Some water parks are only natural — or sometimes not

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.

Florida birdlife can be observed in a new aviary, opened last year, that is four to five times as large as the previous one. Visitors can view flamingos, pelicans, sandhill cranes and roseate spoonbills up close from a boardwalk. Also recently completed at Homosassa is a River Walk and Manatee Interpretation area, with a boardwalk that wraps around the spring.

The state’s springs are always crowded on summer weekends with visitors seeking to beat Florida’s heat, no more so than at Ichetucknee Springs near Gainesville. Tubing is the main activity there from May to September. So many students from the nearby University of Florida go tubing here on summer weekends that the park advises arriving early, before the daily limit of 750 tubers is reached. Tubes can be rented from vendors just outside the park.

“Tubing also is available at Rainbow Springs,” noted Forgione. The springs, near Dunnellon, are especially good for families, he said, “because its river is wide, shallow and lazy compared to the Ichnetucknee, which is narrow and can be deep.” Both parks offer tram service between entry and exit points.

Rainbow Springs, also a first-magnitude spring, is Florida’s fourth largest and was a popular privately owned attraction from the 1930s to 1970s. Now a state park, it no longer has shows, but does offer many other activities, including a full facility campground.

Florida’s most-visited spring is Blue Spring State Park, near Orange City, which draws 500,000 guests a year. Unlike many other springs, Blue Spring attracts people both in winter and summer. It is a designated Manatee Refuge and draws many visitors in winter, when the gentle creatures swarm into the spring and spring run, which empties into the St. Johns River. To protect the manatees, the park’s spring waters are closed to swimming and other water sports from mid-November to March 15. In summer, however, those same waters, now relatively cool, lure thousands of visitors seeking relief from the heat.

Blue Spring offers a variety of activities, among them swimming, fishing, canoeing, boating, picnicking and hiking. Guests also can visit a historic home that stands on the park’s 2,300-acre grounds. Overnight visitors can rent air-conditioned cabins in the park or stay in a full-facility campground.

Some of the state’s more popular springs are found in and managed by Ocala National Forest. Alexander Springs, a first-magnitude spring, has a sandy beach. Salt Springs gets its name and slightly salty taste from the potassium, magnesium and sodium salts present in its water, which rises through ancient salt beds. Juniper Springs, which has hundreds of tiny bubbling springs as well as its main outlets, was developed as a recreation area in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Silver Glen, another first-magnitude spring, has a spring run accessible to boats that empties into Lake George, Florida’s second-largest lake. In fact, my family once drove a houseboat up the run to the springs’ marina, where we spent a day and night enjoying its facilities.

Several springs in North Florida have gained world renown as prime sites for cave diving, among them Peacock Springs and Telford Spring. However, cave diving is a dangerous sport that results in a half dozen or more deaths every year in Florida. Only persons who have passed rigorous tests are allowed to go cave diving.

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