Before Disney World, your best bet for family fun in the Orlando area might have been a concrete tower, where the lucky visitors could enjoy panoramic views of lakes and orange groves. Three notable towers on the Florida Ridge still offer the highest observation points in the state — and a glimpse of Florida from a few generations ago.
Worn out the numbers on your credit cards? Looking for a restful break in your vacation? Here are 6 day trips within two-hour’s drive of Orlando that won’t break your pocket book. And as a bonus, these will give the kids a glimpse of a Florida they won’t find at the theme parks:
1. Silver River State Park
Long before Disney World, tourists flocked to Florida’s natural attractions. Chief among them was Silver Springs with its fascinating glass bottom boat tours and live alligator wrestling. The park has changed hands several times in recent history and (like the nostalgic country and pop stars who headline its concert series) the attraction is showing its age. Forget the attraction for a day and try the Silver River State Park instead. The small but newly expanded Silver River Museum offers a glimpse into local natural history as well as the area’s colorful tourism. Camping, mountain biking and hiking trails in the scrub forest are all options. But for an unforgettable glimpse of one of Florida’s natural wonders, bring some kayaks and paddle up to the headwaters where you’ll share the spring with glass bottom boats and some astonishing underwater scenery.
UPDATE: Silver Springs has changed hands again and is now a state park offering kayaking and other eco-friendly activities.
HOMOSASSA SPRINGS, FL — If swimming with manatees is not your style, one of the best ways to enjoy them up close is at Homosassa Springs. Here they’ve taken the idea of a fishbowl and turned it inside out. Instead of peering into an aquarium, the Fish Bowl (or “Peoplebowl” as it’s sometimes called) invites visitors to step down into the center of the spring where fish and curious manatees can peer at the people.
Silver Springs, FL — How long has Silver Springs been a Florida attraction? Depends on how you reckon it, but people have been coming here for a long time indeed. About 10,000 years ago, the Timucuan Indians gathered at the headwaters of the Silver River to hunt Columbian Mammoths. In the mid 1950s, the lovely and talented Jane Russel came here to star in the Howard Hughes thriller Underwater! In between there were steamboats and turpentine stills, Spanish explorers and Seminole Wars.
Although Silver Springs remains a popular tourist attraction, with Jeep jungle tours, boat rides a water park for kids, there’s lately a sadness about the place, a wistful acknowledgement that its glory days are past. Even the popular concert series here features country and rock ‘n roll acts who are mostly of the reunion-tour variety.
But with so much natural beauty and so much rich history, Silver Springs remains a place well worth the visit. And to dive into the history of the place, the newly revitalized Silver River Museum at Silver River State Park is just the ticket.
Central Florida’s 19th-century history returns to Ocala each November at the Ocali Country Days festival, hosted by the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center.
From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, festival visitors get to experience life as it was in 1800’s Marion County through a wide variety of displays and activities. Historical re-enactors give guests a taste of life on a farmstead from the area, and traditional craft demonstrations will showcase blacksmithing, sugarcane syrup making, woodworking, quilting and spinning, among other period pursuits. (Click for more on Silver Springs History.)
The event will also feature storytellers, folk art, old-time music, food and hard-to-find books from Pineapple Press and University Press of Florida. Guests will have the chance to tour a Civil War encampment, ride a jeep tram through the Silver River State Park and learn about Native American culture from members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
The Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center is part of the Marion County Public School System and includes a variety of displays and hands-on learning opportunities. The museum is found inside Silver River State Park near Silver Springs. Festival guests should enter the park from Baseline Road (County Road 35), which lies one mile south of State Road 40.
Ocali Country Days Information
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, November 12 – 13
WHERE: The Silver River Museum is located within the Silver River State Park near Silver Springs. Enter the park from Baseline Road (CR 35) one-mile south SR 40.
ADMISSION: Festival admission is $5 per person with children five and under admitted free. State Park admission and parking are free. All proceeds from the festival benefit the Silver River Museum’s educational programs.
INFORMATION:More information about the event is available by calling 352-236-5401 or visiting www.SilverRiverMuseum.com.
LAKELAND, FL — Some of Florida’s best bass fishing takes place out of public view in the state’s phosphate pits. Your best opportunities to catch a trophy largemouth bass begins by scoring an invitation to one of the deep lakes left behind from limestone mining. But if you’re short on friends or looking for a new adventure, the Tenoroc fish management area just north of Lakeland provide a good option.
Tenoroc is managed by the Florida Wildlife Commission with the goal of providing outstanding fishing opportunities to the public. When mining operations here closed in the 1970s, about a thousand acres of phosphate pits were donated to the state. Whether your pleasure is boating, kayak fishing or shoreline fishing, Tenoroc has something for everyone. For young kids, there’s even pier fishing next to the fish feeder! Several location have also been developed to meet the needs of disabled anglers. Families out for the day will appreciate an abundance of scenic picnic areas and maintained facilities.
Lakeland Bass Fishing: Managed for Trophies
The FWC has experimented with limits and regulations over the years and tuned them to produce regular trophy-sized largemouth bass and healthy stocks of panfish. In most of the park’s lakes, bass fishing is strictly catch and release only. A handful of the phosphate pits allow the harvesting of two bass below 15 inches. The result of these regulations is that Tenoroc is one of the best publicly accessible locations for catching trophies.
Anglers must check in before and after fishing to register and record their catches. Limits of panfish are generous, but also carefully managed. If you’re not after trophies, you can choose instead to come home with a cooler of speckled perch, bluegill, shell crackers or catfish.
Bird watchers flock to Tenoroc because it’s part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Several trails offer outstanding hiking and bird-watching opportunities, and a local bird list is available at the park headquarters. Saddle Creek Trail is comprised of two looping trails. The 1.2- mile Lake Loop trail offers a tour of Florida’s historic phosphate mining industry. Unlike most Florida Trails, this loop includes steep stretches that result from the historic quarries. The trail offers outstanding bird watching opportunities, especially in winter months. The 1.1-mile Flatwoods Loop intersects the Saddle Creek Trail and provides a tour of the local slash pine and palmetto forests. Trail guides are provided at the park office.
Tenoroc is open Friday through Monday only, from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and the total number of visitors is limited. All visitors must check in at the park headquarters. The daily use fee is $3 per person. Reservations are available for some of the lakes up to 60 days in advance. A shooting range is also available. For specific information, call (863) 666-2500.
3829 Tenoroc Mine Road
Lakeland, Florida 33805
Phone: (863) 648-3203
The nearest Lakeland bait and tackle shop is Maryles Anderson’s, located at 1316 North Combee Road, Lakeland, FL Phone: (863) 937-8945.