What to Expect at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
I would recommend parking at the main entrance on US 19 as the boat trip is so much fun as you are transported along the river to the main attractions. This entrance is also the place you will find complimentary kennels as dogs are not allowed into the state park.
After parking and purchasing your admission tickets, hop aboard the next tram or take the complimentary boat trip. The tram runs along the ¾ mile Pepper Creek Trail through some of Florida’s most unspoiled natural habitat. It makes a very pleasant 15 minute walk for those who prefer to go at their own pace, and it is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. However, the boat trip is a real treat. The pontoon boats sail gently along Pepper Creek taking about 20 minutes with an interesting commentary on the way out, and a quicker trip with no commentary on the return voyage.
Once in the wildlife park, plan your visit so you can participate in the three educational programs on offer which include a Manatee Program, Wildlife Encounters in the open-air auditorium and the Alligator and Hippopotamus Program. They are very interesting and well worth making a point of joining in – you are sure to learn something new from the expert Wildlife Care Volunteer Wardens and Park Rangers who present the programs and answer all your questions.
There is a 1.1 mile-long boardwalk that runs along both sides of the Homosassa River. It is lined with enclosures of native Florida creatures, many of which have been injured and need a permanent sanctuary home. The exception to the Florida wildlife is the 52-year old Nile Hippo nicknamed Lu, who can be seen basking on his own terrace or swimming in the pool.
Prior to the creation of the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in 1989, the area was a private attraction with various exotic animal exhibits. When it became a state park dedicated to preserving “The Real Florida”, the non-native animals were moved to other permanent homes. This led to an outcry from local residents who had become attached to their very own hippo. This led to Lu the hippo being giving a reprieve and he was made an honorary Florida citizen to avoid deportation!
Before arriving at Homosassa Springs, Lu had been used in the filming of many TV shows and films including the popular “Daktari” series set in Africa. He quickly became a pampered attraction and was fed marshmallows tossed to him by visitors. Unfortunately this led to him having a set of unhealthy yellow teeth which he is keen to show visitors when he opens his mouth wide for healthier treats of melon and bananas.
Weighing around 3,000 pounds or three tons, this giant lumbering creature moves in a seemingly ungainly manner on land but he swim gracefully in his pool with just his boggle eyes remaining above water. According to the very informative and humorous program presented by the volunteer warden, Lu also puts away 15 pounds of hay and grain as well as plenty of fruit chunks every day. One quick word of warning – do not stand behind him as he sprays! You can follow his thoughts on his very own Facebook page, Lu.
Opposite the hippo pool is the alligator lagoon with currently 11 resident alligators. Following the shady boardwalk along the river, the Wildlife Walk is a wonderful way to view many native animals including red wolves which are almost extinct in the wild, owls and birds of prey, a flock of pretty pink flamingoes, nesting pelicans and other birds. Being on the raised boardwalk, visitors are within close proximity of the wildlife, making it ideal for taking some stunning photographs.
The path leads through gates into the walk-in Shore Bird Aviary with a realistic seashore where the white sand is scattered with driftwood and an old boat. Visitors can purchase food to feed the unusual ducks, seabirds and herons in this excellent facility.
Walking further on around the clear spring-fed river, you will see sensitively designed naturalized enclosures with bears, river otters, panthers, bobcats, and a huge turkey displaying his black and white feathers to dramatic effect like a plump and disapproving Victorian lady. Take a short diversion to the Reptile House to see snakes and young alligators.
The Manatee Area is an enclosed section of the river which houses four West Indian manatees who can no longer survive without care. The best place to see these ungainly mammals is from the underwater floating observatory. The wide windows allow visitors to see the manatees floating in the warm spring waters like giant grey barrage balloons with fan-shaped tails. They are fed after the 1.30 p.m. program, so this is an excellent time to head for the “Fish Bowl” to see them feed. The observatory also looks out on huge shoals of fish including snook, sheephead, brim, ladyfish, mullet, and catfish.
The source of the Homosassa River is the bubbling natural spring which delivers 2 million gallons of fresh spring water into the river every hour from a 35-foot deep hole. The crystal clear spring water is 72°F all year round, just what native manatees need to survive in the cold winter months.
Your visit is sure to be enhanced by the presence of 30 employees and rangers in green shirts, and some of the 300 volunteers who can be identified by their grey shirts. The Friends of Homosassa Springs also provide invaluable support to this lovely park which I would urge you to visit. Your first visit will certainly not be your last!