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The real Florida

Dream trip features airboat ride, snorkeling, visit to NASA

Editor's note: Phil Fischer of Rochester writes of a recent trip he and his son took to Florida.

By Phil Fischer

One tourist brochure offers "more of the real Florida." That's just what my son, Jon, and I wanted.

When we told friends we'd be flying to Orlando, they assumed we'd be visiting amusement parks and enjoying the thrills of technological wizardry. For us, however, Orlando was merely a starting point to celebrate my second son's entry into the teen-age years. Following a family tradition, he got to choose a parent-child outing to anywhere in the continental United States. Jon chose Florida, the real Florida, with dreams of riding an airboat in the Everglades, snorkeling over a coral reef and visiting Cape Canaveral.

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The Everglades

We discovered some of the subtle beauty of the real Florida, driving 40 miles through the Everglades. Marsh rabbits bounded for safety as we passed, and stately herons extended their periscope-like plumes above the grasses. Bright yellow and black lubbers (glorified grasshoppers) looked so stately as they crossed the road that we swerved to avoid them.

We stood by a pond and watched an aninga fishing. This sharp-billed bird poises itself submerged in water to spear fish. Safety warning signs along the Aninga Trail fueled our desire to see an alligator in the wild, but our careful search for the camouflaged critters was not needed. A massive alligator crossed the trail just a few feet in front of us. Menacingly with its mouth half open, it returned our stares, challenging us to pass.

At the Alligator Farm just outside the confines of Everglades National Park, Jon fulfilled his dream of riding an airboat. I admit that the splashes and 360-degree turns were more thrilling than the flora and fauna as we glided, slid and spun over water and reeds.

The Keys

Florida's "keys" are a series of islands along a 100-plus-mile-long curve from the tip of Florida's mainland out into the Caribbean. Lined by the continental United States' only living tropical reef, this was the site Jon chose to do some real snorkeling.

Good snorkeling was readily available in the clear, warm, shallow water of a state park in Key Largo. Some fish checked on us as they disappeared into a maze of mangrove roots along the shore. Others wiggled through grasses growing up from a sandy bottom. An anchor and a dozen Spanish ship cannons littered the rocks as a stark reminder of the dangers of boating near the keys in the 1700s. We anticipated the visit to a true reef the following day.

During our half-hour ride to the reef, the deeply tanned first-mate of El Capitain reminded us of the centuries of history of the growing coral at the White Banks reef system. Pointing out coral's fragility, he urged us not to touch. Indeed, it is illegal to touch sea life in this national sanctuary.

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Sanctuary usually implies a place of awesome beauty and grandeur that facilitates worship of a powerful creator. Indeed, that's exactly what we found as we stepped off the boat's edge into the Sea Garden five miles from the mangrove-lined shores of Key Largo. The 90 minutes of water time passed too quickly as we reveled at the sight of ornate coral, majestic plant life and scores of fish species. Sunlight sparkled through the water and shared the underwater "dance floor" with brightly colored fish. A spiny lobster waved its antennae from a cleft in a rocky wall. We enjoyed the overall aura of being invited into an otherworldly sanctuary -- a place of awesome beauty and grandeur that points beyond the details to the designer.

Kennedy Space Center

Sprawling over hundreds of thousands of acres, NASA's Kennedy Space Center calls visitors to dream -- to enlarge their vision to new frontiers. Jon's celebration trip was really a call to dream big dreams.

From comfortable tour buses, we saw the vehicle assembly building where rockets, boosters and orbiters are pieced together in upright position. We saw the crawlers that carry the assembled shuttle, and we stared at one shuttle poised on a launching pad.

Films, displays and hands-on exhibits informed and inspired us about the Apollo missions to the moon, and we were able to observe as components were prepared for delivery to the international space station.

We touched a moon rock and shook hands with an astronaut. Col. Ken Cameron, a veteran of three shuttle missions, offered choice nuggets of counsel to future space explorers: "foster that sense of curiosity and exploration," "do team things" and "learn another language."

Indeed, working together, humankind can continue to expand horizons and extend frontiers -- beyond the real Florida and even beyond our physical universe.

Jon passed a milestone as he entered the teen-age years. Celebrating together, we enjoyed the real Florida and got glimpses of exciting horizons ahead.

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