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Faces of Florida: We talk to Sam from Wild Florida
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The first instalment in our Faces of Florida interviews is Sam Haught, the owner of Wild Florida Everglades Airboat Tours & Wildlife Park.
A family-run business, Wild Florida not only run airboat tours through the Florida Everglades, they also have an ever-growing wildlife park! We caught up with owner Sam to find out more…..
Wild Florida is a family business that you guys started yourselves – what made you decide to start doing airboat rides?
Well, being native Floridians, my family always had this dream of owning the most exciting and pristine airboat tour company in Central Florida. It was mainly a case of finding the right location to do it. We spent years of searching for the perfect location before we stumbled across the beautiful shores of Cypress Lake at the headwaters of the Everglades – and Wild Florida was born!
What’s it like working with your family day in, day out?
Oh boy, working with family can be the best part of running a business but it can also be the worst part! But I think the fact that we are family owned and operated means that all of our guests really get to experience the true Southern hospitality and old Florida charm. We like to think that personal touch gives them an experience they’ll never forget.
The Wild Florida Family!
You say you were determined to start up the best airboat company in Central Florida – what is it that gives Wild Florida the edge against the competition?
Well, we guarantee that you won’t see any development, houses or signs of human life on our airboat tours – once you’re out there on the boats there’s nothing around but 100% pure Florida Everglades at their finest!
We’re also the only airboat and wildlife park experience in Orlando. Expanding our wildlife park has meant that we can now offer the only ½-day airboat attraction. Everyone who takes our airboat tours gets free admission to the wildlife park, which I think is incomparable to any of the other Everglades tour companies out there. We promise there’s nothing quite like us in the state of Florida!
So why use airboats over other types of boat?
Most of the time our tours travel in 6 inches of water or even less, so airboats are really the only boats that can navigate the Everglades’ shallow water. Also, the swamps, rivers and marshes that make up our ecosystem are so full of vegetation that the traditional outboard boat propellers are just impossible to use.
The Wild Florida Airboat in action!
You must be an expert on the creatures that live in the Everglades by now. Which are your favourites? Which ones do visitors get most excited about seeing?
Personally, I love seeing all the different species of birds in the Everglades – there’s literally hundreds! Some of my favourites are the purple gallinule, falcons, snail kite, caracara, blue-winged teal, mallard ducks, limpkin, roseate spoonbill, bald eagles, painted buntings…. I could go on for a while!
Our guests are usually most interested in the 16 pairs of bald eagles. We see them year-round at the swamp and these guys really command your respect, y’know? They’re just incredible birds.
And of course there’s the big guys themselves – the gators! I guess you know everything there is to know about them?
We know a lot, but right about the time we think we’ve seen it all, our gators always manage to surprise us! I’ll tell you some of the things I think are most amazing about alligators:
- Their black skin serves two purposes – camouflage and attracting sunlight
- They have an extra clear eyelid that works as swim goggles when they’re underwater
- They have the 2nd-strongest bite force on planet earth (behind the crocodile)
- They have 80 sharp teeth that are designed to bite - and hold.
- They bite side to side…so if you’re running away, don’t run in zig-zags!
The famous Florida 'Gators!
I’ll make sure I remember that! What are the main issues you guys encounter in the Everglades?
The main problem we have is with invasive species - plants and animals that aren’t native but they’ve been released into our ecosystem. For example when people empty their home aquarium plants into surrounding lakes… there’s a plant called hydrilla that’s really choking out the waterways. There’s also aquarium fish like tilapia, oscars and others that have been released and are now thriving in our swamps.
Our biggest fear is the spread of pythons and other constrictor species that have taken root in the Everglades 2 hours south of us. It’s only a matter of time before they adapt to our colder climate and spread north into our ecosystem.
Scary stuff! You’ve got a wildlife park too – will we see gators there? Where do you get them from?
Yes you will! Most of the gators in the park are nuisance trapped gators… troublemakers! When a gator ends up in somebody’s pool, backyard, front door or living room (yep, it’s happened!), they’ll call a state licensed trapper to come get them.
But once a gator’s been trapped, they’re labelled “Nuisance Gators” and can’t be released back into the wild. They either have to be euthanised or relocated to a captive environment. So that’s where we come in! Wild Florida has a standing agreement to take any trapped gators - and we promise to give them a happy, pampered life.
I bet those wayward gators can’t believe their luck! What other kinds of animals do you have at the park? Where do they come from?
Well, at home we have a ranch where we’ve been raising exotic animals for decades; things like zebra, water buffalo, watusi, emu, zebu and zedonks.
It’s a zebra-donkey cross. They’re beautiful things.
This is what a Zedonk looks like!
Wow. So you raise them yourselves?
We do! We have so many amazing creatures that obviously we wanted to include some of them in our Wild Florida exhibits. You’ll also see lemurs, tropical birds, reptiles, skunks, raccoons, bobcats, farm animals and deer at the park.
Life must be pretty exciting down there! Can you give us any sneak peeks into what’s happening next at Wild Florida?
We have loads of plans that we’re really excited about! By January we’ll have opened a massive, beautifully-finished meeting space overlooking the swamp, for hosting events, weddings, family reunions, birthday parties and conventions. It’ll be a fully-enclosed, air-conditioned building with seating for 200! There’ll also be a restaurant BBQ next door with Southern-style smoked meats, fried alligator, hamburgers and hotdogs.
We’re also planning to double the size of our wildlife park. There’ll be 10 new animal exhibits, a bridge across the gator pond, a walk-in bird aviary, a playground and a petting zoo.
We just can’t wait, and I’m confident that our guests are going to love the new additions just as much as we do!
Sam, we’re sure they will! Thanks for talking to us.
Wild Florida Airboat Tours start from just £12 - Book your Everglades experience now!
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