As Silver Springs evolves, Ross Allen's legacy will live on


Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 8:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 8:20 p.m.

As a child, Elizabeth Taylor passed the hours during the long sojourn from south Georgia to South Florida by trying to be the best at a family game: billboard spotting.

But it wasn't just any billboard that Taylor's family battled to identify first. Specifically, they wanted to point out the signs pointing the way to Ross Allen's reptile haven at Silver Springs.

“It was almost a fight to see who could see the billboards first,” Taylor recalled of those family trips some four decades ago. “(Allen) was quite the hero to me.”

Last week, Palace Entertainment, operator of the Silver Springs attraction, closed Ross Allen Island in preparation for the $4 million renovation of the park. One of the initial steps in that process will be to tear down much of what Allen built in the section of the attraction that bears his name.

It appears, however, that Allen's legacy will live on, even as the attraction he helped make famous evolves.

State environmental regulators say the section of Silver Springs where Allen's reptile exhibits enthralled thousands of visitors each year during its pre-Walt Disney World heyday will continue to carry his name.

Moreover, any part of Ross Allen Island that can be spared as the renovation proceeds will be kept after Silver Springs becomes a state park on Oct. 1, said Mara Burger, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection in Tallahassee.

Everything in the park is still Palace's property, she added.

But, “It is our intention that the items that are salvageable from Ross Allen Island will be reused throughout the state park, as they represent an important piece of local history,” Burger said in an email, also noting that the Florida Park Service's duties include preserving cultural and historical resources as well as managing and protecting environmental ones.

As for Ross Allen Island retaining its name, Burger said that was to recognize Allen and his contributions to local tourism and reptile education.

“If items are not used in the state park, we will work with the family to ensure appropriate disposition of the items,” Burger said.

Taylor, now an Ocala resident, was pleased by the state's decision. She said her aunt, Jeannette, married Allen when Taylor was very young, and she grew up idolizing the renowned herpetologist who, in turn, encouraged her passion for scouting, swimming and animals.

Allen died in 1981, when Taylor was in her early 20s.

While Taylor is gladdened by the state's willingness to keep Allen's achievements alive, she feels Allen has not gotten his proper due for his work as a tourist magnet.

“People forget there were two entertaining things out there,” Taylor said, referring to Allen's Reptile Institute and the glass-bottomed boats.

In his 1999 book “Dixie Before Disney: 100 years of Roadside Fun,” the author Tim Hollis noted that by 1950 — some 21 years after Allen had established himself in Silver Springs — the park drew more than 800,000 visitors a year.

Allen's shows helped fuel what Hollis described as the springs' “meteoric” rise as a tourist destination before Walt Disney put the Orlando area on the map, and Allen helped the park and himself by pitching his reptile expertise and promoting the park on national radio programs.

“People were really intrigued by the show Ross put on. I think he brought a lot of people to the area,” Taylor said. “It's kind of sad that he's not been recognized more. People don't remember, I guess. But he was really an important person.”

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