Silver Springs in Ocala, Florida is marketed as “Nature’s Theme Park” and it definitely lives up to its slogan. Filled with wild animal exhibits and glass-bottomed boat rides over some of Florida’s most amazing crystal-clear springs, a day in this park brings you much closer to “wild” Florida than any other park in the state.
After paying a small parking fee and parking your car, you enter the park under its green and white archway and walk across a short boardwalk through a Florida swamp. Here you’ll see a few typical animals that live in Florida’s swamps including turtles and alligators. You’ll also see a few animals not-so -typical of Florida such as this pair of green parrots. These two parrots seemed oblivious to the throngs of visitors passing by behind them. They would not be the last colorful birds we’d see during our day-long visit to Silver Springs. (If you like this photo you can purchase it on a variety of gift items from t-shirts to stickers in our Gift Shop.)
Next we waited in line to buy our tickets under the hot Florida sun. (I’d suggest purchasing them online at the Silver Springs website to avoid this step.) The line wasn’t too long but seemed to move at a snail’s pace. But eventually we paid and entered the park.
After entering the park you can either turn right or left. We looked over our free map and decided to go right. This way led to several wild animal exhibits and a glass-bottomed boat ride. On the way you walk through a natural Florida habitat giving you a chance to experience the springs in their natural state. We crossed a small bridge over one of the side streams and were amazed by the lush, jungle-like vegetation on both sides of the crystal clear stream.
Next we entered a boardwalk area where we saw all kinds of wildlife from the largest rodent in the world, the capibera, to Florida’s most well known reptile- the alligator. We also saw this flock of pink Flamingoes which instantly reminded us of south Florida.
From here we entered a section of the park called “Spirit of the Swamp.” This section includes many animal exhibits including Big Gator Lagoon featuring dozens of 11-13 feet long alligators, Ross Allen Island featuring a collection of Florida-native snakes, turtles, spiders, otters and other animals, and Panther Prowl featuring the western Cougar which is a very close relative of Florida’s endangered panther.
We headed straight for the Panther Prowl exhibit since I’d always wanted to see a Florida panther up-close. Once there we watched as one of these large cats stalked and attacked the other’s tail until he finally got tired of the game and pounced on the mischievous cat. This only brought the game to an end for a few minutes after which the other cat resumed her stalking game.
Near the Panther Prowl exhibit and at various places throughout the park are birds which you can feed and pet. This is a nice touch since so many zoos never let you interact with a single animal. This cockatoo loved getting its yellow-crested head scratched by Lina.
The next exhibit we entered was the Ross Allen Island exhibit. Here we walked past flocks of pink flamingoes and white ibis. We also saw small mouse deer from Malaysia, the world’s largest rodent from Brazil, and various other birds and animals. Inside a small building we saw various native Florida species including snakes. Luckily we got there during feeding time and was able to watch the amazing feat of a snake swallowing a rodent whole. But my favorite animals in the exhibit were the otters. I could have watched them play for hours. They seemed to never run out of energy.
After watching the various critters we decided it was time to take a ride on one of the park’s world famous glass-bottomed boats. We hurried to the nearby Fort King River Cruise and secured our place in line. After a short wait we boarded the boat and was on our way.
The captain let us know that even though this was a glass-bottomed boat, most of the sights on this cruise would be along the river banks not beneath the water. So we sat back and prepared for our journey.
The cruise carries you through Silver Springs’ 10,000 year history. We passed a recreation of an archaeological dig site and learned about the bones of giant elephants that were found in nearby springs and that lived throughout Florida. (Visit the Florida Museum of Natural History in nearby Gainesville to see an entire collection of giant animals from Florida’s prehistory.)
Next we passed by a recreation of a frontier trading post, Florida Seminole Indian village and the 1830s Fort King Army stockade from where the U.S. Army fought many campaigns against the tribe. The Seminoles were never conquered and simply fled further south until the U.S. government got tired of chasing them. (Learn more about Florida’s Native Americans.)
