HOMOSASSA, Fla. - Long before Disney World and Busch Gardens became the destinations of choice for visitors and Florida residents alike, the state's freshwater springs once attracted tourists by the thousands.
Many of these "swimming holes" still remain in their natural state. Others have become wards of the state. A few were acquired by entrepreneurs and turned into roadside attractions, such as Weeki Wachee Springs, home of Florida's only mermaid show.
But the creation of the interstate highway system signaled the end for many of Florida's first theme parks. Travelers stuck to the highways and bypassed the small, mostly local roads, such as U.S. 19.
Weeki Wachee and nearby Homosassa Springs suffered financially as a result of this change, forcing the state to step in and help keep them afloat and out of developers' hands.
The result has been a win-win situation for Florida residents and out-of-state visitors.
Newton Perry knew he had found something special when he first set eyes on the spot the Seminoles had named "Weeki Wachee" or "Little Spring."
The first magnitude spring, which discharges 170-million gallons of crystal clear water every day, had been an impromptu dumping ground. Perry, who had trained underwater demolition teams during World War II, cleaned out the old rusted refrigerators and began experimenting with diving equipment.
Newt, as Perry was known to his friends, taught some local girls to do aquatic ballets while breathing off air hoses under 20 feet of water and people lined up to have a look.
Most Floridians are familiar with the Old Florida amusement park, which opened in 1947, went through some hard times and now is operated by the Florida State Park Service.
But the river that flows from the springs is one of the best-kept secrets on the Gulf Coast. This pristine waterway is ideal for entry-level paddlers or families with small children. But experts can design a trip as easy or as challenging as they wish.
Exploring the river is a lot easier now that the state has taken control of the park. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Paddling Adventures rents canoes as well as single and tandem kayaks and offers transportation back upstream.
Paddlers also have the option of bringing their own canoes or kayaks. You can launch at the park for a $5 fee. Transportation back to your car costs $10.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Paddling Adventures provides pickups at noon, 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., which gives you plenty of time for a nice, leisurely float/paddle with the current down river. Paddlers can start at 9 a.m. with the last boat out by noon if using their transportation or paddling back and 2:45 if using your own transportation and your own canoe/kayak.
Weekends tend to be crowded. But go on a weekday, and you might just have the river all to yourself. For reservations call (352) 592-5666. Or for more information, go to weekiwachee.com.
The head springs of the Homosassa River are home to a variety of fresh and saltwater species. In the early 1900s, railroad passengers would stop to relax in the cool spring water while the train was loaded with crabs, fresh fish and other supplies.
The springs are just 9 miles from the open water of the Gulf of Mexico, which is why they have always been a popular wintering spot for the West Indian manatee.
Other saltwater residents, including mullet and red drum, have also been known to frequent the springs, which pump out 64 million gallons of cool, clear water every day.
The name Homosassa is said to mean "the place where peppers grow" and is thought to be a place where Native Americans would meet to mingle and trade. In 1845, David Yulee built a mill nearby to process sugar cane, which grew well in the temperate climate around the springs.
A group of New England investors began buying land around the springs in the 1880s, eventually selling some of it to settlers who established a nearby fishing village called Homosassa, sans springs.
The springs changed hands several times in the following decades, eventually ending up in Citrus County's hands in 1984. Today the state operates the old tourist attraction, which now also doubles as a rehabilitation center for a variety of threatened and endangered species.
Bobcats, boat tours
Homosassa Springs and Weeki Wachee both offer worthwhile boat tours, and visitors can actually swim in the latter (only on weekends, until June 12 when it will be open every day during the summer). Homosassa's springs are off limits to people because they serve as a refuge for many injured and sick manatees.
While the centerpiece of Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is the first-magnitude freshwater spring, visitors can stroll through the grounds on paved trails and boardwalks to observe black bears, Florida panthers, cougars, bobcats, red wolves, gray foxes, otters, key deer and alligators. Most of these animals have been injured or born in captivity and could not survive in the wild.