The schooner Western Union on a sunset cruise sails past Fort Zachary Taylor.
Sailboats on sunset cruises pass Fort Zachary Taylor State Park in Key West. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Visitors have been taking scenic boat tours of Florida waterways ever since there were visitors to Florida.

The state’s very first tourist attraction, Silver Springs in Ocala, began its famous glass-bottom boat tours more than 140 years ago.

Clearly, they were on to something; — there are few better ways to see Florida than by boat, and with 1,800 miles of coastline and 12,000 miles of rivers and streams, you’ll never run out of places to cruise.

There are dozens of boat tours in Florida, but here are nine that stand out for their history or the special experience they offer.

How many of them have you taken?

Silver Springs: Oldest glass-bottom boat tour in Florida

Silver Springs 1940 postcard
Horse shoe palm that frames Silver Springs glass-bottom boat is still there.

People have been gazing into the clear water of Silver Springs through glass-bottom boats for almost 150 years, making the Ocala spring the oldest tourist attraction in Florida. It started in the 1870s when an entrepreneur fixed a piece of glass in the bottom of a rowboat. Tourists flocked here to see what was then the largest artesian spring in the world, and Silver Springs became a big money-making attraction.

By 2013, however, Silver Springs’ success as a tourist attraction had faded. The state took it over and opened the new Silver Springs State Park. Fortunately, the traditional glass-bottom boat tours continue.

While the spring no longer pumps enough water to be first in the world, it is still a stunning sight. You can still see the bottom through 20 or 30 feet of water the color of a swimming pool. Visitors often see wildlife — alligators, turtles, anhingas, herons plus large fish — in and around the clear water.

Tickets are $11 for adults; $10 for seniors and children; 5 and under free.

The Silver River and its spring are worth more than a half hour tour, however, so you should consider the 90-minute River Boat Tour, which is offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $25 adults; $20 seniors and children; 5 and under free.


The best way to the Silver River, though, is by kayak,  The Silver River is, without question, one of the prettiest rivers to kayak in Florida. Here’s more on the Silver Springs kayak trail.)

 

Central Florida’s historic Winter Park boat tour

Vintage postcard of Winter Park boat tour.
Vintage postcard of Winter Park boat tour.

Long before Mickey Mouse came to Orlando, folks were enjoying “jungle cruises” in Orlando. The Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours started taking visitors through the lakes and canals of the Winter Park chain in 1938.

On the tour, you see lushly landscaped lakefront estates and ride through narrow canals. You’ll see boaters, wading birds and the occasional alligator. Tour guides offer lots of stories about local history and the people who lived in the mansions, plus a few corny jokes.

The 18-passenger, open-air pontoon boats provide a friendly, intimate one-hour tour. Be sure to bring hats and sunscreen. Tours leave hourly and accept cash.  Tickets: $14 adults; $7 children; cash or check only.

 

Everglades airboat tours

Vintage postcard of airboat ride (Photo: Florida Memory Project)
Vintage postcard of airboat ride (Photo: Florida Memory Project)

I have mixed feelings about airboats. When I’m out hiking or paddling, I resent the mosquito-buzz drone of the boats and, used wrong, they do environmental damage. But, like driving cars on Daytona Beach, airboats have been a part of visiting Florida for almost 100 years.

Invented by Alexander Graham Bell, airboats first came to Florida in the 1920s. Airboat tours take you into roadless areas to see wildlife, but a big part of the experience is the wind, noise and thrilling speed. There are no airboat rides within Everglades National Park, but there are plenty of options throughout South and Central Florida.

Two long-time airboat operators:

  •  Cooperstown Airboats (in business since 1945) on the Tamiami Trail near the Shark Valley entrance to Everglades National Park. Tour is $23. 
  • AirBoat Rides at Midway (operating since the 1930s) east of Orlando in Christmas. Rates range from to $42 for adults during the day to $60 for sunset tours. 

 

St. Augustine historic boat tour

Historic photo of St. Augustine Scenic Cruise
Historic photo of St. Augustine Scenic Cruise. (Photo: Florida Memory Project)

A hundred years ago, Henry Flagler was bringing Florida’s first tourists to St. Augustine on his train and hosting them at his grand Ponce De Leon Hotel, which is now Flagler College. To amuse his guests, Flagler arranged for some locals, Captain Frank Usina and his wife, to offer oyster roasts. Pretty soon, Usina was transporting visitors by boat around St. Augustine’s waters.

A century later, his descendants are still doing that. The hour-and-15-minute scenic cruise, operated by the fourth generation of the Usina family, sails under St. Augustine’s much photographed Bridge of Lions and in front of the Castillo De San Marcos, past salt marshes with wading birds and out to the lighthouse. Sightings of dolphins are common. Adults, $19; seniors $16; children (4-12) $9.

