As our glass-bottom boat pulled away from the dock and into the translucent waters of Silver Springs, Florida's oldest and one of the state's most-storied attractions, I felt like I'd stepped into a time warp. Spanish moss swayed from stories-tall cypress trees, anhinga birds fanned their feathers to dry in the sun, turtles piled on turtles atop floating, waterlogged tree trunks.
It's a photographer's paradise: Several patrons sporting DSLR cameras started snapping their shutters immediately.
Our captain maneuvered the boat over five different springs within the Silver River, which runs just four miles to the east before connecting with the Ocklawaha River, six miles from Ocala in Marion county. In his distinctive rural-Florida lilt, he described each spring and pointed out where we could see the water jetting out from the aquifer, unsettling the limestone gravel at the bottom of the river like a natural, underwater snow globe.
Silver Springs State Park and the glass-bottom boat tours are the oldest attraction in the state of Florida, having run in some form since the 1870s. The springs became a tourist destination after the Civil War and have been used as a film location since 1916, becoming especially famous in the 1930s as the location for the "Tarzan" films.
In 1971, the park was named a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Most recently, because of environmental issues like nitrate run-off, tourism revenue declined, and the state took over park operation in 2013. The park has recently undergone a renovation to its entrance and signage, with ample parking space at the front of the park.
As we crossed from spring to spring, our captain pointed out several species of sea plants and native fish, like mullet and gar, clearly visible beneath the glass bottom in the center of the boat, where patrons peer comfortably from their seats around the 12-foot-by-3-foot window. After the tour, which lasted 30 minutes and costs a budget-friendly $11 per person (seniors and children 6 to 12 are $10, children 5 and under are free), it's custom to throw tips for the boat captain on top of the window for the him or her to collect after disembarkation.
We saw plenty of other native Florida wildlife, including ibises, herons, turtles and tortoises, as well as a couple of baby alligators that he took care not to get too close to. "Where there are babies, there's a mama not too far off," he warned.
I fully expected the wildlife-spotting part of the tour to be the most interesting, but I should have known that there were plenty of surprises other than spring jets hiding at the bottom of the Silver River, including a Seminole Indian outrigger canoe, dated to the 1400s. Closer to the boat launch, a set of three stone statues look like they might be centuries old, but their story only dates to the 1960s, when they were left at the bottom of the springs as props for the TV show, "I Spy."
In addition to the glass-bottom boats, there are several winding walking trails where guests can enjoy Florida's natural beauty, and some oddball sights, including a palm tree that has grown like a hook through one of the observation docks. There's some local lore around the tree, and it's said that anyone who takes a picture with the palm is destined for good luck. A statue dedicated to Seminole chief Osceola, who famously resented the treaty that removed the Native Americans from their lands in Florida, is located next to the palm with a historical marker. Vendors also offer kayak, stand-up paddleboard and canoe rentals, and the Fort King Waterway is a designated paddle trail.
After the tour, we plopped ourselves down on the rocking chairs under one of the pavilions overlooking the river, with cups of melty-but-satisfying butter pecan ice cream from the on-site ice cream parlor in tow. We strolled through the walking paths, underneath the live oaks and tried to get a glimpse of the wild rhesus macaque monkeys the area has played host to for decades (though, not for much longer, perhaps, as Florida Fish & Wildlife is discussing removing the monkeys from the park).
There aren't any roller coasters or princess castles for miles around, but Silver Springs is worth a two- to three-hour visit, if only to escape the throngs for some peace and quiet on the crystal-clear water, or in a gently rocking chair, to pay homage to mid-Florida's history and heritage.
Glass-bottom boat tours run every 30 to 45 minutes, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 365 days a year. Reservations aren't necessary, and the last boat leaves at 5 p.m. Longer rides, which take 90 minutes and travel farther up the river, cost $25 (seniors and children 6 to 12 are $20, children 5 and under are free) and launch at 11 a.m.., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Fridays and weekends.