|Sky and water seemingly touch in the wilds of the Everglades. Everglades Holiday Park is shown. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
Nature’s drama begins instantly as you head into the Florida Everglades. Big, bold blue skies drop to the horizon, dotted with white fluffy clouds. Dark blue waters flow slowly. The ecosystem teems with alligators and birds. Sawgrass and other flora sway in the light breeze, and small hammocks are home to tropical plants and trees.
Many cruise guests staying in South Florida on a pre- or post-cruise stay head for this pristine world. It's eerily beautiful, so different than the whizzing stream of traffic and encroachment of civilization just a short distance away.
|More than six million alligators live in the Southern U.S. and Florida Peninsula, many in the Everglades. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
Journey to Eco-Adventure
A great spot for cruisers to discover a taste of the Everglades ecosystem is the 29-acre Everglades Holiday Park, located just to the west of Route 27 in western Broward County, FL. Annually, the park attracts more than 300,000 guests, and it has 181,000 Facebook fans at https://www.facebook.com/EvergladesHolidayPark
Beyond the resident gators and stunning natural beauty, the park is also the base for the “Gator Boys” alligator rescue operation, made famous across the U.S. on the Animal Planet television series. For multiple seasons, alligator trappers Paul Bedard and Jimmy Riffle have hand-captured alligators that have invaded the backyards, garages and swimming pools of South Florida.
Every 20 minutes visitors can depart Everglades Holiday Park on an airboat ride that combines several exhilarating "speed runs" with quiet reflection time for observing flora and fauna.
|Everglades Holiday Park operates airboats into the Everglades ecosystem. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
Navigating away from the dock at the park, our airboat entered canals created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These canals lead into the heart of the Everglades ecosystem.
Did you know that the Everglades is actually a slow-moving river that originates in the Kissimmee area? It's true.
|A mother Purple Gallinule bird with her brownish chick. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
On our first "speed run," we held on tight as the airboat skimmed across the water at 35 mph (per our captain). Floating on a thin layer of air, the boat glided across the water vegetation. The breeze from the fast ride felt good on a very hot day.
Everglades Holiday Park's high-capacity airboats -- a fleet of 20 -- are designed and built at the park. One big plus? They're covered -- a great perk when touring during summer, when Florida's heat and sunlight can be intense.
Other similar rides we've taken in Florida have been on open-air airboats that lack a covering. You have good views but lots of heat and wind.
In contrast, the Everglades Holiday Park boats were more comfortable in terms of the entire ride -- less sun and less wind. In addition, they'll help shelter guests from a sudden rain shower.
While our boat's Plexiglas window in the front was a bit cloudy, the "wide" views out the sides of the boat were absolutely fantastic.
Our captain was also skilled at constantly turning the vessel so those on both sides of the vessel could get up-close views and great photos of the gators or birds.
People weren't crazily hopping over one another for a good view -- instead content to sit, as they knew the boat would be turned for their chance to view the wildlife or birds.
|We spotted these yellow flowers on water vegetation in the Everglades. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
One of our initial encounters? A mother Purple Gallinule bird with three or four small chicks was hopping across the water vegetation in "Road Runner" fashion. Chuckles broke out on the airboat as the chicks hopped back and forth.
Of course, visitors on tour often see one thing and miss something else happening when it's least expected. Suddenly, a small boy behind me -- looking the other direction -- shouts, "Quick, look...." and sure enough, a gator was gliding toward our boat on the other side.
Our captain continually pointed out flora and fauna, identified the gators he saw "by name" and also provided educational tips about what we were seeing.
Did you know the U.S. South is home to six million alligators, many in Florida's Everglades?
During our fun, hour-long adventure, we spotted several more big gators, birds, a turtle and fish swimming in the shallow flats. One male gator looked particularly threatening -- apparently guarding a nest in one of the hammocks.
We also passed several boats with fishing enthusiasts who'd thrown in their lines hoping for a good catch. At one point during our airboat ride, I looked down along the side of the boat to see multiple fish swimming just below the surface among the underwater vegetation.
Majestically stoic -- and frozen as if a statue -- was a Great White Egret, just waiting for bugs to fly by. This wading bird was a treat to see in its natural habitat.
|A Great White Egret waited patiently for a snack of bugs or lizards. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
Then it was back to Everglades Holiday Park's dock, where we encountered another gator swimming just feet away. One nice perk of the airboat ride experience is that guests -- prior to boarding -- have their photo taken. So that complimentary 6" by 10" photo is waiting at the end of the ride. Additional photos can be purchased.
