After graduating from university I moved to Central Florida to pursue a career at the Walt Disney World Resort. I sort of floundered after college and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew that I was good at customer service and I had a passion for the Walt Disney Company. For a few months I thought I’d move on and go get a “grown up job” as I called it, only to find myself making a career at the Walt Disney World Resort.
After so much time in Florida, I had to acknowledge that I was becoming a Floridian. I spent my time going to work and visiting with friends, but I remember while growing up my mother saying things like, “I can’t believe people who have lived in *insert town here* haven’t been to all of the famous tourist destinations!” She made a point of having us visit important areas in whichever city we were living in so we didn’t miss out on anything. Of course Central Florida is famous for its vast array of theme parks, many of which I made sure to visit. I was began to feel like a tourist however and not like a local. After living in Florida for two years, in 2014, I decided that I wanted to see the Everglades National Park. Florida is famous for having alligators, but I had yet to see one in the wild and I knew that the Everglades would probably be a good place to start.
On a March day I messaged a friend, Samuel, and when I found out his days off coincided with mine I started planning a day trip to the Everglades National Park. I asked my peers at work if they had ever been and if they had, if they had any suggestions of things that we should see. None of my peers had ever taken a visit to the Everglades, even the people who had lived in Florida all of their lives. I couldn’t understand why no one had made the four hour trip to one of the closest National Parks, and then I knew I was becoming my mother. Without any advice to go on, Samuel and I planned to visit the Shark Valley region of the park. Shark Valley was only four hours from Orlando and was the closest area of the park we could reasonably visit for a day trip.
At 5 o’clock AM I drove to Samuel’s house to pick him up and start our journey. We arrived at Shark Valley by late morning and immediately we saw alligators in the waterways near the road, I was overjoyed. We went to the visitor center and made a plan for the day. The Shark Valley area has a loop road, however it is not passable by personal vehicles, it is only used for the park trams that ferry visitors from the visitor center to an overlook halfway around the 15 mile loop, or you can choose to bike the loop. Samuel and I decided to forgo the tram and thought that cycling the 15 miles would be a better way to see the park as we’d be able to stop whenever we chose. Renting the bikes was simple enough and we had a couple of hours to make the trip without being charged for using the bikes for additional time. We foolishly thought that making the 15 mile trip in 2 hours seemed reasonable and easy.
We set out on our bicycling adventure and stopped as soon as we saw an alligator near the path. There were so many alligators sunbathing because the water is still cool in mid March so the alligators sunbath to keep warm. We eventually stopped being intrigued by the alligators and simply ignored them. We got to the overlook structure, parked our bikes, and made our way up to the top of the tower. There were so many alligators in the small pools near the path to the tower that gators were seemingly stacked atop one another, but they were not at all bothered by the visitors that were gawking and photographing them.
Samuel and I began our journey to return the bikes. I’m not sure what happened because even though the lookout tower was the approximate halfway point of the trail, the second half of the trip was a nightmare. It seemed that the return trip was twice as far and took twice as long (it’s only 1 mile longer). We saw roseate spoonbills in the marsh on our return trip and as we approached the visitor center there were a number of baby alligators that Sam and I stopped to watch, though we made sure not to linger too long as we didn’t want to attract the attention of a mother alligator. Even though we didn’t quite make the trip in the allotted time, I think the rental employees too pity on us being 30 minutes late and didn’t charge us, which was good because neither Samuel nor I wanted to pay the additional fee.
We left the National Park and made our way to Big Cypress National Preserve, which was to the west of the park. Somehow I let Samuel convince me to take a back road to get to the highway and we ended up on a rough dirt road in my tiny Honda Civic. I think I would have strangled him except I was white knuckling the steering wheel. We passed a group of people who waved, and we waved back but kept driving because all I could think was, ‘we’re in a remote area of the Florida swamps and if I stop I’m going to be murdered.’ (You may think that’s dramatic, but have you heard about “Florida Man?!”). Eventually we were back on a paved road and on a highway. We stopped briefly at the National Preserve Visitor Center and then we began the four hour journey back to Orlando.
I was happy that I made the effort to visit the Everglades National Park. Even though many think that the Everglades is just a swamp it was a special adventure that made me feel like I was part of the special club of Everglades visitors. This visit to the Everglades would be the first, but not my last visit to a National Park as an adult.
***Bike rentals it seems are done by day now and not limited by a time frame
You can visit the site for tram reservations or bike rentals https://www.sharkvalleytramtours.com/
Find out more about Shark Valley https://www.nps.gov/ever/planyourvisit/svdirections.htm