by Mike Miller
(Mount Dora, Florida)
Sunday, September 15, 2013 was the last day of operation for Silver Springs as a private entity. Starting on October 1, 2013 it will be operated as a state park.
Silver Springs was one of Florida's oldest tourist attractions. Even before the pioneer settlers came to the area, the Timucuan Indians were living in the area they called Ocali, and enjoying the pure clear artesian waters of the springs. The Spanish decimated the Timucuans, and they were succeeded in later years by the Seminoles. Today, all of the glass bottom boats at Silver Springs are named after leaders of the Seminole tribe.
Silver Springs discharges into the Silver River which flows to the St. Johns. This opened up the area to Jacksonville and the rest of the world. Tourists began to flock to the springs to enjoy the climate and the pure crystal clear water.
The popularity increased even more as the glass bottom boat was invented in 1878. Tourists could look through a glass viewing box in the bottom of a dugout canoe and see the clear underwater world with its natural creatures.
Over the following years, the boats got bigger, hotels were built and in those pre-Disney days the attraction thrived. In the early 1930s, Ross Allen, a snake expert, founded the Silver Springs Reptile Institute. He was skilled in milking the venom from the fangs of rattlesnakes and other
snakes; the venom was use as antidote for snake bites and research.
Not long after Ross Allen came on the scene, the operator of the Jungle Cruise boat ride decided to put a small colony of rhesus monkeys on a nearby island in the Silver River. The monkeys quickly escaped and settled all along the river. Their descendants are still living in the wild even today.
Six Tarzan movies, starring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, were filmed at Silver Springs in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Later on in the late 1950s and early 1960s, more than 100 episodes of "Sea Hunt", starring Lloyd Bridges as Mike Nelsen, were filmed at Silver Springs.
In the 1960s the attraction was expanded by 3,900 newly acquired acres, and in 1972 Silver Springs was registered as a Natural Landmark by the U.S. Dept of Interior and the National Park Service. In the 1970s Wild Waters was opened; it was a seasonal water park. There was also a petting zoo, a Jeep safari, and a downriver attraction called "Lost River Voyage".
A Don Garlits antique and race car museum opened, along with a "White Alligator Exhibit".
Although the public enjoyed these new features within the Silver Springs attraction, it did not do well enough to survive.
The land is now owned by the State of Florida and on October 1, 2013, will reopen as a state park.