Six years after Hurricane Irma, a beloved Everglades attraction reopens to visitors

Deep in the Everglades, at the tip of the Florida peninsula, a pastel pink visitor center is re-emerging from the devastation of Hurricane Irma six years ago.

The center, formerly known as the Flamingo Visitor Center, has been renamed after Guy Bradley, an Audubon warden in the Everglades who was murdered by wading bird poachers in 1905, only three years into his job.

His death encouraged the passing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, an early environmental protection of the path to the creation of Everglades National Park. Each year, an individual is awarded in Bradley’s honor for their bird conservation efforts.

The visitor center has been a popular landmark since it opened in 1957, but destruction from the Category 4 winds and water of Hurricane Irma in 2017 shut it down. Plans for its reconstruction began in 2018. 

For over 60 years, this visitor center has enabled guests to experience the beauty and biodiversity of the river of grass, but maintaining the Florida treasure has been a struggle. 

“We are excited to see these projects come to fruition after years of planning and hard work,”said Pedro Ramos, superintendent of the Everglades and Dry Tortugas national parks in the press release.

According to Ramos, public and private partnerships helped in the repair of what he describes as a “world-class destination for visitors.”

A display of a life-like all-American crocodile on the second floor of the visitors center, alongside other informative displays. (Sophia Bolivar/ Caplin News)

The visitor center had a soft reopening in July, and hosts its grand opening Oct. 27. The park entry fee will be waived for the day, with a full schedule of events. 

The park and rebuilt center impressed visitor Alejandro Cores, who enjoyed an early glimpse of the animal displays at the center. 

“It’s a form of nature that is very rare to see,” Cores said. “The Everglades is unique in the sense that there is rarely any other ecosystem like this.”

The adjacent Flamingo Lodge is scheduled to reopen to guests on Nov. 1, and the restaurant will open later in November. It is the only hotel in Everglades National Park, with 24 rooms. There also are eco-tents and campgrounds. 

“We are thrilled to continue our tradition of excellence in hospitality, offering another option at Flamingo in addition to our campsites, eco-tents and houseboats,” Nico Foris, the chief executive officer of Everglades Guest Services, said in a press release.

It isn’t the first reopening for the attraction.

Three years after the visitor center opened in 1957, Category 4 Hurricane Donna ravaged the facility. In 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Wilma severely damaged the tourist attraction as well.

The impact of Hurricane Donna on the Flamingo Visitor Center gift shop in 1960. (Courtesy of National Park Services)

After Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, the National Park Services conducted extensive feasibility studies and sought to rebuild with resilience and storm protection as a main priority. The reconstruction also incorporated new energy-efficient features while complying with building codes for coastal high-hazard zones.

“Building improvements included replacing all mechanical and electrical systems, the building elevator, architectural finishes, and built-in furnishings,” said Allyson Gantt, communications chief for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks. Gantt is also a park ranger.

“We added new facility features including substantial interpretive and educational space, exhibit space, multi-purpose meeting room, conference room, bookstore, backcountry permit area, restrooms, and staff offices,” she said.

An average of one million people visit Everglades National Park each year. 

The new center, a lovely 45-minute drive from the park’s Homestead entrance, provides an immersive, educational, and entertaining experience for visitors. 

“We are already seeing increased visitation levels in the park with the new visitor center. We anticipate that with the opening of the Flamingo Lodge and Restaurant, we will continue to see increased interest in visiting and staying in Everglades National Park through this fall and winter, and beyond,” said Gantt.

Sophia Bolivar is a senior at FIU majoring in digital journalism and focusing her studies on criminal justice. Sharing a love for both writing and photography has led her to pursue a career in journalism.