The crystal clear headwaters of Silver Springs once hosted Florida’s most treasured theme park in the days before Disney. Now, nearly a half a century later, rediscovered remnants of former glory days mark the park’s steady rise into a renewed, natural resort.
On Nov. 22, 2014, the Silver Springs Professional Dive Team made its inaugural dive into the translucent waters at the start of the Silver River. Their goal, besides enjoying the view, was to clean and restore three large statues resting at the bottom of the springs – abandoned props from a 1960’s episode of hit TV series, “I Spy.” The formidable statues, covered in half a century’s worth of algae, were not the only antiques to merit attention; divers also put their stiff brushes and pressure washers to work clearing the bottoms of the famous glass-bottom boats – formerly one of the park’s greatest attractions.
As early as the mid-19th century, Silver Springs occupied a chief spot in the popular imagination as a vacationer’s paradise. Surviving postcards boast of crystal clear waters and abundant aquatic life – delights enjoyed by Victorian tourists who viewed them from tourist-filled shores and through the glass bottoms of the park’s tour boats.
Although already an attraction of note, Silver Springs reached its zenith in popularity following World War II. In Silver Springs: The Underwater Photographs of Bruce Mozert, Gary Monroe explains that as Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway snaked its way south through the Sunshine State, tourists who formerly trickled in by steamer began to arrive in droves, parking their vans, buses and cars all along the Silver River.
The park’s primary draw was simple: the 99 percent pure water that offered wide-eyed visitors a clear and close-up look at colorful fish and submerged landscapes. Yet as the park garnered more national attention, it upped its scale of operation, too. A Jungle Cruise was added along the Silver River (dotted with monkeys shipped in from Southeast Asia), a Shrine of the Water Gods erected and a Life of Jesus Christ diorama spread across seven small chapels. There was also a Deer Ranch and a Santa’s Land, as well as an elaborate greenhouse. Whatever their fancy, 20th century tourists were sure to find it at the Silver Springs resort.
Before long, Hollywood directors were packing up their crews for filming in the translucent waters, decorated by fish and a jungle of swaying eelgrass. The popular destination played host to six Tarzan films, television series Seahunt (1958 – 1961), Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (1963 – 1988) and many more. Advertisers sometimes took advantage of the transparent waters for eye-catching underwater photo shoots that looked almost normal – but not quite.
Unfortunately, the growth inspired by the springs’ natural beauty led to its unnatural demise. Runoff from shoreline attractions and nearby fertilized fields introduced chemicals into the once-pure water, killing off the fish and plant life. Soon the waters were murky, Disney was open for business and the newly built interstate system zoomed tourists past Silver Springs without pause.
The resort had mostly closed its doors until 1999, when the Silver Springs Basin Working Group was formed in order to breathe new life into the ailing attraction.
The Working Group pushed an initiative to acquire a 4400-acre parcel north of Silver Springs to prevent runoff, then set to work restoring the natural habitat. Their efforts sparked a rejuvenation project that culminated in the historic spring’s reopening as Silver Spring’s State Park in the October 2014. Current park management has replaced some of the more gimmicky former attractions with small-footprint activities, like kayaking and guided tours, and now attracts families from around the country and state who want to experience Florida’s natural beauty.
With the glass-bottom boats back in commission, the waters regaining their former purity and a few pieces of Hollywood glamour left behind, Silver Springs offers modern visitors a glimpse of the past, a delight in the present and a promise for the future.
For more information Silver Springs State Park, visit
www.floridasprings.org. For more on the park’s history and restoration, see floridabookshelf.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/gary-monroe-considers-the-fate-of-silver-springs.
~by Elizabeth Putfark