With a roar, the swamp buggy springs to life and bounces down the muddy tracks through the Big Cypress Seminole Reservation. The crazy vehicle, with its elevated, pontoon-shaped body and sun-deflecting canopy, looks part military, part Hollywood adventure movie. Its oversized tires sweep through ponds in the roadway as if they’re tiny puddles, and within minutes, the buggy has trundled out of sight of its base camp at Billie’s Swamp Safari.
These off-road warriors carry up to 30 passengers deep into the reservation’s 2,200-acre eco-park, where the dense hardwood hammocks occasionally threaten to engulf the roads and wildlife pops up around every bend. The vegetation is pure Florida Everglades — oaks, sabal palms, strangler figs and maples — but the park provides sanctuary to a mix of native and exotic species. It is also offering this month only a half-price ticket for its premium eco-tour to those who come in Halloween costume, making the $25 tour a $12.50 rate.
This means that in October, the guests may look nearly as exciting as the wildlife, but the latter are still the stars. Alligators, elusive panthers, raccoons, wood storks, roseate spoonbills and herons share the grounds with Asian water buffalo, Indian antelope and African ostriches. There are feeding stations and a perimeter fence, but the wildlife is free to roam: On this particular day, a water buffalo grazed right next to the park’s airboat dock.
Billie’s Swamp Safari provides the only break in the trip between Naples and Fort Lauderdale via Alligator Alley and access to the largest Seminole reservation in Florida. Before the park was established in 1993, curious travelers often drove through the reservation trying to catch glimpses of Seminole life, pulling right into residents’ driveways in the process; now the tribe can maintain its privacy while still welcoming an estimated 300,000 people to the attraction annually.
The property’s buildings are constructed in the chickee style — palmetto thatch over a frame of cypress logs — developed in the early 1800s, when Seminoles needed quick-to-construct, disposable shelter while on the run from U.S. troops. Swamp buggy tours stop at a re-created camp for a tribal history lesson and the park’s evening activity roster includes Seminole campfire stories.
A 20-minute airboat rides serve as the aquatic counterpoint to the buggy’s land-based adventure, weaving through cypress domes and bobbing around bird rookeries. Alligator sightings are frequent — though never guaranteed — and on the morning runs, before the mucky bottom gets churned up, abundant fish are visible in the shallow, fresh water.
Acasual restaurant serves everything from burgers to gator tail; there’s a nature boardwalk through a cypress stand, a souvenir shop and animal exhibits. An interactive Swamp Critter show allows audience members to pet a skunk, a nine-banded armadillo and a small American alligator (with its mouth securely banded shut).
“I had only seen this on TV,” says Sally Lagman, who was visiting with her husband from the Philippines. “It was fun to really be there, seeing the alligators, birds and fish.”
IF YOU GO
Billie Swamp Safari offers a half-off rate to visitors in costume, with autumn shows about the reptiles and critters that live in the Everglades.
* Where: Big Cypress Reservation, Exit 49 off I-75 (Alligator Alley) between Naples and Fort Lauderdale
* When: The park opens at 8:30 a.m. and closes at 5; tours begin at 10 a.m. with 20-minute airboat tours each half hour and 60-minute ecotours each hour; last airboat tour is at 4
* Admission: Park, free; airboat $15 for ages 4 and up; ecotours, $25 adults, $23 seniors and $15 ages 4 to 12; 45-minute reptile and critter shows are $8, $4 for ages 4 to 12
* Information: (800) GO SAFARI or (863) 983-6101
Editor's note: A version of this story was printed in the Naples Sun-Times.