Florida's natural springs the original spot to chill

September 14, 2015

Manatees find refuge in the warm waters of Blue Spring located at Blue Spring State Park, Orange City, Fla.

As the mercury has risen this summer, Floridians have flocked to one of the many state parks where water in the crystal-clear springs stays right around a refreshing 70 degrees.

This tradition has been drawing visitors to the Sunshine State long before Walt Disney turned a swamp into a tourism behemoth.

Silver Springs in Ocala is recognized as Floridaís oldest tourist attraction. It first started drawing in visitors in the late 1870s with its staple glass-bottom boats, and eventually it became one of the most-visited pre-Disney attractions. Rick Kilby, author of "Finding the Fountain of Youth: Ponce de Leon and Floridaís Magical Waters," says the glass-bottom boats, along with the marketing skills of the former owner, helped propel Silver Springs to popularity.

"The glass-bottom boat makes it so you have that incredible view that you really arenít going to see anywhere else, and I think that did contribute to some of the popularity," Kilby said.

It was around the 1930s that Silver Springs began attracting the attention of Hollywood producers who used the natural wonder as scenery in films such as "Tarzan," "Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "Rebel Without a Cause."

The big screen exposure likely caused the attraction to reach a fever pitch in the 1960s when more than 1 million people would visit annually. Popularity eventually waned and pollution started to affect the area, so in 2013 the local government stepped in and converted the oldest tourist trap into Silver Springs State Park, one of the "newest" state parks in Florida.

Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County shares a similar history. Itís been attracting visitors since 1947with enchanting mermaid shows. It reached its peak around 1959 and then in 2008 it officially became a state park. A man named Newton Perry stumbled upon Weeki Wachee in 1946 and although the spring was filled with old cars and refrigerators, he saw its potential and decided itíd be the perfect spot for a new business venture.

Perry cleaned out the litter from the water then used his Navy skills to develop underwater breathing hoses that wouldnít require swimmers to wear a tank. Perry recruited beautiful young women and taught them to use the hoses under water and perform ballet and other routines all while sporting a mermaid tail and a smile.

He built theater seating into the limestone so the audience would be able to see the mermaids as they performed underwater, and by 1947 the attraction was ready to open. In the early days the young women had to sprint toward the road any time they heard a car coming so they could try to lure in customers ó as would a siren ó but by the 1950s the spring was one of the most popular tourist spots in the country.

"Had it not been for the mermaid show, Weeki Wachee would be a natural resource like any other spring Ö but it never would have been a roadside attraction without the mermaids," Kilby said.

The mermaids are still flipping their fins for daily crowds, plus the park also hosts river boat cruises and animal shows.

About a century before state springs had glass-bottom boats and gorgeous mermaids to draw visitors in, it was natural beauty and curiosity that attracted a woman named Sarah Smith to Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee.

It was in the 1850s that she found the bones of a mastodon at the bottom of one of the springís basins, and as news of that discovery spread during the years ecotourists made their way to the area to get a look at the local wildlife.

Prior to Wakulla Springs becoming a state park in 1986, the spring was primarily owned by a man named Ed Ball, who at one point was considered one of the most powerful men in the state, according to Kilby.

"It wasnít in the big league with (other springs) partly because of its location, but also Ed Ball, because he had so much money, he didnít need to make it into something that was hugely popular," Kilby said.

A lodge and some other amenities were built, but in the early days the spring relied on Henry the Pole Vaulting Fish and an 11-foot-long alligator named Old Joe as gimmicks. The park isnít as flashy as some of the others, instead it relies on its vast underwater caves and other natural wonders to bring visitors in.

At De Leon Springs in Volusia County one of the main enduring attractions is one that was built years ago out of necessity. The Old Spanish Sugar Mill was built in the 1830s to crush sugar cane, but was destroyed in both the Second Seminole War and the Civil War.

In 1961, as the mill was scheduled to be destroyed once again, a man named Peter Schwarze decided to step in to restore it and turn it into The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House that it is today.

