Silver Springs debuts wheelchair accessible glass-bottom boat
Eric Draper, the director of the Florida Park Service, left, jokingly tries to avoid being cut by the oversized scissors held by Paula Russo, center, and Moses Jumper Jr., right, as Florida Park Service volunteer Al Pendergrass, top center, looks on before the ribbon cutting during the dedication of the Chief Potackee Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, the first all-accessible glass bottom boat to join the fleet of other glass bottom boats at Silver Springs State Park in Silver Springs, Fla. on Thursday, August 26, 2021. The new glass bottom boat allows handicapped people in wheelchairs to board the boat and tour the main spring and the Silver River. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.
SILVER SPRINGS—Paula Russo discovered something that needed to be fixed in Silver Springs State Park, and she did everything in her power to help fix it.
Russo described a story told to her six years ago by a woman had who visited the famed Florida Park—state-owned since 2013—with her grandchildren.
When her family decided to take the glass-bottom boat tour—the park’s signature attraction since the 1920s—the woman, a wheelchair-user, discovered to her dismay that she couldn’t join them because the boat wasn’t wheelchair accessible.
The original fleet of boats, built in the 1960s and 1970s when the park was still under private ownership, were never built to accommodate guests in wheelchairs.
Because of this, the woman was forced instead to wait at the dock while her family and grandchildren went on the tour without her.
“That just cemented the issue for me,” said Russo, who uses a wheelchair herself. “Something needed to be done.”
And after six years of sweat and ingenuity, something was done.
“The only thing to do was to build a brand-new boat,” said Russo, a former president of the board of directors for the Florida State Parks Foundation. “So that’s what we did.”On Aug. 26, the first wheelchair-accessible glass-bottom boat to join the Silver Springs State Park fleet was officially dedicated during a ribbon-cutting ceremony held Thursday morning.
The boat was named “Chief Potackee Betty Mae Tiger Jumper,” after the only female chief of the Seminole tribe. This keeps with the tradition at Silver Springs State Park of naming all of its glass-bottom boats after Seminole tribal chiefs.
Lay, Pitman & Associates Naval Architects were commissioned by the nonprofit Florida State Parks Foundation to design the 37-foot boat, which included a flat deck and spacious aisles, providing easy and convenient access for wheelchairs, according to a press release.
It is also equipped with an induction-loop system that assists passengers using hearing aids to listen to the captain’s narration.
The vessel was built at the St. Johns Ship Building shipyard near Palatka.Moses Jumper Jr., the son of the boat’s namesake and Associate Justice of Big Cypress Reserve Snake Clan, Seminole Tribe of Florida, was among the event’s featured speakers during the dedication’s boat presentation. He read a poem about his mother, Betty Mae Tiger Jumper.
Former Foundation President Don Philpott, who worked with Russo from the beginning on the project, introduced her at the presentation.
“She is the most tenacious lady I have ever met,” said Philpott. “Apart from building this boat and being responsible for it, literally, from every stage, from its design to today, she was also our wheelchair-tester. She is the perfect person for today. This project would not have been possible without her.”
Russo was exuberant in her comments.
“This is a grand day for me. Now, no one will be left behind on the dock here at Silver Springs State Park,” she said.
Russo and Jumper Jr. were also the first passengers to enter the boat on its maiden voyage, along with members of the media.
In addition to the Florida State Parks Foundation, a consortium of public and private partners helped fund the building of the boat, including the Felburn Foundation, the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund, the Florida Park Service, Friends of Silver Springs State Park and Cape Leisure.
The Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida also helped with money raised through sales of the “Protect Florida Springs” specialty license plate.