The Real History of Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
It could be said that the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park began with one man’s admiration for the area’s natural beauty. In 1924, Mr. Bruce Hoover from Chicago made a trip on the Homosassa River and called it, “The most beautiful river and springs in the world.”
He had a bridge built over what is now known as the Fish Bowl. After that, Mr. Hoover called the carpenters onto the bridge and looked down into the springs and said, “I hope mankind will never see fit to destroy this spring, nor enclose it behind iron gates from the eyes of the world. For only God could create such a majestic sight. For truly it is a wonder of the world and a natural bowl of fish.”
In the early 1900s, the Mullet Train would often stop at the springs to allow the passengers a close look at the crystal clear, 55-foot-deep springs which form the headwaters of the Homosassa River. It was rumored that the real reason for the stop at the springs was to give the train crew an opportunity to catch fish that were so abundant in these waters. A bathing suit rental nearby would entice the brave at heart to swim in the area next to the springs.
This Homosassa depot was built in 1893 by the Silver Springs, Ocala and Gulf Railroad Co. on the place where River Safaris is now located. The track and depot were retired in November 1941.
In the late 1940’s, Elmo Reed opened “Nature’s Giant Fishbowl,” the first attraction at Homosassa Springs.
Nature’s Giant Fish Bowl
In the 1950s, it was sold to David Newell who built a three-storied structure above ground alongside the spring to give visitors an aerial view of the spring’s clear water and abundant marine life. David Newell loved to fish and had a radio show called “The Hunting and Fishing Club of the Air.” He noticed that both saltwater and freshwater fish were swimming together in the main spring of the Homosassa River, around which the park was developed.
After opening “Nature’s Giant Fish Bowl” attraction, Newell became the editor-in-chief of Field and Stream magazine. He built the first underwater walkway for visitors to experience the variety of fish through portholes to compete with the glass bottom boats of Silver Springs and the submarine rides at Rainbow Springs.
Homosassa Springs: Nature’s Own Attraction
Millionaire Chicago businessman, Bruce A. Norris, bought the property in 1963 and expanded the park into “Homosassa Springs, Nature’s Own Attraction.” He built a new underwater observatory, and believe it or not, added squirrel food vending machines. At the time, people would buy squirrel snacks from the coin operated machines to feed the hundreds of friendly rodents!
The squirrels became so obnoxious with the park’s visitors that the vending was removed, and it became prohibited to feed squirrels at Homosassa Springs! Beautiful ladies dressed as “Indian princesses” replaced squirrel feeding, and visitors walked the trails through the property enjoying the myriad of natural wildlife and the beautiful scenery along the Homosassa River.
Mr. Norris was impressed by a pontoon boat that he saw at the World’s Fair. He purchased and equipped six of these boats with lawn chairs to take guests along Pepper Creek, past citrus trees and small islands occupied by Black Spider monkeys to the zoo-like park, which was filled with exotic animals such as lions, bears, hippo, monkeys, deer, goats etc.
Today you can still enjoy a pontoon boat ride between the Welcome Center and the West entrance of the park. Then take your picture with a recreation of one of the historic billboards featuring the Indian princess across the street from the entrance to Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park on Fishbowl Drive.
Creating the New “Fish Bowl” Underwater Observatory
The new underwater observatory was greatly improved by Norris Development, with large windows allowing better fish viewing, as well as providing access for more visitors to be underwater at the same time.
This 180-ton floating underwater observatory, also known as the “Fish Bowl”, was built in Ocala and assembled on-site on a ramp. Once assembled, the structure had to be slid down on hundreds of bananas to reduce friction and to prevent polluting the spring with grease or oil. (An idea borrowed from a movie.) Once in place over the main Homosassa springs, concrete ballast had to be attached to sink the platform enough for its windows to stay below the waterline!
Ivan Tors Animal Actors filmed “Gentle Ben” at the Wildlife Park
When Bruce Norris owned the Homosassa Springs Attraction, he had a special arrangement with Ivan Tors Animal Actors to house these exotic animals at the attraction. One of the many television and motion picture projects they filmed here was the popular CBS series Gentle Ben, which aired from 1967 through the fall of 1969, followed by two made-for-TV movies.
Several bears were used in the series to portray Gentle Ben. Buck, Bruno, Tudor, Oscar, and Virgil were five of the bears used in the filming. Famous animal trainers who worked with these and other animal actors were Monty Cox, Steve Martin, Ron Oxley and Vern DeBord. The cast included Clint Howard as the young boy named Mark Wedloe who had befriended the bear. Other actors were Dennis Weaver as his father, Rance Howard as a neighbor (and Clint’s real-life father), and Beth Brickell as Mark’s mother.
Trainer Monty Cox and others put on daily shows with Gentle Ben at the attraction during which they wrestled the bear and shared a bottle of soda pop, etc. Visitors, including schoolchildren on field trips, had their photos taken with Gentle Ben.
