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Park peeks at nature

Citrus County has one of the state's best-kept natural wonders at Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park.

If you're looking for a day trip that doesn't even call for a full day and involves a drive of just a few miles, the Attraction, as locals refer to it, is the perfect choice.

The day before this story was written, I was driving down Orlando's famed International Drive. Passing the water park there, I couldn't help but notice the hour-long lines for the big water slides. While everyone seemed to be having a good time and enjoying an occasional thrill, they were missing the "real Florida" _ the natural, untamed animal and plant life that most tourists dream about but seldom see.

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is unusual because the state has made a big effort to include only native wildlife and plants at the park. Some of the animals, the birds of prey, are permanent residents of their park habitat because they have been injured and can't survive in the wild.

Instead of water slides, Homosassa offers realistic "animal encounters."

That's meant some changes at the park.

For example, officials have shied away from one of the more popular events, the alligator feedings. They used to excite the alligators by skimming a fresh chicken across the top of the lagoon on a rope pulley. The alligators would churn up the surface as they chased the prey.

But that's not how alligators attack in nature, so the practice was discontinued.

"It's less of a show and more of an educational program," said Susan Dougherty, the park's information specialist.

"We want people to realize they really shouldn't feed alligators in the wild, and we didn't want to be sending out mixed messages," she said.

The same goes with the manatee. The park rangers conduct most of their lectures about the endangered mammals from the shore. They only enter the water to feed the manatees a vitamin biscuit.

The reptile exhibit contains native snakes and reptiles, and only the non-venomous snakes are handled by the park rangers during the demonstrations.

Since the state took over the park in 1989, there have been many improvements.

The most popular renovation was to the park's underwater fishbowl, now called an observatory.

Visitors to the underwater fishbowl descend a flight of stairs that takes them to the underwater chamber. Through windows, they can see deep into the crystal clear headwaters spring of the Homosassa River and see a wonderful array of fish.

It's not unusual to see huge schools of jack cravelle, with some really big specimens mixed in. The careful observer will also spot snook, cobia, bass and redfish. The park's manatee herd also lounges around the fishbowl, and it's not until you see a manatee from that perspective that you realize the huge size of these mammals.

The children's museum offers many hands-on activities for youngsters. They can trace outlines of park animals, feel alligator hide, see birds' nests and learn about panthers and other animals.

The Birds of Prey habitat has red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, many species of owls and kestrels. These are magnificent birds and worthy of lengthy study. Other new habitats feature a gray fox and a fox squirrel.

The alligator lagoon is a fine picture opportunity, as is Lucifer the hippo, who is about the only throwback to the old days of the park.

Visitors might opt to take a short introductory boat ride from the new Visitor's Center on U.S. 19, which winds them down Pepper Creek to the park entrance. Boats depart every 30 minutes.

This summer, the park will have a 20 percent off discount program in late August and again in the fall. The second annual arts and crafts show is Oct. 12-13, and Manatee Awareness Day is Nov. 30. The park's popular Christmas light display will once again be held in December.

Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park is located at 9225 W Fishbowl Drive, which is off Halls River Road and U.S. 19. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $7.95 for adults, $4.95 for children 3-12. One-year season tickets are $19.95. Call 628-2311 for recorded information.