Living in Orlando and having a Disney employed husband means that we take full advantage of our access to the Disney attractions. But Central Florida offers so much more to explore. Several years ago I announced that at least once a month, one of our weekend activities would be what I termed “an Old Florida outing.” This term loosely translates to “not a theme park.” I got push-back from my daughters when I started to suggest activities that they termed lame. But I have a majority vote, so we did what I suggested. And guess what? They found that they enjoyed most of our outings, despite their initial hesitation. Our “Old Florida outings” include plays, cultural events, festivals, museums, local and state parks, berry picking, and local institutions like Leu Gardens, the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour and the Butterfly Encounter at Lukas Nursery.
De Leon Springs State Park has been on my list of places to visit for a long time, and we finally made it there on a recent Monday holiday. On the very top of my list of things to do there was the pancake breakfast at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill.
Anyone who has been to the Old Spanish Sugar Mill will tell you that there is almost always a wait for a table. So despite some grumbling, my family was in the car at 7:45 a.m. to head to De Leon Springs. This strategy paid off because we waited less than five minutes for a table. The restaurant is housed inside the park in an old building that was once a working mill. The centerpiece of each table is a griddle. The staff brings out pitchers of pancake batter, and for just $4.95 per person, you can cook “all-you-can-eat” pancakes, with a small additional charge for berries, pecans or other tasty additions. The menu also offers very reasonably priced sandwiches, salads and other breakfast items. Although the wait for a table by mid-morning was well over an hour, you can add your name to the waiting list and explore the park until your table is ready.
In addition to the Old Spanish Sugar Mill, the park offers visitors many activities. Like most parks, early arrival is recommended, particularly on the weekends. De Leon Springs State Park is about an hour drive from downtown Orlando.
We visited the park on a chilly day, so we didn’t join the few visitors brave enough to swim in the springs. The swimming area is spring fed and is a constant 72 degrees, ranging in depth from 18 inches to 30 feet. We’ll definitely be back to swim on a warmer day. There are a few benches around the spring, but we noticed that more experienced park visitors brought their own chairs.
De Leon Springs flows into the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. Canoes, kayaks and paddleboats are available to rent. We rented a paddleboat for four and let our daughters do the work until they got tired. We didn’t venture too far, but we saw a bald eagle and an otter, plus lots of fish and other birds.
If you’d prefer to let someone else do the paddling or peddling, sign up for the 50-minute eco/history boat tour aboard the M/V Acuera.
We opted for the half-mile paved nature trail that starts just behind the visitor center. The woods are filled with pines and other plants native to this area, including a cypress tree that is more than 500 years old. There are markers along the trail identifying plants and animals. More experienced hikers can choose the Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail, a 4 mile loop.
We noticed a few families fishing. The park website provides more details about what fishing is available and notes that a Freshwater Fishing license is required.
I really enjoyed the exhibits at the Visitor Center, which is small but filled with wonderful old photographs and memorabilia. There is a touch table and a children’s area, too. There are also signs and kiosks throughout the park highlighting interesting displays.
We even saw a few manatees on our visit (although if you really want to see manatees, I’d recommend a visit to Blue Spring State Park). We spent a half day at De Leon Springs State Park, but could easily have stayed longer. If you haven’t visited this park, add it to your list!