Exploring the 'Real' Central Florida
You don't need to limit your Orlando-area theme park vacation to man-made thrills. A side trip to one of the region's natural springs offers oh-so affordable bliss.
Written by Jimmy D. Lee
Imagine yourself visiting Central Florida, splashing in crystal water with dazzling hints of blue, green, and turquoise, as beautiful from below the surface as above. Then imagine gliding over the water in a boat, canoe, tube, or kayak, the scene brilliantly lit by the ever-present Florida sun.Tweet
But you're not in a water park. Or riding a fancy new simulator ride at Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando. You're spending a day along the world’s largest system of natural springs, which flow from the Panhandle to Florida's southwest coast. These are the region's original tourist attraction (they brought Ponce DeLeon here in search of the Fountain of Youth after all) but, these days, among the lesser known.
Of the tens of millions of tourists that visit Florida each year, only a relative handful, around 1.5 million or so, make it to see one of these brilliant, and very affordable, natural wonders. Most of the springs, usually accessed through a state park, offer a wide range of outdoor adventures including hiking, camping, boating, tubing, fishing, snorkeling, picnicking, diving, bird watching, or just a refreshing afternoon swim, on a hot and steamy Florida afternoon.
The best part, for a theme park visitor? Most than 600 of these liquid jewels lie less than a two-hour drive from the world’s tourist Mecca of Orlando. Why not take a day to discover a different Florida, a place primeval yet easily accessed, and one that's becoming lost to a generation raised instead on thrill rides and TV characters?
The most popular of these types of attractions are what could be called the ‘old swimming hole’ and they recall a time when a family getaway didn't involve devising a Fastpass strategy. One of the unique traits of these natural pools, and is cause for reverence by locals in the summer time, is that the water bubbling up to the surface, from deep within the aquifer, is a yearly constant temperature of between 70° and 74°, depending on the location. This is well below the average annual temperature of 92° in the summer and 78° in the winter and makes for the most invigorating dip just about anytime of the year.
My personal favorites in this category, all between 30 minutes and an hour from Orlando, include Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka, Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, DeLeon Springs State Park and Rock Spring inside Kelly Park in Apopka. Most of these parks charge by the vehicle for admission, at around $2 to $5 -- the most bang for your buck, by far, in Central Florida. They all have safe parking and restroom/changing facilities conveniently located throughout the parks. Additionally they all have picnic areas with grills (most under the amazing natural canopy of Pine and Oak forest), canoe/equipment rental kiosks, convenience stores, hiking trails and ample life guards and forestry service rangers.
Camping, in a variety of settings from primitive to rustic cabins, is also offered within all of these parks for between $10 and $15 per night and reservations are encouraged, especially during the peak summer months and holidays. Weekends are consistently the busiest times throughout the year, so get there early because once the parks reach capacity they are closed for the day, or until the crowds thin out in the late afternoon.
Another great aspect of these parks, if the admission price and amenities aren’t enough, is that each has a unique quality about them that sets them apart from some of the other cookie cutter attractions in the area. For instance, DeLeon Springs has The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, which sits at the water’s edge and is a local favorite breakfast spot, especially after church on Sundays. Located inside a working mill that is powered by the natural flow of the springs, guests make their own pancakes on table top griddles, from flour ground on site by French buhr millstones. The park is also adjacent to the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, and provides canoers and kayakers with a stunning 18,000+ acres of lakes, streams, and marshes to explore.
Rock Spring, at Kelly Park offers its guests a naturally brisk tube ride, about a mile, through heavily forested terrain that has remained relatively unchanged for millennia. As the name suggests, the spring originates from a sharp outcropping of rock that, instead of forming the traditional pool, immediately forms a fast moving stream that is a sheer delight for kids of all ages. The white sandy bottom is a stunning backdrop to the transparent water, which is also a delight to snorkel in. Another activity unique to this environment is the heavy concentration of prehistoric, fossilized sharks’ teeth, which can be obtained, with a bit of patience, by sifting the white sand through a common hand held kitchen strainer. I spent countless hours here as a boy, and this place has some of the greatest memories from my youth. At $1.00 per adult and kids under six free, this rates as one of the best kept bargain secrets in Central Florida, but be advised that Kelly Park does not rent tubes and floats. They are best rented, by the half-day or day, from one of the many vendors just outside the entrance to the park.
Blue Spring State Park sits along Florida’s famous St. John’s River, which is one of just two major rivers in the entire world that flow from south to north (the other is the Nile River in Africa). Within the parks 2466 acres, a unique ecosystem exists, which offers the adventure of seeing Florida as the earliest explorers did. This park has a full range of amenities including hiking, camping, canoe rentals, and perhaps the biggest draw, frolicking in the ice blue waters that bubble up from ‘the boil’ hundreds of feet below the surface. This deep water pool is a favorite among local scuba divers, from the novice to the pro, and even seasoned sport divers enjoy the chance to explore inside an actual spring vent. The park is closed to swimmers in the winter months because its most famous part time residents, the manatees, live in the stream between ‘the boil’ and the river. This is my Mom’s favorite place to go on Mother’s Day for a refreshing swim and family feast. We just park our boat right on the beachfront along the St. John’s, and use the clean and convenient grills and covered picnic tables.
Located just 15 minutes from downtown, and 30 minutes from the attractions area, Wekiwa Springs State Park is the most conveniently located springs in the Orlando area, just off of Interstate 4, in the city's northern suburbs. This park is most famous for its canoe trips on the pristine Wekiwa River, where wildlife including the Florida Alligator, Florida Panther, Black Bear, various turtle and tortoise species and abundant bird species live in a federally-protected sanctuary. The park also has the traditional spring-fed pool for swimming, snorkeling, and diving. Wekiwa also offers a wide range of amenities like camping, hiking, horseback riding, biking, and unique to this locale, rental pavilions capable of hosting a function for up to 100 people. The park is also a cultural destination and provides a year round nature center, with educational programs for all ages, and hosts events like the ‘Symphony Under the Stars’ and the annual ‘Real Florida’ 5K run and walk.
If you are planning a trip north of Central Florida, then my own personal favorite is Ichetucknee Springs, near the quaint old Florida town of High Springs. Six miles of pristine ecology empty into the Santa Fe River and contain woodlands and waterways that mystically meld together, forming an unforgettable ride down one of the world’s truly natural wonders. In this unique forested and aquatic environment there are three access points along the river, all within the State Park and like other attractions of this type, inner tubes and a variety of flotation devices can be rented just outside the entrance to the park, for a nominal fee. This one is off the beaten path though (around four hours from Orlando), so my recommendation is to camp out in one of several adjacent campgrounds or stay in one of the many quaint bed and breakfasts, or motels in High Springs. If you are a lover of unique and unexpected natural wonders, this is a definite must see!
So now that you have a greater knowledge of Florida’s original theme parks, I hope that you will take a day, maybe even two, and explore the natural and affordable beauty that exists in magnificent juxtaposition to the other more well known tourist destinations. I love it all; theme parks, beaches, night life, and great shopping, but in my heart there will always be the resonance of meandering springs along side the harmonious sounds of nature, all in the enchanted forests of Florida. Enjoy!
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