Kilby says one of the most appealing things about De Leon Springs is its rich history; the pancake restaurant plus a one-room museum at the state park serve as tribute to that.

"Thereís a continuity of human inhabitance there that, to me, makes it one of the most historic sites in Central Florida," he said.

Just like the other springs around the state, De Leon added attractions and gimmicks to capitalize on tourism in the post- World War II era, which included Queenie the water skiing elephant, a jungle cruise, circus performers and other features that made De Leon Springs almost like a contemporary theme park.

Most of those attractions are long gone, so itís the make-your-own pancakes at The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House that have arguably the biggest appeal ó and yes, they are delicious.

"Itís kind of a quirky thing where you get to make your own pancakes, itís fun for the kids to doÖ itís a real kind of throwback activity that everybody loves," Kilby said. "Last time I went it was a two-hour wait, but I waited."

Floridians are lucky to live in a place where the natural surroundings offer limitless opportunities for entertainment, exploration and education, but Kilby drives home the point that without conservation efforts these springs wonít sparkle forever.

"Itíd be a real heartbreak to lose these places," he said. "Thereís nothing like them anywhere else in the world, there really isnít."


There are more than 1,000 known springs in Florida, below is a list of state parks that feature springs where visitors can swim, canoe, kayak and more.

Blue Spring State Park 2100 W. French Avenue,

Orange City, FL 32763 386-775-3663 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Blue-Spring

De Leon Springs State Park 601 Ponce Deleon Blvd.

De Leon Springs, FL 32130 386-985-4212 www.floridastateparks.org/park/De-Leon-Springs

Fanning Springs State Park 18020 N.W. Highway 19

Fanning Springs, FL 32693 352-463-3420 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Fanning-Springs

Florida Caverns State Park 3345 Caverns Road

Marianna, FL 32446 850-482-1228 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Florida-Caverns

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd. (U.S. 19)

Homosassa, FL 34446 352-628-5343 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Homosassa-Springs

Ichetucknee Springs State Park 12087 SW U.S. Highway 27

Fort White, FL 32038 386-497-4690 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Ichetucknee-Springs

Lafayette Blue Springs State Park 799 NW Blue Spring Road

Mayo, FL 32066 386-294-3667 www.floridastateparks.org/park/lafayette-blue-springs

Madison Blue Spring State Park 8300 NE State Road 6

Lee, FL 32059 850- 971-5003 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Madison-Blue-Spring

Manatee Springs State Park 11650 NW 115 St.

Chiefland, FL 32626 352-493-6072 www.floridastateparks.org/park/manatee-springs

Ponce de Leon Springs State Park 2860 State Park Road

Ponce de Leon Springs, FL 32455 850-836-4281 www.floridastateparks.org/park/ponce-de-leon-springs

Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park 18081 185th Road

Live Oak, FL 32060 386-776-2194 www.floridastateparks.org/park/peacock-springs

Rainbow Springs State Park 19158 South West 81st Place Road

Dunnellon, FL 34432 352-465-8555 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Rainbow-Springs

River Rise Preserve State Park 373 SW US Highway 27

High Springs, FL 32643 386-454-1853 www.floridastateparks.org/park/River-Rise

Silver Springs State Park 1425 NE 58th Ave.

Ocala, FL 34470 352- 236-7148 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Silver-Springs

Suwannee River State Park 3631 201st Path

Live Oak, FL 32060 386- 362-2746 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Suwannee-River

Troy Spring State Park 674 NE Troy Springs Road

Branford, FL 32008 386-935-4835 www.floridastateparks.org/park/troy-spring

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park 465 Wakulla Park Drive

Wakulla Springs, FL 32327 850-561-7276 www.floridastateparks.org/park/Wakulla-Springs

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park 6131 Commercial Way

Weeki Wachee, FL 34606 352-592-5656 www.floridastateparks.org/park/weeki-wachee

Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park 8737 US Highway 19 North

Port Richey, FL 34668 727-816-1890 www.floridastateparks.org/park/werner-boyce




Associated Press