All Aboard: handicap-accessible boat at springs
For many years, visitors have boarded the glass-bottom boats at Silver Springs to view the incredible underwater world of one of our nation’s oldest and best-loved natural resources. But the boats have not been wheelchair accessible, denying some the joy of gliding over beds of eel grass and peering at the glint of fish flashing in the sunlight reflected below the surface.
But soon, thanks to a challenge from a concerned grandmother, that is going to change. A wheelchair accessible glass-bottom boat is being built for service at Silver Springs State Park.
The Florida State Parks Foundation recently announced the project, which is supported by grants from the Ocala-based Felburn Foundation and the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund, headquartered in Jacksonville.
According to Julia Gill Woodward, chief executive officer of the Florida State Parks Foundation, in 2015, as part of a disability sports event taking place at Paynes Prairie State Park in nearby Alachua County, a volunteer with the organization was promoting the many accessible features and activities available for people with disabilities in Florida State Parks.
“A woman using a manual wheelchair came up to the display table with several children in tow and said, ‘I took the grandkids recently to Silver Springs State Park to take them out on the glass-bottom boat but found out it wasn’t accessible. What is going to be done about that?’, Woodward offers. “This sparked the decision by the foundation to create partnerships with others to fund a wheelchair accessible glass-bottom boat for Silver Spring State Park. In addition to the Delores Weaver Legacy Fund, the Felburn Foundation is a major supporter as well.”
Woodward says construction of the vessel is underway, by St. Johns Shipbuilding, Inc., in Palatka, with an anticipated completion date of late December of this year. It may begin service in early to mid-January. The craft is designed for 30 passengers.
“The boat has been specifically designed to carry passengers who use mobility equipment, right along with those who do not,” Woodward remarks. “The boat will be in ordinary daily operation and available for use by everyone, regardless of physical ability.”
She notes that the existing gangway will be used.
“The critical difference is that the deck of the new boat will be flat, whereas the existing boats require a step down into and out of, essentially, the hull of the boat,” she explains. “In addition to wheelchair access, the boat will be equipped with an induction loop system which will help passengers using hearing aids to hear the captain’s narration.”
Guy Marwick, executive director of the Felburn Foundation, has deep roots in Ocala and Marion County, including working within the school system for many years and serving as the founder and first director of the Silver River Museum, located within the state park property.
“I have a love for Silver Springs and it’s nice to do something that will benefit the state park and Marion County,” Marwick states. “It’s something that is certainly needed and with the ADA (American With Disabilities Act) requirements and so many who cannot use the boats otherwise, it ranked pretty highly with us as a project to help out with.”
Silver Springs State Park Manager Sally Lieb says her team is “really excited.”
“The glass-bottom boats have been an icon at Silver Springs for more than 100 years,” she notes. “It’s great to bring them up to modern standards to accommodate more people.”