Airboats and Gators




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This article was previously published at Travelicious as Wild Florida. There may be slight variations in this article including an improved  map and travel guide as well as an additional photo gallery.

Alligators! When you think of Florida wilderness, you think alligators. Florida is famous for its Everglades, a vast tract of wetland at the southern tip of the state. It is an area heavily populated with alligators. But the whole state is dotted with lakes and swamps and you can find alligators in all 67 counties. There are, in fact, 1.3 million gators in the entire state.

After our Caribbean cruise, my wife, her sister and I spent a week in Orlando. On the last day of our visit we decided to visit Wild Florida, an airboat and gator park on Cypress Lake, about 45 miles from the city. When going there, you have to exit the Florida Turnpike (a toll highway) at St. Cloud exit #244) and take Highway 192 to the Old Canoe Creek Road. We missed the exit and figured we would just exit later but available exits were Sunpass only and do not accept cash or credit cards. (Passes available to regular commuters.) We had to double back. Wild Florida has handy detailed instructions for getting there. (Note – the map below shows exiting at Exit 240. That is wrong. Exit at 244 if you do not have a Sunpass and head east to and turn right on Vermont Avenue which later becomes Old Canoe Creek Road.)

Canoe Creek Road passes under the turnpike and you hang a right at Lake Cypress Road. Wild Florida advertises itself as being “in the middle of nowhere” and it truly is. It sits on the shore of Cypress Lake, a good size lake surrounded on three sides by nature preserves and on the fourth by farmland.

Wild Florida includes a zoo and nature walk as well as offering airboat rides. And if you’ve never been on one, it is a must-do experience. We booked an hour long excursion. The airboat dock is offshore aways and accessed by a long boardwalk.

The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.
The airboat dock is accessed by a long boardwalk over a field of reeds and rushes.

Our guide Will steered his airboat to a berth and we got on. Lifejackets and ear protection was handed out. The airboats are fairly loud. Will gave us a spiel about the lake and its 800 alligators, the many cypress trees and the flora and fauna that abound there. He also explained that the airboat was invented and developed in Canada in 1905 by a team led by Alexander Graham Bell – yep – the telephone guy!

3 - skipper Will and our airboat
Will steers our airboat to the dock to load passengers.

After his chat, Will revved up the engine and we tore along the shoreline at a good clip. The airboat is a flat-bottomed boat propelled by a large air prop at the rear behind the pilot. It skims over reeds and vegetation and is perfect for the Everglades.


Our first foray took us along the shore where we could see many cypress trees, their branches seemingly dripping grey moss. But it was January and this would green up later in the year. Waterfowl took flight on our approach making a pretty picture. We stopped again as Will gave us some more interesting tidbits. Then the engine roared to life again and we sped across an area dense with reeds and rushes.

All of a sudden Will pointed and shouted “Alligator”, pulling the airboat around and towards a clump of vegetation. The alligators like to bask atop a bunch of reeds to catch the sun. We spotted a big old gator soaking up some rays. I stood up and moved to the edge of the boat to get a good picture. Just after I snapped my shot, the gator got wind of me and hustled into the water. It moved so suddenly and so quickly it scared the heck out of me.

One big ole gator!
One big ole gator!

We took off once more and spotted more gators and some large turtles as well. And then we came across a rather gross dead animal floating in the water. A wild boar, Will said. Probably shot by a framer. They are considered pests. Will told us that the alligators would strip the carcass as it decomposes.

Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.
Eeeoooh! The carcass of a wild boar floating in the reeds. The alligators will strip the carcass as it decomposes.

We cruised along some more and Will took us up Dead Man’s Creek – a small inlet dense with vegetation along its shores. We stopped inside this peaceful setting, taking in the quiet and the beauty of the scenery. Cypress trees were everywhere and Will explained that the many woody shafts poking out of the water around the trees were called cypress knees. Since the entire root system of the cypress is below water, the roots can’t get air. The knees are like so many snorkels bringing life-enhancing air to the roots.

A cypress grove up Dead Man's Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.
A cypress grove up Dead Man’s Creek. Notice the cypress knees, natural snorkels that bring air to the tree roots.

After a spell, Will revved up the engine once again and we took off slowly at first through the winding waterway, and then full blast through waters and marshes along a fence line. At one point he pointed the craft directly into a vast tract of reeds and we plowed over them  and stopped in the middle. Clearly a boat with the typical below-water propeller would get seriously tangled here. But the airboat – no sweat!

We then headed out of the reeds and into open water charging at full speed across the kilometre or so of lake.  No gators here. They only hang out along the shoreline or in the marshes.

