When tourists came to Florida back in the days before Disney, they 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 that are free of roads and glimpse rare views you can’t see by car. Some of the boats themselves are one-of-a-kind attractions. Others are such classic Florida experiences that they have been carrying visitors on the same routes for more than 100 years.
There are dozens of boat tours in Florida, but here are seven — from St. Augustine to the Keys — that stand out for their history or the special experience they offer. They are listed from north to south.
Ancient bones in “The Black Lagoon”: Wakulla Springs
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 (1-850-561-7276; floridastateparks.org).
100-year-old tour company: St. Augustine
A hundred years ago, Henry Flagler was bringing Florida’s first tourists to St. Augustine, on the Atlantic coast, via his train and hosting them at his grand Ponce de Leon Hotel, 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 the waters of St. Augustine, a city that was already historic and filled with Spanish Colonial architecture.
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. Dolphin sightings are common ($19 adults; $16 seniors; $9 children 4-12; 1-904-824-1806, scenic-cruise.com).
Florida’s oldest glass-bottom-boat tour: Silver Springs
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 moneymaking 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, keeping the traditional glass-bottom-boat tours alive. They offer a stunning sight. Visitors can see the bottom of the springs through 20 or 30 feet of water the color of a swimming pool. Such visibility allows for wildlife sightings, including alligators, turtles, herons and a range of large fish.
The glass-bottom boats have been powered by electricity since the 1930s, and the trip runs 30 to 45 minutes ($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 (1-352-236-7148, silversprings.com/glass-bottom-boats).
The jungles of central Florida: Winter Park
Long before Mickey Mouse came to Orlando, folks were enjoying “jungle cruises” there. 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; 1-407-644-4056, scenicboattours.com).
A dazzling island: Tarpon Springs
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 in this Gulf destination just north of St. Petersburg.
The boat tours that depart from the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks offer several delights. Generally, tours explore the Anclote River and deliver a little Tarpon Springs history. Then they head into Gulf waters to 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.
There are several types of cruises, ranging in price from $16 for a two-hour dolphin cruise to a $38 lunch or dinner cruise with a beach option (spongedocks.net).
The African Queen: Key Largo
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 for adults, is about 90 minutes long (1-305-451-8080, africanqueenflkeys.com).
Sunset from the water: Key West
As early as 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.
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 (1-855-378-6386, 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 (1-305-304-2235, schoonerjollyrover.com).
The Key West Cocktail Cruise offers a cruise with craft cocktails, craft beer and wine for $80 per person (1-305-395-9796, 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 $102 per person and a Sunday brunch sail with bloody Marys, mimosas and hors d’oeuvres for $129 (1-305-509-1771, sailargonavis.com).
Schooner America 2.0 is a tall ship that serves champagne, wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres for $96 per person (1-305-293-7245, sail-keywest.com).