Way, way before Walt Disney made Central Florida a global vacation destination, visitors from all over made their way to the Sunshine State during the winter season to enjoy the health-rejuvenating benefits of the region’s temperate climate.
The springs were what attracted Florida’s first native settlers and, thousands of years later, its first American tourists. Today, Florida’s springs continue to play a vital role for both the state’s ecosystem and tourism.
For millions of years, life in Florida revolved around its springs. The richness of the archaeological discoveries found at these sites suggest the spring ecosystem once provided a perfect habitat for many of North America’s most intriguing prehistoric animals including the mastodon, saber-toothed tiger and giant sloth.
The springs are where Florida’s native residents settled, where conquistadors like Ponce de Leon encountered the native tribes and claimed to have found the “Fountain of Youth,” or so the legend goes. And they were what attracted visitors from the North, as the springs became some of Florida’s first roadside attractions, like St. Augustine’s Fountain of Youth.
It’s a little-known fact that most of Florida’s rivers, lakes, swamps and streams are supplied by the naturally occurring upwelling of freshwater springs from the Floridan Aquifer, considered one of the most productive underground water sources in the world and the source of 60 percent of the state’s drinking water. There are about 1,000 known springs in Florida, ranging from little more than a trickle to those discharging hundreds of millions of gallons totaling 19 billion gallons of fresh water each day.
Spring water begins its journey through the aquifer in recharge basins where rainfall seeps underground to Florida’s porous, limestone bedrock. As the water percolates through Florida’s Swiss-cheese-like foundation, it forms and fills spaces and holes in the rock formations, creating cave systems through which underground rivers flow. When the roof of an underground cave collapses, a sinkhole forms, creating a window to the aquifer where the water springs forth. Sinkholes also allow aquifer access to cave divers seeking to explore and study the underground water system. The highest concentration of springs is located in north-central Florida, not far from Orlando, where the aquifer is closest to the surface.
Historic, Old-Florida Attractions
Wekiwa Springs, just 16 miles north of Downtown Orlando, lays claim to the title of Florida’s first amusement park, built in 1901.
“Clay Springs (as it was once known), by this time was a popular tourist destination complete with a hotel, sanitarium, cabins, bathhouse, boathouse, boat docks and a rail toboggan ride down the slope into the springs,” said Robert Brooks, park manager of Wekiwa River Basin State Parks.
Today, little has changed, as Wekiwa remains a local’s favorite for swimming, sunbathing, paddling, picnics, camping and hiking.
“Our goal is to maintain things as they would have been found by Spanish and first Europeans who discovered the state,” Brooks said.
One of Florida’s newest state parks is also one of its oldest roadside attractions and the inspiration for books and even TV shows. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, less than a two-hour drive from Orlando, hasn’t changed much, said John Athanason, Weeki Wachee’s park and public relations manager. “Guests are thrown back into the attractions of yesteryear. We keep it kitschy—Old-Florida tourism.”
The tourist attraction features the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs, who have delighted visitors in the 400-seat submerged theater with underwater ballet performances since 1947. In addition to mermaid shows, guests enjoy a riverboat cruise or leisurely paddle on the Weeki Wachee River plus a fun-filled flume ride, white, sandy beach area and regular animal shows.
“Driving down U.S. 19, you see the big 1950s clam-shell theater where the mermaids perform and feel the historical significance of the spring and its attractions,” Athanason said. “Outside of Weeki Wachee, there aren’t many authentic Florida roadside attractions left. We want to protect the significance of what people did pre-Disney and maintain that same experience.”
Florida’s springs are some of the only remaining natural areas in the state where you can encounter the breadth of native plants and animals in a single geographic area. Depending on the time of year, one visit to a spring can reveal manatees, alligators, river otters, freshwater shrimp, turtles, deer and a great variety of migratory and indigenous birds.
The clean, clear water flowing from the aquifer at a constant temperature is the essential ingredient that supports the diversity of species found in and around a spring. During the winter months, the springs, which maintain a constant water temperature of close to 70 degrees, provide a warm-water refuge for Florida’s manatees that congregate in these shallow sanctuaries to conserve energy and breed.
The constant temperature also supports an abundance of plant life, including ancient cypress trees, rare orchids and lilies and lush underwater carpets of eel grass. Collectively, these plant communities nourish a freshwater food web that is among the most unique in all of North America.
Blue Springs State Park, 30 miles north of downtown Orlando, is one of the best spots in the world to witness the masses of West Indian manatees. The largest spring along the St. Johns River, Blue Springs is a designated manatee refuge and, during manatee season from mid-November through March, several hundred manatees can be viewed atop the spring’s overlooks. The 73-degree, crystal-clear water can be enjoyed by swimmers, snorkelers and certified scuba divers during the designated swimming season, but not while manatees are present.
Eric Rollings, who chairs Orange County’s Soil and Water Conservation District, earned his scuba certification at Blue Springs.
“You have the safety of having a wonderful park full of experts but also the beautiful, clear water,” he said. “You can go down into the springs and see everything. It gets your heart racing.”
For divers who seek the thrill of adventure, he advises a visit to the springs farther north, which give way to amazing cave systems and waterfalls.
“These are Florida’s hidden gems, perfect adventures for eco-tourists,” Rollings said.