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Many of us have waited impatiently at one of Fort Lauderdale's drawbridges, never even noticing that beneath it runs the New River. About 26 miles long, the New River meanders northwest from Port Everglades toward Sunrise, before looping south, then eastward, toward Dania and the ocean. Why not slow down and explore it?
For the price of a large soda and popcorn at the movies you can take a three-hour voyage aboard The Jungle Queen. This old-fashioned riverboat cruises the twists and turns of the New River with a stop-off at a private island filled with exotic birds, monkeys and alligators. The Jungle Queen has been an institution in Fort Lauderdale for more than 50 years.
You can choose from two three-hour cruises, which set sail at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily from Bahia Mar Yacht Club Wharf on the Intracoastal Waterway. The four-hour dinner cruise sets out at 7 p.m., offering an all-you-can-eat barbecue of ribs, chicken and steamed shrimp, as well as a vaudeville show and sing-along. Traveling the same path either day or night, one finds the historic river is a beautiful sight. By day, the cruise takes you 51/2 miles inland.
Captain Pete and our commentator, George Lopez -- or "George of the Jungle Queen'' entertain voyagers by pointing out historical sites or present-day curiosities. Approaching channel markers five and six we enter the New River.
"Constructed by nature, it (the New River) was originally an underground waterway,'' George of the Jungle Queen explains. The river was initially an Everglades spring that moved down the coast and eventually broke through into the ocean. In the late 1600s, Spanish explorers would pass by the river on their way up the East Coast. Each time they traveled their route, the entrance to the river had moved, hence the name, New River.
Several of the homes along this river are owned by celebrities and prominent people in the community. Among the more notorious are the $5 million home formerly owned by the Six Million Dollar Man, Lee Majors, a home formerly owned by Norton Otis, of the Otis Elevator Co., and rented to Demi Moore for $3,000 a week, while she was filming Strip Tease. And last but not least, the Stranahan House, the oldest home in Fort Lauderdale. "The Stranahans were the first family in Fort Lauderdale,'' George says. In 1893 they launched an operation called Stranahan's New River Camp which included a trading post for commerce with the local Seminoles.
Florida's history is depicted down every turn and twist of the New River and the crew of the Jungle Queen give a unique and colorful narrative.
The Jungle Queen got its name because of the overgrown trees, bushes, plants and wildlife along the river. "Alligators used to inhabit the waters. Now manatees are a popular sight for The Jungle Queen guests,'' tour guide George says. The boat ride stops at The Jungle Queen Indian Village, where there are restrooms. A snack shop offers hotdogs, chips, sodas, beer and ice cream. You can view caged exotic birds, wild monkeys and alligators. Seminole Indians display beaded crafts, which can be purchased.
Ten minutes after arriving, the main attraction begins. Seminole Ron Doctor appears among six 250- to 300-pound alligators in the wrestling pit. In traditional garb and barefoot, he begins poking the alligators, moving them into position. Ron has been wrestling alligators for 40 years, 13 of them with The Jungle Queen. As he pulls a 300-pound alligator onto dry land, the reptile snapping his mouth at lightning speed, the anticipation of the crowd heightens. Once the alligator is in position, Ron pries its mouth open with bare hands to display ferocious teeth.
Just when you think you've seen enough, it's back on board for the return excursion. I prop my feet up and relax. Now this is living. As the sun gently kisses my brow, I fall into a lazy Sunday afternoon reverie.
You don't have to wait for your Aunt Selma to visit to hop aboard The Jungle Queen. Cool breezes and gentle waters will lull you. And whether you're a native or a newcomer, you'll learn a lot about Fort Lauderdale history.