One of our favorite family vacations this summer was tubing the Ichetucknee. We loved it so much that we decided to go tubing again! Only this time we were eager to explore some of Florida’s other fresh water springs.
In the process, we discovered some great new spots and made some really wonderful memories. But as usual, our family vacations included their fair share of misadventures too. I’ve put together some info about the springs we visited, plus our suggestions for making the most out of your tubing trip (and avoiding as much aggravation as possible).
Our tubing adventures (or attempted adventures, I should say) took place during two weekends.
Family Vacation #1
My husband’s goal was to visit Kelly Park (Rock Springs Run) in Apopka, Florida. This is north of Orlando and about a two hour drive from our home. We knew from prior research that Kelly Park typically reaches capacity pretty early in the day, but we decided to give it a shot anyway. We got there by late morning (around 10:30 or so), and there was a sign up saying that the park was closed for the day.
We were disappointed, but we rallied and came up with a plan B – Wekiwa Springs State Park, about 15 minutes away (cost = $6/vehicle). There’s no tubing run at Wekiwa Springs, but there is a giant swimming hole. The water is crystal clear and (like the other Florida springs) a brisk 72 degrees year round. It’s a great spot for snorkeling, so Vic & Sophia were especially happy.
There’s a small wading area that’s great for little kids, but the rest of the spring is fairly deep. I’m 5’0″ and the water was up to my shoulders in the shallow spots. We bought a small tube for Amelia at the concession stand. We paid around $5 for it, which isn’t too bad, but you can find something similar at Walmart for a dollar or two. I’d suggest bringing a tube or something to float on/in for anyone who’s not planning on snorkeling or doing a whole lot of swimming.
The concession stand is pretty well stocked with food (snacks, cold drinks, food to grill), plus outdoor necessities like sunscreen and bug spray. This is also where you can rent canoes & kayaks, so it got very crowded (the line was out the door). But keep in mind, we were there during peak season. It’s probably a lot less crowded in the spring and fall.
There’s a tiny nature center (we saw a turtle, a snake, and a baby alligator), a playground, and miles of hiking trails; but from what we could see, most of the visitors (and there were LOTS of them!) were enjoying the water or relaxing/picnicking all around the spring.
The next morning, we tried to get into Kelly Park again. We stayed overnight in an Embassy Suites near Apopka, and we left our hotel right after breakfast. We got there around 9:30 a.m., but that was still too late. Again, there was a sign stating that the park was closed for the day.
This time around, we were pretty bummed. Instead of finding another spring, we decided to spend the day at Fun Spot, an amusement park where we have season passes and always have a blast. Later in the weekend, we went to Bathtub Reef Beach in Stuart, and Vic & Sophia got to do some snorkeling there, while Amelia & I looked for shells and played in the shallows. But we never did get to go tubing that weekend.
Family Vacation #2
We were still determined to take the girls tubing one last time during the summer, and Vic still had his heart set on visiting Kelly Park. So we set out again on a different weekend, only this time with a better game plan. Or so we thought.
Our first plan was to double down. We knew from experience that we couldn’t leave the house early enough to make the two hour drive and arrive at Kelly Park before it opened at 8:00 a.m. (Some of us are not morning people. I’ll let you guess who.) So we decided to stop first at a different spring on our way down to Apopka, one that was a shorter distance from home and had a larger capacity.
We chose Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, about an hour & a half drive from home. I’d been there with the girls on school field trips during Manatee season (which runs from about mid-November to mid-March). Blue Spring is a designated manatee refuge, and during manatee season you can sometimes see hundreds of them in the water. The spring is closed to swimmers and for all water activities during those months, so last time we’d only been able to watch the manatees from the overlooks (still very cool).
But since we were visiting during the summer, the spring was open, and we were hoping to get in there with our tubes.
No such luck. When we arrived at the park, a ranger was outside turning cars away. He told us to come back in an hour. Not ideal, but not unmanageable either. We checked the map and found that both Hontoon Island State Park and De Leon Springs State Park were only about 30 minutes away. And Wekiwa Springs State Park was a 40 minute drive.
We chose the closest of the three – Hontoon Island State Park. The park is only accessible by boat, and we thought it would be fun to take the girls on the ferry. Hontoon Island turned out to be a small but lovely park. It’s tucked away in a residential neighborhood, so it’s very quiet and not at all crowded. It’s right on the St. Johns River and seems like a great spot for boating, fishing, and canoeing. There are giant old trees, shaded pavilions, and an interesting visitors center & museum. The playground is nice and has suitable equipment for both big and little kids, but it’s not shaded.
