Boat ride through forgotten Florida at Wakulla Springs State Park

Most people who visit Wakulla Springs go for the gators. Still others want to check out where Johnny Weissmuller swung through the “jungle” as Tarzan in the 1930s and 40s or the dark, swampy thicket where the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” was said to lurk. Above all, travelers come to see the pristine tangled wilderness that is becoming rarer to find as Florida develops.

This is Wakulla Springs State Park, one of the most popular day trips from Tallahassee, Florida’s capital. A three-mile pontoon trip down the Wakulla River is the park’s biggest draw, giving visitors the chance to spot wildlife and plug into nature for the 45-minute ride.

On a sunny day, alligators can be spotted lazing on the banks of the Wakulla River or grimacing among the reeds and cypress knees along the shoreline. If they’re out, alligators make for splendid photography subjects, unlike the myriad fowl – great blue herons, white ibis, anhingas – which fly off right as you get them in your camera cross-hairs, or the manatees, which swim slowly just below the water line, never surfacing for their close-up. The park claims that between 20 to 30 manatees can be spotted swimming in the springs and river each day. I was satisfied to have seen a herd of about seven sea cows (another name for manatees) when I visited the park in December. There are only about 4,500 of these aquatic mammals left in the world and the estuaries and backwoods springs of Florida are one of the premier places to see them, especially in winter.

Wakulla Springs doesn’t have to be a day trip. On site is the grand Wakulla Springs Lodge, built in 1937 by Edward Ball, the financier and conservationist who owned this stretch of north Florida from 1934 until the mid-1960s when he sold it to the state of Florida for the establishment of a state park. The 27-room, Mediterranean-revival-style lodge is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and the surrounding park is a National Natural Landmark.


Image by wilsonb/Flickr

NYC duo gets tapped for Orlando smile assignment

Orlando has spoken! A pair of New Yorkers rose above hundreds of applicants to become Orlando’s Smile Ambassadors. For 67 days, they will experience more than 100 attractions offered … which includes a hell of a lot more than just a dance with the Mouse. Alligators will be involved, for example. Along the way, they’ll blog and their experiences, giving the rest of the world an “in the trenches” view of what Orlando has to offer.

The final test for Kyle Post, a Broadway performer and Stacey Doornbos, a childcare worker in Harlem, was a 67-hour “boot camp” that ended on July 29, 2009. The candidates went hang gliding, did some indoor skydiving and checked out downtown Orlando, blogging and tweeting as though it were the real deal.

“Every member of the selection committee agrees that selecting one pair from our ten finalists was one of the toughest career decisions we have each faced,” said Gary C. Sain, president and CEO of the Orlando CVB. “Each pair demonstrated tremendous creativity, desire and commitment. We thank all of the finalists for making us smile and ultimately look forward to Kyle and Stacey bringing the complete Orlando experience to life for a worldwide audience starting Aug. 27.”

Kyle and Stacey have been frends since childhood, growing up together in Holland, Michigan. They have taken more than 30 amusement park trips together and say they’ve been on 618 rides. Kyle moved to New York and was cast in RENT, and Stacey wound up in the city after experiencing seven countries in three months.

The duo took a “friendship honeymoon” (how it pains me to use that expression … it’s worse than “staycation”) to Orlando shortly after they finished college, so it’s easy to see why Kyle says, “We feel like everything we have done in our lives so far has led to this moment.” He continues that they “chose to apply for this position because Orlando embodies everything we are – passionate, charismatic and adventurous. We can’t wait to start our 67 days in Orlando to share everything we learn about what this amazing destination has to offer.”

Hidden Gems: Everglades Airboat Tours

Florida is home to one of the most unusual ecosystems in the
world: the Everglades. A member of the National Park System and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Everglades is the only
subtropical park in North America. The park teems with wildlife and plants — some of which are endangered and many of which exist nowhere else on earth.

This weekend, I got the chance to go on an airboat ride through the Everglades. I had this opportunity last fall,
too, and I was thrilled to get the chance to go again. And you know what? It was just as much fun the second time!

We arrived at the Loxahatchee Everglades Tours at 1:02 in the
afternoon. We eagerly bought our tickets ($25.50 per person, after the 15% off coupon you can print out from the website). If
you like, you can also buy snacks and cold drinks.

