Take a thrilling airboat tour of Lake Toho in Kissimmee, the headwaters of the Florida Everglades.
There's nothing like returning from a Florida vacay and being able to brag about your eyeball-to-beady-eyeball encounter with Florida's most famous celebrity: the American alligator. You know, the toothy, 500-pound male who lunged at you the moment you locked eyes.
OK, while the details may be largely exaggerated, the fact that you did see a gator in the wild, albeit from a distance in the safety of a sturdy airboat with a seasoned captain at the ready, is 100 percent accurate.
So, as I stepped into an airboat at Lake Tohopekaliga (Lake Toho, for short) on a balmy February afternoon, I had high hopes of spotting some of the aforementioned reptilians.
"So, how often do you see gators," I asked the captain of Boggy Creek Airboat Rides.
"Sometimes we see several, sometimes none," he said.
My fingers were crossed as we hightailed it through a mess of 8-foot-tall saw grass and cattails. At speeds up to 40 mph, my eyes teared up and my hair whipped in the wind. We skidded in one direction and then the other, skimming the top of the water. Loads of ducks and waterfowl scattered in the swampland surrounding us, and I was beaming from ear to ear.
The sun was shining. The birds were chirping. And, then it happened.
The boat came to a stop; all of the passengers took their headphones off. About 15 feet away was our first gator. Score! About nine feet long, the beautiful, prehistoric-looking creature didn't move a muscle. And, as far as I could tell, he only blinked once.
After gawking at it for a good five minutes our guide fired up the twin-engines, we all put our headphones back on, and we glided across the water to another alcove. Before another five minutes passed, we spotted gator number two, a much larger one.
"Is that the type of bird they'd go after?" I asked, pointing to an Anhinga water bird resting on a downed tree limb.
"Yes," he confirmed.
With that, I hoped the beautiful bird with the graceful neck would make a beeline for the treetops. He sat dangerously close to the dangerous predator. At the same time, I thought, wow, it could be very cool to witness a feeding. It is the circle of life, after all.
My eyes were peeled, but the plump gator did not make move until we took off. In the distance I saw him slowly leave his lounging spot on the shore and head underwater.
Granted, I have lived in Florida for more than 20 years, so I've seen my share of gators via kayak, canoe and boat. In fact, any time I'm out on the water, I know I'm not alone. Gators are typically lurking somewhere nearby. Although they are plentiful, it never gets old to encounter one in person (from a safe distance, of course).
I'd sign up for an airboat ride in Kissimmee any day because you never know what you're gonna get. One thing's for certain, though: As long as it's a good-weather day (we are the Sunshine State, so your chances are good), you will soak up some really enjoyable outdoorsy time. And chance are, you'll be beaming from ear to ear just like I was.