“ Theme Park in Ocala, North Florida. „
Let's go back in time, to when travelling for pleasure was a privilege of the very rich or eccentric, mass tourism was a word still to be invented, as well as low-fare airlines or aviation itself.
Walt Disney's brainchild Micky Mouse wasn't born yet, the first movie ever still had to be shot in a distant future and missions to outer space or landings on the moon only existed in the mind of people, who were in immediate danger to be locked up in the local loony-bin.
With all these things missing, that make the Florida of today such a popular tourist attraction, there was one little place that could prosper without the competition, that it has to face now and which is the reason why it is so often overlooked by visitors: Silver Springs.
The history of Silver Springs goes back to the 1500's when the Timucuan Indians, who lived in the area, named it Ocali.
After Hernando de Soto's arrival they first had to fight his Spaniards - against whom they won - and then the Seminole Indians - against whom they lost.
In the 1850's the natives had been driven away and the first settlements had emerged. Trade was rife, first with barges that carried the merchandise, later through the Hart Stagecoach Line and Steamboats.
By this time, around 1860, the people of Silver Springs had long since learned to appreciate to live close to one of the largest artesian springs in the world, with 99.8 percent clear spring water of which 550 million gallons are pumped up every day .
With transportation getting easier, people from further way flocked to Silver Springs to see the crystal - clear water with their own eyes.
Florida's first tourist attraction was born.
In 1916 the silent movie "The seven swans" with Richard Barthelmess and Marguerite Clark was shot here and Hollywood became a firm fixture to Silver Springs. Some of them more well known movies that have been made in Silver Springs are the original 1930' and 40's Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller or "Never say never again" with Sean Connery.
Countless shows, TV programmes and advertisements have been made in the park and whereas Silver Springs has long since lost its first rank in the tourist attractions, it is very popular with Hollywood film-productions, photographers and for commercials.
A few days before my second visit to Florida friends told me about Silver Springs, of which I had never heard of before and highly recommended to go and see it. Which I did.
I liked it and around ten years later came back to see it again with my family.
Around 90 miles north of Orlando, just of Ocala, situated on Highway 40, that leads from Ocala to Daytona Beach - right through the Ocala National Forest which is, with its 383.573 acres of land, well worth a visit itself.
The park itself :
The Silver Springs Nature Theme Park measures a proud 350 acres of land and surrounds the headwaters of the Silver River which contain one of the largest artesian spring formations in the world.
You can see the springs if you take a trip on a glass-bottom boat, the water is crystal-clear, and around the springs a large theme park that contains a zoo with mostly local animals, a wildlife preserve, several shows about the animals and some rides has developed over the years.
The exhibits are integrated into the original swamp-scenario of the area and you will be presented with an experience, that sometimes seems like a trip back in time to when this part of Florida was still wild and un-inhabited - left in it's natural beauty.
When you enter the park you will find yourself in front of the "Court the Flags", which is a round plot with the American flag, the flag of the state of Florida and the Marion county flag.
There are several sign-posts here and you'll have to decide, what to do first.
Right in front of you is the pier for the glass bottom boats, which we kept for later, as we arrived at sharp ten o'clock in the morning when the park opens up for the day.
Everybody seems to want to go to the boats straight away, so we let them all to go first and started to wander around peacefully - and nearly alone.
First we will turn to the right and visit the "Panther prowl".
In this enclosure you can observe some big cat's. One of them is a Florida panther that is very rare and only a handful of them still exist.
So let's cross the wooden bridge and go straight to the "Big Gator Lagoon" :
The alligators in the park are some of the biggest that can be found in Florida and measure up to 13 feet. They live in a cypress swamp that measures 1 acre and you can just walk through.
On an elevated boardwalk, where you are far out of their reach.
Don't be fooled by these alligator's who only seem to laze around in the sun without moving much. I've seen them at feeding time and they can become very fast when presented with a nice, juicy piece of meat !
