It’s clear from my blog posts that I’m a huge fan/historian of amusement parks. So it stands to reason that I visited SeaWorld and Fun Spot America Orlando during my recent Florida visit. And by now, you’re certainly aware that I’m a strong advocate for Rocky Point State Park, here in Rhode Island. So no mystery that during my time in Florida, I was intrigued by a state park that was once a privately-owned amusement attraction.
Welcome to Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, located in Citrus County, Florida.
Before we explore the native wildlife in this state park, some history is in order. The park opened to public in 1945 as “Nature’s Giant Fish Bowl”. To compete successfully with other river attractions and their glass bottom boats, the owners added a three-story wooden observatory over the spring. This provided better views of the fresh and saltwater fish that gathered in the natural spring.
The current state park has a fascinating timeline exhibit on its grounds, and here’s my photo of its Giant Fish Bowl era display.
In 1963, the park was purchased and renamed “Homosassa Springs – Nature’s Own Attraction”. A new Fish Bowl underwater observatory was installed in late 1963 and opened in early 1964. This Fish Bowl floated over the spring and sported a colorful red and yellow canopy with an underwater room with wraparound windows. Ivan Tors Animal Actors housed their trained animals at Homosassa Springs Attraction for several years. These animals appeared in television shows and movies. When they were not performing they were kept at Homosassa Springs. One of the most popular of these animals was the bear Buck who was stand-in for Gentle Ben, the title character of the famous television series that ran from 1967 to 1969.
Here’s my photo of the park’s timeline display panel for the “Nature’s World” era.
Homosassa Springs continued to operate as an exotic wildlife attraction through the 1970s and 1980s. After several changes in ownership, eventually one of the operators decided to sell the property. As expected, they received offers from developers who wanted to turn the land into a RV park or condominiums. But local residents didn’t want to lose this natural treasure so they formed a grass roots group called Citizens to Save Our Springs. They circulated petitions to encourage the Citrus County government to purchase the land until the State of Florida would be able to purchase it and preserve it as a Florida State Park. On January 1, 1989, the former attraction officially became a Florida State Park with a new name Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
Although the State of Florida gained some solid infrastructure with their acquisition, it immediately began widespread improvements throughout the property. It changed the park’s emphasis from entertainment and exotic animals to a focus on environmental education and Florida’s native wildlife. In 1993, the state purchased the property on US 19 including the Visitor Center and boat docks. This allowed the former Fish Bowl pontoon boats to once again transport park visitors down Pepper Creek to the wildlife park and West entrance and the Wildlife Park. Here’s a photo I shot aboard one of those boats.
The state park is self-guided and there are detailed story boards, such as this one, at every exhibit.
But of course, you get this free map before you embark on your expedition.
Retained from the park’s time as a tourist attraction is the 157-ton, 55-feet deep underwater observatory in the springs of the headwaters of the Homosassa River at the park’s entrance. This structure was so innovative for its time that Popular Mechanics featured it in its January 1965 issue. Your descent is actually just a few steps down to an oversized viewing area. Here, you can see dozens of species of fish glide by, depending on the time of year.
As you walk along the wooden raised ramps, you’ll be greeted by friendly native birds.
And speaking of birds, a state park employee told us an interesting, but tragic, story about how one of the American Eagles you see here became a resident of the Homosassa.
He told us that the eagle was along side a highway feasting on road kill when a crazed motorist seized the opportunity to pull over and fire his gun at the bird, blowing off a large portion of one of its wings. Under the Federal Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, the penalties for this act of is a maximum fine of $5,000 or one year imprisonment with $10,000 or not more than two years in prison for a second conviction. Felony convictions carry a maximum fine of $250,000 or two years of imprisonment. The state park employee said he was told that the shooter did serve time. The injured eagle was transported to Homosassa for rehab and residency.
Still looking at birds, check out the Burrowing Owl.
And the Barred Owls.
And what Florida nature preserve would be complete without the state’s signature reptile, the American Alligator? Our friendly state park employee told us that many of the gators were relocated here after being identified as nuisances to various neighborhoods.
Florida Panthers (the animals, not the NHL players), bears, manatees , deer and other fascinating critters also make Homosassa their home. An enclosed reptile terrarium serves as a valuable educational experience as it houses and distinguishes Florida’s poisionous snakes from its non-poisonous.
Ok readers, here’s a pop quiz: What Homosassa animal did you see cited so far that’s NOT a Florida native?
How about this one?
Lucifer the hippo, Lu for short, has resided in Homosassa since 1964. Lu, the oldest hippopotamus in North America, is the only animal in the park not native to Florida. Lu was born at the San Diego Zoo in 1960. One of Ivan Tors’ trained animals, Lu appeared in the TV shows “Daktari” and “Cowboy in Africa”. Lu maintained his longtime residency at Homosassa after being declared an honorary citizen of the State of Florida by former Governor Lawton Chiles. So there you have it!
You can take this tram back to the parking lot from the state park.
But I still preferred the boat.
Seeing Homosassa’s beautiful entrance building and interior displays and exhibits, I couldn’t help but think how awesome a history museum would be back home at Rocky Point State Park.
To be fair, the State of Rhode Island didn’t receive much in the way of salvable infrastructure when it acquired Rocky Point in March 2013.
And not nearly as much infrastructure as the State of Florida did with its Homosassa purchase. So we are fortunate that some important midway structures from Rocky Point were retained by the State of Rhode Island such as the circa 1906 Circle Swing ride tower, the Skyliner loading platform, the World’s Fair Arch, and others.
So if you visit Florida to see Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and the other world-famous theme parks, why not get a taste of “real Florida” at Homosassa State Wildlife Park. The native birds, and Lu, are waiting for you!
Special thanks to my longtime friend Chris Ellis for informing me of this wonderful state park and for taking me there!
All photos by George LaCross unless otherwise noted.
For more information on Homosassa Wildlife State Park, go to https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/ellie-schiller-homosassa-springs-wildlife-state-park