stopped first for an airboat ride with Captain Rick.
Why You Should Try Both Everglades Experiences
The two airboat rides are only a few miles apart, but they showcase two very different parts of the Everglades. Everglades Holiday Park has the lily pads and brilliant yellow blooms of the spatterdock while Sawgrass has the tall, spindly sea grass growing in the water. As we ran the airboat over the terrain at 30 miles per hour, it was almost as if we were flying over a flooded prairie.
We sat in the front row and loved it, all the time bearing in mind Captain Paul’s warning that the front row acts as the wind break. We tried not to smile too broadly lest we catch bugs with our teeth.
Several tourists boarded with little ones. Two of the three seemed to be having a very good time as the boat skimmed across the water. But one was beyond unhappy and tried regularly to eject himself from the boat, much to his mom’s unhappiness.
Note: Neither Everglades Holiday Park nor Sawgrass Recreation Park is easy to find via modern methods. Plugging their addresses into the car’s navigation system didn’t work. If you plan to visit, consult a map. Once you get to I-75 and US 27, it’s easy to find both.
Check out these tips for getting the most out of your airboat ride through the Everglades.