What would a county-run Silver Springs look like?
Published: Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 11:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2011 at 11:01 a.m.
When it became evident to Marion County officials that the operator of the Silver Springs attraction might consider ending its tenure at the park, County Commissioner Stan McClain had a question for the company’s executives.
Why didn’t Palace Entertainment just change its business model to take better advantage of the natural elements of the park and capitalize on the growing ecotourism market?
The answer: "That’s not what we do," he recalled them saying.
That, however, is just what county officials want to do, should the County Commission come to terms with Palace executives and state environmental regulators for assuming control of the park.
Palace’s reluctance to change gears could be explained by the fact that Silver Springs appears to be an anomaly among its holdings.
The company operates eight theme parks, 10 water parks and 21 family entertainment centers in 11 states, according to its website.
Combined, those sites draw an estimated 14 million visitors annually, positioning Palace as America’s largest operator of such entertainment venues, the company says.
The bulk of its holdings feature water parks and water slides, go-kart tracks, miniature golf courses, roller coasters and other amusement rides.
At Silver Springs, the adjacent Wild Waters water park fits the mold. But the Silver Springs attraction itself and a site called SeaLife Park in Hawaii, where visitors can interact with animals that live in the ocean, appear to be the only "nature-based" parks that Palace manages.
In contrast to the current operation of Silver Springs, county officials emphasize that under their watch, Silver Springs would offer more than a venue for simply observing nature.
They indicate — in interviews and in a proposed business plan — that they want visitors to more fully experience the natural wonder of the park, particularly its world-renowned waters, which first made the site a tourist destination more than 130 years ago.
Gone would be the zoo animals and the rides now found in Silver Springs, while some things would remain.
Wild Waters would remain as is, although farmed out to a private company. Musical concerts would also continue.
And under the county plan, the park’s most famous feature — its glass-bottom boats — would remain in place.
But the boats, like many of the features the county wants to introduce, would be offered and operated by private contractors.
Officials also envision vendors offering kayaking and canoeing; scuba diving, includingcave exploration; swimming and guided snorkeling tours; "zip line" rides; bicycle or Segway rentals; and "boat camping."
County officials also intend to seek out contractors to operate the park’s retail shops and eateries, possibly including a dinner cruise ship that chugs up the Silver River from Ray Wayside Park to an "upscale" restaurant near the headwaters.
The county would also like to build a 12-foot-wide walking trail to connect to other publicly held recreational lands.
But it wouldn’t be all fun and games. The county would like to make Silver Springs a premiere regional research site, as well.
County Administrator Lee Niblock said in an interview he could see converting the giraffe barns at the site into dormitories that would house visiting college students interested in studying water-related issues.
The county’s draft business plan says that research, which would be targeted in the southwest quadrant of the site, could include analyzing the function of the springs itself as well as projects studying water-borne vegetation and stormwater control.
Silver Springs could offer professors, scientists and students an "open-air laboratory" that provides "an educational venue that would be difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate."
In the future, under their plan, the county might also add a amenities to host corporate retreats.
Ecotoursim, however, lies at the heart of McClain’s vision. According to the county business plan, that was the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry at the dawn of the 21st century — growing at yearly rate of 20 percent and expanding thrice the rate of the global tourism industry.
An influx of "eco-friendly" entrepreneurs to serve that market could "support the grand strategy of developing the Silver Springs assets to more of a resource-based destination rather than an attraction venue that is has been for decades," the county business plan notes.
In a recent interview, McClain said if the park eventually comes under county control, the economic spectrum would be wide open for potential partners — within certain limits.
"If somebody brings us an idea, we’ll take a look at it. And we’ll consider anything — if it has to do with ecotourism."
Bill Thompson can be reached at 867-4117.