Outdoor Fun in Central Florida: Airboats, Balloons and Gators

The albino alligator at Gator World, Kissimmee Florida. Victoria Hart photos.
The albino alligator at Gator World, Kissimmee Florida. Victoria Hart photos.

Eco-Tourism and Adventure in Kissimmee, Florida- Natural reasons to visit Central Florida

By Victoria Hart

Gators gather at Gator World in Kissimmee, Florida.
Gators gather to feed at Gator World in Kissimmee, Florida.

According to the International Ecotourism Society, eco-tourism is defined as, “responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment, sustain the well-being of the local people and involves interpretation and education.”

Adventure travel is a tourism niche involving exploration with a certain degree of risk which may require special skills and physical exertion. I love eco-tourism and adventure travel, for many reasons.

A Kissimmee Florida Adventure

On an eco-adventure to Kissimmee, Florida I discovered a combination of zip-lining, an Airboat ride, kayaking and yes, even a hot air balloon ride provided thrills and adventures while exploring the natural environment, without too much stress on the joints or the need for super strength.  My conclusion?  Kissimmee is a great place to try lots of new things with minimal risk.

Kissimmee is located just south of Orlando and sits in the center of the theme park mecca.  It is also the headlands to the Everglades. When someone mentions central Florida, theme parks and tourist attractions are what come to mind.

But there are lots of things to do that highlight the original reason Florida was tagged as a vacation destination.  Endless sunshine, year-round warm weather, and a unique natural environment provide the backdrop for lots of adventure created by Mother Nature.

Many of the opportunities to discover nature are set up as attractions with an admission price.  The admission price is usually much less than a day at a theme park. A portion of the admission price is typically used to sustain the preservation and conservation efforts of the natural environment.

Outdoor Fun in Central Florida: Airboats, Balloons and Gators

Knowledgeable guides are also part of these experiences.  All the guides I met on my trip have educational backgrounds in wildlife management, environmental sciences, and a strong passion for preserving our natural habitat.

Their knowledge was well worth the price, as they pointed out things I would have missed, had I attempted to simply explore this part of Florida on my own.

There’s no denying that Disney is the main reason people travel to Central Florida.  If you’ve done the theme parks or they’re not your thing, you can still benefit from some of the perks the theme park world brings, like an abundance of comfortable and reasonably priced accommodations, lots of direct flights, and inexpensive rental cars.

Get yourself to the Orlando airport, then head south to Kissimmee for these attractions and adventures that celebrate the natural eco-system. These attractions are spread out, so having a rental car is probably the best idea.

All the attractions I visited offer free parking, something not available at the larger theme parks, which is another nice bonus of these well- established, but lesser known attractions.

Gatorland

14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail,
Orlando, Florida 32837
1-800-393-JAWS(5297)
www.gatorland.com

Opening in 1949 by owner Owen Godwin, Gatorland is the first tourist attraction in central Florida.  This 110-acre park known as the “Alligator Capital of the World,” is the home to thousands of alligators and crocodiles, many of who were injured or rescued from places they shouldn’t be, like residential neighborhoods.

Gatorland is a good first day stop.  Gatorland is all about education and preservation.  A little education about the American Alligator,

the American Crocodile, Florida Panthers, Bobcats, and tortoises provides a great introduction to what can be seen in the natural environment.

In the evening, 10-15,000 birds can be seen nesting over the swamps at Gatorland, including egrets, herons, anhingas, cormorants, and spoonbills.  If you get familiar with these birds when signage and guides are pointing them out, you might even be able to spot them in the wild.

Gatorland’s history is education and conservation, and that continues today. But it is quickly becoming an adventure destination. Two zip line attractions, an adventure on an off-road style monster truck ATV, and a Trainer for a Day experience are all park upgrades to add a few thrills to the Gatorland experience.

Orlando Balloon Rides

OrlandoBalloonRides.com
44294 US Highway 27,
Davenport, Florida 33897
407-894-5040

Orlando Ballooning takes passengers up over Kissimmee.
Orlando Ballooning takes passengers up over Kissimmee.

I’ve heard balloon rides described as, “A once in a lifetime experience.” This was my first hot air balloon ride, but I hope it won’t be my last. The balloon held 16 passengers plus the pilot.  When the balloon was inflated and it was time to climb in the basket, Grant’s loud command of, “get in,” had us all scurrying to hop in.

It is a climb, but closed toed shoes and comfortable shorts or pants make it easy to hop in.  The chase crew is glad to help those who have difficulty.  It might be awkward for some, but it certainly wasn’t strenuous.   The ride wasn’t scary, it felt safe, and it was an amazing way to survey the landscape.

