It's breathtaking. Literally. Skimming across the water at 45 mph, the spray on either side of the boat sparkling in the sun. Cruising over plants and whipping around tall grasses, spotting wildlife at nearly every turn, and all you can do is gasp, point and think about how lucky you are to see it all.
This is Wild Florida.
When you visit Kissimmee, you expect excitement. Theme parks, great restaurants, shopping, nightlife—there are a million things to do. With all those great manmade attractions, it's easy to forget there's another side of Kissimmee. The natural, wild, beautiful Kissimmee. And it's a whole different kind of thrill ride.
Our guide was Captain Dennis, who cheerfully announced, "There are no bad seats on this boat, so sit wherever you like!" My husband, Ron, my eight-year-old niece Maggie and I shuffled into the airboat. There were about 14 people along for the ride, but the padded benches were tiered so everyone could have a great view. My family chose the front row so it was just us and the water.
Everyone slipped on their headphones and the big fan behind us roared to life. Maggie looked over at me, eyes wide with what was probably a mix of nerves and excitement. Captain Dennis eased us out into the marsh and then… magic. We were flying and floating at the same time, gliding effortlessly over carpets of water plants.
Minutes into the ride, Captain Dennis turned us around and stopped the boat. I didn't even see it until he pointed it out—a nine-foot alligator, sunning itself on a flattened patch of grass. Its scales were still glistening from the water, and his mouth was open, showing off all those white—and sharp!—teeth.
He was watching us, and this struck me as odd. Then I realized the alligators you see in the zoos are so used to people they don't react to your presence. This one, living in the wild, was definitely keeping an eye out for trouble.
There’s something special about seeing an animal up close—I swore this gator and I made eye contact. I only looked away to listen to our guide let us in on some interesting alligator facts (I was shocked to learn that just 40 years ago, the American alligator was facing extinction). When we took off again, we saw several more large alligators, herons, ducks, great egrets, vultures, gorgeous boat-tailed grackles and got a close-up look at a pair of bald eagles. We even saw the unexpected (and somewhat ridiculous) spectacle of a cow standing chest-deep in the middle of the marsh with a cattle egret on his back, which made Maggie and me giggle.
As exciting as this all was, my favorite part was when we slowed down and moved from the blue water of the lake to the black water of the swamp. The entire energy changed as we drifted among tall cypress trees, curtains of silvery-grey Spanish moss waving in the wind.
As we rounded a bend, a flock of about 20 American white ibis rose up like a cloud and drifted in front of the boat. Florida is one of the few places in North America where you can see them. As they floated silently across our path and looped around to a clearing, Ron and I looked at each other, him grinning and me with my mouth hanging open thinking, "Did that really just happen?"
When the adrenaline rush of the boat ride was over, we visited Wild Florida's Wildlife and Nature Park. Admission to the park is included in the price of the airboat ride, so when we made our reservations online we added one of their animal encounters: the Sloth Experience.
At the gate we were met by a keeper who led us into the enclosure so we could feed and pet the sloth. He was soft and wiry at the same time, it was unlike any animal hair I'd ever felt. The sloth even did us the honor of climbing out of his clay pot bed so we could really get a good look at him. Maggie was so excited I thought she was going to faint. Ron was pretty excited, too, but he refrained from squealing like a little girl. Barely.
After taking our #slothie pictures, we explored the rest of the park. Advertised as, “Central Florida's Ecotourism Destination,” Wild Florida's mission is to educate and inspire people in order to protect Florida's diverse ecosystems—like the one we had just zoomed through on an airboat. So, while we got to see exotic animals like lemurs and servals, we also learned a lot about Florida native wildlife, such as bobcats and foxes.
What I loved most about Wild Florida’s Wildlife Park was how refreshing it was. Calm, shady, and fairly quiet. No loudspeakers or lines, no kiosks full of merchandise. It was a pleasant couple of hours of relaxed family fun. We loved Kissimmee before, but after experiencing nature at its finest, we were filled with a brand-new appreciation for this side of Kissimmee.
As we walked back to the car, I asked Ron, "Well, what did you think?" He grinned from ear to ear and said, "We have to come back and take the night airboat ride." I can't wait.