Change comes to Ocala’s Silver Springs

I’m pretty sure I just made my first trip to Silver Springs, the old-school tourist attraction in Ocala.

I know that my parents used to take me along on family vacations to Ocala when I was a youngster. I have old snapshots of pretend gunfights in the dusty streets of the now-defunct Six-Gun Territory, a big deal in the days before Walt Disney World opened in 1971.

But if I went on a glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs (, I don’t recall it.

Fortunately those vessels — a fixture since 1878 — are still at the attraction, which will become a state park in October. The boat tours will remain, along with the park’s long-running concert series, but the birds, bears, monkeys and amusement rides will be gone.

The animals were to be out by this weekend, several employees told me on a recent weekday visit. A caretaker for the Kodiak bears was obviously saddened by the demise of animal exhibits that have entertained generations.

One of the giant bears, 1,245-pound Jake, munched casually on tree leaves in his fenced yard as the caretaker explained his lifestyle habits to roughly half a dozen guests. On a soon-to-be-gone Jeep tour of the grounds, another guide rattled off names of a family of Gibbons monkeys in front of an empty cage that was once their home.

That was sad, as was the virtually empty string of shops at the park entrance, but the landscaping was lovely. Although the water above the mammoth spring doesn’t seem as crystal clear as it once did, a tour on a glass-bottom boat — which looks like a floating trolley car — is still a serene, only-in-Florida experience.

Of course, serenity is easier without a bunch of people around. If there were two dozen folks at the park on the day of my visit, I’d be surprised. The nearly empty parking lot was another sad sight. (With a Florida resident admission discount, the $8 parking fee almost matches the park’s $10.60 ticket.)

Still, I’m optimistic about the future here. Last year I visited Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Spring Hill, which joined the park system in 2008. The mermaids still blow their mythical bubbles and the new park boasts a themed beach area.

So there’s the possibility that change might be good at Silver Springs.