Something for everyone

the Indian River Queen

With its glistening red paddle wheel, the Indian River Queen with a boatload of sightseers heads out for a scenic tour. The boat is reminiscent of the paddle wheel riverboats on the Mississippi. INDIAN RIVER QUEEN

Businesses offer tours on everything from paddle wheel to pedal boats

Penny Flaherty never intended to go into the boat tour business. It started innocently enough. She saw a pontoon boat at an auction. She bought it, named her prize Islander, rolled up her sleeves and began restoring it. 

When she finished and it was time to launch she realized it would be Mother’s Day — which led her to decide to honor mothers with free rides. “People were all lined up and I got really excited seeing them,” she said. 

They loved it, and she loved them loving it — and a boat tour entrepreneur was born in 1999. “I realized we didn’t have a tour boat around here and that made me decide to go ahead with boat tours,” she said.

Her success led her to have two Trident pontoons built so she could do even more — which turned out to be a very good thing because in 1999 Hurricane Irene smashed her first boat to bits. The Trident boats each had room for 55 sightseers. “People who came from all over the world took our tours,” she said. 

She again found herself at a boat auction in 2003 where a beautiful paddle wheel boat in need of serious renovation came up … and, imagining the effect it would have on anyone seeing it, she bought it. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” she said. “And it turned out to need a lot more renovation than I had thought.” 


Rambling Rose, as it was then known, “was originally built by T.D. Vinette Co. in 1983-84 for the owners of Pioneer Inn in Oshkosh, Wisconsin,” said T.D.’s daughter, Joan Vinette. “They provided scenic cruises for their guests on the large Wisconsin inland Lake Winnebago. At her initial christening she was called Valley Queen. 

Two long years of renovations followed her purchase, Flaherty said. Now named Indian River Queen, she learned it had to meet strict U.S. Coast Guard requirements. Many had to do with safety but work included a brand new paddle wheel, new railings and even widening of the staircases. It now goes into drydock for inspection and repairs every two years. 

Plans for touring were set, they had a dock, when — wham — there came Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 to destroy their intended home. Much negotiating and maneuvering later, they ended up at the Cocoa Village Marina where Flaherty owns a dock for Indian River Queen.

Cindy Sundin from Satellite Beach loves the tours the Queen offers. “It’s fun to cruise up and down and look for dolphins, and I’m looking forward to seeing a rocket launch,” she said. “It’s a nice way for a family to be together.” She likes to go for birthdays and anniversaries, and has two more cruises planned. 

The Queen hopes to add weekly scenic historical tours called It Takes a Village to its current public dinner show and scenic lunch cruises. It also offers private charters for special events.

bioluminescence beneath and around a kayak

On a dark night, light springs from tiny creatures beneath and around a kayak. It’s called bioluminescence. BK ADVENTURES


osprey in nest


Living on the Space Coast has its perks, and one of them is that it offers all kinds of boat tours for anyone who wants to get out on the water — airboats to kayaks, day or night, scenic and wildlife. Nature figures highly in the tours, as does bioluminescence where underwater creatures that create light turn the surface to glowing colors, and of course — being the Space Coast — rocket launches leaving arcing, brilliant white trails against the blue sky.

Wildside Tours is one that focuses on the flora and fauna of the Space Coast. Owner Jeanette Vasbonder bought the business in 2012 after working for years for the former owner. It seemed a perfect fit because she loves nature and loves to share what she knows with her passengers. 

They head into the Thousand Islands Nature Preserve of Cocoa Beach and the Banana River Lagoon where they find manatees, also called sea cows because they forage for grasses on the river bottom, leaping dolphins, sunning alligators, and all kinds of wild birds. With their 26-person boats they can make their way into smaller channels that may not be accessible to larger boats. 

sunset on the river


With all the wildlife, their trips are perfect for photography. In fact, if you visit its website you’ll see Jeanette Vasbonder’s photos taken with her Canon camera. 

Bioluminescence is one of those sights people never forget. BK Adventures offers tours in transparent kayaks so the light from various creatures that glow under the water at night sparkles and shoots in streams and waves under and around the kayaks. The splashing water around the boat’s paddles will glow. It’s best done when the moon isn’t very bright. What paddlers will experience depends on the time of year. A page on its website called 33 Fun Facts about bioluminescence explains in simple language how it works. 

Bioluminescence can be seen in the water around Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge near Titusville, in the Indian River Lagoon near Titusville, on the Banana River near Cape Canaveral and around Kiwanis Island near Cocoa Beach. Check out more on its website — it is packed full of information and photos — just follow the links on and you will see explanations of various things. 




For a wild change of pace, an airboat ride is perfect. They’re loud and they’re fast, unlike kayaks and rafts, and will take you skimming across the water in marshy places where you could not go otherwise. Ear protection in the form of headsets is provided to make things quieter and so you can hear the narration. It’s an extremely exciting way to tour and the kids will love it.

