Silver Springs to join the state park system in October

The Florida State Parks system is about to get a big, wet addition.

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet voted to let the current leasers of Silver Springs, near Ocala, out of their contract with the state.  Their theme park, which has operated on the spring since the 1980s, will be closed on Sept. 30, and the land will be turned over to the state park system and returned to its natural state.

Nearby Silver River State Park is already a wonderful place to camp, bike and kayak, and soon that park will extend to encompass the spring that feeds it as well.

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Algae blooms taking over Silver Springs | Photo from the Audubon of Florida

Surely, this is good news for us.  Recently, concerns have been raised about the impact of the theme parks on the spring’s water quality.  The water flow has slowed, a thick layer of brown algae blankets the spring bottom, and water visibility has diminished dramatically.

Alan Youngblood, a photo editor with the Ocala Star-Banner, wrote in July about the changes he’s witnessed in the years he’s photographed the spring.

Diving in Silver Springs used to be like diving in air. The virtually pure water that shot like a fire hydrant from the main spring was so clear and clean you could lay on the bottom and read the names of the glass-bottom boats that passed over 40 feet above you. You could easily recognize the tourists looking down at you waving.

Now, though, that’s not the case.  It’s hard to make out underwater landmarks.  From the bottom, the surface seems much farther away.

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Algae overtaking the spring floor. | Photo courtesy of Ocala.com and Alan Youngbood/Staff Photography

I don’t mean to imply that the theme parks on the site, Silver Springs Nature Theme Park and Wild Waters, are the sole cause of this – they are not.  Polluted runoff, agricultural chemicals and overuse have  introduced new chemicals into a dangerous ecosystem, and skyrocketing nitrate levels have fostered massive algae blooms.

But there’s hope for the historic, world-famous spring.  The owners of the theme parks have agreed to pack up shop and return the spring to a close-to-natural condition before their departure.

At that point, the state park will expand and conservation will begin.  This likely means that the spring, one of the largest in the world, will be open to minimally invasive recreation as well – diving, snorkeling, canoeing and kayaking.

According to the Gainesville Sun, Palace Entertainment, the theme park operator, is planning to spend $4 million to improve the ecology of the site before turning it over.

Environmental officials from the state have already begun discussing plans to manage the river basin and to reduce the nitrate contamination.

Department of Environmental Protection secretary Herschel T. Vinyard, Jr., said in a statement,

We are pleased that the Governor and Cabinet have decided to approve this agreement so that the Department can return the property closer to its natural state, involve the community in recreation opportunity decisions and continue our efforts of improving water quality in Silver Springs, one of Florida’s most iconic treasures.

Count me in on that sentiment.  When the state park opens the gate to the new Silver Springs State Park on Oct. 1, I’ll be there.

Silver Springs has a fascinating and colorful history, and I’m excited to see how the state park system incorporates those elements into the new park.  For a time, Silver Springs was the biggest tourist attraction in the state and a hub for river travel.

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An 1886 photo from George Baker shows a steamboat heading up Silver River from Silver Spring.

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Silver Springs, circa 1900. The Okeehumkee riverboat docked and waiting for passengers.

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Six Gun Territory, a theme park that operated at Silver Spring until 1984.

There have been numerous theme parks on the property, including the two that are there now.  There have been, and still are, glass bottom boat operators.  There have been movies (James Bond) and TV shows (“Sea Hunt,” “I Spy,” “Six Million Dollar Man”) filmed there.  There’s even a population of wild monkeys at the park, escapees from a failed ploy to attract even more tourists to the area.

Silver Spring really is one of the most interesting and beautiful springs in the country, and I could not be happier that it will now get the commitment to preservation that it so deserves.

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Comments

  1. This is indeed a most encouraging turn of events and cause for celebration. I don’t know how much longer that poor abused spring could have held out. Congrats, Casey, on an excellent news report!

  2. Thanks for your post, good info! I will visit this fall too 🙂

  3. Great news that a theme park has returned to its natural state. I prefer a state park to a theme park any day.

  4. I just drove past here recently and thought about this. Glad to hear it! These springs are precious, nice classic photos truly amazing. Last year was at Ginny Springs a privately owned one I think. It was horrible the way they allowed power boats to go right into the spring itself.

  5. visited silver springs today with my granddaughter just as we have since I myself was just a baby and what I saw walking through the park was a true tragedy, there are those that would imply that a so called theme park was harmful to the springs, I finally said out loud ( REALLY I HOPE THE TREE HUGGERS THAT AGREE WITH THINGS LIKE THIS CHOKE ON THE BARK THEY CHEW ) and they think closing off something so beautiful and pristine to the public in the name of preserving it is a good thing take a look long look at the great blunder south of the Okeechobee that we all call the everglades where the state, federal, and the oh so mighty dep drown deer, turkey bears, and panthers in the name of saving a little bird that lays an egg too low on the ground. I say to all who thinks the state taking over silver springs is a good thing, ( YOU ARE A TRAGEDY IN IT SELF!!!!!! )

    • Hi Stacey,

      Thanks for your comment. You’re more than welcome to your opinion on the topic, but I would like to point out a few things. The land won’t be closed off. In fact, it will be just as open as it is now, only the admission fee will be substantially less. Sure, there will be fewer water slides, but there will be more opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, swimming, diving, picnicking and other forms of recreation.

      More importantly, though, the state isn’t “closing off” the park. The operators of the theme park have asked out of their lease early, and the state has agreed to that request. The theme park asked out of their lease because the venture is no longer profitable. This is not a hostile takeover or a repossession; the theme park owners want to close.

      And the theme park was doomed, regardless of state intervention. If you’re a long time customer of the park, I’m sure you’ve noticed the reduction in water quality, the erosion of the spring banks, and the buildup of algae. The flow has been reduced to a trickle. Of course, many of these unfortunate developments are results of forces outside of the theme park – but the theme park’s control over the land prevents the state from addressing these issues.

      I hope you’ll take your granddaughter to the theme park again before it closes. Take photos to remember it by, and tell your granddaughter about all of the fun you’ve had there. Then, when the new state park opens, please take your granddaughter again, and kayak from the spring down the Silver River and back. Show her the alligators, and the turtles, and the fish. Tell her that someday, she’ll be able to take her granddaughter down the river too, and start the tradition anew.

      – Florida Adventurer

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