Airboat Tours Offer Lessons in History and Florida Ecology
by PAUL CATALA
photos by MICHAEL WILSON
For the past seven years, Andy Denton’s life has been skimming along.
In 2014, Denton bought Alligator Cove Airboat Nature Tours, which features airboat tours on and around Lake Hatchineha, the Kissimmee River and Lake Kissimmee. It’s the most recent acquisition for the Denton family. Denton’s grandfather Leon Denton bought Camp Mack Fish Camp — where Alligator Cove is now situated — in 1947.
And it’s not just a business venture for Andy Denton, whose family still owns a home in the middle of the approximately 50-acre fish camp. It’s an opportunity for Andy Denton to inform and share with those not familiar with Florida outside of Disney World about “the real Florida.” He grew up in those environments, among the fauna and foliage that make Central Florida and more specifically, the Lake Wales Ridge area, unique.
“Where we ride within the state of Florida is pretty unique,” Denton says.
“If you go to the Everglades down south, it’s sawgrass, canals. If you go north of Orlando to Lake Toho, you’re going to see development, houses all over. But where we ride — Lake Kissimmee, the Kissimmee River — they’re untouched for 500 years. It’s just a beautiful place to ride; we’re pretty lucky,” says Denton, 54, who bought his first airboat when he was 20 years old.
At Alligator Cove, Denton and lifelong friend Dwight Keen Jr. pilot the airboats. Keen is part of the locally renowned Zipprer family that still owns property on both sides of the river. Like Denton, he is deeply familiar with the Kissimmee River.
Denton and Keen explain how the Kissimmee River and its tributaries functioned before they were “straightened out” in the 1960s.
From the Alligator Cove docks, airboat captains Keen and Denton — who learned to pilot boats using his grandfather’s rentals — run the airboat tours.
Denton says larger tour boats hold 15 to 25 passengers, his three airboats hold six each and are more accessible to smaller natural areas of the rivers, canals, tributaries and lakes.
“It makes for a more personal and authentic ride. We believe it allows us to get closer to the wildlife, as well,” says Denton, a 1985 graduate of Lake Wales High School who received an agriculture degree from the University of Florida in 1992. “The wildlife sighting and smaller boats get us a lot of repeat business, and the company relies on that.”
Among the menagerie of animals that can possibly be encountered during a one-hour airboat ride are alligators, eagles, deer, turkeys, and wild pigs. One of the more unusual sights was an alligator eating another alligator. He says he recently saw an 11-foot gator wandering with a 7-foot gator in its mouth.
Other animals on visual parade for guests include cows on the lakeshore, and guests even have been able to witness calves being born in adjacent pastures. Alligator Cove tours also take a lot of birding groups on excursions.
“We’ve seen blue herons pulling water snakes right out of the water,” he adds.
Although visitors often ask about the possibility of seeing a Florida panther on a Nature Tour, Denton says that has yet to happen. He says there’s always a vast array of native foliage to brighten trips, including wild hibiscus blooms, earthen pallets of the purple flowers of pickerel weeds and the vibrant green of cypress tree leaf growth.
“Every trip is different; we try to show you everything we can possibly find out there that day. Of course, it’s Mother Nature we’re dealing with, but we’re riding and hunting and trying to find everything we can possibly show you,” he says.
Denton, who lives in Babson Park with his wife and three kids, says Alligator Cove’s busy season is November to April when he and Keen run two to three trips per day, six days a week. The boats are on the water from daylight to dark, with pilots sharing the Kissimmee River history throughout the trips.
One repeat Alligator Cove customer is Lake Wales’ Patti Bostick. Until the pandemic set in, she says she would take friends out for Alligator Cove airboat rides five to six times per year at $50 plus tax per person, per hour ride, with children riding for half price.
Bostick, 69, a native of Fleming Island near Jacksonville, says she’s always amazed at the knowledge Denton and Keen have of the land. She says they’re “people who really love their home state of Florida, what they do and sharing with people their love of this part of the state.”
“You get a really unique experience from someone who grew up here,” she says. “The airboat ride is a lot of fun and they make it very, very interesting and fun for whoever goes with them.”
Overall, Denton says he thinks Alligator Cove’s Airboat Nature Tours have been so successful because of their knowledge of the area. He adds that it’s the tidbits of Florida lore combined with the reality of seeing natural habitats, wildlife and foliage in person that make the 350- to 525-horsepower airboat rides not only exciting but also informative.
“When I bought Alligator Cove, I saw an opportunity to get back on the river that I was born and raised on that I love,” Denton says.
“There’s still a lot of stories to tell out there.”
You can learn more about Alligator Cove Airboat Nature Tours at alligatorcoveairboatnaturetours.com or by calling 863-696-0406.