Sam Haught, co-owner of Wild Florida, didn't originally set out to build an airboat attraction and gator park. In fact, the original idea, partly fueled by the effects of the recession of 2008 and 2009, was to turn a large vacant track of land into a dude ranch. Haught explained, "I started off in corporate finance and worked for a few different companies, including Goldman Sachs," he said. "I eventually got into flipping and developing real estate. When the market crashed, we were left with a lot of vacant properties. One of them was a large track of land we thought could be turned into a tourist attraction. We started down the path of turning it into a dude ranch, but hit some serious dead ends."
Sam and his partners, Ranier, Jordan and Daniel Munns, ultimately nixed that idea and moved on to something else. Still along the lines of an outdoor tourist attraction, they started looking at old school Florida fish camps. They discovered one on Lake Cypress, the property where Wild Florida currently operates. At the time, they reached out to one of the owners for more information. He wanted way too much money for the property. Over the next two years they partnered with Boggy Creek Airboats and, together, continued the search for a perfect location to open a new airboat attraction.
"Our search eventually brought us back to the same fish camp on Lake Cypress, but this time we did our research," Haught said. "We found out who the primary owner was and reached out to him. Turns out that he was eager to sell. We started negotiations and six months later, the property was ours. The name of the business that originally took title was Boggy Creek Airboats at Wild Florida. Unfortunately, that partnership didn't last too long. Boggy Creek leased their locations and weren't keen on investing money into someone else's property or building a gator park. That wasn't part of their growth philosophy. They just wanted to run airboats and we wanted more. We had a long-term vision of turning the 15 acre property into a full-scale tourist destination. We parted ways in 2012 and changed the name to Wild Florida."
Haught continued, "At the time, we were basically a fish camp with a booming airboat business. Everything on the property was dedicated to the fish camp. This revenue stream wasn't working. We weren't selling supplies to the fish camp people and they weren't very happy with our vision. We made the decision to part ways with the fish camp folk and moved forward with our plans to turn the entire property into one large tourist attraction. We gutted the supplies store and stocked it with more tourist type stuff, built out the dock and got to work on the gator park."
From the very beginning, Haught and his partners set out to be different than other airboat companies. They wanted the Wild Florida experience to be unique. They invested heavily into building something you might not necessarily expect to see 45 minutes south of Disney. "When visitors pull in, they're amazed," Haught said. "We combine a Gatorland type experience with the best airboat ride in Central Florida. Included in the price of your airboat ticket is free admission to the gator and wildlife park. We're the only half day airboat attraction around. We also offer private encounters with animals and have a huge space to accommodate large groups and events. We host 20,000 kids on field trips from around the state and we're usually booked out every night for corporate events, weddings, birthdays, etc. The catalyst of our growth has been the heavy investment into our property. That's where we separate ourselves from the pack. Also, we all have kids and incorporated the practical experience of what our kids and families enjoy into the build out of the park. We thought about what we would want and expect from the experience. That, combined with our passion for the outdoors, really drove this business."
Haught shared that, as you might expect, there were some early challenges the partners had to deal with. Aside from a barrage of permits and licenses required to build out their vision, the construction part was fairly straightforward. They initially operated on a philosophy of, 'if you build it, they will come.' That didn't pan out, so Haught got out there and started building the relationships they still lean on today. Another challenge was, and continues to be, managing their growth.
"It's easy to make 50 customers happy on a daily basis," Haught said. "When you're small, you can give the customers a lot of individual attention. But, when you have 2,000 customers coming through the park on a daily basis, it's more difficult to make it personal and exciting for those guests. We're an experience-based attraction. It's all about making memories. The better job we do at that, the quicker we grow."
Looking ahead, Haught expects to see over 200,000 people come through their doors this year. Five years from now, they want that number to be 400,000 and they're already preparing for another building phase to make that happen. They're in the process of acquiring 70 acres next to Wild Florida. They're doubling the size of the gift shop and adding a second floor for office space.
Haught offers up some great advice. "When I worked for someone else, it drove me crazy to be dependent on the guy or girl above me to determine if I was going to advance or not," he said. "My success was contingent on someone else taking notice of my hard work and good decisions. That fueled my creativity to generate business ideas and try to find enough money to make them happen. Keep in mind, there are lots of good ideas out there, but it's critical to make sure you have enough money to start them…more than enough to start. Lots of good ideas run out of money. It's exciting to do your own thing, but be ready to starve for a while. It's definitely worth it in the long run. You can always go back to corporate america and play that game. If you have the urge and the fire, give it a shot!"