State parks aim to boost accessibility

The view from a glass bottom boat at Silver Springs State Park will soon be accessible to people in wheelchairs for the first time. The park’s staff plans to debut a wheelchair-accessible glass bottom boat in the coming weeks.

As more people head outdoors for their summer vacations, Florida is focused on expanding disabled access to state parks.

It’s a major priority of the Florida Park Service and its citizen support organization, the Florida State Parks Foundation, which have an ongoing mission to enhance disabled access to the outdoors known as Access For All. They’re close to achieving one of their biggest accessibility goals — the upcoming debut of the first wheelchair-accessible glass bottom boat at Silver Springs State Park.  

Improvements to disabled access to the outdoors have taken shape in recent years at tri-county state parks. For instance, Lake Griffin State Park earlier this year debuted a newly reconstructed canoe and kayak launch that improved disabled access.

“We are committed to making nature and our award-winning state parks accessible to all,” Gil Ziffer, the foundation’s president, said in a statement. “This new wheelchair-accessible boat will allow everyone to enjoy the famous glass bottom boat tours at Silver Springs.”

What improving access at state parks looks like depends on the park and its needs.

It could mean chair lifts that help those with mobility issues enter and exit swimming areas, boardwalks that allow wheelchair access along trails or special wheelchairs designed to resemble all-terrain vehicles for access to trails with deep sand or rugged terrain.

For Silver Springs, whose glass bottom boat rides have been its signature attraction since their introduction in the 1920s, that means building a new glass bottom boat that allows for wheelchair access.

Silver Springs, which became a state park in 2013, started life as a privately owned nature attraction with captive animal exhibits and botanical gardens, anchored by the glass bottom boats that took guests along the crystal clear waters of the spring.

But the park’s current fleet, built in the 1960s and 1970s when it was still under private ownership, was never built to accommodate guests in wheelchairs.

The Florida State Parks Foundation aimed to change that.

Built at the St. Johns Ship Building shipyard near Palatka, the new glass bottom boat is 37 feet long and equipped with a flat deck and enough aisle space that provides easy and convenient access for wheelchairs, said Julia Woodward, CEO of the Florida State Parks Foundation.

It also has an induction-loop system, which helps people using hearing aids clearly hear the boat captain narrate the tour, she said.

The wheelchair-accessible boat looks much bigger than the older boats, as a side-by-side comparison of it with an existing boat from the park’s citizen support organization showed.

But it has the same 12-foot width as the other boats and sits just 2 feet higher in the water, a position that eliminates the need to go down two steps inside the boat, said Silver Springs State Park Manager Sally Lieb.

“It is about 4 feet longer to accommodate the entry of wheelchairs on the bow,” she said. “To add space interior, instead of the narrow deck outside the cabin, the cabin walls have been expanded so that there is only a small lip remaining port and starboard.”

Andy Kilmer, park services specialist at Silver Springs State Park, said the boat will enter service in the coming weeks. An exact date for the maiden voyage remains unknown.

Silver Springs is not alone among tri-county state parks with special amenities for improving disabled access to the outdoors.

Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon has a chair lift for entry and exit into a swimming area in the spring. Park staff does offer one caveat: Because of the water’s depth, people who aren’t strong swimmers should wear personal flotation devices in the water.

The Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway in Marion County, Florida’s most visited state park, has paved trails and accessible boat ramps and fishing platforms.

And at Lake Griffin State Park, the closest state park from the northern Villages, several improvements made to the canoe and kayak launch made disabled access easier. These included a boardwalk for easily bringing canoes and kayaks into the water and rubber mats in the launch area.

The fixes improved the launch’s functionality for all paddlers, but especially the disabled, park manager Mark Knapke said.

“I just moved things around to make them safer and added a platform that was more accessible for getting the platform out to the kayak area,” he said. “In any commercial endeavor, any improvements have to be ADA-compliant.”

Other accessibility amenities at Lake Griffin include paved concrete pads at campsites and wheelchair accessibility for the pontoon boat tour, he said.

Knapke is a longtime supporter of accessibility in state parks.

When he worked in coastal parks on Florida’s Panhandle, he initiated the purchase of mechanically operated beach wheelchairs that can navigate through sand without getting stuck.

At the park he managed before he came to Lake Griffin, T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Port St. Joe, Knapke also purchased a floating chair that could be rolled into the water, allowing disabled access.

“A lot of these people hadn’t been able to get out on the beach or in the water for years,” he said. “We made that experience available to them. It really meant a lot to them.”

It all comes down to passing on an appreciation of Florida’s outdoor spots, often best appreciated by experiencing what they offer firsthand.

Marc Munaretto sees this in his role as one of the volunteer ecotour guides who leads guided paddle trips at Lake Griffin.

Better accessibility for the disabled helps expand kayaking — and state parks in general — so more people can participate.

“Any time we have an opportunity to expand the reach among people who may not otherwise be able to kayak, it’s a good thing, and that’s what we’ve done at Lake Griffin,” said Munaretto, of the Village of Collier. “Having that added dimension is wonderful.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.