Last updated: 5th February 2023
We took a day trip to experience a thrilling airboat ride through Florida’s must-see natural wonder – The Everglades from Fort Lauderdale where we were staying. In this post we will show you how to choose the best tour from the many options of Fort Lauderdale airboat rides. Or watch the video above to experience the Everglades in 60 seconds.
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About The Everglades – Florida’s River of Grass
The Everglades is a wild sub-tropical wetland covered in sawgrass prairies and coastal mangrove forests. The Everglades is technically a slow moving river and is absolutely huge! covering the southern tip of Florida’s peninsula. The Everglades region includes private wildlife reserves, conservation areas in the east like Everglades Wildlife Management Area and national parks in the south like the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Everglades National Park. With so much choice, you can easily get to any part the Everglades on a day trip from Fort Lauderdale or Miami.
This swampy wilderness is very flat and whilst it might not look very dramatic, it’s full of life. Home to alligators, turtles and manatees. On land you might see bobcats, white-tailed deer or 28 spices of snakes, yikes! In the skies there are 350 species of birds such as herons, bald eagles, egrets and osprey. The Everglades also provide refuge to endangered animals like the American crocodile and the Florida black panther.
Today the Florida Everglades is about 50% of the size it once was 100 years ago. It used to start further north near Orlando, but over the years large areas were drained for agriculture and the building of new cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Tips For Choosing The Best Fort Lauderdale Airboat Ride Through The Everglades
From Fort Lauderdale the closest place for an airboat ride is the Sawgrass Recreation Park just 25 minutes from downtown Fort Lauderdale. However after researching the options we decided we wanted to ride through mangroves aswell as wide open grass plains, something Sawgrass doesn’t offer, so we would have to travel further south.
We also wanted to avoid the big boats and jet-boats that can hold 30 people, we wanted a smaller boat offering a more intimate ride. The smaller boats can also navigate much narrower canals and waterways than the big boats.
There are so many companies offering Everglades airboat tours, we noticed almost all claim to have “The best airboat rides in Florida!” So to help you narrow down your choice of airboat company, asks yourself:
- Do you you want to ride through swampy wide areas of grass or intimate mangroves or both?
- Do you mind airboat companies that throw out food to encourage alligators to approach boats?
- Do you want to see an alligator show or a small zoo and pet baby alligators after your airboat ride?
Our Small Airboat Ride from Everglades City
We opted for Speedy’s Airboat Tours located on the Gulf Coast in Everglades City which is a 90 minute drive from Fort Lauderdale. We chose them because their boats hold a maximum of 6 people and have some of the highest seats for the best visibility. We also didn’t want to choose somewhere that had an alligator show or a small zoo. We just wanted to see wildlife in its natural habitat. Phil phoned through a reservation for their 1 hour airboat tour, and Garth went on their website to get a $5 off per couple coupon.
A Wild Ride Through Mangrove Jungles
Captain Ben welcomed us onboard and gave us headsets to block out the noise of the fan. Other companies use 2-way headsets so you can ask questions. Before we’d even set off, there were gasps of delight from other boats as a dolphin was spotted in the marina.
As we approached the first mangrove, suddenly it was full throttle and we were propelled by the giant fan. We had no idea the airboats could travel so fast! It was thrilling, we felt like villains in a James Bond film on some great escape, such an adrenaline rush!
The mangroves are incredible, a tangled maze of jungle and waterways, such a beautiful wilderness. Captain Ben knew these winding mangrove paths inside out. As the canals got narrower we slowed down to see what wildlife we could spot lurking behind the roots of the trees. Garth’s first spot was a small racoon.
The Open Grasslands
Soon we were out of the mangrove canals and into the open grasslands where cord grass and sawgrass grow. In this bigger open space Captain Ben showed off his boat skills performing some high speed 360 degree turns! theses crazy manoeuvres were so exciting!
We stopped for some photo opportunities and a brief history lesson of the area, very educational. With the boat stopped we could see through the water, it’s actually very shallow. It’s possible to stand up in most parts of the Everglades, not that you’d want to with all those alligators living in the water!
We spotted more birds, if you love nature you will love the Everglades. Back to some serious skimming across the water through the marshes and some more big skids, brilliant! We always felt safe, just make sure you have straps for your hat, or your cap on really tight or you will lose them!
