When tourists came to Florida back in the days before Disney, they still went on “rides.” But in Old Florida, those rides were boat tours not roller coasters.
With 1,800 miles of coastline and 12,000 miles of rivers and streams, Florida has an endless variety of places to see by boat.
I’ve toured a lot of those waterways paddling a kayak or canoe, but when I have visitors who are not comfortable in a kayak, I always consider how I can get them out on the water in a larger boat.
My favorite boat tours? The ones a visitors might have taken 40 or 50 years ago. I figure the truly scenic spots were identified early and had a good chance to survive changing times.
Here are seven historic boat tours:
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 the clear water. Tickets: $9.99 per person.
(I also recommend kayakers head to Silver Springs. It 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 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 tour. Be sure to bring hats and sunscreen. Tours leave hourly and accept cash. Tickets: $12 adults; $6 children; cash only.
- Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours
- 312 E. Morse Blvd.
- Winter Park
Everglades airboat tours
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 roads in 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
- AirBoat Rides at Midway (operating since the 1930s) east of Orlando in Christmas. Rates range from $20 to $40 for adults.
St. Augustine 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. Tickets: Adults, $16.75; children (4-12) $7.75.
- Scenic Cruise St. Augustine
- St. Augustine Municipal Marina
- 111 Avenida Menendez
- St Augustine
Fort Lauderdale boat tour
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: $23.95 adults/$13.95 children for sightseeing cruise; $44.95/$23.95 for barbecue dinner with entertainment on the Jungle Queen’s island.
- Jungle Queen Riverboat cruise
- Bahia Mar Yachting Center
- 801 Seabreeze Blvd.
- Fort Lauderdale
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 a great variety of sunset cruises available. Some are “all you can drink” party boats with DJs and dancing. The pirate-themed Jolly II Rover schooner with its jaunty red sails is $35 and is BYOB.
A true historic option is Florida’s official flagship, the Schooner Western Union, a 130-foot tall ship built in Key West in 1939 to tend Western Union’s cable lines. The schooner trip lets you enjoy the view of Key West and nearby islands under golden end-of-day light. The $59 sunset cruise includes champagne, beer, wine, soft drinks, conch chowder and key lime pie. Children (4-12): $29.
- Schooner Western Union
- 201 William St.
- Key West
Tarpon Springs boat tours
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 tour the Anclote River and hear a little Tarpon Springs history. Then you head into Gulf waters and spot dolphins. A few miles out, 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 two competing boat tours offering similar tours:
- SunLine Cruises, 18 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; 727-944-4468;. Adults $20; children $10.
- Spongeorama Cruiselines, 510 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs; 727-943-2164;. Adults $18.95; children $9.95.