Visitor Centers offer education, exhibits

FLORIDA CITY, Fla.— It’s a place where alligators, manatees, storks, snakes, panthers, turtles, crocodiles, bass, frogs, deer, eagles and owls all call home.

No, it’s not some fancy zoo in a far-off city where the price of admission is more than your rent. Actually, it’s South Florida’s own backyard, the Everglades National Park.

Park naturalists are on duty to help at the Coe Visitors Center (Staff photos).

The park, which sits on well over 1.5 million acres, has probably survived more threats than a Middle-Eastern U.S. embassy, everything from poaching, receding waters, mighty hurricanes, human infringement and decades of political battles.

Yet still it sustains one of the most diverse populations of plant and animal life in the world.

“The Everglades has suffered for more than a century from draining and dredging, pollution and sprawl,” said the National Resources Defense Council.

Since the Everglades was established as a national park in 1947, activists and supporters have tried to walk the fine line between keeping the fragile park accessible to an eager public and protecting it.

Today, the park is open to everyone through many points within the park that have visitor centers complete with tours, educational programs, general park information and helpful park rangers.

The Coe Visitor Center near Florida City

If it’s a true visitor center experience that guests are looking for, then there is no place to go but the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center in Florida City. Located in the southeast part of the park, it is home to park headquarters. It is also the largest and most elaborate of all the park’s centers.

This center is named for the 1930s activist, Ernest F. Coe, who fought for the conservation of the Everglades, and is now known as “the father of the Everglades.”

A gator hole exhibit at the Coe Visitors Center.

It was opened in December 1996 after Hurricane Andrew destroyed its predecessor four years earlier.

Park officials estimate that over three-quarters of the park’s 1.1 million annual visitors stop by the Coe Visitor Center.

Above, a Coe Visitors Center mural depicts wildlife in the Everglades. Below, the gift shop offers books and other souvenirs for visitors.

The Coe Center is complete with a theater where informational videos are shown, a 10-foot color keyed tile map of the park and a large screened back patio that overlooks a pond where native animals interact.

“This place is something else,” said Gene Autry, a Virginia native who made the center part of his family’s South Florida vacation. “It looks like something that you would expect at Orlando, or in a theme park.”

Inside of the center, there are several interactive exhibits. Each one is geared to both educate and entertain.

At the entrance of the center there is a huge exhibit of a typical watering hole in the Everglades. It includes life-like alligators, fish, turtles, otters, birds and sounds of all the animals.

The center also includes computer planners to help visitors plan their trip to the park while not missing out on any of the hiking, boating, biking or camping that the park has to offer.

Visitors enjoy posing for photographs at the Florida panther statue at the Coe Visitor Center.

Behind that, visitors can experience all that is alligators in a circular exhibit that discusses alligators mating habits, diets, eggs, scales and teeth.

This exhibit is totally interactive with buttons that trigger sounds, and a replica gator jaw.

“We used the planner programs on the computer to help us plan a canoe and camping trip,” said Autry.

The Shark Valley Visitor Center is small, but offers park rangers and information in addition to park-related books, posters, and other souvenirs.

Another, very different center can be experienced just a few miles west of the Florida Turnpike, off of the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41).

The Shark Valley Visitor Center is one of the largest, better-known and most frequented points within the park. This structure is a springboard for a day out in the park.

In actuality, it’s nothing more than a few shelters huddled together in front of a parking lot. The actual Visitor Center building is really nothing more than a small bookstore with souvenirs.

“It is kind of small and simple,” said Lauren Harvey, a visitor from Indiana. “But that’s part of the image. It’s the park that we’re here for, not the buildings.”

A Shark Valley tram rolls down the 12-mile trail toward the tower.

Few stops in the Everglades offer as much as Shark Valley does. From the center, visitors can catch a ride on the Shark Valley tram, which takes riders on a 15-mile, two-hour trip through the park’s interior.

The path that the tram follows is a loop that is highlighted by a stop at the 50-foot Shark Valley Tower. Visitors are given an opportunity to climb up the tower and appreciate the vastness and majesty of the Everglades.

Visitors may also choose to walk or bike the loop. By doing this, visitors are able to enjoy the park at their own pace, and stop to take pictures of animals or sights.

For those who forgot their own bicycles, rental bikes are available, but since the center closes at six, rented bicycles must be returned by four.

Bobcat Boardwalk Trail is near the Visitor Center at Shark Valley.

The Everglades has so much to offer and so much to experience that these visitor centers really can’t show everything. So, set a date, pack up the family car, load up on plenty of bug spray, visit one of the many wonderful visitor centers and go experience a taste of what “river of grass” has to offer.

The Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center in the Ten Thousand Islands region at Everglades City.


If You Go

Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center

  • The center is open year-round from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Books, film, postcards and insect repellent may be purchased in the bookstore.
  • Phone: The Coe Center is 305-242-7700.

Shark Valley Visitor Center

  • The center’s hours between May and September are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; between November and April those hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.
  • Bicycles may be rented for $5 per hour. Tram rides cost $12.
  • Phone: Shark Valley is 305-221-8776.

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