Sawgrass and alligators


When the four of us began outlining plans for a recent trip, certain things quickly came into focus. The costs of travel and potential daily options being kicked around… either because of past visits we enjoyed or because we had been gazing at that list of locations for some day… eventually directed us to Fort Lauderdale, Miami and the Florida Keys. And as we talked more about it, above and beyond everything else for this trip, one adventure stood out as an unquestioned must for all of us. It involved two things…

The Everglades.

An airboat.

As we investigated our options, we eventually found Coopertown Airboats and gave them a call. And while the dry weather took away some of the things we might have experienced, there is no doubt that riding through the Everglades on an airboat was worthy of the status we gave it while preparing for our vacation.

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The Malaluka trees. In a strange way, that’s what I’ll remember most about this trip to the Everglades. So much of it was awesome on this brilliant May morning. But the Malaluka trees were stunning, interesting, perplexing… and completely unexpected.

It was an early morning drive from our rooms to Coopertown, and as we followed the instructions of our GPS along some back roads, we found some of the straightest and longest segments lined with Malaluka trees. It’s a strange sight… they all seem stripped bare, striking in color as if bleached by the sun, with several branches occupied by vultures. Later, we learn from our tour guide that the trees were planted by plane and ultimately, intentionally, killed off with plans to remove them. Apparently it was a good idea gone bad… with thoughts of helping to control the water in the area. (Dry it out… don’t dry it out… the government involved… hilarity ensues. You get the picture.)

Coopertown itself was pretty much an accidental find for us. We had been searching for options, wanting to combine an airboat ride with a visit to the Everglades. Established roughly 60 years ago, the property has an alligator exhibit out back and a restaurant up front. It has been used for several movies and television shoots, and… funny enough… if I asked you to draw a picture of what a low-key, small operation, Everglades airboat company looked like, Coopertown is exactly the kind of small, weathered, shack on the side of the road building you’d place in the scene.

The drive out to their offices adds to the atmosphere. Having left interstate travel long behind, the roads seem to get a bit dustier as the travel continues, and the combination of the barren Malaluka trees and the occasional vulture sitting on a branch only adds to the feeling that you’ve never been any place quite like this before. So when you arrive at that shack… yeah… the setting is just about as perfect as anything your mind could create.

Want to know if you’ll see wildlife? Well… as we close in on our destination, we start to spot them… heads in the water. There’s an alligator! And another… and another. So yeah… there will be wildlife. (And amazingly, at this point we still really had no idea what we were in for.)

When we arrived and were introduced to Mike, who captained our ride through the Everglades. We met a few members of the staff, and everyone was very personable and friendly. They talked if you wanted to talk… joked around at times… and let us explore the area as we walked through the small exhibits and tried to get a grasp on the fact that we really weren’t in New England any more.

The boat itself wasn’t really what you could call a surprise. It looked just like the ones you see in pictures and movies. Sort of felt like it too… a floating plank with a huge fan on the back. In addition to seeing hundreds of alligators, we were also treated to lots of other wildlife. Here are just a few Mike named for us…

Purple gallinule

Egyptian ibis


Black headed vultures

During the trip we got up close and virtually personal with lots of alligators. Mike navigated the waters, stopping often to point out birds, foliage, and… of course… to set up some great pictures. He was a fantastic guide for our day. We rattled off a ton of questions… and he easily answered them all.

The only problem we encountered was a drought. When we left on our journey, we were gliding over a layer of water. When we returned, the chocolate pudding under our boat let us know that we were lucky to leave the dock at all. Mike had told us up front that the low levels of water would prevent us from doing several things they normally try to incorporate, including some of the high speed turns and fooling around.

And yet… all and all… it still turned out to be a great day even without some of the things Mike would normally treat passengers to.

There were no problems with our day. Our reservation with Coopertown was easy to make, and it was handled smoothly. The boat was ready for us on time, and the ride itself was an amazing experience.

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If you go…

Coopertown Airboats is located slightly over 10 miles west of the Florida turnpike. To give you a good idea of what you are getting yourself into, if you click on the link they provide at their web site for directions, you will be taken to a page that says your search criteria doesn’t exist and it offers an alternative. Yeah… exactly. It is a dizzying drive, but not because it’s difficult (actually, it’s not, and on different dates during our vacation we drove into the very same area three different ways for different reasons). Instead, it’s because it’s so amazingly easy for north to become southeast, west to become north, straight ahead to become change lanes and look out for crossing reptiles.

Consider a private tour, but the truth is, for a first visit you should have a great time on many of the group tours available. We ended up taking a private tour and extending it by an hour. Both the private tour and additional time cost extra. Our group had decided that this was the biggest splurge we wanted to make for our trip, and if it weren’t for the drought it would have been well worth it. (It was worth it in the end anyway. What I mean is it would have stepped from very good up to exceptional.)

That said, if your goal is two-fold… Everglades and live alligators that aren’t in captivity… that is just about without question going to happen on the group tour. No doubt in my mind about it, though I would confess that I have only been once and can’t swear for every place out there offering you a ride. Since the difference can range from tens of dollars per person to hundreds, it is definitely worth knowing up front that a great time is available for lower costs.

I’d easily recommend Coopertown to you, but there are other places out there and many of them access the Everglades in other places while offering alternative sights. That means I would do this again, but don’t know if I would definitely return to Coopertown. I certainly wouldn’t say no to pulling over into their parking lot again in the future. Think it over… airboats dock at several places… each and every one promises a slightly different, and yet immensely similar, experience. Some operators have wildlife exhibits… some note television and movie sets/locations… some travel to different parts of the Everglades. Do some homework.

We almost lost out. Why? No water. Drought. Sure… when visiting Yosemite in late October, it occurred to me to ask if the weather, say snowfall, might close parts of the park or change tours we were considering. For this trip though, it never dawned me in the slightest that the Everglades would run out of water. But it does. According to our guide, Coopertown was one of the only operators that was still able to leave their dock and head out the day we visited.

Most places will offer to bring coolers and beverages along. Ask. You’re going to want to bring at least some water for each member of your group. Breakfast would be a good option if you travel in the morning. We found a few options nearby for eating lunch.

Also… and yeah, this should be obvious… cameras and sunscreen. If you bring a hat, be prepared to hold it in place.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at