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.
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.
When asked what he loves most about Billie’s Swamp Safari, guide Shea Hayley beams and says, “Everything.” He not only drives swamp buggies and airboats, but also wrangles alligators and snakes. “I enjoy working with all the animals,” he says. “We never know what’s going to happen when we wake up each day. It’s adventurous.”
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.
“Billie’s Swamp Safari is a great place to escape the crowds and noise and experience the real natural and historical side of Florida,” says Ed Woods, the park’s director. 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 recreated 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.
“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.”
Billie’s Swamp Safari also offers two-bed and dorm-style chickees for overnight stays, a casual restaurant serving everything from burgers to gator tail, a nature boardwalk through a cypress stand, a souvenir shop and animal exhibits. Two daily shows – one dedicated to snakes and one to “swamp critters” – provide a greater understanding of the wildlife that calls Big Cypress home. The interactive Swamp Critter show even allows audience members to pet a skunk, a nine-banded armadillo and a small American alligator (with its mouth securely banded shut).
“I think it’s something that everyone visiting the area should see,” says Karen Brown, a Miami resident on her first trip to Billie’s Swamp Safari. “People always think of neon and South Beach, but this is an interesting piece of Florida history and culture.”
Billie Swamp Safari is located midway between Naples and Fort Lauderdale, off I-75 (Alligator Alley). Take Exit 49 and head north 19 miles to the park. Wear a Halloween costume and receive a 50 percent discount on Swamp Buggy Eco-Tours throughout October. For more information, call 800-GO-SAFARI or 863-983-6101 or visit www.billieswampsafari.travel.