Fort Lauderdale classic boat tour, the Jungle Queen

The Jungle Queen has been cruising Fort Lauderdale for more than 50 years. (Photo courtesy Yachting Magazine.)
The Jungle Queen has been cruising Fort Lauderdale for more than 50 years. (Photo courtesy Yachting Magazine.)

The Jungle Queen Riverboat has been plying the waterways of Fort Lauderdale for more than 50 years – and I think some of their jokes are that old too.


When I worked at the Sun Sentinel’s old offices on the New River in the 1980s, I would leave work as the evening Jungle Queen tour came by at the same time every day. Over the loud speaker I would hear the same words, which went something like this: “Here in Venice of America, some people go to work by boat, some people go to school by boat and, do you see that building on your left? Some people go to jail by boat. That, ladies and gentleman, is the Broward County Jail, right on prime waterfront property.”  I would mouth the unchanging words along with the tour guide as I walked to my car.

Still, I love the Jungle Queen, precisely because it is old and corny. I tell guests to skip the cruises with meals and take the sightseeing tour, where you’ll get a little local history and some great views of my town.

Tickets: $23.49 adults/$13.86 children for sightseeing cruise; $60/$33 for barbecue dinner with entertainment on the Jungle Queen’s island. There is also an afternoon cruise with a show priced at $33 for adults.

 

Key West sunset boat tours

As early the 1960s, hippies in Key West had turned  watching the daily sunset into a celebration on Mallory Square. Sunset cruises weren’t far behind.

The Historic Key West Seaport has more than a dozen sunset cruises available. You’ll want to search reviews on TripAdvisor to see which one matches your style and pocketbook. Some are priced for splurges or special occasions; others have a higher volume/lower price model.

A few examples:

  • The yacht called the Party Cat promotes itself as the least expensive sunset cruise at $40 per person. Beer and soft drinks are included plus music and dancing.
  • The pirate-themed Jolly II Rover schooner has jaunty red sails, is $65 and is BYOB. It’s a two-hour tour.
  • The Key West Cocktail Cruise offers a cruise with cocktails for $80 per person, with champagne for $70 per person and craft beer and wine for $42 per person in the off-season.
  • Argo Navis  a newer addition to Key West, is a luxury catamaran with a smaller capacity. It offers beer and wine plus charcuterie items and cheese for $91 per person.
  • Schooner America 2.0 is a tall ship that serves champagne, wine, beer and hors d’oeurves for $96 per person.

 

Tarpon Springs boat tours

Boat to Anclote Key, a state park off Tarpon Springs
The Tarpon Springs boat tour stops at Anclote Key on a sandbar island.

The Greeks came to Tarpon Springs to dive for sponges, but by the 1920s, some sponging boats began taking visitors out for tours. The sponges are long gone, but the Greek heritage and boat tours live on.

One of the best things to do from the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks is take a boat tour, and it offers several delights.

First you see the Anclote River and hear a little Tarpon Springs history. Then you head into Gulf waters and spot dolphins.

A few miles out, on some tours you stop on Anclote Key, a pristine white-sand barrier island reachable only by boat. Anclote Key is a state park with an 1887 lighthouse. The tours give visitors a half hour to enjoy Anclote’s perfect sandy beaches — you’ll wish you could stay. Visiting the lighthouse is not part of the tour.


There are several types of cruises, ranging in price from $16 for a two hour dolphin cruise to $38 lunch or dinner cruise with a beach option.

 

The African Queen on Islamorada
The African Queen is the original vessel from director John Huston’s classic 1951 film by the same name. (Photos by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Key Largo’s African Queen, the real deal

This boat tour is more about the boat than the tour. The African Queen boat, the actual steamboat used in the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, has been beautifully restored to take visitors on Key Largo cruises.

Cruises are pricey — best for true fans yearning to sit exactly where Hepburn and Bogart did – but  intimate. The boat is licensed to take just six passengers at a time and the canal cruise, at $59 adults, is about 90 minutes long.

  • The African Queen
  • U.S. Hwy 1 at mile marker 100, Holiday Inn Docks
  • Key Largo, FL
  • 305-451-8080

 

Wakullah Springs and “The Black Lagoon”

One of the largest springs in the world and the deepest in Florida, Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee has a rich history. There are mastodon bones in the bottom of the river, archeological sites along its shores and it was also the setting for several early Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller, as well as “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

Boat tours started here in the late 1800s. The guide on today’s boat tour in Edward Ball Wakulla Spring State Park tells you stories of the mysterious spring (its source has never been located) while pointing out wildlife, which is plentiful. Ancient bald cypress trees line the picturesque river.

The boat tour is a two-mile loop that takes 45 minutes to an hour and it’s the best bargain you’ll find for Florida boat tours — $8 for adults and $5 for children.  The water rarely achieves the aquamarine clarity it once had, but when it does — usually in late winter or early spring – Wakulla Spring brings out its glass bottom boat for special tours.

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Updated 8/2019