The True Story of Monkey Island Florida
Have you seen Monkey Island? It’s not a game. It’s not a song. It’s a real island in Homosassa with monkeys!
Monkey Island Florida is one of the most unique sights along Florida’s Nature Coast. A small island in the Homosassa River, easily seen from the Homosassa Riverside Resort⑴, Monkey Island began as a solution to a sticky problem in neighboring Weeki Wachee, Florida.
Thousands of people come to see Monkey Island and marvel at the antics of the monkeys who live there each year. What many people don’t know is that the island itself came to be in the Homosassa River as the result of a misunderstanding, and the monkeys were originally put on the island to keep them out of mischief.
In 2022, the Lowman family purchased the Homosassa Riverside Resort and began extensive renovations. They worked with the Hensley family to rebrand the property as the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort and embarked on a huge upgrade for the monkeys of Monkey Island Florida.
These well-loved simians have been relocated while their habitat is torn down and reconstructed with air-conditioned quarters, fresh water, new toys, and a monkey cam. Stay tuned for more details…
Here is the true story of Monkey Island in Florida
G.A. “Furgy” Furgason was a major influence in the development of the Homosassa Florida area in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In fact, he was often referred to as “Mr. Homosassa,” having put together several local land deals. G.A. Furgason created the exotic plant and animal attraction that is now Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park.
In the 1960’s, the Norris Cattle Company sent Mr. Furgason to Africa on business. The Norris Cattle Company was a huge owner of area lands and used some of those parcels to mine for phosphate and limestone. They employed Mr. Furgason.
Before “Furgy” left, he kept hearing of a pile of rocks in the middle of the Homosassa River that was causing trouble. The rocks were submerged just enough to be unseen and near enough to the waterline to cause havoc for the river’s boaters.
Furgy directed one of his dragline operators to “pile some dirt around those rocks so the boaters would see them better.” The dragline operator got a bit carried away – creating a small, barren island in the river just outside where the Yardarm Lounge (Florida Cracker Kitchen and Monkey Bar) sits today!
He built a small lighthouse on the island to spruce it up a bit, and went back to building his attraction.
Included in the Homosassa Springs attraction was a group of monkeys who were brought to America by Dr. John N. Hamlet. Dr. Hamlet was a naturalist who had worked at Weeki Wachee Springs attraction before working for Furgy at his wildlife attraction. He had originally captured those monkeys for use in perfecting the polio vaccine in America.
Some of those monkeys were prone to causing trouble, including escaping, stealing candy, getting into visitor cars, and biting tourists. Furgy said that he had often thought of “sending them to Alcatraz.” Now, gazing upon the new island with its lighthouse, Furgy realized he had his own little Alcatraz, and the mischievous monkeys found a new home!
The original inhabitants of Monkey Island Florida included three spider monkeys and two squirrel monkeys. Huts were constructed for them, and palm trees were planted. The monkeys continued to cause problems by eating the palm hearts and killing the trees. Fortunately, cedar trees volunteered and continue to prosper.
The island became quite an attraction in Florida’s Nature Coast and became known as Monkey Island.
The Monkeys of Homosassa Springs Monkey Island Florida
Today, five spider monkeys live on the island: Ralph, Sassy, Ebony, Eve, and Emily.
Ralph is the alpha male, Sassy is the matriarch. Ebony is the daughter of Ralph and Sassy. These three monkeys are part of the original group placed on Monkey Island by Furgy. The two original squirrel monkeys, Tiny and Tim, lived for many happy years on Monkey Island before passing away from old age in 2003 and 2005. Eve and Emily were adopted and put on the island in 2006.
While it may seem that life on a small island would get dull, the monkey’s habitat is changed regularly in both large ways (such as the redesign and movement of their buildings and play areas) and small ways (such as changing the placement of their feeders on a daily basis and the grass heights and patterns on a weekly basis). In addition, visitors to the river are a constant source of entertainment for our monkey family.
The monkeys have been under the care of the Homosassa Riverside Resort. They are fed twice a day from a menu designed specifically for them, including green leafy vegetables, bananas, oranges, sweet potatoes, raw peanuts, and monkey chow. They are also regularly examined by a qualified primate veterinarian.
Because monkeys prefer not to swim, the river acts as a natural barrier. The island is therefore a perfect home for them – allowing them to play freely and watch the river activity without being overly confined or caged.
Thanks to an eager dragline operator, Dr. Hamlet, our own “Furgy,” and the Homosassa Riverside Resort, Monkey Island has been a delight to visitors and local residents alike for over forty years!
Visit the Monkeys of Monkey Island at Boyett’s Citrus Attraction
So, when the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort began renovations on Monkey Island, where were the monkeys to go? The USDA had strict guidelines for their care and the Resort’s new owners were eager to upgrade their island habitat.
Help, in the form of a safe, legal temporary home was available at Boyett’s Grove Citrus Attraction in Spring Lake, Florida – about 30 miles away. Jim and Kathy Oleson created a home for each primate in their “old-fashioned Florida tourist trap” and wildlife park.
Boyett’s is open 7 days a week from 10 am to 5pm and offers putt-putt golf, a dinosaur cave, a dyno-mite gold panning game, their wildlife park, an ice-cream parlor, a curated collection of wild animal mounts from the Fred Bear collection.
Visit the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
In the early 1900s, tourists came to Homosassa Springs to see the beautiful springs. The train would let them off near Fishbowl Drive and they would take a short walk to see the crystal-clear water of the first-magnitude Homosassa main spring, with its resident saltwater and freshwater fish.
While the tourists were enjoying their walk, workers would load mullet, crabs, cedar and spring water aboard the Mullet Train for shipment back up to the Northern states.
In the 1940s, 150-acres was purchased and developed into a small tourist attraction. In 1964, the Norris Development Company bought the property and expanded it as Homosassa Springs “Nature’s Own Attraction,” with an emphasis on entertainment and with a variety of exotic animals and some native species. There is an historic sign at the Fishbowl Drive entrance, where visitors still take their photo with the Indian maiden who was likely part of their marketing efforts.
Ivan Tors Animal Actors housed their trained animals at Homosassa Springs Attraction for several years. These animals were trained for television shows and movies. When they were not performing, they were kept at the Homosassa Springs attraction. One of the most popular of these animals was Buck who was a stand-in for Gentle Ben in the famous television series.
From 1978 until 1984, the land went through several changes in ownership. The Citrus County Commission purchased the attraction in the mid-1980s to protect it as an environmentally sensitive area and operated it for visitors until the state of Florida could purchase the property as a Florida State Park.
As a Florida State Park, it was deemed that only native Florida animals should be housed at Homosassa Springs, and most of the exotic animals found other homes, except Lucifer the hippopotamus.
Lu, a hippopotamus, was one of the Ivan Tors animals, and still resides at the park after being declared an honorary citizen of the state of Florida by then Governor Lawton Chiles. Norris owned the attraction until 1978. He is the oldest living hippo in captivity. Every year, on Lu’s birthday, a special celebration is held with a hippo-friendy cake and singing of “Happy Birthday!”
There are hundreds of volunteers at the park, and you can park at the Visitors Center on US 19 and take a tram to the park’s entrance on Fishbowl Drive or pay a few bucks and enjoy a boat ride down Pepper Creek, with narrative and wildlife viewing included.
Sources: Homosassa Riverside Resort
Originally published in 2010. Feature image by Robin Draper.
⑴ The Homosassa Riverside Resort was purchased and rebranded as the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort in 2022. Monkey Island is currently undergoing a major renovation and the resident monkeys have been relocated to Boyett’s Citrus Attraction in Spring Lake. An updated story will be coming soon.