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Glide on air in the Everglades

Jesse Kennon's day begins at 6:30 a.m., as he opens up Coopertown's only bait and tackle shop.
An air boat trail is seen in the Everglades near Coopertown, Fla.Wilfredo Lee / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jesse Kennon's day begins at 6:30 a.m., as he opens up Coopertown's only bait and tackle shop. He heads to the only restaurant, where the lunch menu includes alligator tail and frog legs, to make sure the kitchen is ready. He is then off to spend the day giving air boat rides through the Florida Everglades.

Kennon, or "Mayor" as they call him here, runs Coopertown, which is less than an hour from Miami but consists of only four acres and eight residents — his immediate family. Still, this town that started in 1945 when Kennon's family first offered air boat tours has turned into a major player in South Florida tourism, attracting about 50,000 visitors a year. That does not include the dozens of music videos and model shoots done here, or the major television and movie productions filmed on site, such as episodes for "CSI: Miami."

Yet it's still a small town. In the 1940s, there was nothing out there but the Everglades and the Indian village. The restaurant and house where Kennon lives went up two years later. Today, there is only one major road connecting Coopertown to Miami.

"What we do here is try to show you the beauty and the majestic part of the Everglades," said Kennon, who wears gold-plated alligator jewelry on his neck and another on his ring finger.

"Most people anticipate coming to see a big jungle. When they get out there, they find it's really not a big jungle," he added.

The goal for Kennon and his staff is to explain the importance of preserving the habitat.

"The more people I can introduce and show the environment, the ecosystem, the fauna, and explain what the actual Everglades is about, that's more people that respect that and will help support its survival," he said.

Air boat tours: The original air boat tours show visitors alligators in their natural habitat. The rides are smooth, not bumpy or splashy as some would expect, almost as if you were gliding on 12 inches of water. While on the ride you will catch hints of different aromas: sweetness from the basil trees, a soft grass smell from the freshwater river. You will also see different species of birds and vegetation: the great egret, a tall white bird; the great blue heron with its blue and gray feathers; the white swamp lily or the spatterdock, a floating-leaved plant.

Kennon has learned to imitate during the rides the sound of baby gators in distress. A majority of the time, alligators are curious and will slowly make their way toward the air boat while keeping a short distance.

What to eat: Those brave enough to try down-home cooking, Everglades-style, can walk into the one-room Coopertown Restaurant and ask for alligator tail and frog legs. A recent group of visitors from London described the meal as tasty, yet "chewy" and "tougher than chicken." Also on the menu are hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches, for those not as adventurous. The restaurant also serves as the souvenir shop for gator-themed purchases — everything from gator figurines, pens and mugs, to T-shirts and gator heads.

Alligator exhibit: While waiting for your turn on the air boat, take a stroll through the Alligator Exhibit for a closer look at the roughly 16 alligators on site, including Big Man, a 14-foot alligator that weighs 1,000 pounds.

Also on site is the Bait and Tackle shop, a tiny room crowded with fishing equipment from wall to wall. There is also beer and soda inside.

Visitors: Coopertown can attract more than 100 visitors a day, not including private boat rides. Christmas Day through New Year's is the busiest week, averaging 300-500 visitors a day.

"That's our barometer for the year. If I did seven days like that every month then I would only be open 10 days," he said with a laugh.

Kennon started driving air boats when he was 9 years old, but the work never gets old.

"I had an office job before and that was not my bag," he said.

It is around 10 p.m. and Kennon is finally shutting down shop. "This environment out here is kind of hard to beat," he said.