The largest of the alligators in Silver Springs is named after an ancient Egyptian god who had a head like a crocodile and the body of a man : Sobek.
I tried to spot the right alligator to take a picture of Sobek, but they are all so huge and I am not sure, if I got the right one.
Now we will turn our attention to the " Ross Allen Island"
What we will find here is - in big parts - a living nightmare for me.
There are all kinds of creepy-crawlies, like a variety of native snakes, turtles ( I don't mind them) and spiders. Arrgh !
I don't know what it is, that always draws my attention to reptiles and spiders as soon as I enter a zoo, as I am terrified of them.
To look at them always holds a strange kind of fascination for me - knowing to be safe with a thick dividing glass in between me and them, they seem to be beautiful and still yet so scary.
So while we are here and I have already gone a bit pale under my Florida sun-tan we can straight go and see the "Creature Feature Show"
Here we will be presented with lots of little friends of mine like scorpions, spiders and giant hissing cockroaches.
The later ones originally come from Madagascar and can be up to 3 inches long and make some strange hissing noises when they gat scared. Interesting to hear that some people hold this little beauties as pets...
As they are all rather small in appearance the show happens over giant TV monitors and you will be told a lot about their behaviour and characteristics.
Maybe you will even be the lucky one to get up on the stage and have one of those huge, hairy spiders crawling all over you, while the attendant tries to convince you, that you are having a great time.
I suppose you can guess that I didn't stick up my hand on this one !
While we are at it we can also straight got to the "Non-venomous Snake Show"
If you have ever felt the urge to touch and feel a snake then you are right here.
Well, I haven't...
I found it interesting to listen to what they had to tell about the snakes, how they live and what an important role they play in controlling rodents.
To be honest, as impressed as I was, I'd rather get a cat - or a mouse-trap!
My husband tried the touching experience and told me that the snake didn't fell slimy at all (why should it, it's not a snail ) but more soft, velvety and warm.
My older daughter was brave enough too, her only comment was "Mum, I've stroked Sir Hiss", while the little one was taking a nap and I declined ( ran away) politely.
After keeping you until now, let's go and see the springs :
You can board the glass bottom boats from the pier that is left from the court of flags, which means that we have to walk back now.
Our first problem was to get our little daughter, who had waken up by now, to board the boat. For some reason she was scared and we missed one until we had her convinced.
They run quite regularly every 15 minutes or so, so we didn't have to wait too long for the next one.
The boats look very flat, once inside you will sit on benches around the sides of the boat so that you can view through the glass floor.
You have a very good sight through the glass and maybe I should mention at this point, that this kind of boat was invented here in Silver Springs by Hullam Jones in 1878, when the springs became a really popular place to visit.
Back then it was a glass viewing box that was installed on the bottom of a canoe.
Today it is a bit more comfortable and you have a nice plastic seat and a roof over your head which will shelter you from the weather - pouring rain or scorching sun.
You can see the 7 major spring formations at the headwaters.
The water is totally clear and it is as deep as 80 ft and what you see is truly spectacular.
You will be able to see dozens of species of fish, but also different kinds of turtles, shrimps, crawfish, as well as fossilized shells that are many millions of years old. The captain of the boat will point them out to you.
It is a truly fascinating trip and I have never - neither before or after - experienced anything like it.
I loved to see the turtles. Did you ever realize that they have tiny noses that resemble those of a pig ? Very small and round with two tiny holes in it - just like a continental plug !
Much to soon the trip was over - it takes around 15 minutes and we had quite a problem to get our small daughter out of the boat now - which she didn't want to board before - as she loved to crawl all over the glass floor.
My apologies to all who's views were obstructed by our little one !!!
There are two more boat rides, one of which we took as well:
The Lost River Voyage
The boat takes you on a magnificent trip over the River Silver and you can see some stunning nature and lots of wildlife, which the captain of the boat will point out to you, as it can be very hard to spot these animals.