Next we passed a riverboat dock and train depot. This represents the 1880s in Florida when northern travelers first started to come to Florida on vacation. Finally we passed an authentic Florida pioneer “Cracker” homestead. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see any of the wild monkeys that inhabit the woods along this part of the riverI remembered them from a childhood visit and really looked forward to seeing them again but this was not to be. The captain informed us the monkeys were truly wild and roamed as far as two hours away from the park. (I came back during the Silver Springs Native American Festival and luckily was able to see them.)
As we left the Lost River Cruise we passed the Big Gator Lagoon and noticed it was feeding time for the gators. This was quite an impressive display and we had a great view being right next to the caretaker who was feeding these giant reptiles. Each time the caretaker placed meet on her feeding stick and lowered it into the lagoon the gators went into a feeding frenzy that has to be seen to be believed.
After the feeding finished we headed back to the center of the park. Here we stood in line for the main river cruise. This cruise takes you over the seven major spring formations that create Silver Springs. One spring called Fish Reception Hall is home to dozens of species of fish as well as alligators, clams, crawfish, shrimp, snails and six different kinds of turtles all amidst the backdrop of tiny fossilized shells from 70 million years ago.
This cruise definitely takes advantage of the glass bottomed boats giving you an amazing view of the springs. Sometimes the springs were so deep it gave you the strong sensation of being very high up thus if you’re afraid of heights you might get a little queasy during parts of this cruise.
We learned that several movies and tv series were filmed in these springs including Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarzan, and SeaHunt to name a few. It was amazing how clear the water was and to realize that just one of these springs spewed out enough water every hour to supply all the water needs of New York City for a day.
There was also a great abundance of life both in the water and near it. Wild alligators roam freely unlike their caged buddies in the Gator Lagoon. Also lots of wild birds made their home along the river bank. We saw many wild cormaranths drying their wings on downed trees after diving for fish in the springs.
We also passed kayakers and boaters which was a little surprising at first but then we learned that all waterways are public thus the park can’t prevent people from utilizing the Crystal River. There was even a police boat patroling to keep things orderly and under control.
After we finished this cruise we took a leisurely stroll through the park’s botanical gardens which line the banks of the river. The gardens feature more than 138 varieties of native and exotic plants showcased in floral sculptures and flower beds. The gardens also feature a statue of Osceola, the Seminole leader who fought many battles with the U.S. Army during the 1830s. Since I have a strong interest in Native American history I thought this was a nice touch to the gardens.
Just behind the statue is the Lighthouse Ride which takes you up to a height of 80 feet and gives you a bird’s-eye view of the park. The ride moves very slowly and slowly rotates the entire time giving your a full panorama of the park. Although we didn’t ride this ride on our first visit I did get to experience it on my second visit during the Silver Springs Native American Festival, just one of many events the park hosts throughout the year. It is definitely worth the short wait in line to get such an impressive view of the park.
From here the gardens lead past the “Wings of the Springs” live bird show (very excellent show, by the way) to the next animal exhibits which feature a pair of giraffes and a pair of Kodiak bears (in separate cages, of course). I’m not exactly sure why the park has giraffes and Kodiaks, neither of which are native to Florida. They seem a little out of place and don’t quite fit the theme of the park. Perhaps these exhibits could be replaced with an ancient Timucuan Indian living history village or recreation of a Spanish Mission from the 1500s. Neither of these time periods from Florida’s history are represented in the park and would fit in better with the overall “Florida” theme.
On my first trip to Silver Springs this was as far as we got because at this point it started storming and they had to close the park. As mentioned previously, I did get a chance to visit the park a few months later during its Native American Festival and was able to see more of what the park had to offer such as:
- Wilderness Trail “thrill” ride where you board a tram pulled by Wrangler Jeeps that have a tendency to speed up for bumps and tight curves
- “Reptiles of the World Show” and “Non-Venomous Snake Show” featuring educational show-and-tell exhibits of snakes and alligators
- “Wings of the Springs Show” presented in an outdoor theater showcasing dramatic free flight demonstrations of a variety of native Florida birds from hawks to vultures
- Lost River Voyage- the third and final glass-bottomed boat cruise including a stop at a wildlife outpost where naturalists tak about Silver Springs’ wildlife rehabilitation and breeding programs
Overall Silver Springs is a very enjoyable and inexpensive way to spend a day outside enjoying the natural beauty of Florida. And unlike most Florida theme parks, you might actually learn a thing or two.