Best Day Trip - 1999
Billie Swamp Safari and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum
Proving they have more to offer than bingo and tobacco, those savvy Seminoles lure tourists to their Big Cypress Reservation with the promise of panthers and snakes, swamp buggies and airboats, chickees and crafts. Signs lead the way from Alligator Alley to Exit 14, then north on State Road 833 to West Boundary Road and into Billie Swamp Safari. Careen through shallow waters and hardwood hammock on a glorified jeep-bus, stopping at the Oasis to schmooze the predatory, territorial Donald Trump -- the alligator, that is -- then return to the kitschy Seminole village and eat his less-fortunate brethren for lunch. The Swamp Water Cafe waitress aptly describes alligator tail as "a cross between chicken and fish," but on a weekend afternoon, this delicacy may be upstaged by another local attraction: charismatic tribal chairman and aspiring country musician James Billie. Though tour guides decline to discuss the chief, approach him during a break in his tableside jam session, and he'll regale you with off-color folktales about the swamp's namesake, Kissimmee Billie. Up the street the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki ("to know, to remember") Museum gives a more conservative history lesson, with Chief Billie making his big-screen appearance in full CEO regalia. Dioramas re-create native activities: Cypress canoes cross the translucent Everglades, mannequins do the green corn dance. Parents might wish to point out printed anecdotes about traditional disciplinary practices such as the scratching of naughty youth; the power of suggestion should be enough to keep children well-behaved on the ride home.