I will admit that it has been a source of shame for me that these wetlands that sit less than an hour from my front door, this national park that I would have visited had it been anywhere else, had heretofore gone unexplored. So imagine my delight when I opened my email and found the following offer: $27 for a three hour Everglades tour ($55 value). And best of all, I did not even have to undertake the one hour drive since the package included transportation from Bayside Marketplace, just a few blocks from home.
Sartorial confusion aside, the ride over was a relatively quick one that finally answered for me the age old question "Where exactly is this Miccosukee Bingo Hall that everyone talks about?" Turns out it is right next to our eventual destination, the somewhat ramshackle souvenir shop- animal park combo known as Gator Park.
This all-in-one Everglades stop shop appears to have had a small zoo at one point, but now consisted of a pair of half-plucked peacocks, some empty terrariums and one lone boa, who had sadly given up on the idea of escape.
But the unimpressiveness of the 'park' was not really an issue. I was there for the airboat ride and the possibility of spotting a gator or two- something which, out of sheer luck and timing, I managed to achieve on the bus ride over.
Right off the bat, at the start of the 45 minute ride, our knowledgeable guide spotted a turtle, swimming alongside the boat. This would mark the one and only time that he seemed surprised at seeing one of the local denizens.
As I soon learned, the gators are massively territorial and do not really cover a whole lot of ground in a day. Our guide not only had names for each gator we saw but also a pretty precise idea of where to find them. When one particular gator, Smiley, was not at his designated spot, the guide tossed a stone in that general direction. Seconds later, we had Smiley.
Smiley was a pro, he patiently posed for photos before re-submerging himself among the reeds. During this photo op, the guide explained about the National Park (which is actually considered a river and not a wetlands as I had assumed), its flora, fauna and history. The questions that followed from the bikini brigade reflected that they heard nothing of this. By way of example: after a lengthy explanation of why we were not going to see crocodiles- they reside in another deeper part of the park- one girl asked when we were going to see a croc.
After the ride was the part of the tour that I had been dreading ever since I had reread the details of the Groupon, the evening prior. It was the "animal show". Or as I imagined it, the part of the day when some jackass harasses a gator for the benefit of a busload of tourists who were going to think it was a croc anyways. It was bad enough that one of the possible activities was posing for a photo with Snappy, possibly the most misnamed creature ever, seeing as the poor thing had his jaws taped shut.
Fortunately for all involved, the presentation ended up being more of a 'show-and-tell' type lesson on some of the native creatures than a man-vs-animal fiasco. The emcee went through his well-rehearsed spiel, while showing us a scorpion,
a comically rounded toad,
a very mellow (and decidedly non-stinky) skunk,
and finally, of course an adult gator. The extent of his contact with the gator was a touching of his snout, which the gator recognized as a cue to open his mouth so that the show could move right along.
I still don't honestly see the point of displaying these creatures in captivity, particularly when their kin are roaming freely in the park's backyard, but as far as 'animal shows' go, the best I will say is that this was not awful.
I much preferred wandering around on my own, during the scheduled lunch break and checking out some of the other visitors, which was actually my plan b. Plan a, which involved freeing poor Snappy proved a bust.
All in all, the day was a good introduction to the Everglades and has led me to plan an overnight visit in the near future. Now if only Groupon would offer has a deal on the Mickosukee Hostel and Bingo Emporium...