We've seen some monkeys, a snake that was curled around a branch of a tree and a family of racoons.
The later have been an absolute hit with our little girls and we had quite some fun watching them ourselves. They seem to wait for the boat to pose for the visitors and , as the captain threw them some food, it becomes clear why.
You will pass through some stunning sceneries, with Cypress trees that are huge and some of them are more then 500 years old. This is how I imagine that Florida looked like before it was populated and civilized....
World of bears :
An enclosure in which you will find different species of black and brown bears.
The enclosure is easily oversee-able and seemed to be very bear-friendly.
The bears were quite active and we enjoyed watching them for a while.
Wilderness Trail :
Here you are invited to take a safari in a little wagon that is pulled by a jeep. On the way you can see a variety of animals, such as deer, emus, llama's,...
It was a fun way to get around and just long enough without the kids getting bored.
The Botanical gardens :
A beautiful place to sit down for a while and rest your tired feet. The botanical garden is home to a variety of more then 100 different local and exotic plants. Some of them are arranged in flower beds, some of the are shaped into colourful sculptures. There are squirrels all over the place and we sat down for quite a while, enjoying a cone of ice-cream while watching them.
What else is in the park :
There is a kid's playland with a carousel, a ferris wheel, some playground activities and other stuff that kept our girls happy when they came to the point, where they had enough of watching animals or sitting in boats and jeeps.
A water feature were they illuminate the water and let it "dance" to background music. Not my taste, but lots of people seemed to like it.
There are parrots all around which you can find sitting on wooden bars. One of them talks and we spend ages "chatting" with him.
A family of giraffes that are living in the "Giraffe barn".
Another boat ride which we couldn't take as we were running out of time.
Some other shows which we haven't seen for the same reason.
A shopping mall with some souvenir shops, that sell mostly jungle-type stuff.
Of course the girls had to beg for some of those ugly plastic snakes...
Food and drink :
There are several small food karts all over the park that sell you cold drinks, ice-cream and hot-dogs.
If you want something more substantial, then you have the choice between a pizzeria, a deli, a Bar & Grill Restaurant, a cafe and the ice-cream & fudge shop.
We have tried the pizzeria were we ordered pizzas for us and spaghetti with meatballs for the girls. The service was good and fast, the food tasted nice and the portions were - as usual in the US - huge ! The prices were very reasonable and I've eaten in many much worse places in the UK and on the Continent in similar parks where I had to pay much, much more.
The park is very clean, there are plenty of toilets all over the place and these were all impeccable.
The staff is very friendly and helpful and if you have a question about the animals they are more then willing to answer.
Most of them seemed very chatty and it was a pleasure to talk to them
The park is quite flat and it should be fairly easy to get around if you are disabled, as we haven't found any in-accessible stairs with our baby-stroller.
There are always disabled toilets with the other ones, as well as baby-changing facilities.
The only problem I could see would be how to get into the boats with a wheel-chair. Here, I suppose, the help of the staff would be needed as the wheelchair certainly would have to stay at the pier. But, friendly and helpful as they are, that shouldn't be too big a problem for them.
Would I recommend it ?
Yes, certainly. We had a lovely day there and it was so much more quiet and relaxed as the theme parks in Orlando.
The park wasn't busy when we went there. It was during the week, so I can't comment about week-ends, and we didn't really have to queue up anywhere.
The park is big and there is a lot to see and do, so make sure you come early or you won't be able to see it all as they shut at 5 pm.
So if you should plan a visit to the US, then go and have a look yourself, you won't be disappointed.
$ 32.99 for adults
$ 23.99 for children between 3 - 10 years of age
We found this to be quite hefty but were told by the reception of our hotel that if we would bring any Coca-Cola product with us to the park that we would get some money of. Well, it worked.
So grab yourself a can of coke and the entry for the adults will be reduced to $ 24.99 !
