Florida may not have much in the way of scenic mountains, or canyons, or waterfalls, but the state's natural springs have always attracted tourists. Since 1878, when Hullam Jones began charging visitors to ride his small glass bottom boat across Silver Springs, several have also been developed as commercial tourist attractions.
Once upon a time it was just plain old "Blue Springs," but that was before the developers in the 1930's decided that "Rainbow Springs" had a nicer ring to it. Instead of glass bottom boats, "Submarine Boats" were built to show off the springs. In these passengers sat below the waterline, looking out at the fish and the springs through windows in the sides. A lodge and, of course, gift shop, were also built.
When it came to tourist attraction springs, though, Silver Springs had greater name recognition and, for a time in the 1960's, the American Broadcasting Company behind them, as well as a more accessible location. There was Weeki Wachee and those famous mermaids, also with ABC promotion. Rainbow Springs also had competition from Homosassa Springs, "Nature's Fishbowl," more directly on the tourist routes on the west coast. Rainbow Springs changed hands a few times and struggled along.
Then, in 1967, S & H Green Stamp heir Walter Beinke bought Rainbow Springs with an eye toward turning it into a major attraction. In 1968 animal shows were added, along with an aviary, a paddlewheel riverboat, newly air-conditioned submarine boats, a rodeo demonstration ring, and an unusual leaf-shaped monorail that went right through the upper reaches of the aviary.
The one thing they couldn't change was its location outside Dunnellon -- I-75 went through miles away to the east, and the tourists went right on past in their rush to Orlando and Walt Disney World. Although a trickle of tourists came to Rainbow Springs, it just wasn't enough business to support all that investment. In 1970 Holiday Inn bought in for 50 percent, and then, in 1972, Beinke sold out his half to a Miami Development group. Rainbow Springs the tourist attraction closed in 1973.
For a time it looked like the springs would be completely built up, with the entire area and springs turned into one big waterfront housing development. But, under pressure from local citizens who wanted to preserve the springs, the State of Florida finally bought the former park in 1990, with some help from Marion County.
Now the land was preserved, but the state, then undergoing a budget crunch, lacked the money to clean up the park, fix the facilities, and reopen what was left. Rainbow Springs State Park was on hold, but the locals wanted their park back. Volunteers got together to do the work, and had the park open on weekends by 1992. "The Friends of Rainbow Springs State Park, Inc." organization to assist the park was officially incorporated in 1993.
In 1995 Rainbow Springs State Park opened for daily operation under the state park system, still assisted by volunteers. The monorail and boats are gone, but the beauty of the springs lives on.
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Postcard image from the author's collection.
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