There are waterparks and there are water parks. What’s the difference, you ask? Well, to a Central Floridian, the differences are huge. Take a flight to Orlando – inarguably the theme park capital of the world – and you’ll discover some of the greatest waterparks around. But the best-kept secrets of the water variety are the natural springs in Florida.
In fact, Florida has more springs than any other state and some of the best ones are just a short drive east on Interstate 4. One of the most popular for locals is well-known Wekiwa Springs State Park. At the headwaters of the Wekiva River you can hike, horseback ride, canoe and kayak, or take a dip in the refreshing springs which – despite the sometimes-scorching Florida heat – stay between 68 and 70 degrees.
A recent addition along the Wekiva River is the somewhat unexpected oasis of Adirondack chairs, “River-banas”, a volleyball net, and free-flowing beer along the shore at Wekiva Island. Arrive by land (entrance is less than 2 miles away from the State Park) or rent a kayak or canoe at Wekiwa Springs and stop on your way down the river. Weekends promise a lively, but relaxed crowd, so be sure to rent your river-bana early.
If scuba diving or manatee spotting are more your thing, then take a drive a little further up the road to Blue Spring State Park. Although you can’t swim with them – trust us, some have tried – the clear, cool water is perfect for observing Florida Manatees who make the springs their winter home. Like Wekiwa, Blue Spring offers tons of amenities for visitors. Fans of ecology can take a guided two-hour river cruise on the St. Johns River without ever putting a paddle in the water.
It’s hard to tell if this next one is more famous for its springs or its pancakes. Yep, you read that right. Not only is De Leon Springs State Park known for its swimming and snorkelling amidst the most breathtaking wildlife, but its Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant beckons crowds from miles away and often has two-hour waits on weekends and holidays. For less than $5 a person, guests gather around tables flanked by built-in griddles and pour the deliciously prepared batter for themselves. Sure, they’ll make the pancakes for you, but why miss out on all the fun of adding scoops of chocolate chips or slices of bananas yourself. Calories barely count either since you can burn off a breakfast’s worth by enjoying a 4-mile hike along the Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail.
No matter which spring you choose, you’re guaranteed a glimpse into Florida’s ecological past, but like the saying goes, the early bird gets the worm – and entrance to the parks.
Header photo Scenic Rock Springs Run near Orlando © William Silver, 2013. Used under license from Shutterstock.com
Have you been to Orlando lately, or planned a trip for this summer? What are your top tips for keeping cool in the Florida heat? Share your secrets below.