During our ride I got a great photo of my wife and her sister, wind blowing their hair out behind them. With the ear protection headset, it reminded me of a famous Maxell battery ad from the 1980s called Blown Away Guy.

Blown Away Gals!
Blown Away Gals!

Back at the dock we walked around Hawk Swamp, an area of cypress swamp with boardwalks letting you observe the swamp up close. A large sign warned not to touch the snakes!

Beware of snakes!
Beware of snakes!

After the swamp walk, we headed for the wildlife preserve where they had a variety of animals on display – a small zoo really. It had tropical birds, raccoons, lemurs, pythons and a giant tortoise among other things. But the big attraction, of course, were the gators. Lots of them. There were elevated walkways above the water and you could get baggies of tasty treats to throw to them.

Lots of gators!
Lots of gators!

In most zoos, the animals are fairly quiet and subdued. Not here. The pythons were on the move. The parrots were squawkers. And the alligators, when food was offered, were eager and energetic swimmers.

So if you’re ever in Orlando and looking for something more fun than Universal Studios or Disney World, check out Wild Florida. It was one of the highlights of our visit.

Click on Photo Gallery for additional pics or scroll on down if you are on the main page.




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Photo Gallery: Wild Florida




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Here are some additional pictures of our Wild Florida visit.

Our guide Will revs up the engines!
Our guide Will revs up the engines!
A flock of birds takes flight as we approach.
A flock of birds takes flight as we approach.
Large cypress tree up Dead Man's Creek
Large cypress tree up Dead Man’s Creek
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A haunting wilderness – the swamps of the upper Everglades – Dead Man’s Creek at Cypress Lake
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A giant cypress tree
Zipping along the open lake
Zipping along the open lake
Yours truly posing for a pic in the captain's chair. Would have been a blast to actually drive one of these airboats!
Yours truly posing for a pic in the captain’s chair. Would have been a blast to actually drive one of these airboats!
Large turtles are also residents of the lake.
Large turtles are also residents of the lake.
One honking big alligator!
One honking big alligator!
And another!
And another!
The zoo had a number of different species on display including these colorful parrots.
The zoo had a number of different species on display including these colourful parrots.
This African porcupine was out for a walk on the dock with a zoo keeper earlier.
This African porcupine was out for a walk on the dock with a zoo keeper earlier.
There were several long-tailed lemurs.
There were several long-tailed lemurs.
Say hello to this owl.
Say hello to this owl.
One last look at our Wild Flrida adventure - plowing through the reeds on our airboat.
One last look at our Wild Florida adventure – plowing through the reeds on our airboat.




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Kennedy Space Center: The Space Shuttle Atlantis




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This is the second of two parts on the Kennedy Space Center. Part 1 looked at the bus tour which takes you to the Apollo-Saturn V Center. Today we continue with a tour of the Visitor Complex.

The handy map of the Visitor Complex at the Kennedy Space Center notes some twenty attractions and lists some as must-see. These include an IMAX Theatre with several shows available, an Astronaut Encounters theatre where you can actually meet a real astronaut, an early space exploration museum, the impressive rocket plaza which feature eight different rockets on display, all but one standing on end as they would have been during launch, and the piece de resistance – the fabulous Space Shuttle Atlantis display.

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The map that comes with the visitor’s guide.

The Kennedy Space Center is still an active rocket launch site and on occasion you may be able to witness the actual launch of a rocket. Such happens to be the case tomorrow, May 26, 2016. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch at 5:40 PM EDT tomorrow. Regular visitors may be able to access viewing locations as part of their pass on a first come, first served basis. There is also premium seating at Launch Pad 39’s Observation Gantry.

The blurb on the KSC website says that “LC-39 Observation Gantry offers a premium, up-close view of the rocket on the launch pad and during lift off. You can feel the force of the launch and hear the roar of the engines from the launch pads at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. This area features lawn and bleacher seating and live launch commentary. The package includes launch transportation, a light snack and souvenir t-shirt. Launch Viewing/Transportation Tickets to LC-39 Observation Gantry are available for $49 in addition to daily admission.” But at the time of writing, all tickets have been sold out.

The Rocket Plaza
The Rocket Plaza

While we enjoyed the various displays we took in, the big one, the one that is a must-must-see is the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Outside the building that houses the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis are the two large solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank that propelled the shuttles into space. Walking by them reminds you of the lines of that poem about a colossus bestriding the world. They are like two large legs.

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The giant rockets and fuel tank used for the Space Shuttle launches.
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Inside looking out at the two solid rocket boosters in front of the building.