Rides depart every half hour, so we had some time to kill. Fortunately, they have a nice museum there — right
behind ticket sales — where you can learn all about the Everglades. Featured prominently on the walls of the
museum are loads of newspaper clippings about the Everglades. I was pleased to see one clipping in
particular. After all, I was in search of a "hidden gem." I was clearly in the right place!

Unfortunately, right next to that clipping, I found another one…which I didn’t really feel like reading
too closely…

So, instead, I decided to concentrate on learning about the local flora and fauna. The museum boasts dozens of
preserved specimens from the region. For example, I loved this polished turtle shell.

Here’s a Florida bobcat. Sadly, there aren’t too many remaining.

Of course, the Everglades is known for its alligators.

Although I wanted to see some alligators while I was on the boat, I didn’t want to see too many like this:

To estimate the length of an alligator in the water, you measure from the nostrils to where the eyes poke up. For
every inch of snout, you have one foot of gator. This gator, therefore, was about 8 or 9 feet long when it died.
Unfortunately, you can’t estimate age or gender very easily.

The museum has a lot of information in it. Although it’s not too fancy, it’s quite large, and you could easily
spend an hour wandering around.

Finally, it was time to head to the boat. I was excited. We made our way past ticket sales, and into the Arthur
A. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge

For those of you who don’t know what an airboat is, it’s basically a flat-bottomed boat that skims over the water.
The major difference between an airboat and most other pleasure boats is that an airboat doesn’t have a propeller
hanging in the water. Rather, it uses something like a giant fan to push it over the water. Since there’s no prop in
the water, airboats can glide over very shallow bodies of water. For example, airboats were crucial in helping to clean up after
Hurricane Katrina

In this part of the Everglades, the water is about 24 inches deep, so airboats are the perfect option. Of course,
not all airboats seat 2 dozen people. Most recreational airboats only seat 2 to 4 individuals.

The owner and lead guide of these tours is a salty feller named Wild Lyle. As his name implies, Wild Lyle is a
crusty ol’ bugger. He tells it like it is. However, despite his curmudgeony-ness, he really loves the Everglades and is
happy to share his knowledge of it with visitors, so it stays protected long into the future.

Without even asking, I received the best seat on the boat!

OK…so all the seats say that they’re the best. But it’s true. The boats are small, and you can see great from
anywhere. Immediately, in fact — before I even sat down! — I saw a turtle!

Hmmm…maybe you can’t tell from that photo, but that’s not really a turtle. It’s an old sand bag that has floated
away from shore. However, in my defense, when Wild Lyle tells you that he sees a turtle, you instantly aim your camera.

Soon, Lyle fired up the boat and took us for a spin through the Everglades. Some people might not think the
Everglades are much to look at, but I think they’re beautiful!

The engine is loud, so Lyle gives you ear protection.

If you go on a  trip like this, you’re virtually guaranteed to see alligators. In one hour, we probably saw 50
of them. There are 6 in the photo below.

Some alligators get very close to the boat, but they swim away if you get too near.

At about the 40-minute-mark, Lyle stops the boat and talks about the Everglades. If you have a question, you’re
free to ask him.

He’s worked in the Everglades for 35 years, and he knows everything. He’s conducted rescue missions to collect
people and recover downed airplanes; he knows every animal in the park; and he has some great ideas about how to
protect the Everglades for future generations. He’s a terrific resource, and he has the ability to explain complicated
issues in very simple terms. For example, he explained that women are less likely to find their ways into and out of
the Park successfully, because they are directionally-challenged. See, I told you he was crusty!

If you want to know what an airboat ride feels like, I shot a short video of the ride for you to watch. It’s
52-seconds long, and it ends with a pretty fair shot of an alligator submerging. Pardon my fat finger in the opening
frames of the video!

An airboat ride with Wild Lyle takes one hour. In that hour, you get to see all kinds of wildlife and learn about
one of our country’s most treasured natural resources. If the weather is nice, it’s a wonderful way to spend part of a
day. In addition to enjoying the ride on the boat, personally, I felt smarter after the trip.  Or, as my
friend so eloquently put it: "I love learning about all this nature crap!"