If you decide on an airboat tour, how about one that takes off from a historical old fishing camp? Camp Holly Airboat Rides and Fish Camp is on the St. Johns River. The 122-year-old camp was opened by Bob Walls and in 1901 was one of many fish camps in the area. In 1972, airboat tours started, making it one of the oldest airboat businesses in the state, owner Curtis McKinney said. 

“We offer airboat tours, night rides, and eco and artifact tours of the St. Johns River and the surrounding wetland,” McKinney said. On land, Camp Holly has a 40-foot observation tower overlooking the St. Johns where photographers can snap long shots of the river or zoom in on gators or other wildlife. The camp offers fishing tackle and bait, a gift shop, and even a full restaurant and bar. Weather permitting, live music provides entertainment on the back deck on Saturdays and Sundays.


A manatee swims barely under the surface. The air-breathing mammals can been seen by those enjoying a boat tour around the Space Coast. Above, pelicans sit among the twigs and leaves of a tree; a roseate spoonbill shows off its beautiful pink wings and spoon-like bill; a leaping dolphin plays alongside the boat. WILDSIDE TOURS PHOTOS


The quiet beauty of a sailboat tour with Sail Cocoa Beach offers the unforgettable sight of a gold, peach, violet or orange sunset across the water. Or, the 32 sailors on board the sailing catamaran might see shiny gray dolphins playing alongside the boat on the daytime dolphin and wildlife-watching tour on the Indian River Lagoon. These trips are great for families. The two-hour tours leave from Merritt Island. 



Sail Cocoa Beach offers something else too, and it’s very unusual — a pedal boat. That’s right, pedal, like bicycle pedals. The craft is 35 feet long and passengers sit on bike seats in a long row down the middle, facing each other and the big windows of the boat. Their pedaling turns a small paddle wheel on the back to make the boat move. A gas engine serves as a backup. 

They also offer sailing lessons to would-be sailors who always wanted to learn and anyone who wants to brush up after not sailing for a long time. 

The Reynolds family, Kelley, Bill and Bill Jr., runs pontoon boat Good Natured Tours on the Indian River Lagoon and the Banana River, departing from Melbourne. Their 45-foot boat is covered and 12 feet wide. Manual wheelchairs can be brought aboard as long as the water level stays steady, making it a great choice for someone who loves the water but otherwise can’t get on a boat. 

pink roseate spoonbill


All kinds of wildlife make their appearance and entertain the passengers as the boat cruises down the river — alligators, playful dolphins, herons, egrets, pink roseate spoonbills, osprey, manta rays, and more. “The estuary is our number one thought, as we are just visitors, but for the wildlife, it is their home,” Kelley Reynolds said.

The Reynolds family all grew up on the water with Bill Reynolds starting to do odd jobs on party fishing boats when he was just 13. A daytime boat tour with narration is an educational experience everyone can enjoy, including the families with kids and home-schoolers. 

The boat heads down the Indian River toward the tip of Merritt Island and then heads north in the Banana River near the Mathers Turn Bridge, one of the few bridges left where the roadway pivots out to a right angle above the river when boats need to pass. Along the way, passengers see the iconic Dragon Point sculpture and beautiful waterfront homes. 

pelicans in tree



Ever been through a lock on the water? A lock is rectangular metal device for raising or lowering a boat from one level of water to another. If the boat is on the low water it floats inside, the big doors clang shut and the water begins to rise inside. When the boat is at a high enough level the big doors on the other end open and the boat sails out to the higher level. It’s kind of like a boat elevator, if you will.

Space Coast River Tours offers you the chance to experience the Canaveral Locks, going from the Banana River to Port Canaveral. The two-hour tour gives you a view from the water of the busy port with its large ocean-going cruise ships, shrimp boats and other boats tied up there. As you travel along the rivers, look for wildlife of all kinds from alligators to birds fishing for their dinner to groups of dolphins leaping into the air and landing with a splash. 

Rocket-sighting tours to watch rockets bound for space take off leaving curving trails in the sky are very popular, according to Coast Guard-certified captains Mark and Michele Anderson who lead the tours. Space Coast River Tours offers special trips for the sparkling Christmas Boat Parade where decorated boats navigate their way along a parade route, a Valentine’s Day cruise, one for Mother’s Day, and a really unusual one — a gardening tour. Take a ride with a botanist from Rockledge Gardens who will talk about the immaculate lawns and landscaping techniques passengers see as they cruise the shoreline along the canals of Sykes Creek. 

These are just a few of the kinds of tours you’ll find on the Space Coast if you search for them. There are lots more and plenty of fun and education just waiting for you.

Susan Burgess
Susan Burgess

A Treasure Coast resident since the early 1980s, Susan has worked for the Jensen Beach Mirror and The News Tribune. A bicycling enthusiast, she thinks nothing of riding 20 or 30 miles. A graduate of Columbia University and New York University, Susan is a big fan of eagles.