The girls played on the playground for a bit, we visited the museum, and we took some pictures. That, plus the ferry ride to & from the island, took about 30 minutes. There’s not a whole lot to do here if you’re not in a boat or a canoe, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as an intentional vacation destination. But if you’re in the area and you’re in the mood for a quick ferry ride, it’s worth a stop. Admission to the park is free, as is the ferry (although donations are accepted).
After our quick tour of Hontoon Island, we drove back to Blue Spring State Park. It had been a little over an hour since the park ranger turned us away. But when we returned, the ranger was gone. In his place was a sign reading, “Park Closed. Try Back In Two Hours.” D’oh.
That was a non starter. Storms were starting to blow in, and there was no guarantee that we’d get into the park if we waited another two hours. So once again we headed south to Fun Spot. Tubing at Blue Spring State Park just wasn’t going to happen – at least not this trip. Instead we were going to make one last attempt to get into Kelly Park the following day.
We stayed in the same Embassy Suites (14 miles from Kelly Park). We went to bed early, went downstairs for breakfast when it opened at 6:30 a.m., and checked out of the hotel before 8:00. This was finally going to happen!
As we got closer to the park, we noticed a lot of traffic and police activity. This was a Sunday morning, so we thought that maybe the police were directing the traffic from a busy church. Waze rerouted us around the traffic, but the road was blocked. That’s when we realized that this was the line of cars waiting to get into the park. It wasn’t even 8:30 a.m. Yikes.
So let me pause here with a little info about Kelly Park. The park opens daily at 8:00 a.m. Only 280 cars are allowed to enter the park. Once that capacity has been met, an additional 50 cars can get an afternoon pass which allows entry after 2:00 p.m. The afternoon passes are distributed in the morning to cars that did not make it into the 280 cutoff. In other words, you still have to show up and wait in line first thing in the morning to even get an afternoon pass. If you don’t have one of those 50 passes, don’t even bother trying to get in – at least not during peak times (summer, weekends, and holidays).
You can also save yourself time by calling ahead: 407-254-1906 (for a recorded message) or checking the website. We didn’t realize this at the time, which is too bad because it would’ve saved us a lot of time.
Anyway, back to our 3rd attempt to visit Kelly Park. Despite our best non-morning people efforts, we still didn’t make it in before the 280 car cutoff. However – we were able to get one of the 50 afternoon passes. All we had to do then was figure out a way to kill the next 5 hours.
You guessed it. Back to Fun Spot. (We sure got our money’s worth from those season passes.) We’d get into the park much later than we’d hoped, but at least this time we were guaranteed entry.
But wait. You didn’t think it was that easy for us, did you?
When we returned to Kelly Park at 2:00 p.m., we used our afternoon pass and were finally (FINALLY!!!) able to enter the park (admission is $3 per vehicle for 1-2 people, and $5 per vehicle for 3-8 people).
Do you know what happens almost every day in Florida during the summer at about 2:00 p.m.?
Sure enough, just as we pulled into the parking lot, boom. Thunder. We parked the car and got our tubing stuff anyway, because who knows, right? But right as we started to walk toward the spring, an alarm sounded. The water was closed and lifeguards were directing everyone out of the spring. We just couldn’t seem to catch a break.
We asked a lifeguard about when the spring might be reopened – we were wondering if there was a rule (like at water parks), with a set wait time after the last lightning strike. He didn’t have an answer. But since it wasn’t even raining and the radar showed the storm blowing over (not to mention that we’d already waited FIVE HOURS to get into the park), we decided to wait it out. We found a covered wooden pavilion and tried to be optimistic.
We waited for about an hour. And just as we were about to throw in the towel, the alarm sounded again and the spring reopened. Woohoo!
We hauled ourselves and our stuff to the tube launch. We had to wait another 5-10 minutes before the lifeguards allowed us into the water, but I’m happy to report that at long last, we made it into Rock Springs Run.
The entire tube run is about 3/4 of a mile and takes about 25 minutes to complete. But about midway, there is a shallow swimming hole, and lots of people seem to exit their tubes here. The ground here is sandy (not rocky, like other parts of the spring), so it’s a good spot for kids to play. The water here is 68 degrees year round, but you get used to the cold water after a few minutes (especially on a hot day).
