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 almost 150 years ago.
Clearly, they were on to something; — there are few better ways to see the state’s beauty than on a Florida boat tour. 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. In many cases, these boat tours use vessels that look just like the originals.
How many of them have you taken?
Silver Springs: Oldest glass-bottom boat tour in Florida
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.
There’s an inexpensive 30-minute tour — $13 for adults and $12 for adults and kids 6 to 12 and it’s offered 365 days a year.
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.)
- Silver Springs Glass-Bottom Boats
- 5656 E. Silver Springs Blvd.
- Silver Springs
Central Florida’s historic Florida boat tour in Winter Park
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 — $16 adults; $8 children.
- Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours
- 312 E. Morse Blvd.
- Winter Park
The noisiest Florida boat tour: Everglades airboats
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. As of 2022, tours are $26 adults; $15 children 11 to 6.
- AirBoat Rides at Midway (operating since the 1930s) east of Orlando in Christmas. As of 2022, tours are $40 adults (including tax.)
St. Augustine historic boat tour
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.
As of 2022, prices are $21 adults; $10 children 4-12.
- Scenic Cruise St. Augustine
- St. Augustine Municipal Marina
- 111 Avenida Menendez
- St Augustine
Fort Lauderdale’s classic Florida boat tour, the Jungle Queen
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.
As of 2022, tickets range from $25 for adults for the sightseeing cruise to $63 for adults for barbecue dinner with entertainment on the Jungle Queen’s island.
- Jungle Queen Riverboat cruise
- Bahia Mar Yachting Center
- 801 Seabreeze Blvd.
- Fort Lauderdale
The Florida boat tour that is a Key West tradition: 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 Key West Historic 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. Beer and soft drinks are included plus music and dancing.
- The pirate-themed Jolly II Rover schooner has jaunty red sails and is BYOB. It’s a two-hour tour.
- The Key West Cocktail Cruise offers a cruise with cocktails, champagne or craft beer and wine at differing price points.
- Argo Navis a newer addition to Key West, is a luxury catamaran with a smaller capacity.
- Schooner America 2.0 is a tall ship that serves champagne, wine, beer and hors d’oeurves for $96 per person.
Tarpon Springs: Florida boat tours to see island, dolphins
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, with prices starting around $20.
- Spongeorama Cruiselines
- 510 Dodecanese Blvd.
- Tarpon Springs
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 but intimate — $60 for adults in 2022, so this one is best for true fans yearning to sit exactly where Hepburn and Bogart did. The boat is licensed to take just six passengers at a time and the canal cruise is about 90 minutes long.
- The African Queen
- U.S. Hwy 1 at mile marker 100, Holiday Inn Docks
- Key Largo, FL
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 at $8 for adults in 2022, it’s the best bargain you’ll find for Florida boat tours. 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.
- Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
- 465 Wakulla Park Drive
- Wakulla Springs, 32327
A note from the editor:
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.