Florida’s springs are no doubt one of its grand natural wonders: water gushes up through limestone karst formations from the Floridian aquifer, creating serene, crystal clear pools of water which, due to its subterranean origins, remains between sixty-eight and seventy-two degrees year-round. These springs were a boon to Native Americans and early settlers as water sources for themselves and their livestock but today are prized for swimming and snorkeling, as well as cave diving where certified SCUBA divers enter the vast caverns through which the water rises to the surface. Of all the Florida springs, however, Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon stands out in several ways. For one, it has one of the most intriguing of histories of all the springs, and for another, its beauty is quintessential old Florida—yet that beauty is a bit deceptive, as it had more than a little help from the hand of man.
Dunnellon was founded on phosphate mining in the latter nineteenth century—an industry that thrived there for years. But as phosphate began to go on its way out by the 1930’s (much larger reserves of phosphate would be found in Polk County further south where mining is still a central industry), local investors sought other means of boosting the economy. Silver Springs near Ocala on the opposite side of Marion County was doing a great business as a tourist attraction, with glass bottom boat rides and the purveying of the semblance of a tropical paradise to visitors who came to Florida in search of something a bit different from the rest of America.
Rainbow Springs, with its broad yet not too deep spring pool and the Rainbow River, seemed a likely candidate for the same type of attraction. But the concept of a tourist paradise was not limited to charging admission to see the pristine springs and experience their crystal-clear water: the vision was much more expansive, an encompassing wonderland of tropic beauty.
Towards this mission, a wealth of landscaping work was undertaken, with exotic plants carefully planted along winding hiking trails and waterfalls, inspired by those of Hawai’i’s lush islands, constructed to bring their serene beauty to the setting. Glass bottom boats were introduced as well, but unlike Silver Springs’s, these employed a construction which allowed visitors to feel nearly totally submerged—as if in a submarine—as they gazed out portholes to see the underwater landscape of the springs. Yet this was not all: a zoo with animals such as monkeys, big cats, and other creatures of the South American, African, and Asian jungles on display was added as well. This was not to be simply a visit to the springs, but an immersion in the tropics.
The concept of tropicality, of the exotic, of far-away Polynesian places such as the South Pacific or Africa being brought to life in some manifestation was a popular one beginning in the period prior to the Second World War and the trend only accelerated in the post-war years. The restauranteur Don the Beachcomber especially furthered the idea of a nebulous South Pacific paradise with his restaurant and signature drinks, as did Trader Vic in a similar fashion but in Florida one did not need to settle for exotic drinks and cuisine when one could visit a very close approximation of an actual paradise.
Rainbow Springs was certainly up for the challenge, though the vision—like that of most of Americanized Polynesia—was neither exact nor cohesive. The spectacle of Rainbow Springs drew from many varied exotic influences as well as its very ample native offerings, but whatever it lacked in authenticity it made up for in zeal and enchantment. While Silver Springs had preceded it, Rainbow Springs sealed the concept of an attraction based on a unifying concept and proved it could work not just once—with Silver Springs—but multiple times. In essence, this was the beginnings of the Florida theme park, the game-changing idea in tourism which would revolutionize the state’s economy.
The variety of activities and entertainments at Rainbow Springs at the apex of its popularity were vast: girls clad in shiny satin fishtails played the part of mermaids, diving and dancing underwater to the awe and delight of spectators. Such mermaid shows became popular at other Florida aquatic tourist destinations as well, but Rainbow Springs also had its zoo, a rustic lodge, and the spectacular hiking trails. It really was—from the looks of vintage photographs and post cards—able to transport the visitor to a paradise. However, perhaps ironically, this was not to last forever. In 1971 Walt Disney World opened its gates and changed the Florida theme park concept forever.
Before Disney’s foray into theme parks, the most-popular were Cypress Gardens, Silver Spring, and Rainbow Springs, but Disney offered its characters, rides, and the concept of fantasy and being in a fantastical narrative—things hinted at by the other parks, but taken to a whole different level with Disney. While Cypress Gardens had its Southern Belles parading around, Silver Springs its glass bottom boats, and Rainbow Springs its Hawai’ian waterfalls and zoo, Disney incorporated entire worlds—from Cinderella’s castle to Tomorrowland. Its appeal especially for children and young families radically changed how Florida destination tourism would operate, and later successful parks such as Sea World and Disney’s Epcot followed the patterns Walt Disney World established.
Unable to compete in a changing tourism climate, Rainbow Springs closed in the seventies. For years, the property sat vacant and the once beautiful flowers grew wild and untamed over the trails. In 1990 the State of Florida bought the land in fear that it would otherwise become a development site since new planned retirement communities were cropping up nearby. The park needed a tremendous amount of restoration, much of which was undertaken by volunteers. The springs were opened up for swimming and snorkeling while no effort was made to bring back the glass bottom boats, and the old zoo was left unoccupied and simply is a hiking trail now—though some remains of the animals’ enclosures still are evident.
The concept was, as with nearly all Florida State Parks, to focus on the natural attributes of the land and educate the visitors about Florida’s ecosystems while preserving the environment. Still, despite not being natural or native to the park, the manmade waterfalls were thankfully retained and the intricate landscaping of the original park still delights visitors today. As a State Park, Rainbow Springs is incredible enough but its long history is also amazing and is the story of not only this beautiful attraction but of theme parks in Florida, as well.
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