Unlike some of the other parks, Kelly Park does not have tube rentals inside the park. There is a vendor right outside the park, and and you can rent a basic tube for $7. The tubes are already inflated, so you have to squeeze them into your car or strap them to the top of your vehicle. You also have to leave your ID or credit card at the tube rental stand.
My two cents: while I definitely recommend renting a full-size tube at some of the other springs (e.g., Ichetucknee Springs), Kelly Park/Rock Springs is small & shallow, and you can probably do just fine with a smaller tube (the $2 blow-up kind from Walmart, for example). We did rent one large tube for Amelia, and I used the smaller tube that we’d purchased at Wekiwa Springs. Vic & Sophia didn’t have tubes at all. They either swam, walked, or floated along with Amelia.
Note: the bottom of the spring is very rocky, so water shoes would be good to have, especially since it’s so shallow in some parts.
We tubed and swam at Kelly Park for another hour or two. Then we used their facilities (outdoor showers and indoor changing rooms/restrooms) to change into dry clothes for our long drive home.
So – was it worth it? That’s a good question.
It’s easy to see why people love this spot. Between the water, the greenery, and the boardwalks connecting it all, it’s quite picturesque. When we arrived (before the water was closed), the park was crowded and lively, with lots of people picnicking and grilling. After the storm, the crowd thinned out but still stayed pretty busy. This seems to be a popular spot with locals who know the drill – get in line by 7:00 a.m., stay until after lunch, then get out before the summer storms roll in. But if you’re coming from out of town? There are other springs in Central Florida with longer tube runs and much greater capacity, and they’re probably just as pretty as Kelly Park.
With that said, I’m glad we did it, and it was worth the trip. But I think I’m good with just one visit. I think our efforts will be better spent finding parks that are a little closer to home and/or not quite so difficult to access.
Tips for Tubing
Here are a few general things to keep in mind when you’re planning a trip to one of Florida’s fresh water springs, particularly if you’re planning on tubing.
1. Get there early. I can’t stress this enough. Most of the parks open at 8:00 a.m., and those with tube runs recommend that you arrive before they open. Some suggest arriving as early as 7:00 a.m. And while not every park will fill to capacity as soon as the gates open (e.g., larger parks or parks without tube runs), arriving early has other benefits, like avoiding the sun at its peak and finishing before the afternoon storms.
2. Inform yourself about the tube situation before you arrive. Every park is different. Some parks have tube rentals inside the park (Blue Spring State Park), and others require you to rent a tube outside the park (Kelly Park). With some tubing runs, you’ll want to have a sturdy tube for every member of your party (Ichetucknee Springs), while with others you may do just fine with a smaller tube or even a pool noodle (Kelly Park). Save money by bringing as much as you can from home (tubes, life jackets, snorkel equipment, etc.), but be prepared to inflate your own tube once inside the park.
3. Spring water is COLD. Florida’s fresh water springs feel nothing like the ocean. The water stays around 68-72 degrees year round, which may not sound that cold – but trust me, it can feel icy at first.
4. Bring bug spray and sunscreen. Mosquitoes and other biting bugs tend to be more prevalent in wooded and/or wet areas. This may or not be an issue for you depending on the time of year that you visit. But if you’re a mosquito magnet like me, you’ll want to have your bug prevention of choice with you just in case. And in Florida, sunscreen is a necessity 12 months a year.
5. Wear water shoes. Yeah, they may look a little dorky. But the spring floors can be rocky (ouch) and those rocks can become quite slippery (yikes). It’s a good idea to have something on your feet that will both protect them and provide a bit of tread. Flip flops are okay for walking to and from the springs, but once you’re in the actual water, you’ll need something that won’t slip off your foot.
6. Don’t plan your entire vacation around a visit to a particular spring. I’m not suggesting that you avoid vacationing at the springs. But if you have your heart set on tubing, you need to have a plan B and maybe even a plan C. Crowds can be unpredictable. So can the weather. Sometimes rangers are forced to close springs because of water conditions or wildlife. This might sound obvious, but I’ve seen too many online reviews from people who traveled from out of state to visit a particular park, only to be sorely disappointed when said park was closed. With so many beautiful parks & springs in Florida, it’s not difficult to come prepared with a backup plan.
My post about tubing in Ichetucknee Springs has some additional suggestions for tubing safety and enjoyment. Have I missed anything? I’d also love to hear about your favorite spots for tubing, both in & out of Florida. Do you prefer Kelly Park or Ichetucknee Springs? Let me know in the comments.