For Silver Springs State Park, 2014 is the ‘beginning of the future’
Published: Thursday, January 2, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 at 2:10 p.m.
Silver Springs, the state park edition, debuted its first big event during the holidays — a dazzling Christmas-themed laser light show.
Silver Springs State Park
Hours: 8 a.m.-sundown daily; on evening event days, Spring side closes at 5 p.m.
Where: Spring-side entrance 5656 E. Silver Springs Blvd.; river-side entrance (the old Silver River State Park) 1425 NE 58th Ave., Ocala.
Cost: $8 per carload (up to eight people) for parking at river-side site; free admission for springs-side but glass-bottom boat ride is $9.99 or $14.99 for ride-and-lunch package; special events have separate prices
Info: www.whatsupocala.com; www.floridastateparks.org/silversprings/default.cfm
But it was more than just a holiday spectacular with music and fake snow.
The show indicated the iconic park east of Ocala plans to remain a player in local entertainment.
“We’re such a part of the community, people kept asking us what we were doing for Christmas,” said Joel Wiessner of Silver Springs Management, a division of What’s Up Media that won a three-year contract to run concessions at the park. “We wanted to do something for the community.”
But with holidays behind us, what’s next for the state’s oldest attraction yet newest state park?
Well, how about Willie Nelson?
And maybe later some zip lining, kayaking and SCUBA in the springs?
Legendary country showman Nelson is scheduled to play Silver Springs on Feb. 1, confirmed Bryan Fogelman, the new executive director of the old park. Also on tap: the annual Ford and Mustang show Jan. 11-12 and the annual Springs Festival in April.
“Willie’s a good artist for us, partly because he’s been around so long,” Fogelman said, “and partly because his musical style crosses a lot of genres and ages, from people in their 20s to their 70s.”
Nelson’s Silver Springs appearances in 2006 and 2008 were among the park’s best attended. He performed under the park’s former operators, Palace Entertainment, as part of concert lineups heavy on rock and country nostalgia. Silver Springs Management has vowed to bring more top-name entertainers to the park’s Twin Oaks Mansion stage.
Fogelman said contracts with the various acts aren’t finalized yet.
This is just the beginning, promised Fogelman, a tourism entrepreneur and consultant from Canada who was brought aboard a month ago. When the state took over Silver Springs last fall, the idea was to tone down the theme-park frills and focus on what made the attraction a draw in the first place: the natural trappings surrounding the famed artesian springs that feed the Silver River.
The attraction is now one part of a massive state park spanning the Silver River, as it pairs up with the longtime state property formerly known as Silver River State Park. Together, the parks make up Silver Springs State Park and serve as recreational bookends along the river.
“Our goal is to get more people outdoors to enjoy the natural beauty of the area,” Fogelman said. “We have a focus on fun. We’re planning special events; some will be family oriented, others will be musical concert events.”
And, of course, Silver Springs’ iconic glass-bottom boats are running daily.
“It’s who we are,” Fogelman said.
Additionally, the glass-bottom boats will be piloted by many of the same captains who have steered them over the springs for decades, including David Faison, Roosevelt Faison and Oscar Collins.
An ice cream shop and restaurant opened last week, and more of the commercial shops soon will be filled; a videography studio just opened for producing commercials and shows with the springs as a background.
Yet atop the to-do list is beefing up canoeing and kayaking on the Silver River.
“We just got in an order today of 41 kayaks and canoes,” Wiessner said last week. “In the next couple of days here, we’ll have an increase in kayaking and canoeing.”
Wiessner and Fogelman foresee a major focus on eco-tourism at Silver Springs. Eventually, they plan to offer more rentals, guided canoe/kayak excursions on the river, and one-way trips from the headsprings to Ray Wayside Park with shuttle rides back to the concession area.
“That way you’re not paddling against the current,” Fogelman said.
Canoeing was exactly what Keith Woeste and his daughters, Helen and Margaret, of West Lafayette, Ind., and their aunt Lori Williams of Gainesville had in mind when they visited just before Christmas.
“We came expecting to rent a canoe today, but this is the one day they’re not available,” dad Woeste said. “But it worked out; we have a new place to visit.
“And we’ll be back, but we’ll probably call first.”
One plan in preliminary stages includes opening the headsprings to recreational SCUBA divers, Wiessner said.
“It’d be a great experience,” he added.
Currently, only professional photographers and researchers are allowed.
Just don’t expect the springs to be opened for casual swimming as it was decades ago.
“I don’t think the state is real keen on it,” Fogelman said.
And some other familiar areas — the animal enclosures and some Ross Island facilities — have been deemed “non-essential” by the state and likely will be removed.
They are considering, however, a treetop zip line experience, similar to that offered alongside the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford and other places around Central and North Florida. The Silver Springs plan likely will not be as extensive as the Canyons Zip Line experience in north Marion County.
“It’s not a thrill-seeking experience,” Fogelman said. “It’d be more of an introductory experience, especially to give children something they wouldn’t normally do.”
Though their start is promising and plans are big, Silver Springs Management is nevertheless working within the confines of local ordinances and state laws, oversight by the state park system and a three-year contract. And every step needs to be approved.
“This is a different kind of state park,” Fogelman said. “It’s a complex little business.”
“This is a small city here,” Wiessner added. “We’re here with a license to operate for three years. It’s the beginning of the future for us.”
Contact Rick Allen at email@example.com or 867-4154.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.