Inside you attend a short film before going through the doors to see the shuttle itself. The Space Shuttle Atlantis flew 33 missions and was the last space shuttle launched before the Space Shuttle program was discontinued in 2011. It has been supplanted by the International Space Station program, the Orion project (which will see men land on Mars in the 2020s) and private agencies such as SpaceX which was founded by Elon Musk.

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The Space Shuttle Atlantis, an awesome sight!

Needless to say, the Space Shuttle Atlantis is enormous. There is a large viewing platform to experience the shuttle from different vantage points. From directly in front, you see the open cargo bay as well as its two Canadarms, the two robotic arms that Canada’s space agency supplied and which are used to manipulate materials in space. One of the arms is extended.

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The cargo bay with its two Canadarms.

Behind the viewing platform are various displays including a mock-up of the pilot’s seat which you can sit in.

My wife the astronaut! Janis takes the pilot seat in this cockpit mock-up.
My wife the astronaut! Janis takes the pilot seat in this cockpit mock-up.

Navigating down the stairs you find a variety of models and displays about the space shuttle and its history. And you get a good look at the underbelly of the beast with all its nicks and scorch marks from its many fiery re-entries.

The belly of the beast. Note the many nicks and scorch marks.
The belly of the beast. Note the many nicks and scorch marks.

It is on this lower level that you also get to experience another must-do experience. The Shuttle Launch Experience is a thrill ride designed by Bob Rogers and BRC Imagination Arts who have designed attractions for Disney, Universal Studios and many more clients. This one has to rank as one of the best. It simulates what it is like to be an astronaut blasting off into space.

Before going in, you have your picture taken. Then you enter the ride itself where you are seated and strapped in. A large screen in front of you shows the exterior of the space shuttle launch pad. You have the sensation of being tilted back in your seats so you are facing up as you would be in a real space shuttle. The count down begins. The tension mounts as launch approaches. Then – blast off!

The screen shows huge flares of flame bursting from the booster rockets. And I have no idea how they create this effect, but damn if you don’t actually feel G forces pulling you back into the seat. You feel the rumble and the shaking, the intense vibrations. And after the boosters and external tank have fallen away, you feel like you are floating in space. This ride has to be experienced to be believed. Simply amazing.

After leaving the ride, you find out that that picture they took of you earlier is now available – with a twist. Yep!  It’s you in full astronaut gear.

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 Janis and I in full astronaut gear. 

After the Space Shuttle Experience we wandered over to the gift shop which is extensive and worth a visit. Heading out we passed a wall with a mural of the International Space Station and flags of all the participating countries.

The International Space Station mural and flags of participant countries.
The International Space Station mural and flags of participant countries.

The sun was starting to set as we left. A very enjoyable day. And we still did not see everything. We will return some day! I have a few unused photos left but not enough for a separate page, so I’ll just close off with a few extra pics.

Sunset over the Rocket Plaza
Sunset over the Rocket Plaza
The front end of the Atlantis Space Shuttle
The front end of the Atlantis Space Shuttle
The back end of Atlantis Space Shuttle
The back end of Atlantis Space Shuttle
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The open cargo bay of the Space Shuttle with the extended Canadarm
The rockets of Atlantis
The rockets of Atlantis
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Sunset over Rocket Plaza




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Kennedy Space Center: The Apollo Moon Missions




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While the closest attractions to Orlando are Disney World and Universal Studios, the most interesting attractions we visited were an hour’s drive away. One of them was the Kennedy Space Center. In fact, it was the main reason I wanted to visit Orlando. So on a sunny Sunday afternoon we headed east for Cape Canaveral.

The center covers 144,000 acres on the northern half of Merritt Island and is across a bay from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. We arrived at the Visitor Center and decided to start with a bus tour of the area. This is a must-see part of the visit as it brings to life the size and scope of the complex as well as bringing you to the Apollo-Saturn V Visitor Complex, something you do not want to miss.

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Janis and Betty at the Kennedy Space Center

The bus tour took us along a number of launch sites and other areas of interest as the tour guide explained what were were seeing. Early in the tour we passed the Vehicle Assembly Building. This is the largest one story building in the world. It stands 526 feet high but it is essentially one very large room.

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The Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. The large flared extensions on the right are doors – very tall doors – so the assembled rockets can be taken out. The flag is the largest American flag on the outside of a building in the world.

The giant Saturn V rockets were assembled here and then moved to the launch site on a very large heavy duty tractor, called a Crawler-Transporter. They were hauled upright along a crushed gravel pathway called the Crawlerway.

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The Crawlerway’s two parallel paths run from the Vehicle Assembly Building in the distance to the launch pad near by. The Crawler-Transporter is sitting idle on the left waiting for its next mission.

