For those of us who have faced the lines and watched the dollars magically evaporate from our wallets on trips to Orlando theme parks, a few miles to the west there’s a less expensive vacation option that offers a slower pace and harkens back to old Florida. There are hundreds of springs in the state, but many a vacation traveler visited Rainbow Springs, Homosassa Springs and experienced the mermaids of Weeki Wachee before Walt Disney turned central Florida swampland into an international destination. Although these springs have changed significantly since their halcyon days of the 1950s and ‘60s, they offer a vacation that provides old-fashioned quality time with the family.
Rainbow Springs. Located in Dunnellon (about 20 miles west of Ocala), Rainbow Springs was once a major tourist destination known for its submarine trips of the springs, along with gardens, a waterfall, a monorail (yes, before Walt’s), a zoo, and a rodeo area. Competition and the interstate system doomed it as a private amusement park and it’s now owned by the state. But today you can swim in the springs, rent canoes and enjoy a campground that offers tent camping and RV hook-ups on the property. The Marion County Springs Festival is March 23. Visit FloridaStateParks.org for details.
Homosassa Springs. Just south along State Highway 98, Homosassa Springs was once the home of Buck, the black bear featured in the old television show Gentle Ben. A tourist destination since the 1900s, Homosassa Springs was a hunting lodge and was once home to baseball camps attended by big league players and frequented by scouts before it was purchased by Citrus County in 1984 to protect it from the housing boom. Today, visitors can see manatee year round, enjoy presentations by park rangers and experience boat rides that feature Florida’s natural wildlife. Homosassa Heritage Day is March 9. Go to FloridaStateParks.org for info.
Weeki Wachee Springs. Of all the springs, Weeki Wachee best adapted to commercialization. It’s also a state park, but it has maintained the strongest roots to its original concept. The world-famous mermaids still perform their underwater shows, they still showcase live animals, and the sidewalks and “photo opportunity” spots that were there in the 1970s remain. Opened in 1947, Weeki Wachee reached its peak when it was purchased by the ABC Network in 1959 and was heavily promoted. The opening of Buccaneer Bay on land adjacent to the park in 1982—with its water slides, spring-side beach and tiki bar—have helped the attraction retain its popularity. Swamp Fest is March 8-10 and the opening of the water slides is set for March 25. Go to weekiwachee.com for more.