CLOSED while damage is assessed from Hurricane Idalia.
Climb into the Fishbowl and peer out into Homosassa Springs at a Florida State Park that was a roadside attraction when we were kids.
With an underwater observatory submerged at the headspring of the Homosassa River, this riverside park would be interesting enough if simply a place to walk through the woods.
Florida State Parks acquired this former roadside attraction in 1989 and shifted its focus to Florida wildlife. Manatees swim to the head spring up the Homosassa River.
So why is there a hippo? The governor made an exception for a special retiree. Lu the Hippo was an animal actor, and is now the oldest hippotamus in captivity in the world.
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Location: Homosassa Springs
Length: 1.1 mile loop plus 1.5 mile optional round-trip
Visitor Center: 28.800759,-82.576596
Address: 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd, Homosassa
Fees: $13 ages 13+. $5 ages 6-12, under 5 free.
Restroom: At the visitor centers and nature center
Land manager: Florida State Parks
Open 9-5:30 daily. Ticket counter closes 4:45 PM. Trails and boardwalks are accessible. No smoking permitted.
At the US 19 visitor center, you can board a tram or a boat (if available) or walk the Pepper Creek Trail (paved tram road) for 0.8 mile to reach the park entrance.
There are two entrances to Homosassa Springs State Park. From the intersection of US 19 and SR 44 in Crystal River, drive south on US 19 for 7.1 miles. The traffic light at Halls River Rd is your decision point. Straight ahead on the right is the old attraction entrance, which incorporates a visitor center, museum, and gift shop. To get to the wildlife park from it, you either board a tram or a boat or walk the paved 0.8 mile Pepper Creek Trail.
To park across from the main entrance, turn right on Halls River Rd. Go 0.6 mile and make a left on Fishbowl Dr. The parking area is just a little ways up on the left.
About the Park
A vacation destination from our childhoods, Homosassa Springs has always been about the animals. The alligator pond boasted a big “No Swimming” sign.
In the 1960s, a flurry of animal shows were on television, largely filmed by Ivan Tors Studio in Miami. Animal actors from studio often lived at Homosassa Springs.
Lucifer the Hippo (now called Lu) is the oldest hippopotamus in captivity, and was trained for the series Daktari.
Another frequent resident, Buck the Bear was a stand-in for Bruno in a series with Dennis Weaver called Gentle Ben.
Pathways meandered through the lush riverside forest, where squirrels became bold enough to beg for peanuts and turtles covered every log along the waterways.
A garden was cultivated along the river’s edge, with a greenhouse brimming with orchids.
Installed in 1963, the underwater observation platform called the Fishbowl was launched into place on rails greased with smashed bananas.
Harmless to the fish and other aquatic creatures, the bananas allowed the 157-ton structure to slide into place.
The views through the windows were incredible, the water crystal-clear and filled with swirls of fish. It’s no longer that way.
Today’s algae-coated rocks and green tint to the water signal the declining health of the spring due to decades of development in the watershed.
Homosassa Springs have attracted travelers for over a century, back to when the Silver Springs, Ocala, and Gulf Railroad extended to Homosassa.
Like nearby Weeki Wachee, it became a roadside attraction after World War II and expanded under a change of ownership in the 1960s.
Like many old Florida attractions, the park’s attendance dropped off after Walt Disney World opened. Citrus County finally bought the property to protect the springs.
Purchased by the state in 1988, it became a Florida State Park soon after. After plans were in place for how it would be reimagined, it was rechristened.
It now honors the woman who helped its transformation, as Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
Once you enter the park and are standing in front of the manatee fountain, plan on a little more than a mile to loop the entire park to visit all of the animal exhibits and natural areas.
If the timing is such that the manatee show is coming up soon, make a left to proceed directly to the observation area on the shoreline. Otherwise, take a right for a counterclockwise walk.
If you arrive early, this direction is the best for viewing wildlife while they are still active. The trail is paved, and quickly comes to a boardwalk slicing across a large pond.
On one side is Lu the Hippo in his enclosure, on the other the alligators. Walk out onto the boardwalk for the best views.
The boardwalk provides a shortcut around the loop but skips you past the Wildlife Walk, which is a must-see.
It starts just past the alligator pond as a long boardwalk through a deeply shaded forest.
Elevated above the animal enclosures, it brings you up close to Florida wildlife cared for here. Injured, they cannot safely return to the wild.
A flock of flamingos shuffles through the shallows, while large pelicans float on a waterway between the boardwalks.
Along the edges are a variety of raptors and mammals, from sandhill cranes, caracaras, and bald eagles to foxes and fox squirrels.
Free-flying birds wheel in, attracted by the feedings. We’ve spotted yellow-crowned night herons in the trees.
Curving past a large aviary with wading birds, the trail brings you to an overlook on a large enclosure housing a Florida black bear.
Just around the corner are restrooms, a pavilion for wildlife encounters, and an overlook into another large space patrolled by Florida panthers.
Leaving this heavy concentration of animals, the boardwalk crosses a waterway where otters climb and slide on rocks and logs.
Turn right to walk past the gopher tortoises to the reptile house for up-close viewing of Florida’s native snakes, frogs, and toads.
The trail then winds around a large deer enclosure as it comes to the other side of the boardwalk over the pond.
Here, you’ll find a snack bar and Lu’s little land based retreat and feeding station. As signs duly warn, don’t get too close when he’s out of the water.
The deer are next, the enclosure having a few diminutive Key deer on hand along with the common white-tailed deer.
The walkway leads around the manatee hospital, with a view of a series of large tanks where injured manatees recuperate before being released back into the wild.
A long bridge crosses the Homosassa River as it flows out of the springs. You may see manatees below in the crystalline waters.
The boardwalk resumes heading downriver on the opposite shoreline, nicely shaded. It crosses the outflow of a small but deep spring.
Reach a decision point of walkways in a landscaped garden along a peninsula jutting into the river.
Stay right to keep close to the water’s edge, reaching an observation deck that juts out to provide a view of frolicking boaters.
The walkway sweeps past another well-like spring with a collection of turtles in it, and leads to the Discovery Center.
Inside are restrooms and an exhibit hall with cultural and natural history information. A manatee fountain burbles in a sinkhole outside the door.
Follow the walkway into a stretch of jungle-like floodplain forest to reach the head spring of Homosassa Springs.
Walk out onto the Underwater Observatory. Topside, we’ve watched many manatees surfacing or swimming or munching on lettuce in floating feeding stations.
Below, it’s a different world. As noted earlier, the water clarity has tanked since the 1960s, and there aren’t as many fish.
You have to peer carefully to make out approaching shapes. But it is a thrill to have a manatee come up close to the windows.
The last piece of the 1.1 mile loop takes you by shoreline seating for the manatee program before returning to the fountain outside the visitor center.
Inside, there’s a gift shop and snack bar along with water fountains and restrooms.
Across Halls River Rd at the pedestrian traffic crossing is one of the original attraction signs from the 1970s.
It’s next to the boat docks and tram station, which is on the Pepper Creek Trail.
A 1.5 mile round-trip, the largely shaded paved path winds through floodplain forest and hardwood hammock.
Its other end is at the parking lot behind the US 19 visitor center for Homosassa Springs. Step out of the way when trams approach.
A virtual walk through Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
See our photos of Homosassa Springs State Park
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.