From the launch field in Davenport, Florida, a neighboring town to Kissimmee and Orlando, the view expands from the Atlantic Ocean to the Everglades.  It was a great overhead look at how nature and progress co-exist.

Yes, we flew over the booming growth is residential housing in the area, but we also viewed lakes, rivers, farms, fields, swamps, and forests.

Our pilot Grant told us if the winds are moving in a certain direction, it is possible to fly over the National Elephant Center, a 225-acre home for retired or unwanted elephants in Fellsmore, Florida.  Because the Elephant Center is not open to the public, viewing it from a balloon may be the only way most people are able to see it.

The balloon rides take off just before sunrise, so watching the sun come up over the Atlantic Ocean is another breathtaking feature of this adventure. I was comforted when Grant shared, he was a retired firefighter.

Since the pilot’s main job once we are in the air is to blast the propane induced fire into the balloon to keep us afloat, I was confident in his abilities to manage the balloon.  After a successful landing, and a group effort to get the balloon into its storage bag, which is all part of the fun, a champagne toast is shared.

Outdoor Fun in Central Florida: Airboats, Balloons and GatorsBoggy Creek Airboat Adventures

2001 East Southport Road,
Kissimmee, Florida 34746
407-344-9550
https://www.bcairboats.com

I’ve seen airboats on TV, but I must say, riding on one was never on my bucket list. I was quite sure it wouldn’t be much different than any other boat ride.  Boy, was I wrong. Boggy Creek Airboat Rides is in rural Kissimmee, on the edge of Lake Tohopekaliga, or Lake ToHo for short.

ToHo is the largest lake in Osceola County and a significant body of water at the headlands to the Everglades.  What this means for the tourist is the ability to see lots of Everglades wildlife, without having to venture too far south.

John, our Captain, was not only a great driver, but he is also a fantastic naturalist, slowing down to point out various birds, fish, snails, and of course, alligators.  Viewing wildlife from the airboat was another way to get up close and personal with nature, with minimal impact on the environment.

Flying Across the Lake

The hour-long airboat ride was the least strenuous of all my Kissimmee adventures.  It was about as difficult as stepping onto a pontoon boat.  When the boat took off, it was more like flying than riding in a boat.  The ride was smooth and steady, even when Captain John sped up and did a few donuts in the water.

A bonus at Boggy Creek is the native American presentation where a native American sister and brother team Teresa “White Dove” Big Mountain and Little Big Mountain maintain a working village, like the one that might have existed in this place 500 years ago.

Although the Big Mountains have a Canadian Mohawk mother and a Comanche/Apache father from the Oklahoma/Texas area, they can teach about the local tribes that were wiped out, mostly from smallpox, when the Spanish settlers arrived.

Paddling through the Headlands of the Everglades at Shingle Creek
Paddling through the Headlands of the Everglades at Shingle Creek

4266 West Vine Street,
Kissimmee, Florida 34741
407 343-7740 (main)
407-344-0881 (Reservations)
www.PaddlingCenter.com

Cypress forests once covered much of Florida.  These regal trees were centuries old, standing up to 100 feet tall.  The water-resistant, termite resistant wood was discovered to be a good source for roof shingles, and much of the forest was destroyed.  Fortunately, a few seedlings remained, and the forest is in the process of regenerating itself.

The most mature trees are now 40-50 years old, providing the infrastructure around the swamps and creeks that are an estuary for much of the Everglades wildlife.

The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek Regional Park is where we launched for a two-hour guided eco-tour of the area.  The objective of this kayak paddle experience was to go as slow as possible, in order to witness the abundant wildlife without disturbing the environment.

The eco-tourism was top notch, as our guide Alex, a young man with a Wildlife Management degree educated us on what we were seeing and proudly shared his love for the area.  Adventure?  It was my kind of adventure.  If you can sit in a kayak, you can do it.

Because we paddled so slowly, it was easy to go for two hours without feeling fatigued.  An experienced paddler might even be a bit frustrated.  But, the baby gators, snakes, mating ospreys, frogs and fish kept us mesmerized and entertained.

Add Some Relaxation Time to the Mix

All the eco-adventures I experienced were half-day excursions.  They can all be stretched into full-day activities or combine them with a half day of rest and relaxation around a gator-free chlorinated resort pool and balance the best of Mother Nature and the best of the Man-made world.

Victoria HartVictoria Hart loves to share her travel tips, bargains, strategies, and stories, inspiring others to create their own adventures. She is the Chief Adventure Officer at www.JourneysJauntsandJunkets.com. When Victoria unpacks her suitcase, she calls Powell, Ohio home. 

The author was the guest of Experience Kissimmee during this trip, but her opinions about the adventures are her own.

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