Driveable Destinations: Wakulla Springs

Just south of Tallahassee, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park and The Lodge at Wakulla Springs offer a retro guest experience in a pristine and glorious natural setting—and a tie to Ocala.

Courtesy of the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

Oh, if only those walls could talk—those at the historic and elegant The Lodge at Wakulla Springs.

I think they would echo the words—and antics—of movie stars like Johnny Weissmuller, of the Tarzan franchise fame; underwater stuntman Ricou Browning, noted for his role as the Creature from the Black Lagoon; Ocala’s own Newt Perry, who once managed Wakulla Springs and is known for putting Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee Springs on the map; and Edward Ball, the wealthy businessman who built the lodge and saved the surrounding area for the preservation of wildlife and habitat.

Just a three-hour drive from Ocala, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park and The Lodge at Wakulla Springs offer an immersion into an ages-old natural world that showcases one of the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs and 6,000 acres of pristine Old Florida acreage while taking you back in time in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco inspired guest structure that opened in 1937.

Some folks might visit for a day, to jump from the high dive into the depths of the cold, clear spring below and then loll in the warm sun on one of the floating platforms, hike trails into the deep woods or take an educational river boat tour. Others might settle in for a few days, finding contentment in one of the 27 guest rooms appointed with period furnishings (no televisions), a fine dining restaurant, a soda fountain that boasts the “world’s longest continuous marble countertop” and the quiet solace of the park.

The river tours offer an intimate look at the headwaters of the Wakulla River. When Ball bought the property, according to a boat captain, he erected a fence 3 miles downriver to keep out boats but allow wildlife free access. The result is an unspoiled waterway that is home to an amazing variety of wildlife. An early morning tour with a very knowledgeable captain in late October offered close-up looks at several manatee, numerous alligators, turtles, fish and birds such as anhingas, egrets, herons and moorhens, commonly known as “swamp chickens.”

Courtesy of the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

“Visitors from around the world come to Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park for its natural beauty,” says park manager Lance Kelly. “Park guests of all ages enjoy swimming in the spring, seeing the wildlife on a boat tour and hiking the trails. Whether staying overnight, enjoying a meal in the dining room or playing a game of checkers in the lobby, the lodge offers visitors a glimpse into Florida’s past.”

Jesse Askew, general manager at The Lodge, says, “the lodge is beautiful architecturally and the park provides a wonderful place to slow down.”

“Year after year, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park’s and The Lodge’s success is driven by its generational heartbeat,” she adds. “Families come from all over the world to experience the park and create lasting memories. Not one day goes by that I don’t hear a guest talk about their memories of time spent at the park.”

Delee Perry, the daughter of Newt Perry and owner of Perry Swim School in Ocala, fondly recalls her visits to the park and lodge and loves to talk about her father’s role there, including some humorous reminiscences he shared about Weissmuller and the other men.

Courtesy of Florida Memory

“Ed Ball hired my dad when his wealthy friends would come down and there was nothing to do. They were used to nightlife and activities. There were none in Wakulla, so they quit coming,” she offers. “Ed was not the kind to invest in something and lose money. He offered my dad, I don’t know how much money, but it had to have been ample, and free lodging and all the amenities. Dad came there in about 1941.”

She says it was her father who convinced Ball to open the swimming area at the springs.

“He told Ed, ‘We’ve got to get the locals here daily,’ so my dad got him to bring in beach sand and they made an area for swimming,” she offers. “There was a military camp nearby and my dad wanted to get the servicemen there on the weekends, so he got the synchronized swimming team from Florida State University, the Swans, to put on shows, and they would have cookouts.”

Newt Perry also told Ball he thought they needed to open a restaurant, after which his mother, Kate Perry, a noted cook—who had kept movie star W.C. Fields well-fed while he was on location in Ocala—moved to Wakulla.

“She said if there was going to be a restaurant in the lodge, it would have to be number one,” Delee recalls. “She had the waiters in coat and tails, with white gloves, and a white napkin draped over their arm. It was fancy. This was the early 1950s. My grandmother did the cooking, and the food was incredible. Then she hired a local chef, Tommy, who was there for 30 years or so.”

It was during Newt Perry’s time managing Wakulla that he was contacted by Gen. Omar Bradley to help start the secret group then known as the frogmen, now the Navy SEALS.

“The war department got my dad to create a movie, Amphibious Fighters, showing some of the basic training skills they were doing. It won an Oscar,” Delee notes with pride.

Courtesy of VISIT FLORIDA

Also during his time there, Newt promoted Wakulla Springs to movie producers, whom he knew from when he was involved with some of the Tarzan films made at Silver Springs, and talked with his friend Browning about doing the underwater scenes in Creature from the Black Lagoon, which ultimately were shot at Wakulla.

Courtesy of VISIT FLORIDA

Now, when one enters the lobby of The Lodge, a large screen video monitor continuously loops the Creature movies. Framed black and white photos throughout the lodge document the moviemaking as well as scenes such as dance bands entertaining uniformed military men and elegantly gowned ladies. Rumor has it that Browning’s family brought the cremains of the actor, producer and screenwriter to Wakulla for “one last boat ride” after he died in February.

“Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is a hidden gem. Whether a couple is looking for a good hideaway or a family is wanting to take a child outdoors, a vacation at this park provides activities for everyone,” says Askew. “From history buffs to movie fans and nature enthusiasts, the park has such a unique past that all ages can find something interesting. Travelers from Ocala or anywhere in Florida will appreciate the vintage vibe. Whether staying for a day or for a couple of nights, they will be mesmerized with the beauty of the springs and the lodge.” OS

Getting There

By Susan Smiley-Height

From Ocala, take the slow road north on U.S. 27/19. Having lunch at Deal’s Famous Oyster House just outside Perry is highly recommended before you ease west on U.S. 98. Another tasty dining option is the Ouzts Too Oyster Bar and Grill in Newport, just before you reach Wakulla.

Nearby Attractions

The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge sprawls over 83,000 acres in three counties. My journey to the lighthouse there in late October included seeing thousands of Monarch butterflies on their annual migration. Visit fws.gov/refuge/st-marks

The San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park interprets thousands of years of Florida history. There is a museum and a nature trail that reveals the remains of numerous former occupations at the site. Visit floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/san-marcos-de-apalache-historic-state-park

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