Kids are out of school and ready to cool off. Sprinklers aren’t going to cut it for much longer, and you’re probably ready to escape the heat, too. Head to one of several nearby springs for an afternoon of fun in the sun. Best part? These places are easy on the budget and within an hour’s drive.
West of Ocala in Dunnellon you’ll find Rainbow Springs, a fun spot to swim, kayak, canoe, camp or tube. The main spring is for swimming only. Parents, be sure to bring floats for younger kids because, on average, the water is between 5 and 18 feet deep. Or, skip the main spring and rent tubes, kayaks or canoes to paddle or float down river.
There are two different entrances, one by the main spring and the other a mile and a half down river at the tubing entrance. At the main spring, you can rent canoes or kayaks to take down the river, but you have to rent tubes at the other entrance where there is a ramp to launch your tube. The cost is $2 per person at the main entrance and $5 per vehicle at the tube entrance. Campsites are along the river, too, and kayaks and canoes can be launched only a short distance from each site.
Just inside the Ocala National Forest, Juniper Springs’ clear and cool water attracts many swimmers during the heat of summer. Kids can swim and see fish underwater in the patches of seaweed and natural limestone that make up the spring’s floor. The water is shallow on the sides but gradually gets deeper in the middle and back of the spring. There’s also a platform for kids to jump off of into the water if they’re feeling brave.
Enjoy your picnic lunch, or even grill out, right around the spring. A boardwalk takes you on a tropical stroll along the river where you can also canoe. Just don’t forget to look out for alligators! They frequent the river and other springs along the boardwalk where swimming isn’t allowed.
This family-friendly spring is 28 miles east of I-75 on Highway 40 and costs $5 per person. Juniper Springs also has a campground, so you could turn this afternoon spot into a weekend getaway, too.
Get Away For The Day
Some places are just too far away for a weekday afternoon but perfect for a lazy weekend off. These natural Florida springs are within two hours of Ocala and can turn any day into a family-fun day!
Buccaneer Bay at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is the only spring-fed water park in Florida, and the flume rides empty right into the crystal clear water. It’s located in Spring Hill, about an hour and 20 minutes south of Ocala. Although older kids and adults can enjoy the swimming area, lazy river and flume rides, the lifeguard-supervised Lil’ Mates Caribbean Cove will keep the little ones safe and occupied.
And, throughout the day, there are mermaid shows and riverboat cruises, too. Don’t forget to bring the camera! Pack a lunch or eat at the Mermaids Galley Restaurant. Want to brown bag it? There’s a picnic area, and locker rentals range from $5 to $10. You can also rent single, double or triple tubes for $8, $12 and $15. The bay is open from 9am to 5:30pm daily. Tickets cost $13 for adults and $8 for children ages 6 to 12 (Children under 5 are free.), and the tickets include access to all shows and cruises.
The beautiful, flowing waters of Ichetucknee Springs State Park meander for a lazy 6 miles—perfect for tubing, kayaking, canoeing or snorkeling. Rent tubes, and slowly let the water take you and your family through the cool water. Grill out and eat at the picnic tables or buy refreshments at the concession stand. Scuba diving in the Blue Hole is also available between October and March for those who are cave certified.
It’s only about an hour and a half from Ocala, so go relax, cool off and spend time with family and friends. Park admission is $4 per vehicle with one person or motorcycle with up to two people, $6 per vehicle with two to eight passengers and $2 for each pedestrian, bicyclist or extra passenger.
De Leon Springs
This 625-acre park has it all. From diving classes to kayaking down the Spring Garden Run, spend a fun-filled day swimming in the main spring, grilling by the water, bow fishing or hiking the 4.2-mile Persimmon Hiking Trail. There’s even a playground for the kids, picnic tables and pavilions to rent. And, it’s just over an hour east of Ocala.
Besides the variety of outdoor possibilities, De Leon Springs State Park is known for its pancakes. At the Sugar Mill Restaurant, you can order from a variety of toppings and batters and make your own pancakes right there on the flat top griddle at your table. This pancake house fills up early in the morning, so show up really early or call (386) 985-5644 to make a reservation. Park admission is $4 per vehicle or motorcycle with only one person, $6 per vehicle with two to eight people and $2 for each pedestrian, bicyclist or extra passenger.
Divers and snorkelers, we’ve got some exciting spots for you, too. You may love to swim, but these watering holes offer that plus amazing depths to explore.
Although Alexander Springs is a great swimming spot, it also boasts something special for even the most adventurous in your group. About an hour from Ocala, this spring is a popular spot for diving and snorkeling. Snorkeling easily gets you up close and personal to the fish and underwater vegetation, but diving is only allowed in the large spring boil with a valid diving certification.
Nearby hiking and biking trails, along with a boardwalk to take you through the natural habitat of Alexander Springs, make it a perfect hub for outdoor activities.
Peacock Springs is a diver’s paradise. About two hours north of Ocala, near Perry, divers can explore an intricate system of caves and passageways in the clear springs. In fact, divers have mapped out almost 33,000 feet of underwater routes. Proof of certification is required for divers, and there are specific rules about where and when you can dive, so make sure you’re on the up and up.
Parents, you may have to leave the kids behind, as these springs are deep and there are no lifeguards, but if you prefer to swim and snorkel, there are designated areas. Admission is $4 per vehicle for up to eight people and $2 for each pedestrian or bicyclist.
A Weekend Away
Take your family for a weekend of fun in the sun at one of the nearby family-friendly water parks. Relax by the pool, let off a little steam on the water slides and watch your little ones splash around in kiddie areas. There’s something for everyone at these weekend-worthy family destinations.
Any excuse to go to Aquatica will do, right? With something for every age group, it’s the place to cool off and enjoy family fun for a weekend. A two-day pass costs $99, so stay the night and go back for more in the morning. Buy the pass online before you go, so you won’t have to wait in long lines at the gates.
For older kids and adults, there are plenty of thrilling water rides, including a free-fall slide. Walkabout Waters is a water playground with colorful slides made especially for the little ones in your family, and there are even rides for the family to brave together. Pack a few snacks for the day, but be sure to check out the cooler policy online.
Spend a weekend with your family at LEGOLAND Florida Water Park and enjoy colorful rides, a playground with three levels of slides and a wave pool that makes appropriate-sized waves for younger kids. This water park is a sure fit for kids under age 12. Families can also design and build their own Lego raft or vessel to float down the lazy river. How cool is that?
Buy tickets for the whole family online, and stay in a pirate, adventure, kingdom or LEGO Friends room in LEGOLAND’s brand-new hotel. Two-day park passes cost $104 for adults and $97 for kids between ages 3 and 12.
Never been to one of Florida’s natural springs? Don’t be surprised when you get there! Here’s a few things to expect:
The water is chilly. Very chilly. All of Florida’s natural springs maintain the same cool temperature of about 72 degrees year-round. So, don’t be surprised when you get goose bumps after your first cannon ball into the water.
Look out for gators. These are natural springs, so there’s a possibility you’ll see an alligator or two. A few of the swimming areas are blocked off from the rest of the springs to keep alligators out, but if you’re tubing, canoeing or kayaking down a river flowing out of the main spring area, you just may see one.
Follow the rules. Because most of the springs are now state parks, each one has different rules on what you can and can’t bring into the park. Check the park rules online before you go so you can plan accordingly.
Sources: exploresouthernhistory.com, lakecountyfl.gov, silversprings.com, floridarambler.com, visitflorida.com, aquaticabyseaworld.com, Disneyworld.disney.go.com, weekiwachee.com, florida.