A new golden age for Silver Springs?
Published: Saturday, September 28, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 27, 2013 at 10:22 p.m.
When visitors walk through the gates at the new Silver Springs State Park for the first time Tuesday, the place won't look much different than when it gasped and sputtered to a close two weeks ago.
The major things that have attracted visitors over the years — the springs, the glass-bottom boats and, more recently, the Twin Oaks Mansion concert stage — will be there.
There will be subtle differences, however. The animals are gone, for starters. There are no bears, no giraffes and no alligators — except the ample number that cruise just beneath the surface of the springs or sunbathe on the banks of the river.
A few derelict structures are also kaput, and there is fresh paint on the ones that remain.
But make no mistake, it is not the same. The opening of the park signals yet another new beginning for an iconic Florida destination that has undergone a number of makeovers in its 150-year lifespan.
Once a major inland port that allowed emerging industries to ferry raw materials and agricultural products in and out of the area in the mid-1800s, it morphed slowly into a world-renowned tourist destination and later became a full-blown theme park that held its own in the era of Disney, Universal and Epcot.
Silver Springs, according to some local historians and observers, is perhaps more responsible for the growth of Marion County than any other force or feature.
"From a standpoint of bringing people in, Silver Springs was the biggest thing that ever happened here," said David Cook, a local historian and former editor of the Ocala Star-Banner.
In the mid-1800s, it literally brought them in.
Back then, the population of Ocala numbered just 1,000 or so. Few roads at the time led to the city, but the tiny steamships that cruised the Ocklawaha and Silver Rivers carting turpentine and lumber from the forest, and citrus from nearby groves, did bring people here.
Soon, a railroad spur was built to connect Silver Springs to Ocala, and goods and people began to pour into town.
Other factors contributed to Ocala's growth, according to Cook and newspaper accounts from the time. The discovery of phosphate in 1900, for example, kicked off a mining boom that drew hundreds of workers and all the shops, banks and services needed to support them.
But if phosphate mining was the engine that drove the local economy, Silver Springs was the thing that supercharged it.
Wealthy tourists were beginning to pour into Florida from cities up and down the eastern seaboard and plunking down good money for an authentic wilderness experience in a place whose climate and forest vaguely resembled an African jungle.
Tourists crowded the decks of boats that inched down the Ocklawaha and Silver rivers at night. Some shouldered rifles and tried to pick off alligators gliding through the water or slithering ashore under torch lights.
"Instead of going to deepest, darkest Africa, you'd go to Jacksonville and jump on a steamer and come to Silver Springs to be in the wild," said Darrell Riley, a local historian and professor at College of Central Florida. "They were domestic safaris."
But it took local entrepreneurs Carl Ray and W.M. Davidson to wring the full tourism potential from Silver Springs.
Ray and Davidson leased the springs and surrounding land from owner Ed Carmichael and embarked on a marketing blitz designed to put Silver Springs on every American TV and in every American movie theater.
They succeeded. Under Ray and Davidson's stewardship, Silver Springs became a favorite location of Hollywood movie producers, documentarians and TV commercial producers. The list of stars who paraded through the park would shame the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Johnny Weissmuller; Gregory Peck; Jane Wyman; Gary Cooper, Esther Williams; Jane Russell; Lloyd Bridges, Bill Cosby; Sean Connery, and more.
"That's the story of tourism in Florida," Riley said. "We have this beautiful and exotic thing. How do we make money off it? And you do that by marketing it."
The Ray and Davidson era, which many consider the golden age of Silver Springs, ended in 1962 when they sold the park to the American Broadcasting Company, ABC, the first in a string of corporate owners that ended this month.
Each corporate owner added something. ABC opened Wild Waters adjacent to Silver Springs in 1978. Florida Leisure Acquisition Corp. added the Jeep Safari ride in 1990 and the Lost River Voyage in 1991. Ogden Entertainment added eight new shows and rides, including the World of Bears exhibit and the Kids Ahoy! Playland.
But attendance was declining, and in recent years Palace Entertainment — which took over the park in 2002 — began cutting back the hours of operation. Critics and visitors also complained that the park suffered from neglect and poor maintenance.
It is not clear why attendance dropped, although most point to the obvious culprit: the emergence of mega-theme parks in nearby Orlando.
Riley thinks decisions by corporate owners to graft amusement park staples on top of the natural offerings of Silver Springs didn't help.
"I think it turned it into something that wasn't Florida," he said.
Yet he and others think the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is reopening Silver Springs this week as a massive state park, is going to reverse that trend, and do so successfully.
The DEP has gotten rid of the animals and the rides and is working with local leaders and citizens to develop a plan for Silver Springs. While DEP officials say the plan is in flux, the focus is solidly on ecotourism.
Riley noted that the state parks system, under DEP's stewardship, has been a model for the nation.
"They did it by making it all about the alligators, they made it all about the manatees. They said, this is what it looked like 100 years ago if you walked through a Florida swamp."
Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn, whose fondest childhood memories are of days swimming at Silver Springs, serves on a citizens panel that will advise the DEP on its plans for the park.
Guinn, for one, sees great potential in ecotourism and believes Silver Springs can again become a magnet for out-of-area tourists, the way it once was.
He hopes the state will make a way for private investors to be part of the park's success. He envisions shops and businesses in and around the park feeding the public's appetite for outdoor entertainment.
"I think if you do it right, you can still bring a lot of people to Ocala," he said. "So maybe it won't be what it was, but what it becomes can be great anyway."