KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Unless you fish, there's absolutely nothing to do on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes. Nothing but laze in the sunshine, listen to the lap of sweet water under the hull, breathe air heavy with orange blossoms, and watch leggy shore birds stalk dinner in the shallows.
Sunrises steal silently out of the horizon; sunsets spangle the waters with fire. To jangled Florida vacationers, it sounds like heaven.
Although it's practically under the minarets of the Magic Kingdom, the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes is light-years away from Walt Disney World's razzle-dazzle.
From Lake Tohopekaliga (locally called Lake Toho) you can take a boat through a series of placid lakes and canels that take you to Lake Okeechobee and, if the wanderlust is really upon you, through the Okeechobee Waterway into the ocean and around the world.
Rental houseboats are to North America's lakes and rivers what recreational vehicles are to the highway traveler--bed, board and transportation all in one. You don't have to know starboard from Star Wars or a clove hitch from a bowline.
Some houseboat travelers go because they like boats, of course, but many others simply want to get out on the water in a big, cushy boat with all the comforts of home, without the hassles, etiquette and esoteric lingo of the yachting world.
Boats available on Lake Toho are 37 feet long, powered by 75 or 85 horsepower outboard motors, and complete with kitchen, bath and beds for up to six people. Move aboard with your personal gear and food, and you're off. Run with the pack if you like, from marina to marina. Or seek out the lee of a secret cove and hide out in solitude.
Learning How Things Work
In a brief check-out you'll learn how to operate the engine and controls, and to keep tabs on the water, sewage and electrical systems. The boats have air conditioning, but there are no generators so you'll have to plug in at a marina to use it, the TV, a hair dryer, a toaster and other items that take household power.
Even far from shore, however, you'll have refrigeration, hot and cold running water, 12-volt lighting, CB radio, cassette player and a gas stove with oven.
Take off from the Tohopekaliga Yacht Club and roam up to 96 miles south through lakes, locks and canals if you like. (Rental boats aren't permitted to go into Lake Okeechobee.) Lakes in the chain include Lake Cypress, Lake Hatchineha and Lake Kissimmee, all of them with miles of shoreline and hundreds of quiet pockets and inlets.
Some sojourners prefer the vastness of the lakes. Others like the fun of going through locks and viewing quiet groves and farmlands along the canals that connect the lakes.
Commute to Disney World
Dockside rentals are also available for those who want to commute to Disney World by day and sleep aboard at night.
Living aboard a houseboat is much like living in a recreational vehicle or a small cabin. The boats are furnished with basic galley gear, but do plan simple meals that can be prepared without blender, food processor or microwave oven.
Most families end up on the friendly front deck around the gas grill, cooking steaks or burgers. Refrigerators are small, but there's a big ice chest for canned drinks and bait. You'll have to be sparing with water, too. Each boat has a 50-gallon tank; refills are usually available at marinas and fuel docks.
Although the boats sleep six, they're better suited to a family with children than to several couples or six fishing buddies. Aft are upper and lower bunks. The dinette converts to a short double, and the sofa can be made into a narrow double.
Sleep on Sun Deck
In good weather, sleeping bags can be spread on the front "porch" or "upstairs" on the sun deck. Insects are a problem, though, so it's best to plan on sleeping indoors.
The activities calendar is almost a blank, but you can find a few shoreside restaurants. At Port Hatchineha the specialty is catfish. At River Ranch Resort there is dining plus trail rides, rodeos, swimming pools, a playground and tennis.
Throughout the lakes are fish camps where you can buy ice and cold drinks, fishing needs and a few groceries. Coin laundries are also available at some camps.
Aboard a houseboat on the Chain of Lakes there are no telephones, no traffic jams, no standing in line, no souvenir shops. There are no museums you feel duty-bound to explore, nothing the children can tease you to buy, no thrills, no frills. It's the supreme sloth, the ultimate escape, a getaway sublime.
Houseboats are at the Tohopekaliga Yacht Club, 201 Lakeshore Blvd.
Where to Get Information
For more information: Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 2007, Kissimmee, Fla. 32742, phone (800) 327-9159. Houseboats: O.K. Boat Rentals, P.O. 3266, Kissimmee, Fla. 32742, phone (305) 933-0333.
Houseboats rent by the day, 24-hour day, weekend, midweek or week. A week's rental costs about $700. There is a $200 security deposit. Fuel is extra but linens and galley equipment are furnished.
Stowage space is limited, so travel light. Take swimsuits, sun protection, fishing gear (licenses are available at the area's many tackle shops), cassette tapes, bug spray, binoculars and nature identification books. In winter, be prepared for occasional cold fronts with temperatures that may plunge briefly into the teens.
Don't take household appliances (unless you plan to spend each night at a marina that has electricity). Don't take pets. If possible, buy food after checking out the boat's facilities. Freezer, refrigerator and oven are miniature, and only basic housewares are provided.
Houseboats are available all year. Winters are mild in central Florida except for rare cold snaps. Summers can be steamy, but are cooled by lake breezes.