Driving Miss Daisy: Working as an Electric Tram Driver at a Retirement Community

Miguel Vieira via Creative Commons

How would you like to be an electric tram driver in a nature preserve near a high-end housing development? Unlike other tram jobs, where you repeat the same presentation all day long while giving a tour, you have no script — though you might have to dodge alligators and other animals that get in the way.

I worked for several months last year at Pelican Bay, a community of about 9,000 (15,000 in the winter) in Naples, Florida. I drove open-sided electric (partially solar) seven-passenger trams along boardwalks and paved trails through mangrove swamps, taking community residents to and from the beachfront bars and restaurants they collectively own.

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The View From the Driver’s Seat

When developers planned Pelican Bay, they set houses and condos far from the beach and left the land in between as a nature preserve. Most of the paved paths have water on both sides. In these canals schools of fish swirl at the surface of the water, turtles relax on logs, possums and raccoons prowl the edges, and Great Blue Herons, along with numerous other birds, walk the shallows.

Alligators, meanwhile, lie around waiting to eat all of these other animals. When they do, drivers stop to let the passengers watch. Other people, walking the paths, step to within five feet of the alligators to take photos.

The first animal I watched being eaten was a possum. My passengers weren’t too bothered by this, probably because the animal was already dead by the time we arrived. They took their pictures and we traveled on, taking the paved path to the boardwalk and then through the mangroves to the beach.

The next time I stopped for an alligator having lunch, several passengers asked me to keep moving. Something about the way the big turtle was struggling in the gator’s mouth didn’t inspire the desire for photos. I drove past many times during the hour it took the alligator to finally figure out how to swallow something that big and hard.

One day there was a bear under the decks at the beach. Other animals I saw while working at Pelican Bay include a bobcat, wood storks, eagles and river otters.

What’s the Community Like?

As you might have guessed, this is an expensive community. Some homes in Pelican Bay sell for over $5 million, and only a few small condos sell for under $400,000. Residents live in one of 93 homeowner associations in the community, and pay dues. They pay additional dues to the master association and also pay member dues to the Pelican Bay Foundation (my employer), which manages the parks, restaurants and more. Residents of Saint Lucia, for example, pay more than $15,000 annually in various dues, plus property taxes.

All of that money buys a lot of amenities. For example, I was one of 63 drivers on payroll, and there are more than 30 electric trams, plus one for carrying passengers in wheelchairs. There are also tennis courts, spas, gyms, security personnel and morning exercise classes at two beachfront locations. For another $9,000 per year, residents can join the golf club.

Details of the Job

If you’re hired as an electric tram driver, you’ll be trained in a day or two and then be on your own. Drivers keep in touch via radios, so someone can tell you if passengers are waiting a half-mile away while you sit at an empty station. The radios also let drivers inform each other about turtles, alligators, snakes and other animals that decide to get in the way.

When it’s slow, you will spend a lot of time sitting in your tram reading — you’re encouraged to bring books and magazines. It’s never really slow in the winter, though, and that’s when most drivers work; the staff is cut in half during summer, so this is a great seasonal job.

Most of the time the passengers are friendly, and you’ll get to know some of them fairly well. But even with the regulars you should point out the animals as you pass them, especially when they’re with their grandchildren. For example, on the north route, the owl in the hollow tree along the boardwalk is the highlight of the 10-minute trip for many beach-goers.

Once in a while you might have to rush someone from the beach to a car or waiting ambulance because of a stingray sting. And with an older population, it’s inevitable that you’ll eventually have to bring emergency workers to the beach (no roads go to the restaurants) because of a heart attack. But most of the time it’s a pleasant job.

The captains are decent supervisors. They all have interesting stories to tell about the job and about their pre-retirement lives. You see, almost everyone in the department is working there for something to do in retirement. That results in these three interesting facts:

  • Some of the drivers are in their eighties
  • At 49 years old, I was the youngest of 63 drivers
  • I made only $8.69 per hour

Yes, the pay is awful, which might be why they’re always hiring. A large reason for the low pay is that so many retirees want something to do and are willing to take these jobs at any rate. And here’s another weird fact: the residents almost never tip. I got a hundred compliments my first month on the job, but received only $4 in tips.

On the other hand, it’s a beautiful place to work and would make an interesting side job. You might get to see manatees going under the bridge on the south boardwalk, or watch dolphins swimming along the coast. And you get to make people happy by pointing out when an alligator is enjoying his lunch.

Your Turn: Would you like a tram-driving job like this one?