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.
Seeing Florida by boat is still one of the best ways to enjoy all it offers.
On a floating getaway, you can reach places where there are no roads and glimpse views you can’t see any other way. Some of the boats themselves are one-of-a-kind attractions. Others are such classic Florida experiences that they have been carrying visitors on these routes for more than 100 years.
There are dozens of boat tours in Florida, but here are seven that stand out for their history or the special experience they offer.
SILVER SPRINGS: FLORIDA’S OLDEST GLASS-BOTTOM BOAT TOUR
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 near the clear water.
The glass-bottom boats have been powered by electricity since the 1930s, and because the trip is short — 30 to 45 minutes — they’re also inexpensive ($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 I recommend you 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.)
My favorite way to see Silver Springs, though, is by kayak, which you can rent at the park. It is, without question, one of the prettiest rivers to kayak in Florida.
Silver Springs Glass-Bottom Boats, 5656 E. Silver Springs Blvd., Silver Springs; 352-236-7148, silversprings.com/glass-bottom-boats
ST. AUGUSTINE: 100 YEARS TOURING WITH ONE FAMILY
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, Capt. 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. A 75-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.)
The cruises do not operate Sept. 3 to Oct. 3.
WINTER PARK: 80 YEARS AND COUNTING
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 only cash or checks. ($14 adults; $7 children.)
WAKULLA SPRINGS: MAKE LIKE TARZAN AND EXPLORE ‘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, archaeological 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.”
The guide on the 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 river.
The boat tour is a two-mile loop that takes 45 minutes to an hour and it’s a bargain ($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.
KEY WEST: SEE SUNSET FROM THE WATER
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 about 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 people celebrating special occasions; others are doing a higher volume/lower price business.
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. sunsetwatersports.info
The pirate-themed Jolly II Rover, an 80-foot schooner with jaunty red sails, is $65 and is BYOB. It’s a two-hour tour. schoonerjollyrover.com
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 as a low-season special. keywestcocktailcruise.com
Argo Navis, a newer addition to Key West, is a luxury catamaran with a smaller capacity. It offers beer, wine plus charcuterie items and cheese for $91 per person. sailargonavis.com
Schooner America 2.0 is a tall ship that serves champagne, wine, beer and hors d’oeurves for $96 per person. sail-keywest.com
TARPON SPRINGS: HISTORIC CRUISE PLUS A DAZZLING ISLAND
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. On some cruises, you head a few miles out and 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 brief time 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.
KEY LARGO: BE LIKE BOGIE ON THE AFRICAN QUEEN
You can’t do this anywhere else: The African Queen boat, the actual steamboat used in the 1951 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine 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. Highway 1 at Mile Marker 100, Holiday Inn Docks, Key Largo. 305-451-8080, africanqueenflkeys.com
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