The Crawler-Transporter is massive. It had to be as the Saturn V rocket, fully assembled, stood over 350 feet tall. To haul such a large piece of hardware without it toppling, the transporter inched along at a breathtaking one mile per hour. And it was a gas guzzler, using 296 liters of fuel to travel a kilometre.

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The Crawler-Transporter

The final destination for the Transporter-Crawler was Launch Pad 39. This is where all the Apollo moon missions were launched from. The launch pad is surrounded by high fences with curved tops and barbed wire. This is not, as you may think, to keep people out. It is to keep alligators out! The Kennedy Space Center shares its space with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, the second largest wilderness preservation area in Florida.

Launch Pad 39
Launch Pad 39

After that we passed several displays of the current project, the Orion program, an international cooperative effort that will eventually see humans landing on Mars.

Launch tower for the Orion program.
Launch tower for the Orion program.

And then we came to the piece de resistance of the trip – the Apollo-Saturn V Center. We got off the bus here to explore this giant display. First stop, the actual control room used for the Apollo Moon Missions. It was a thrill to see where those historic missions actually took place. Three large screens above the control room showed movies from various angles of the Apollo 8 moon launch, the first mission to propel men around the moon and back. As the film referenced different people in the control room, the chairs at which they sat lit up. I filmed the launch which was awesome to say the least.

Three screens showed the Apollo 8 Moon Launch above the actual control room used for the launch.
Three screens showed the Apollo 8 Moon Launch above the actual control room used for the launch.

After the presentation, the doors opened and we went into a cavernous vault of a room housing a restored Saturn V launch vehicle in all its massive glory. It is huge! Fully assembled, the Saturn V stood 363 feet high. The rocket was displayed horizontally in sections with separate displays of the lunar modules.

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The Saturn V rocketship that propelled men to the moon.
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How big are these rockets? Here they are with Janis and I standing underneath them.

After some time exploring this exhibit, we checked out the rest of this complex. Another show depicted a moon landing, and static displays included the actual suit astronaut Alan Shepherd wore when he did his moon walk. There is still moon dust on that suit.

Alan Shepherd's moon walk suit with moon dust still on it.
Alan Shepherd’s moon walk suit with moon dust still on it.

We also saw moon rocks, a display on the history of space suits and the actual Apollo 14 space capsule that the astronauts returned to earth on.

The actual Apollo 14 re-entry capsule.
The actual Apollo 14 re-entry capsule.

This display of engineering ingenuity was thrilling to behold. But we were only half done with our trip. We boarded the bus and headed back to the main visitor center. But if we were expecting it to be anti-climactic, it was anything but. We’ll cover that in our next blog post!

Meanwhile, click on the link for additional pictures of the first half of our tour. Or scroll on down if you are on the main page.




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Photo Gallery: The Apollo Moon Missions




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Here are some more pictures from the first half of our tour of the Kennedy Space Center.

The giant doors on the Vehicle Assembly Building
The giant doors on the Vehicle Assembly Building. It is the largest one story building in the world.
The Crawler-Transporter hauls ass at an impressive one mile per hour. It consumes 296 liters of fuel per kilometre.
The Crawler-Transporter hauls ass at an impressive one mile per hour. It consumes 296 liters of fuel per kilometre.
The Apollo Launch Pad 39. The barbed wire fence is to keep out alligators!
The Apollo Launch Pad 39. The barbed wire fence is to keep out alligators!
Liwuid Nitrogen container and waste water dump.
Liquid Nitrogen container for Launch Pad 39. There are actually three pads – 39A, 39B and 39C.
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This is one of the blast deflectors that sat in the pit below the launch pad during Apollo launches. The pit was also filled with water, not to cool things off but to absorb noise.
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The Orion Launch Pad. This will be used for the Orion manned Mars explorations planned for the early 2020s.
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A one-third size scale model of the Orion capsule.
The Apollo Mission Control Room.
The actual control consoles used during the Apollo Moon Missions. They have been relocated for this display.
The giant rockets of Saturn V
The giant rockets of Saturn V
Stage 1 of the Saturn V rocketship.
Stage 1 of the Saturn V rocketship. Stage 2 and 3 are further down. Banners tell the story of the different moon missions.

The Lunar lander
The Lunar lander
The Command Module
The Command Module
The Re-entry Module
The Re-entry Module
Some moon rocks on display.
A moon rock on display.
The Lunar Rover
The Lunar Rover
A look inside the actual Apollo 14 Re-entry Capsule.
A look inside the actual Apollo 14 Re-entry Capsule.




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