Florida is one of those states that still has a lot of remnants of roadside kitsch. Back during Memorial Day weekend, Phil and I headed to Orlando. Central Florida was getting plenty of attention for the debut of Harry Potter World at Universal Studios. All the Harry Potter you can stand till you puke! I was back home and dragging Phil and the family to a different park: Silver Springs.
“It’s not really a theme-park per se,” I said, trying to describe to Phil the place we had frequented as kids because it, and its sister park, Weeki Wachee Springs, were really the only kind of “theme park” that most of my grandparents’ friends and relatives could really tolerate, not really being the type for throw-up thrill rides anymore. The bank that Grandpa worked for offered their employees discount packages to different theme parks because a few were owned under one company, so my brother and I enjoyed the best of both worlds: places like Silver Springs and the more kid-oriented water parks and places like Sea World.
They’ve officially slapped a rather snoozey label on the place, calling it a Nature Theme Park. And snoozey is probably the way it sounds to people as they drive past screaming kids splashing on the slides at neighboring Wild Waters to get there. More like a historic park combined with a free-roaming zoo, it’s one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions. One of those places that have been around since before the turn of the last century that served as the vacation destinations of northern nobility. Its neighbor park, Weeki Wachee, boasts a real underwater mermaid show that has been around since the late 40s. Silver Springs centerpiece are the historic glass bottom boats. Passengers sit around a rectangular opening fitted with a piece of Plexiglas in the bottom that allows them to view the springs beneath as they pass over them.
Its age makes it a sort of revered landmark. But, as was the case with Weeki Wachee, who’s underwater mermaid show has been around since the late 40s, Silver Springs faced the risk of becoming another extinct attraction. Weeki Wachee was at least able to generate national headlines because the novelty made it attractive to potential private investors. Eventually, both were absorbed by the state and preserved as part of the state park system.
And so, on a Sunday morning, we piled in the car and drove to Ocala. About two hours northeast of Orlando, it used to be a real podunk farm town with dirt roads etched into it (now paved) and a one-room Sheriff’s office (still one-room). Actually, out of the cities and their suburban buffers, most of Florida was rural. Now, pretty much everything is housing developments and strip malls. Swept up in a real estate boom some time in the last 15 years since I’d been there, Ocala became dotted with the standard fare of fast food, retail chains, and pit BBQ joints.
Silver Springs on the other hand, looked almost exactly the same. Although, that it was incorporated into the state park system was obvious because now, the path that the glass bottom boats take are shared with visiting boater and kayakers from the Silver River State Park. The view of shirtless men and scantily clad women (some who absolutely should not be) sunning on a boat with their families tends to conflict with the pristine atmosphere they’ve tried to create at Silver Springs with uniformed boat captains, well-landscaped lawns, and clean white pavilions.
The water in the springs is supposed to be 98% pure and pumps out something like 550 million gallons on a daily basis, according to the tour guide on the glass bottom boats. A crystal clear blue, it was an ideal location for that kind of attraction. At least on a sunny day… and there are plenty as this is the Sunshine State, afterall. The floor of the Springs are mostly patches of thick-bladed underwater grass, bits of limestone and fossil, a few deep holes rigged for exploring by the expendable interns, and the remnants of at least one ancient ship. Not a whole lot of fish. Most of the wildlife that’s pointed out are on top of the water — birds, and turtles and the occasional dogpile of smaller alligators.
There’s other things underneath the water, too. Florida seems like it lost to California as a sunny entertainment industry. They have Hollywood. We have The Other Hollywood. Silver Springs has served as a shooting location for movies and television shows going all the way back to the 20s when they started filming the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller. Among other things, it was also where they filmed Thunderball, a James Bond flick from the Sean Connery era; Legend, the dark fantasy in which Tom Cruise made his film debut; a late 1960s series starring Bill Cosby called I Spy; and more recently, the sci-fi show, SeaQuest. In the late 50s, more than a hundred episodes of Sea Hunt, an old Lloyd Bridges show were filmed there. “You remember that show, don’t you?” the aging boat captain asked us, probably realizing the humor in posing this question to a group of passengers that, aside from my grandma and uncle, must have been no older than 40 or so. Probably its most memorable claim to fame was the drive-in worthy Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954.
Props from some of these were presented by the studios as gifts. Most of them are oddball statues from the thrillers, something in the movie or a TV show that a greedy villain was after, I suppose. One of them is a Greek statue. Some of these they keep housed in a small, two-room museum of props and photos documenting the history of the park. But other movie props are placed them at the bottom of the springs so the riders on the glass bottom boats had something else to look at. “Everything we receive, we put in the water,” the captain explained. Yeah, but what if it’s a check?
