Bushnell, FL - Events of Wednesday, January 29 to Monday, February 3, 2013
The nice day on Tuesday that Paul used to complete the refinishing project on several of our motor home cabinet doors was followed by a 20º temperature drop and three days of off-and-on rain. That kind of weather certainly isn't very conducive to sightseeing, and even Freeway seemed content to just sit around the motor home and try to stay warm. Because the floor is so cold, we decided to relax our restriction of not allowing Freeway on the furniture. If not on someone's lap, the driver's seat has become his favorite spot in cool weather.
The temperature finally warmed up on Saturday, but the sky remained cloudy with a few more showers. We watched an old movie on TV on Sunday afternoon after church, then we watched the first part of the Super Bowl in the evening. The game was so painful to watch, we stopped watching about halfway through the second quarter and moved on to other programs we had stored on our DVR.
We were so tired of having the weather spoil our sightseeing plans, on Monday we finally decided to go check out Silver Springs in spite of morning fog/clouds and a few stray rain showers passing through the area. Silver Springs is about 50 minutes north of Bushnell just to the east of Ocala.
Silver Springs is another one of those old time tourist attractions Paul visited back in 1956 when he was a kid on vacation with his parents in Florida.
Silver Springs is one of Florida's oldest tourist attractions. Even before the Civil War, visitors came to see the springs. After the War, visitors arriving in Florida by rail traveled across the state's rivers by steamboat; and Silver Springs became an important transportation hub and tourist destination.
The springs gained even more in popularity after the invention of a glass-bottom rowboat in the late 1870s. The boat gave visitors a unique view of the springs, and Silver Springs gained national attention.
The land around the spring head changed hands several times. Each new owner made improvements to the boats by adding things like cushioned seats, canopies and gasoline engines.
In the 1970s, Silver Springs was developed into Silver Springs Nature Theme Park. In addition to the glass bottom boats, there were several amusement rides, a concert stage, animal exhibits, a jungle cruise and a water park.
In the 1980s, the state purchased the land around the springs. They leased the land in the immediate area of the spring head back to the operators of the theme park and opened the Silver River State Park across the river downstream a ways from the tourist attraction.
The theme park began to struggle to make ends meet in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The theme park changed hands several times as each new owner tried to make a go of it. In 2013, however, after declining profits, the latest owners of the theme park paid $4 million to the state to terminate the remainder of their lease. The spring head became part of the state park, and the name was changed from Silver River State Park to Silver Springs State Park.
There are two entrances to the state park, one of which is at the old entrance to the theme park (a.k.a. the Spring Side entrance). That entrance is located off State Route 40. The second entrance (a.k.a. the River Side entrance) is located a mile or so south off State Route 35.
As we said, there were a few rain showers in the area when we left the motor home (we drove through one on the way), but the sky started to clear just about the time we arrived at Silver Springs. Since the rain stopped, we went to the old theme park entrance first in case the rain came back because this is the area where the original tourist attraction was located that Paul visited when he was young, and it was the area we wanted to be sure to be able to see.
The entrance fee is $8 per car (up to 8 people - $5 for single occupant) and is good for both sides of the state park.
Inside the old theme park, most of the gift shops and eateries adjacent to the spring are now empty, but there are concessionaires that still operate an ice cream parlor, an informal restaurant, canoe and kayak rentals and of course, glass bottom boat rides.
Over 500 million gallons of water a day once flowed from numerous underwater orifices at the spring head, but a decreasing water table due to increased population has reduced the flow to less than 350 million gallons a day. Fish population has also declined and so has the clarity of the water due to fertilizer and septic run-off.
Thirty-minute glass bottom boat rides are available for $10 a person. Since the schedule is rather limited in winter, and since we wanted to try to have enough time left to visit the part of the state park on the other side of the river, we decided to pass on the boat ride. However, we did see a boat heading up the river back to the dock as we walked around the grounds.
As we walked around the grounds of the old theme park, we passed what used to be part of the animal exhibit. Most of the animals were sold to Micanopy Zoological Preserve around 2004. The last pair of giraffes remaining at Silver Spring Nature Theme Park died in December, 2011 and January, 2012. Although the old animal exhibit area is closed to the public, we could see the giraffe house with its high roof and tall doors through the fence.
We also got to enjoy the remnants of some of the theme park's landscaping as we walked.
The concert stage that was part of the theme park is called Twin Oaks Mansion, and it is still in operation. There was a Willie Nelson concert two days before we were there.
We really enjoyed our visit to the old Silver Springs Nature Theme Park on the Spring Side of what is now Silver Springs State Park. From the Spring Side, we headed south to the River Side. We'll tell you about that part of the Silver River State Park in our next post.