Friday, January 7, 2011

Vintage Silver Springs - Glass bottom boats

When I was a kid in Gainesville, out-of-state visitors were often treated to the closest major attraction of the day, Silver Springs. Many years passed between my childhood excursions of the late '60s and early '70 excursions and my one visit to Silver Springs as an adult. I was working in the hospitality industry in Orlando and was offered free passes to Silver Springs whenever I wanted to visit. So when I saw that the legendary Johnny Cash was performing there, I called my contact for tickets. I met my dad in the parking lot and made a beeline straight for the glass bottom boats, always my favorite element of the park. As I re-lived my sense of childhood wonder gazing into the blue abyss I could hear music. Johnny Cash had started playing and we were missing it. We ran to the outdoor concert area and it was not long before the bottom dropped out and we had one of those gigantic Florida rains and enormous volumes of water were dumped upon the stage. It didn't last long, but the place was flooded. My strongest memory of that day was Johnny Cash and his family performing the remainder of their set in six inches of water.

Since then I have been patiently biding my time, waiting for the opportunity to re-visit the park for a more thorough examination of how the place compares to my decades old childhood memories. When my wife asked where I wanted to go for my birthday, the decision was an easy one. My most enduring memories of the place from when I was a kid were the glass bottom boats, the underwater viewing area, the horseshoe palm and the statute of Osceola. I couldn't wait to see if they were still there.

The Shopping Pavilion

This is me with my mom's pen pal from France in the 1970s, hoping I didn't miss the boat. According to Tim Hollis in Glass Bottom Boats & Mermaid Tails, the mid-century looking promenade behind us was built after a fire in 1955 destroyed the existing buildings near the Springs.

While a number of the storefronts are vacant, the building is essentially unchanged, much to my relief.

The Boat Landing

Vintage postcards from the State Archives of Florida

The area where the boats dock is much as I remember too, however the number of actual boats seems quite a bit smaller.

There also used to be an underwater viewing area nearby, but that is no longer there.

This is my little brother from a '70s slide

This is where underwater viewing area used to be

The Glass Bottom Boats

According to Hollis, there is debate about when the use of glass bottom boats began at the Springs, but it is for certain they have been used there for over a century. The use of quiet electronic engines began in 1932 (prior to that they were driven by noisy outboards.)

Vintage images from the State Archives of Florida

As you can see the basic concept remains unchanged after all these years. The boat captain guides the boat over various springs and points out highlights, like the rock crevices from which the water pours out of the aquifer, fish and animal life under the water and on the surface, and man made objects under the water like sunken boats and props from movies. And as you can see it is just as fascinating to viewers today as it was in the early part of the 20th century.

Our boat captain was named David. We took the boat ride twice, so I can tell you that his narration is almost identical for each trip. But he delivers it in a unique, sing-song fashion, with such odd cadence that it is pretty tough to make out exactly what he is saying. And it made the trip that much more interesting; I highly recommend trying to get in his boat for the pure entertainment value.

From my experience working in the Central Florida tourist industry, I know that historically the week before December 25th is slow, because everyone usually wants to be home for Christmas (while the week between Christmas and New Years is one of the busiest of the year.) So on our first trip out my wife and I only shared the boat with the three other passengers.

Because Silver Springs has a holiday light show, the majority of visitors came closer to dusk, so our second ride was on a boat filled to capacity, exactly the way I remembered it as a kid. One difference I noticed is that when I was kid, passengers didn't send text messages during the boat ride.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit the Springs so badly was to see how it had been affected by the current state of Florida's water quality, as run off from septic tanks and fertilizer use has had a major impact on our water quality. While the water is still crystal clear, the abundance of stringy green algae is unmistakable. Also in addition to Florida native species like alligators, bluegill, bass and gar, there was a proliferation of exotic armored catfish. I don't believe I had ever seen this fish outside of an aquarium in the past.

Invasive armored catfish (Pterygoplicththys multiradiatus),
U.S. Department of the Interior

Overall I have to say the thrill of riding along over crystal clear water and then seeing the bottom open up below you as you pass over a 6o foot spring is still pretty amazing. Perhaps its my sense of nostalgia talking, but to me the natural, untouched parts of Florida are more thrilling than any simulator ride or roller coaster will ever be. And Silver Springs' historic glass bottoms boats are a great way to explore Florida's natural state.


  1. What a treasure! Thanks for reminding me about this place. I loved the pictures of people leaned over, peering into the water.

  2. Great story and photos and cards! It's so exotic for me on the other coast and up north...especially that invasive catfish. The glass bottom boat may be a touristy thing to do, but it looks like fun to me. I'd love to do it some time. I guess I can't expect to see Johny Cash though.

  3. We've got this hanging in our bathroom as a reminder to go there next time we're in FLA

    Thanks for the up-to-date tips!

  4. Thanks for posting a picture of mom I mean Jackie I mean mom. What are you trying to make me upset?

  5. great article, i like the way you threw in the retro pics, nice !
    i never went here as a kid but still definately want to go as an adult
    hopefully i make it here soon!

  6. Very enjoyable post, comparing your contemporary photos with the vintage images is a great touch. Reminds me that the Florida of my youth is not entirely gone - sometimes progress means staying the same!

  7. Glad to hear that the boat captains still have the "sing-song" delivery. Also there were two horseshoe palms at one time!

  8. What ever happened to a boat pilot named Warren Worth??

  9. Hi, I enjoyed your article about Silver Springs. I went there in the late 60's. I remember seeing coins in the water. My wife and I went yesterday, but there was not one coin in the water, and 1 captain there recalled there being coins in the water as a child, but no one had any idea what happened to them. Do you recall this or even better have any pics?

    1. One of the early circa boats was rebuilt and currently operates on the Rainbow River. She's the oldest and only remaining early operational boat from 1934. She's now named the 'Princess Donna' and operated by Old Florida Boat Tour in Dunnellon Florida.