Built on the springs, along the Silver River, there’s three boat rides altogether. The Fort King River Cruise was hosted by an older black woman who may have been in her 60s, if not a little older. She was definitely a Deep South native, speaking with such an intensely slow and heavy drawl, probably further exaggerated by the heat and humidity of that afternoon. And she said words like “libary.” A historic tour, they reconstructed Fort King, a Seminole Indian village, and a Cracker village (yup!) up on the banks. Some whitetail deer were out that afternoon poking around the fort. As we passed one of the settings, she pointed to the outhouse and asked if anyone remembered when outdoor plumbing was common. She said her grandmother had them at her home, and surprisingly, a few other people chimed in that they had them as well. The guide laughed slowly, saying that there were two doors. “One if you had to go Number 1. And the other if you had to go Number 2.”
The other boat ride is the Lost River Voyage. Our guide was another well-tanned older man who kind of looked like Jerry Lewis. Aside from the usual wildlife sightings (and I still can’t believe how casually people go kayaking in an alligator-infested river!), he told us to look out for wild monkeys. Florida is apparently the only state with wild monkeys, which sort of happened by accident because back in the 1930s, the operator of the Jungle Cruise boat ride brought in some rhesus monkeys to attract tourists. Not knowing they were actually excellent swimmers, they eventually made their way up the River. We didn’t actually get to see any.
But we did see monkeys elsewhere. Out in front of the waiting area of a jeep ride, they’ve got a few photography-happy monkeys, big fluffy things that swing around these branches that are the shape of the cage really fast until someone comes along and starts admiring them. The “World of Bears” exhibit is there too, though I seem to remember there only being one bear. A big brown one that kind of ran around the cage enough to make people nervous that eventually, he’d start working on how to get past that obstacle.
We managed to get on the jeep ride (which broke down for a few minutes as we waited at the front of the line) just about the minute a giant downpour started up. The driver turned to us and motioned to the tarp tied to the top where we were sitting (we were in the front row), though his instructions were muffled by the rain. It didn’t take long to realize that it would in no way serve to shield us from the rain, which pretty much held on the top of the canvas and kindly dropped buckets of cold rain water on our heads every time the car bounced through the mud. Which was pretty much the whole ride. You pass through a little jungle to see all kinds of animals who had the brains to get out of the rain. Goats. Emus. Zebras. They all had the sense not to stand around getting soaked. I was amused by the fact that they also had a cow, which was brought all the way from Scotland. As the ride ended, I went to the gift shop to buy a towel, not wanting to sit in wet clothes (like one towel was going to do it!!) for the drive back and this lady who had crossed paths with us about three times before that day was there asking the cashier why there weren’t more people in the park. She’d been trying to figure this out all day, as if she wasn’t going to seeking out people to ask until she got a satisfying answer.
Um… lack of state-wide advertising? Competition with other theme parks? It’s too ruddy hot out?
But the place really is a quiet novelty, which is kind of its charm. As far as I know it’s the only places in the state, if not the whole country, where you can feed a giraffe. They sell biscuits that look like graham crackers and the giraffes bow their long necks over the high fences and lap up them up with their black tongues. It’s pretty awesome except the smell that lingers from the habitat of animals on a fiber-heavy diet. Nearby is a petting zoo of goats, something which used to freak my brother out when he was little. Maybe because they chew on everything they can find. There’s a few shows where they bring out some of the wildlife for the audiences to see up close and as a kid, the one that grossed me out was the insect show, where a volunteer could mingle with a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach, which was big enough to both eat your face and scare the crap out of you that it might actually do so. More unusual is the panther, the bobcat, and the sloths. Though my favorite are the flamingos. The pink coloring just seems so hip.
The cuckatoo won’t give in till Phil does his Spaced impression.
There’s a lot of alligators in the 350 acre park. Even some small, but ferocious looking albino ones house in The Reptile and Amphibian House, which has a sort of road-side-ish quality about it. Some yellowed signs describing the creatures and murky habitats in this creaky wooden building. There’s some crocodiles in there, too. They even allowed people to watch the regularly scheduled feeding of the alligators, which of course the kids get a kick out of.
We sat in on two of the shows, one on alligators, the other on non-venomous snakes. The first one was hosted by a bushy haired kid who was probably in his early 20s and wore the khaki colored uniform and no shoes as he stood on the edge of a shallow pooled and flipped a medium size alligator on his back and demonstrated how you really get them to go to sleep. When someone asked him how he got that job, he said that he was a seminar speaker for the Department of Health and someone offered him a job. That he liked to play with insects and reptiles as a kid, so this job was perfect for him. Something about that, made me real nostalgic. His sort of informal look. That he had a job where he never had to wear shoes. That he worked outdoors. Quite a difference from the nauseatingly high-strung city life I’ve become accustomed too. They ran three consecutive shows and his partner hosted the second on non-venomnous states. The mustached speaker stood in front of the small audience chatting about snakes while he had a female boa constrictor around his neck. A little boy kept screaming about how he had a snake like that, and some lady perked up and mentioned how her neighbor’s snake wound up retaliating over something. The man explained that certain patience was needed with training these snakes (the boa constrictor was a fairly new acquisition and still getting used to this guy), that you still had to realize that they will behave on instinct, and you really had to piss them off or something to get an otherwise calm snake to act so aggressively. We didn’t stick around for the other one.
Yeah, this is what we do.