The first instalment in our Faces of Florida interviews is Sam Haught, the owner of Wild Florida Everglades Airboat Tours and 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!
Whats 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 theyll 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 wont see any development, houses or signs of human life on our airboat tours – once youre out there on the boats theres nothing around but 100% pure Florida Everglades at their finest!
Were also the only airboat and wildlife park experience in Orlando. Expanding our wildlife park has meant that we can now offer the only -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 theres 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 – theres 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, yknow? Theyre just incredible birds.
And of course theres 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 weve seen it all, our gators always manage to surprise us! Ill 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 theyre 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 sideso if youre running away, dont run in zig-zags!
The famous Florida ‘Gators!
Ill 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 arent native but theyve been released into our ecosystem. For example when people empty their home aquarium plants into surrounding lakes theres a plant called hydrilla thats really choking out the waterways. Theres 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. Its only a matter of time before they adapt to our colder climate and spread north into our ecosystem.
Scary stuff! Youve 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 somebodys pool, backyard, front door or living room (yep, its happened!), theyll call a state licensed trapper to come get them.
But once a gators been trapped, theyre labelled Nuisance Gators and cant be released back into the wild. They either have to be euthanised or relocated to a captive environment. So thats 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 cant 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 weve been raising exotic animals for decades; things like zebra, water buffalo, watusi, emu, zebu and zedonks.
Its a zebra-donkey cross. Theyre 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. Youll 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 whats happening next at Wild Florida?
We have loads of plans that were really excited about! By January well have opened a massive, beautifully