A young couple from Wales just moved into my apartment complex with their five-year-old daughter. They’ve been spending a lot of time out by the pool, and the other day they said that they’d finally gotten their utlities and services in order. Now what? the husband asked, now that they were living in Florida, far, far away from the rugged and mountainous Welsh countryside.
I felt an immediate kinship to these pale new neighbors. I was once the pale new neighbor myself, and I have had to answer the “Now what?” question for myself many times over. That question has led to me to explore Florida as a tourist and as a local. I started exploring Florida by seeking out its classic tourist attractions, since for me Florida was and always will be defined by the way it was in the middle of the twentieth century, at a time when an orange was as precious as a jewel and people still dressed to the nines to ride Eastern Airlines from New York to Miami.
In pre-Disney days, Florida’s finest and foremost attraction was Silver Springs in Ocala. Back then, glass-bottomed boats skimming atop the enormous artesian springs were the thrill ride. The park became the attraction it was in the 1920s, when it was billed as “Nature’s Underwater Fairyland.” This was when it was leased to a partnership that further developed its attractions, including the Bridal Chamber (based on a local legend). After the park was purchased by a partnership of ABC Television and the Paramount theatre chain, things went into overdrive. By the mid-1960s, there were six separate attractions within the park. Film crews working on shows like “Sea Hunt” were not uncommon sights either.
Silver Springs declined with the advent of economy airfares and the construction of the Orlando entertainment complex, and it’s been a downhill slide since then. Still, I didn’t hestitate to recommend it to my new neighbors, since it was easy enough to guess that they had never seen an alligator. This is Florida–you have to take training steps. It was too soon to recommend that they visit the La Chua Trail during the alligator mating season. I didn’t mention the shoddy reptile and snake shows (one snake?), hosted by a speed-talking young man who seems to have modeled his act on that of a bad Las Vegas comic in a rundown strip club at 2 A. M. on a Monday morning. His attitude, unfortunately, is shared by some other park employees, including a cashier at the cafe. Others, especially a young bird trainer, were charming and enthusiastic.
The park seems sadly desperate for visitors, offering a steep discount for buying a season pass. I have one, yet I have not done my part by attending any of the concerts held at the faux-Tara mansion on a sweeping lawn. I just keep forgetting about the place, and I suppose this is easy to do when the state is crawling with exciting wildlife seen in the wild and thrill rides beyond a creaky boat and a Jeep tour that has one gasping exhaust fumes while having one’s spine mercilessly jostled.
A grassroots movement has sprung up on Facebook to save the park. It seems to me that it might follow Rainbow Springs into becoming a state park, which would mean the loss of the animals but probably the retention of the boats that made it famous. See it while you can. It is the progenitor of modern tourist attractions, dating from a time when people traveled almost exclusively by automobile and when wonders came in natural, not manufactured, packages. Don’t sweat the shabby aesthetics or the sullen attitudes. Keep one thing in mind: They’re always better than condominium complexes.
Silver Springs: ****
This is a great place to practice wildlife photography without a big zoom, assuming you can cope with glass reflection. These are the best gator portraits I am likely to get with my pocket Sony. I would never have been able to get my smiling friend, below, in a swamp. Here, I was three feet away. I spent most of the time happily snapping jaws that weren’t going to snap me back.