From what I have seen from their web-site this campaign still goes on, but will end on 31.12.2006.
Thanks for reading this, Sandra
While I was writing a comment on someone else's Florida opinion the other day, I suddenly thought "Silver Springs". Don't ask me why – my doctor never could fathom how my mind works. Anyway, I decided to sit and write about one of Florida's lesser known, and in my opinion, fantastic theme parks. Silver Springs is where you may want to go on a chill-out day. It's for people of all ages, especially if you like wildlife and nature. So what's the big deal? WHERE IS IT? Silver Springs is quite a way off the beaten track from the other Orlando attractions. It's about 90 miles away from Orlando, to the north near Ocala. When I went I drove up the Florida Turnpike to get there. HOW MUCH DOES IT COST? Daily admission is quite reasonable in comparison with the other attractions. At the time of writing, adults can get in for $31.99, children over the age of 2 $22.99, and seniors for $28.99. This doesn't take into account any discounts you may pick up in local magazines or from your tour guide and includes all the attractions and rides within the park. Something my other op on Orlando failed to mention (if you've read it you're probably wondering how I could have missed ANYTHING!) was that in Florida 'seniors' include anyone aged 55 or over, which in UK terms is not that old. If you're over 55, take your passport and press for discounts everywhere you go! One thing about discounts – when I went I bought tickets through Virgin, only to find a $6 off coupon in the local discount magazine. If this happens, take your tickets back to the tour rep – reputable companies should be able to give you the same price. This is Florida we're talking about – you should NEVER be afraid to haggle! WHAT CAN I DO THERE? Anyway, on with the show… The main feature of Silver Springs is their world famous glass bottomed boats. The whole park is based aro
und the Silver River, which on a good day is crystal clear – it really has to be seen to be believed! Unfortunately on the day I went the weather was diabolical by Florida standards – it was only about 50 degrees, and it was wet, thanks to the latest hurricane coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. There were about 20 people in the whole park on this day, which made for a unique experience as you kept bumping into the same people, having a chat with them, and getting personal tours on just about everything! There is a jeep safari you can go on. This was a personal tour through the 35 acres of wildlife, due to the lack of other customers. Even when they take the full complement of passengers the drivers ensure you have plenty of time to savour the wildlife and take pictures! Since I went they have introduced a feature where you drive through a pool of live alligators, which would have been great in my opinion although it's probably not everyone's cup of tea! There are a number of shows that are put on throughout the park, featuring various reptiles, birds and other native creatures of Florida. These include birds of prey, birds of the rainforest and Reptiles of the world. I missed this last one, as I am not a great snake fan, despite liking pretty much all other reptiles. The World of Bears is another great exhibit which is the largest exhibition of its kind in the US. That had only just opened when I went there on that grey drizzly day. Another claim to fame is 'Sobek', believed to be the world's largest American Crocodile in captivity who is apparently 16 feet long and nearly 2000 pounds in weight. That'd give my cats a run for their money. Well, possibly… There is also the obligatory kids areas where they can play, although since I don't have kids I can't comment on how good or bad that part of the park was. That said, if your children like animals they'll probably want
to spend as much time looking around the rest of the park as they can. Of all the things I've done and been to in Florida, I think that my sole visit to Silver Springs was one of the most memorable. Not just because of the weather, but silly things like I got to touch and feed a baby giraffe up close. Unfortunately not all of us are lucky to live with a giraffe and this was a very memorable moment in my life, sad though it may be! On the river cruise we saw a lot of native animals including an island where a whole family of raccoons had lived until they caught a disease and there was only one left. I wonder if that one's still alive? I can't wait until I go back to Florida – this park will definitely be on my list of places to visit again. And despite the fact that, yes, there will probably be just a few more people there than last time, I think that I would quite like the weather to be a bit nicer than last time. Roll on the next hurricane, FLA here I come! Official site at: http://www.silversprings.com