Silver Springs, FL: In the Land of Tarzan
For more details on the animal shows, as well as information about the water park adjacent to Silver Springs for another day's adventure, go to www.charlotteparent.com/articles.
No doubt, Disney reigns in Florida. But there's an entire world of entertainment outside of Orlando in Central Florida, and many of these attractions, which date from your great-grandparents' day, have been updated to appeal to today's families. One of these is Silver Springs, where Johnny Weismuller filmed the Tarzan movies and Sean Connery starred as James Bond in "Thunderball" and "Never Say Never." So, the next time you visit Florida, when the fast-paced Disney route overwhelms your kids, spend a day just up the road at Silver Springs, where nature is the focus and the pace is much more relaxed.
We ventured there in May, and our first impression was of the ease of parking. We actually could walk leisurely from our car to the gate! Once inside, we planned how and when to hit all the attractions.
Silver Springs' signature feature is the glass-bottom boat ride. Even though it's straight ahead at the entrance, we decided to save it for last, figuring it'd be a great way to end our day.
We headed for the animals on Ross Allen Island (named for the great naturalist, whose reptile shows are renowned). Here we caught the "Creature Feature" show, where kids were invited to interact with non-poisonous snakes and other reptiles. We also saw a few non-reptiles, like Charlotte the Spider - a rose-haired tarantula from Chile that's been at the park for more than seven years. Afterward, we roamed at leisure among alligators (caged, of course), lizards, tortoises and otters. We even saw two rare albino alligators. My personal favorite was the 100-plus-year-old Aldabra tortoise from Madagascar.
From the island, we boarded the Fort King River Cruise. Our boat carried us through Silver Springs' 10,000-year history, featuring interactive exhibits and displays, include a working archaeological dig site, Seminole Indian village, the 1830s Fort King Army stockade, a late 1880s riverboat dock and train depot and more.
Off the island, we wandered through lush gardens and found the Kritter Korral. The petting zoo features a variety of animals, including giraffes, sheep, rabbits, donkeys, turkeys and goats that park guests can pet and hand feed.
We also visited the bird show and then the World of Bears, one of the day's favorites. Here, black and Kodiak bears cavorted in pools of water as if they knew we were watching, while a narrator told us about their personality traits and endangered lifestyle.
By that time, we were ready for another ride, so we took the Wilderness Trail Tour. This unsophisticated, rough jeep ride took us through a forest for close-up encounters with native Florida wildlife. We saw jungle birds and even a few monkeys.
Our day didn't allow time for us to get to the playground, which has spectacular climbing equipment and a kid-size boat ride and tiny Ferris wheel, or cruise the Lost River Voyage - both a must if you have little kids.
Finally, we just couldn't miss the Glass Bottom Boats! With a window into the Silver River, you can see through the crystal-clear water to the various springs that flow below. Each spring has a name and a story: One is where the movie "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" was filmed, and another features a perfectly preserved sunken boat. The tours skim the shores where we saw sunning turtles, unusual water fowl and alligators. We bought fish food for the ride and attracted several unusual diners.
The park offers a variety of dining choices. We had a 45-minute wait in line for lunch, so be sure to take your own snacks and beverages (no coolers allowed) to ward off the whining while you wait.
The day was too short for us as we regretfully left the park. But, we'll be back, confident Silver Springs will be there - it's a national landmark, meaning it is preserved forever by our federal government.
Here's more information about the animal shows at the Silver Springs nature theme park in Central Florida:
On Ross Allen Island - three theaters
• Reptile show
• Non-venomous snake show
• Creature Feature
Shows run continuous daily, about 25 minutes apart
Wings of the Springs Bird Show
Noon and 2 p.m.
Talk with the Keeper
Bears - 2 and 4 p.m. daily
Panthers - 2 and 4 p.m. daily
On the (Silver Springs) Big Screen
Silver Springs has been a popular backdrop for movies since 1916, when "The Seven Swans," starring Richard Barthelmess and Marguerite Clark, was filmed.
Other movies filmed at Silver Springs:
• 1932-1941, Tarzan movies, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan
• 1946, "The Yearling," staring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman
• 1954, "Creature From The Black Lagoon," staring Richard Carlson and Julia Adams
• 1955, "Rebel Without a Cause," starring James Dean and Natalie Wood
• 1965, "Thunderball," starring Sean Connery as James Bond
• 1966, "Blindfold," starring Rock Hudson and Claudia Cardinale
• 1979, "Moonraker," starring Roger Moore as James Bond
• 1983, "Smokey & The Bandit 3," starring Jackie Gleason
• 1983, "Never Say Never Again," starring Sean Connery as James Bond
• 1985, "Legend," starring Tom Cruise
• 2005, "Hoot," starring Jimmy Buffett
Wild Waters, a water park open seasonally beginning in April, is adjacent to Silver Springs. It's difficult to squeeze both parks in on one day, so allow a leisurely two days to see them both. Add $3 to the adult or child ticket at Silver Springs for a combo ticket for both parks.
Cost: $25.99 for adults, seniors and military personnel or $22.99 for children (shorter than 48 inches). Free life jackets are available at the Tube Rental check-out booth.
Elaine Heitman is the former executive editor of Charlotte Parent magazine.
If you go, you need to know:
5956 E. Silver Springs Blvd.
Silver Springs, FL
Silver Springs is located north of Orlando (90 minutes) off I-75, just east of Ocala on S.R. 40. Exit 352 off I-75 and Exit 268 off I-95.
Hours: Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cost: $34.99 adults, $30.99 seniors, $24.99 ages 3-10 (children age 2 and younger are free).
Amenities: Silver Springs offers free shaded kennels with running water for pets who are traveling with their families. Picnic grounds are on site.
Where to stay:
Holiday Inn Express
5360 E. Silver Springs Blvd.