Norris Development opened a hotel on US19 and a Riverside Villas motel nearby to accommodate park visitors, but by 1969 with the development of I-75 to Tampa and beyond, traffic on US19 was significantly reduced and the park was sold in 1978. For the next six years, multiple buyers and sellers owned the park.
Employees, Volunteers, and Local Citizens Played a Key Role in Saving the Park
Susan Strawbridge began working at Homosassa Springs Nature World in 1978 as Director of Advertising and Marketing. Taylor Simpson was the owner of Homosassa Springs Nature World in early 1984.
He decided to sell the property and received multiple offers from parties who planned to develop the land into a RV park or condominiums.
Several employees, volunteers and local residents, including Susan Strawbridge and volunteer Marion Knudsen, banded together to try to save the springs and convince the state of Florida to purchase the land for preservation as a state park. An advocacy group, Citizens to Save Our Springs, was formed to encourage the Citrus County Board of Commissioners to put a referendum on the ballot for its residents to vote on purchasing the land and continuing to operate the attraction until the state of Florida could take it over. The vote was close – passing by only 200 votes – but the park was saved!
On Sept. 4, 1984, Citrus County took temporary ownership and operation of the attraction until Dec. 31, 1988, protecting its environmentally sensitive area. At this time, the attraction began focusing on rescue and care of manatees.
Susan Strawbridge then worked for the Florida Park Service providing educational public relations, media liaison, and historian of the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park until her retirement 2018. Since retiring, Susan has returned to the park as a volunteer for the wildlife care department.
Manatee Emphasis: Education, Care, and Rehabilitation
The manatee program was expanded, and today the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is part of a network of organizations working together to provide care for sick, injured or orphaned manatees that includes Tampa Zoo, Sea World, and Marineland so that these valuable marine mammals may be rehabilitated and returned to the wild.
You can enjoy the view in the fishbowl anytime through the Manatee Webcam below:
Over the next five years, most of the Ivan Tors animal actors either aged out or moved to zoos where they could receive more professional care.
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
On January 1, 1989, Homosassa Springs became a Florida State Park.
Lu, the oldest hippopotamus in North America was part of Ivan Tors Animal Actors. Lu is the only animal in the park that is not native to Florida. His real name is Lucifer, and he was born at the San Diego Zoo on January 26, 1960, and appeared in the TV shows Daktari and Cowboy in Africa. He has lived in the park since 1964. He was declared an honorary citizen of Florida by Governor Lawton Chiles in the 1990s, so he didn’t have to move when Florida State Parks chose to make Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park into a place for native Florida animals only.
The park was renamed the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park around 2010 by then Park Manager, Art Yerian.
Elmyra Felburn Schiller, better known as Ellie Schiller, was the daughter of Phil Felburn, a successful businessman who created the Felburn Foundation. In 1989 Ellie settled in Yankeetown. She and her father worked tirelessly on conservation and community enrichment for the Nature Coast area. They funded libraries, museums, botanical gardens, and even purchased land for conservation purposes.
The Felburn Wildlife Care Center is a cutting-edge state-of-the-art care facility created in 2008 with funds donated by the Felburn Foundation and matched by the State. The Felburn Wildlife Care Center helps the park in its mission to care for sick and orphaned native Florida animals that cannot survive in the wild.
Visiting the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park Today
Today the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park has become far more than just a two-hundred-and-ten-acre wildlife preserve. It is operated by the state of Florida with the help of an average of three-hundred-and-fifty volunteers. It has been given the highest award for quality of care twice and has grown into one of the finest wildlife rehabilitation centers in the nation.
When visiting the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park, you have the opportunity to see many endangered and iconic Florida native animals who have a home and a mission as ambassadors for humans to continue caring for the fauna we are so abundantly blessed with.
There are two Florida panthers, black bears, whooping cranes, flamingos, pelicans, red wolves, bald eagles, river otters, key deer and a real variety of Florida animals, birds and reptiles for both viewing and education… and, of course, Manatees and Fish!
Today, the building on US 19 houses an Education Center, gift shop, restaurant/event center, and administrative offices for the staff and volunteers. Visitors can park at the Visitor Center and take a tram service to the park entrance on Fishbowl Drive, or enjoy a boat tour for only $3 more. The price of admission is Adults – $13, Children (6-12) – $5, and Children 5 and under – Free.
Tram service is complimentary and included in Park admission. Trams can be picked up from either the Visitor Center or the West Entrance for transportation between both locations.
Things to Know when Visiting Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
- The Visitor Center is located 4150 S. Suncoast Blvd. (US 19) in Homosassa, FL 34446.
- The Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park entrance is at 9225 W. Fishbowl Dr.
Homosassa, FL 34448.
- The Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is open 365 days a year from 9:30 am – 5:30 pm.
- Gift Shop and Park Admission and Boat Ticket Sales are Mon – Sun 9:00 am – 3:00 pm at the Visitor Center only.
- There is a full-service restaurant at the Visitors Center and a Wildside Cafe at the west entrance on Fishbowl Drive.
- A Park Map may be downloaded here.