The ‘Hunt’ for Alligators
Now it was time to find an alligator! or ‘gator spotting’ as Captain Ben called it. He told us the Everglades is the only place in the world where you’ll see alligators and crocodiles living in the same place. We’ve seen crocodiles in the wild in Kruger National Park in South Africa. We thought they looked like dinosaurs and really scary too. We’ve even eaten crocodile meat in Uluru, Australia. We did see some alligators from a distance when we went to NASA, however we really wanted to see them close up. Are these reptiles are as big as people make them out to be?
Captain Ben kept looking on the verges for gators slowing right down and turning down the speed of the propellor, but no joy, we kept looking and looking. Unfortunately we didn’t see any alligators, boo! 😔 but we did see a large variety of migratory birds.
We visited in April which is the dry winter season, it’s considered good conditions for spotting gators. This is because water levels are lower and you can see gators sunbathing on river banks or through the vegetation. There’s no real ‘bad time’ to see alligators, we were just unlucky. They are wild animals after all and don’t just turn up when you want them to. However Captain Ben did say he thought the weather was too dry, and there is slightly better chance of seeing alligators during the wet season from June to November. This is when alligators are active because they love the hot and wet weather.
All was not lost as we did spot 2 alligators in the waterways next to the motorway as we drove back to Fort Lauderdale, hooray!
Before we knew it we were back in the marina and our amazing adventure was over, what a shame it only lasted an hour. The captains at Speedy’s work for tips, so it was an excruciating moment for us (like most Brits), not knowing how much we should tip!
Eating Out In Everglades City
After our gator-spotting experience we headed over to Camellia Street Grill for some fresh seafood, just a few minutes walk from Speedy’s Airboats. It has fabulous setting right on the waters edge.
Gulf Coast Visitor Centre, Everglades City
Whilst in Everglades City you can go visit the Gulf Coast Visitor Centre part of The Everglades National Park. This is where you can explore by boat the Ten Thousand Islands – a chain of mangrove islands.
The Everglades National Park
If you have more time, The Everglades National Park is worth visiting. The park was established in 1934 to preserve 1.5 million acres of wildlife and the ecosystem. It is America’s wettest National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. However it’s worth noting they are is also in danger as invasive species of plants are taking over native plants and trees. Fungus from beetles are also destroying trees. The amount of fresh water entering the park isn’t like it used to be, whilst anacondas and pythons in the water are taking out native species. In 2010 it was added to the list of World Heritage Sites In Danger, we had no idea the Everglades was such a fragile environment.
There are 3 points of entry into the park with 4 visitor centres:
- Shark Valley Visitor Center – Located in the North, within easy reach of Miami.
- Ernest C Coe & Royal Palms Visitor Center – Located in the South East near Homestead, this is the main entrance to the park.
- Flamingo Visitor Center – Located in the far South. Gateway to Florida Bay where the Everglades meets the ocean.
- Gulf Coast Visitor Center – Located in the North East at Everglades City. For Wilderness Waterway and mangrove islands.
Everglades National Park Highlights
- Ranger Led Tours – Various guided tours, check out the NPS website for details.
- Shark Valley – 15 mile tram tour and observation tower for panoramic views.
- Anhinga Trail – A self guided 1 mile boardwalk walking trail though wetlands.
- Mahogany Hammock Trail – View the oldest and largest Mahogany trees in the USA.
- Camping Grounds – The park has 2 camp sites at Flamingo and Long Pine Key. Suitable for RV’s and tents.
- Airboats – Not allowed in the National Park, however 3 companies are licensed to use a small area in the north. They are all within 10 minutes of each other just off the US-41 motorway. Coopertown Airboats, Everglades Safari Park and Gator Park.
Everglades Airboats Practical & Useful Information
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Everglades Airboat Ride Tips
- Tip #1: There is no shade – so sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen and lots of water are essential.
- Tip #2: Make sure you have a camera strap to put around your neck, you don’t want to lose your camera in the water.
- Tip #3: Sit at the back of the airboat for the highest visibility or at the front to be close to the water.
- Tip #4: Hurricane season is from the start of May to mid November.
- Tip #5: The wet season (June – Nov) brings thousands of mosquitoes and other biting insects.
How We Did It
- We visited at the end of April during the popular dry season.
- Speedy’s Airboat Tours cost us $38 each (£30). Phone them on 239-695-4448 for the latest price.
- We stayed in Fort Lauderdale, which is 99 miles (90 minutes) from Everglades City.
- Check out The Everglades National Park website for more information if you’re interested in visiting.