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Glass-bottom boats, history and monkeys in Silver Springs

It's a Florida twist on the classic question: Is the glass-bottom boat half empty or half full?

Well, if it's a glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs Nature Theme Park, it's full of people having fun, and crowds are likely to build as the attraction transitions into state park management.

Just east of Ocala, Silver Springs is one of the world's largest artesian springs, gushing up to 550 million gallons of clear water to form the Silver River, a 4½-mile shorty that feeds the Ocklawaha River and eventually the St. Johns. Glass-bottom boats were invented and launched here in the 1870s, and in the 1920s a pair of developers created what became the theme park — and what many call Florida's first tourist attraction. Animal exhibits, rides and a water park joined the glass-bottom boats, from which visitors still eye fish and fossils beneath the surface, and turtles, alligators and myriad birds above it.

The state bought the land in the 1980s and created Silver River State Park, leasing the springs and attraction to a private company. Later, state park officials took over.

Individual animal shows were combined into a single "Wings and Things at the Springs" show three times each day except concert days, when there'll still be "Meet the Animals" photo opportunities and Q&A sessions with the entertainers. State officials have made a pledge also to restore the springs' volume and clarity.

Downstream, the rest of the 5,000-acre Silver River State Park embraces the river itself. Hiking, camping and biking are popular, but the premier experience is canoeing or kayaking down the gin-clear river. Keep an eye out for the park's critters: You might see nine-banded armadillos, white-tailed deer, wild boars, wild turkeys, foxes, American alligators, Sherman's fox squirrels, gopher tortoises, coyotes, bobcats and even Florida black bears.

Want an argument? Offer your story of how rhesus monkeys established a home in the park and its environs. One popular story says they escaped while Tarzan movies were being filmed here (as were TV shows such as Sea Hunt and movies such as Creature from the Black Lagoon). Other say nope, no monkeys in the six Tarzan films shot here. Tour boat operator "Colonel Tooey" turned 'em loose on an island in the late 1930s, and the skilled swimmers quickly spread out. No matter who wins the argument, all have a ball watching for monkeys.

Within the park, the Marion County School District's Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center, open to the public on weekends and holidays, spotlights the area's cultural and natural history. It includes a late-1800s pioneer "Cracker" settlement and a 1930s one-room schoolhouse in which African-American students attended classes during the days of segregation.

One downer? No fishing allowed on the Silver River. But if you see the glass as half full, you can watch 'em even if you can't catch 'em!

Silver River State Park, 352-236-7148; floridastateparks.org/silverriver

Steve Griffin has been a full-time freelance outdoors and boating writer since 1975. This story originally appeared on Visit Florida's website, www.visitflorida.com.

Glass-bottom boats, history and monkeys in Silver Springs 09/02/13 [Last modified: Monday, September 2, 2013 12:15pm]

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