These days it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t heard of Florida’s most popular tourist attraction, but how many of us can pick out the park that started it all? If you guessed Disney World, you’d be off by over 100 years. The answer is Silver Springs, an attraction that continues to see guests today.
Silver Springs began its life as a tourist attraction in the 1860s. The park soon gained national attention as travel guides advertised it as a must-see attraction. As the park’s popularity grew, a glass-bottom boat was added causing the park’s popularity to soar. It wasn’t long before Hollywood discovered the natural beauty of the park and began using it as a location for some of cinema’s classic movies.
What attracted Hollywood to the springs continues to attract visitors today. Their waters provide not only a refreshing escape from Florida’s summer heat, but also a glimpse into a hidden underwater world. On this weekend adventure we try to highlight these two aspects of Florida’s springs. Saturday brings us to Silver Springs State Park where we visit the Florida of old. And on Sunday, we drive to Rainbow Springs State Park, where we dive into the waters and experience the chill of the springs themselves.
Saturday – Silver Springs
We begin our adventure an hour north of Orlando in The Villages. Before leaving we pick up a picnic and head north on highway 301. Along the way the large oaks of central Florida line the road until it opens up into nice pastured farmland. We pass through small towns and as we reach the entrance to Silver Springs State Park we can see the remains of the old amusement park. Once privately owned, the park held attractions ranging from animals exhibits to roller coasters and water rides. Now derelict, the old rides remind us of a bygone era that existed before Walt Disney first set foot in Florida.
Walking through the entry gates, large cypress trees tower above while Spanish moss stretches back down to the earth. As the spring comes into view, the park’s main building welcomes you with 1950’s splendor. Containing the gift shop, museum, and restaurant, the structure curves around the spring shading guests under a large portico. In the museum, learn about the history and ecology of the park along with Silver Springs’ links to the golden age of cinema. Classics such as the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Tarzan movies, and three James Bond Movies (Thunderball, Moonraker and Never Say Never Again) were shot at Silver Springs.
Directly across from the main building stands the covered boat dock, where the park’s glass-bottom boat tours embark. For tickets visit the gift shop where you can choose between a short 30-45 minute tour and a longer 90-minute version. We opted for the 90-minute version, which starts at the spring and leads you down the river where you can see a wide array of wildlife. On our trip we saw turtles, alligators, dozens of different types of birds, and a troupe of rhesus monkeys (the monkeys were introduced into the park in the 1930s to enhance one of the park’s attractions, but were also rumored to have escaped from the set of a Tarzan movie being filmed in the park). Throughout the journey the boat captain was quick to point out hidden animals and aspects of the parks history.
After returning from the boat trip, stroll down the boardwalk to the old boat house where episodes of Sea Hunt were filmed. Look up the hill and you will see Twin Oaks Mansion. Built in the antebellum style, this house looks as though it belongs in an era long gone, however, it was actually built in the late 1990s and serves as an event center. We took the opportunity to eat our picnic on the lawn and enjoy the sunshine.
While we chose to bring a picnic, the park does have a restaurant that offers a minimal selection of options. If you would rather eat outside of the park, be prepared to drive. A few restaurants in the area that you might try are:
- Big Lee’s – Serious About Barbecue
- The Yearling Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge
- Amrit Palace Indian Restaurant
- La Cuisine French Restaurant
After lunch we walked through the gardens and headed down the ¾–mile Creek Trail. If you visit on a weekend, you might be tempted to try the longer, 2.3-mile Spring Trail, which empties into the Silver River Museum & Environmental Center. The museum is closed during the week, but if you visit on the weekend you can also opt to drive there.
Having enjoyed our time at Silver Springs State Park, we headed back to the Villages for the night. If you would like to stay in a hotel close to the springs, your options are limited. You may have to drive over to Ocala. We recommend the following hotels:
- Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites – 5360 E Silver Springs Blvd, Silver Springs, FL, 34488
- Comfort Suites – 3825 NW Blitchton Road, Ocala, FL, 34475
- Residence Inn Marriott – 3610 SW 38th Ave, Ocala, FL, 34474
Sunday – Rainbow Springs
After an early breakfast in the Villages we pick up another picnic and head west to Rainbow Springs State Park. An hour later we find ourselves approaching Dunnellon, a small town that serves as a jumping off point for Rainbow Springs. Dunnellon is a sleepy little town with antique stores and gift shops. It warrants further exploration, but we are here for the springs, so we bypass Dunnellon and head straight there.
When planning your trip, be aware that Rainbow Springs State Park has two main entrances. The first is for the main spring and the second leads to a jumping off point for tubing the Rainbow River. We begin our trip at the main spring. After making the turn into the park we head down a shaded fern-filled drive into a quiet parking lot. As we pass through the main gate we catch our first glimpse of the spring. Framed by huge oak and cypress trees, the turquoise waters of the spring stand in stark contrast to the verdant world surrounding it. Everyone stops and looks. The kids rush to water, but we stop them, choosing instead to walk through the garden to see the park’s three waterfalls.
After the walk we can’t hold the kids back any longer and we head down to the spring. Be warned, the water is a constant 72° year-round. In the summer heat this makes the water a bit chilly, but after diving in it isn’t long before the chill disappears. Under the water, you can see fish and a variety of plant life. Although alligators are resident in the river, they tend to stay away from the swimming area, opting instead to remain unmolested in the quiet inlets further down the river.
If you would rather stay above the water, the park offers kayak and canoe rentals just beyond the swimming area. Here you can paddle down river to see a wide array of wildlife including turtles and sleepy alligators.
After our swim we dry off and enjoy our picnic. If you would rather leave the park for your meal, head to Dunnellon where you might try:
Having finished our picnic, we head over to the park’s tubing entrance. Here, the park offers tubes for rent and a shuttle bus that will return you to your car after floating down river. We rent tubes and head to the river. The kids jump right in while we settle ourselves into our tubes. It doesn’t take long for the current to slowly begin to move us down river and we watch as the trees pass around us. Turtles appear on logs along the bank and below there are long strands of river grass dancing in the current. Sitting atop our tubes we relax and let the river guide us downstream.
A while later we begin to get hot and jump out of our tubes into the cool water. We swim with the current, keeping our tubes close at hand. After we’ve had enough swimming we climb back into our tubes and relax again. It isn’t long before we spot the first alligator. It isn’t too big, maybe 4 -feet long, but still it’s unnerving. We make sure the kids are in their tubes and that we are between them and the alligator. We slowly float away and start to relax again. In all we saw 3 alligators that day. None of them appeared to be threatening and we were told by park rangers that they try to stay clear of people.
The entire drift down the river lasted about 2 hours. It was long enough to get a good feel for the river and really relax. The kids loved swimming in the clear water and watching the alligator float next to us will forever be enshrined in the lore of our family adventures. If you have a chance, take a weekend and visit the springs. It’s no wonder they were Florida’s original tourist attraction.