As the sole female in my traveling posse, keeping the adventure alive for my very lively lads and their dad can be a challenge. Everyone loves the amusement parks and the rides. Zoo animals and character breakfasts delight. Even a walk on the beach will keep them happy. For a while. Then, as boy moms the world around know, when bored, boys (even grown boys) will find things to amuse themselves. When you’re staying at The Grand Floridian or the Four Seasons, you don’t want your clan to turn into Mowgli, Tarzan, or even well-intended Olaf. In order to keep them in check, I plan some adventures into our itinerary reminiscent of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I pack in the adventure and bring the rural charm to even our biggest city adventures. Never was this so true as the time we found adventure in the swamps of Florida, just a short drive from our buzzing Orlando base camp.
Something in the Air(boat)
When we went to Florida, it was a very big undertaking to try to cram what seemed like a lifetime of fun in the sun into just ten days. Those days included work, play, ocean, SeaWorld, Disney and more. We really tried to do it all. Since we didn’t bother with non-resident fishing licenses, I had to think of a different way to get my outdoorsy husband and son a thrill-seeking fix appropriate for our family.
An airboat ride seemed just the ticket. After all, my husband and I have a history with airboats.
Early in our dating, the two of us decided to take an impromptu ride. We drove our lime green Prius, a rental, past orange trees lousy with fruits never to become ripe. A recent unseasonable freeze due to cooler weather we were experiencing. Still warmer than the Midwest, from which we were escaping in February, but chilly nonetheless!
With our downtime and wanting to escape the traffic of Orlando, we chose to seek out an airboat ride. We didn’t plan well or much in advance for this adventure. When we finally found the airboat tour operator shack, we arrived in time for the last tour…without jackets. The captain offered us a few company jackets to borrow. Mine was embroidered with a man’s name. I can’t remember if it was “Bob” or “Harry,” but that doesn’t matter. Whatever the name, I was grateful that he left his jacket in the boat. I may have frozen to death without it!
With commandeered jackets zipped and donning ear muffs (for noise and added wind protection as a bonus!), we set off down the dock. We passed a raccoon as we walked to the airboat. Since even the events leading up to the ride were unique, all the details stuck in our minds. It was an experience we knew we’d want to repeat later in life with our kids.
Spirit of the Swamp
Finally, years later, we’d again hit the Florida swamps, this time with kids in tow. I thought an adventure in the swamp via airboat and a chance to learn and bond would be enjoyable for all ages. Our kids love all things nature-related and were quick to identify the alligators, kites, and egrets as he spied them. Something about gliding along with balmy, brackish smells on the breeze sets the spirit free and is just what my gang needed.
It important to remember, with many things, you get what you pay for. Not all airboat tours are created equal. Spirit of the Swamp was ideal in location and what it had to offer.
We do not use a Tom Tom or navigational device or smartphone in our roving across America, so Spirit of the Swamp was a little hard to find. A small sign in a park-like area was our only indicator that we were indeed in the right place. It’s just a hop and skip from Orlando, but far enough that we felt we were deep in the everglades or characters in a Carl Hiaasen novel.
The airboats at Spirit of the Swamp hold six people (not like the crazy double decker 20 person jalopies that other companies run). This is a much more intimate experience and definitely the way to go for a smaller family. It’s also great for introducing a child to an experiential learning adventure! He won’t have to try to stand on the seat and teeter above wild gators to see over the man with the ten gallon hat! Everyone has the VIP seats.
They offer 90 minute and two-hour tours. Which for kids under five, the 90 minute excursion was PERFECT. It was enough to get our feet wet (metaphorically, we did stay remarkably dry throughout) and yet we were able to transition easily to naps and meals and get on with more adventures without having to shuffle our beloved schedule, as dictated by our little munchkins!
The airboat would just get on-step and our son would have another question. Thankfully, we were the only people on the tour, save for one very patient older couple and our exceedingly accommodating Captain.
This cycle of taking off, some tidbit or morsel tinkling at my son’s grey matter and inciting a question, and the Captain slowing down to allow for easy hearing through all the headsets seemed like it would never end. The headsets don’t only block out a lot of the noise of the airboat itself. They also connect passengers to each other and the captain, which is unique to Spirit of the Swamp tours.
Lake Tohopekaliga seemed to go for miles and miles and the gators popped up one after another as we snaked through the trails of water perfectly plowed through tall grasses.
…And More Questions
I’d never heard so many questions spew forth from our preschooler — not even in the “Why?” phase of toddlerhood! Undeterred, boat Captain Lynn did her best to answer each and every one. As a result, we did a lot of stop and start for the first half hour. She was sure to point out the moorhens, osprey, snail kite, heron, and egrets as we zipped along in our airboat. We saw gators and snakes and a ton of birds. Most noteworthy of all was seeing this otherwise foreign ecosystem coming to life for our family. It bringing rural Florida to the forefront of our vacation, while not far from Orlando and Walt Disney World!
Ninety minutes was enough to see the vast expanses of grasses, water and the sunset splashed horizon. Never would I have believed the look of pure glee in my kid’s eye would come from a natural, wild experience like this one, instead of some alligator wrestling animal park with lots of entertainment built-in. This was a moment that made my heart swoon. It isn’t often Mother Nature can win over screens and lights and bells and whistles. When it happens, it’s a big deal. Spirit of the Swamp was able to deliver!
Tips to Enjoy Airboat Rides as a Family
Make sure to bring a sweatshirt or jacket, even in the deep south. It can be chilly.
Bring sunscreen! The cool breeze will fool you–you’re probably still burning!
Wear Polarized lenses — you can see critters in the water much better with the specialized lens.
Make sure you know where you’re going — many of these tour operators have super off the beaten path locations.
Don’t forget your camera — you’ll probably see a ton of wildlife and birds in additions to the gators!
Study up a bit ahead of time – familiarize with area flora and fauna with guides and nature shows.
Don’t be afraid to let the kids ask questions of the Captains.
Don’t be afraid–period. You’re not going to be eaten or fall overboard or get lost. It’s a safe and most of all, fun journey!