When it’s cold, they’re warm. When it’s warm, they’re cold.
Natural springs are among the prime attractions in Central and North Florida. In summer or in winter, during a heat wave or during a cold snap, the temperature of the spring waters stays constant, around 70-73 degrees. In winter, manatees seek the relative warmth of the springs. In Florida’s hot summers, people enjoy their refreshingly cool waters. It’s a win-win situation.
Yet it isn’t just their waters that makes these natural springs some of Florida’s most popular vacation sites. Many offer other activities, among them hiking trails, picnicking, boat tours, wildlife viewing and shows, campgrounds, rental cabins, visitor centers and dining facilities in addition to water-related activities such as swimming, canoeing, kayaking, tubing, snorkeling and scuba diving.
Florida has more than 600 springs, says Donald Forgione, director of the Division of Recreation and Parks for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, which owns and manages some of the state’s biggest and most visited springs.
“Our springs fall in two categories,” Forgione said. “First there are the pristine natural springs, which are like good ol’ swimming holes. Nothing else goes on there. Then there are the older, former roadside attractions — like Silver Springs, Weeki Wachee and Homosassa.” These offer many recreational activities.
The ones that attract most visitors are the first-magnitude springs, which pump out more than 100 cubic feet of water per second — that’s 65 million gallons per day. Florida has more than two dozen of these, more than any other state or country, running from the spring head to a lake or river. Some of Florida’s best-known rivers are spring-fed in whole or in part, among them the Suwannee, Silver, Ichnetcknee, Santa Fe, Oklawaha, Withlacochee and St. Johns Rivers.
Biggest of all springs is Silver Springs, which was Florida’s first major attraction, located near Ocala. Silver Springs Nature Park, still privately managed, not only has glass-bottom boat tours but also offers tram rides into the forest, wildlife shows, botanical gardens, summer concerts, a Playland for kids, and Wild Waters, a major water park with numerous rides and slides. It is surrounded by another preserve, Silver River State Park. On Oct. 1, the state will start managing both parks, which will be called Silver Springs State Park.
Another spring with a wide variety of attractions is Weeki Wachee State Park, near Tampa, famous for its “mermaids” who perform in a submerged theater. Visitors are seated behind a glass wall. The human “mermaids” and “mermen” perform graceful underwater ballets as they tell Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Little Mermaid. Weeki Wachee has many other features, including river boat tours, animal shows, water-related activities and Buccaneer Bay, a water park with a variety of body slides, flume rides, tubing and such.
Wildlife is the major attraction at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, north of Tampa. Manatees can be seen year-round from an underwater observatory. The park’s extensive collection of wildlife also includes black bears, bobcats, cougars, red wolves, white-tailed deer, river otters and alligators, viewed from an elevated boardwalk. Snakes can be seen in the park’s Reptile House.