I love visiting zoos, wildlife parks, aquariums – just about any place where I can watch and learn about animals, ends up on my “to do” list. And it’s because they are so unpredictable. Unlike museums or amusement parks, nothing is static where wildlife are kept. You can visit every day, for an entire week, and have seven completely different experiences! So, while wintering in Florida and reading about Homosassa Springs, I knew we had to head over for a visit.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park covers 210 acres and is located on the gulf coast in Homosassa, Florida. What makes Homosassa even better than other zoos or wildlife parks is that its primary goal is to care for animals that are injured or orphaned and are unable to survive in the wild on their own. The park makes every effort to duplicate habitats and create diets identical to those the 300+ animals, that call Homosassa home, would find in the wild. And their aim is to rehabilitate and release as many species as possible.
Before becoming a tourist attraction and home to needy wildlife, the area was inhabited by the Creek and Seminole Indians who named it Homosassa, meaning “place of many pepper plants”. By the early 1900’s, the area had become a train stop. Passengers often enjoyed the picturesque beauty of the springs while stretching their legs as the train took on freight of seafood and timber. There was even a stand where folks could rent bathing suits so they could take a dip in the springs.
Soon the area became well known for its beauty and unique characteristics. The spring produces millions of gallons of clear, fresh water every hour, creating the Homosassa River. In 1924, the spring’s consistent temperature of year-round 72 degrees earned it recognition and it was declared a “Wonder of the World”. Now, I don’t know about that, but it certainly is a pretty place. Beginning in the 1940’s, the area operated as a small tourist attraction featuring the natural springs and covering fifty acres.
It was in 1964 when the attraction was purchased and developed into a full-fledged entertainment attraction featuring native and many exotic animals. Until the late seventies, Ivan Tors Animal Actors housed their trained animals at Homosassa. Animal shows and animal actors were a big deal in the sixties – you may have heard of some of their television shows and “clients”. Daktari, Flipper and Gentle Ben … ring any bells?
From 1978 to 1984 the property changed owners several times and it was during this period that the focus began to shift from animal exploitation entertainment to an animal refuge. Finally the state of Florida purchased the property and with endowments by local philanthropist, Ellie Schiller – who had a big ‘ol heart for wildlife and conservation – the park’s full focus, on pursuing animal rehabilitation and welfare, took shape to create the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park that we know today.
The park is located on Florida’s U.S. Highway 19 where you can tour the Visitor’s Center and watch an informative film, peruse scads of old documents and photographs, or shop for a souvenir. From here you will have to choose your method of travel to the entrance of the park, itself – tram, boat or walk. The park entrance is located on nearby Fishbowl Drive – there is also a parking lot there if you would rather drive to this location and skip the main Visitor’s Center.
A nice method is to take the boat ride over that travels along Pepper Creek and includes a Ranger giving an introduction to the park. Then walk the pleasant ¾ mile Pepper Creek Trail back. The trail is known as an exceptional “birding” experience and is often a feature of the Citrus County Audubon Society. All forms of transportation are clearly marked as far as where to board.
Today the park’s rehabilitation efforts focus on wildlife native to Florida. There is ONE animal that lives at Homosassa that is NOT native to Florida and that is Lu the hippopotamus. Lu is the oldest hippo in captivity (59 years old!) and has lived at the park since 1964 – the days of the Ivan Tors animal actors. In fact, Lu appeared often on the television show Daktari. He is such a popular and famous resident of the park he was named an honorary citizen of the state of Florida by the governor!
The centerpiece of the park – and what was heavily advertised and drew the public to the area in the first place – is the freshwater spring. The naturally warm water temperatures attract both fresh and saltwater fish to the area creating a “natural fishbowl”. Close to 34 varieties of fish can be found at Homosassa Springs – but nope, NO FISHING!
Also located at the freshwater spring is the Underwater Observatory. Built fifty-ish years ago, the observatory features windows built in a structure under the surface of the water and billed as allowing visitors to “walk” under water. Probably a SUPER cool thing fifty-ish years ago.
Sometimes the resident manatees swim up to the viewing windows. I was REALLY hoping for that to happen! However, when we were there, we saw schools of “snook” – big ‘ol fish and LOTS of them! They jump clear out of the water too – just randomly, fish leaping here and there!
And speaking of manatees … Homosassa is rather famous for their manatees as it is one of the only places on Earth you can see them 365 days per year. They particularly favor the winter months when it’s cold everywhere else, though. The manatees that live at Homosassa are West Indian Manatees and up until 2017 were an endangered species. Hurray! Endangered no more, but still threatened due to boat collisions and destruction of their natural habitat. These gentle aquatic beasts, also known as “sea cows” are plant eaters – slow and peaceful, and can only survive in waters over 68 degrees.
Homosassa’s manatee rehabilitation program convalesces injured and orphaned West Indian Manatees with a goal of healing, re-acclimation and release. The park offers a manatee program to help educate guests about these amazing creatures too. The programs are available several times per day – check a daily program guide for times and locations in the park.
The walkways, that meander through the park, skirt the Homosassa River to the south and make their way through the wildlife habitats to the north. They total a little over a mile and consist of paved pathways as well as elevated boardwalks, with benches and rain shelters along the way.
The “Wildlife Walk” leads you past wolves, fox, flamingoes and birds of prey with many overlooks so you can peer into the various habitats. Discover Florida black bears and panthers, cougars, deer, river otters and alligators. And, at the pavilion, participate in one of the educational, ranger-led Wildlife Encounters presented daily.
So, if you like wildlife attractions – particularly ones that help protect and provide refuge for our Earth’s creatures, you’re going to love Homosassa Springs. From its retro vibe – to its knowledgeable rangers and volunteers – to the whole educational aspect for guests – you will leave with a good feeling. They haven’t twice received the highest award for quality care, and aren’t considered to be one of the finest wildlife rehab centers in the nation, for nothin’!
Contact Info: 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa, FL 34446 / 352 628-5343 / www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/ellie-schiller-homosassa-springs-wildlife-state-park
Have you visited Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park? What did you like about the park? Have you visited other zoos or wildlife attractions in Florida? Tell us about them in the comments below! And, until next time … thanks for “keeping up with us”!
If you like reading about places to visit animals, check out this blog post for another fun zoo to visit: The St. Louis Zoo!