If you do go on the airboat, here are a few things to know. Bring your own ear buds (for hearing protection) if that's important to you during the "speed runs" when the captain revs up the airboat's powerful engines and zig zags across the water and vegetation.
Also worth mentioning is that it's not possible to roll a wheelchair onto the airboats. The park will fold up the wheelchair, put it in the boat, and then park staff will "lift" guests into the boat. Everyone sits on long benches for the Everglades airboat experience.
All guests on an airboat tour are encouraged to attend the alligator show put on by volunteers with the Gator Boys rescue group. The show itself was modest but it had interesting content, a humorous host and up-close gator views.
I looked around to observe the tourists -- from Germany, China and North American destinations -- highly engaged and interested. Kids hugged the chain link fence with gators just on the other side.
The volunteer host demonstrated how gators are handled and a few tricks. While tips were not expected, they certainly were appreciated. Those putting on the shows from the Gator Boys rescue operation are volunteers.
|Ian, a Gator Boys volunteer, ran the alligator show demonstration. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
While we enjoyed the show, the alligator show venue needs modernizing, so we were happy to hear that's coming later this year. A new approved capital improvement project will soon give visitors a new bleacher-style amphitheater to enjoy the show.
It will accommodate 225 to 250 people and will be fully ADA compliant with wheelchair ramps and easier access for all guests (avoiding a steeply sloped show venue entrance one encounters now).
In November, the park will also add one new show. The popular Gator Boys alligator show will continue and a new animal encounter show will be added. You can read about that new show here: https://www.evergladesholidaypark.com/animal-encounters-everglades/
The park complex has a number of interior spaces, including a ticketing area, gift shop and general store. Visitors can buy everything from souvenir mugs and tee-shirts to Gator Boys logo items and ice cream sandwiches and drinks.
The park complex's indoor facilities are air-conditioned, providing a nice break from the heat on a hot day. A five- to seven-year capital improvement project will also update the building complex.
|Everglades Holiday Park has covered picnic tables and other verandah chairs on which which to relax. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
All in all, my "shore trip" to Everglades Holiday Park was a fun experience. I live only a few miles away yet this experience was a "world away" from typical activities within Broward County.
If you go independently, you can buy discounted tickets online at www.evergladesholidaypark.com. Adult tickets purchased online are $26.50 plus tax, $14.50 for kids 3-11. The ticket grants entry to the airboat ride, the shows and includes the free photo.
|If cruisers take a shore trip to Everglades Holiday Park and head out on an airboat ride, they might be greeted by this local resident. // Photo by Susan J. Young|
If you're more into fishing, you'll find bait, tackle and boat rentals at Everglades Holiday Park.
Many cruise groups visit Everglades Holiday Park via cruise line shore trips, VIP arrangements made by destination management companies, tour operator programs or travel agency group arrangements.
In addition, a fair number of independent visitors who have taken a cruise at either Port Everglades or PortMiami also arrive for a visit on their own. This includes many drive-market cruisers. Seated next to us on the airboat was a couple who were independently visiting after taking a Norwegian Cruise Line voyage.
Agents are encouraged to contact the park for assistance in putting together a group visit with customized arrangements. For example, the park's fleet of airboats can accommodate up to 550 people on the water at one time.
The park also has a full-service kitchen on site. Visitors -- both individuals and groups -- can get fruit smoothies, burgers, hot dogs and much more. Customized menus are available for tour operator groups, for example. Two paved parking lots accommodate both cars and tour buses.
Will you see the stars of the Gator Boys show on site? We didn't during our visit, but they do frequent the facility. From time to time, but not always, the answer is "yes." It's just not guaranteed. All the volunteers running the alligator show are from the Gator Boys alligator rescue operation.
A must-do activity? Just head to the front of the Everglades Holiday Park complex. Pop your head into the opening of several billboard-style mock-ups. Here's a look at mine, so you can see all the fun I had exploring the realm of the Gator Boys, Everglades Holiday Park and the adventure of nature's vast Everglades eco-system.
|Susan J. Young, our cruise editor, didn't exactly grab a gator and sling it over her shoulder, but at Everglades Holiday Park, home of the Gator Boys and a great way to experience an Everglades airboat ride, it's fun to dream.|