By Melinda Gray
Just minutes into one of Billy “O’s” Vantastic Tours, it becomes apparent: owner and tour guide, Billy “O” Oliver is passionate about the wildlife and colorful history of the Everglades.
During my visit to Goodland in January, I was lucky enough to go on my first eco-tour with Billy “O.” My two children were dying to see some of the Everglades’ famed wildlife, and as my daughter caught sight of a dolphin from the top of the Goodland Bridge, I knew we’d be talking about this adventure for weeks.
With promises of gigantic turtles and talking birds, everyone listened attentively as Billy narrated from the driver’s seat. In four hours, he recounted local history spanning from the pre-Columbian era to the 21st century, relating his own personal experiences; and he still somehow managed to explain every creature along the way.
My children enjoyed that day so much, and it was a shame they had to miss out on my second, most recent expedition because the conditions were perfect for a safari. The brisk but clear Saturday morning promised a magnificent sunny day to come; and Billy “O” was dressed head-to-toe in camouflage.
The first critter to make an appearance was a fluffy burrowing owl, standing outside its abode to warm its feathers in the morning sun. Billy “O” pointed out several burrowing owl nests as we drove through Marco Island. A king fisher on the wires above us along the Tamiami Trail, a gopher tortoise crossing the road ahead of us, he made sure we took note of all the wildlife that makes this area so extraordinary.
The trip itinerary included a stop at Corey Billie’s Airboat Rides where we met our captain, Dennis Martin, and climbed aboard our airboat. The feeling I got as we soared through the water was comparable to my first ride on a roller-coaster. The wind took my breath away, and I giggled at each sharp turn. It was exhilarating.
Back on dry land, we watched as Carol Bryant, Goodland resident and 2014 Buzzard Queen, talked about and handled Smitty, a three-foot alligator. We also stopped at Shealy’s Skunk Ape Research Headquarters and Trail Lakes Campground where the exhibit animals were sociable and photogenic. Visitors posed for pictures while holding the talking, kissing and snuggling moluccan cockatoo, Doh-Doh. Those of us brave enough to drape a snake around our necks had plenty of friendly reptiles to choose from. Billy “O” explained that he stops there because it’s unique and he likes the hands-on experience.
His time as a high-school teacher and as a musician seems to heavily influence how he educates and entertains anyone of any age. Billy “O’s” distinctive personality and finely-honed people skills make this tour different.
“I love this job; I love what I do. It’s the bartender in me. I like working with people,” said Billy “O.”
Originally from New York, Billy “O” has been a Goodland resident for more than 30 years. After briefly working as a tour guide for Vantastic Tours, he bought the company in 2010.
For more information or to book your own tour, contact Billy “O” at 239-394-7699 or visit www.vantastictours.com.