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De Leon Springs: State park known for pancakes has much more


 For a place with so much history and beauty, it’s funny that what DeLeon Springs State Park is best known for is pancakes.

But pancakes are so popular that DeLeon Springs is known as “pancake park” and the wait for a table at the park’s Old Sugar Mill restaurant can be two or three hours long on summer weekends.

DeLeon Springs is located  about an hour north of Orlando in a beautiful rural area sprinkled with natural springs, state parks and terrific opportunities for all sort of outdoors activities. Its spring makes for a refreshing summer swim; the river created by the spring is good for kayaking, and the park itself tells some fascinating Florida history.

But first, let’s get some pancakes.

The Old Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House ranks as historic by Florida standards: It was founded in 1961. Its unique feature is that every table is built with a griddle in the middle. You are given easy-to-pour pitchers of two kinds of pancake batter, some spray vegetable oil and a spatula, and you can make and eat as many pancakes as you like.

I started as a skeptic: I make pancakes from scratch at home all the time and while they’re yummy, I don’t consider making them a form of entertainment.

De Leon Springs: The Old Sugar Mill then and now

The Old Sugar Mill at De Leon Springs today and a vintage postcard of the scene.

But the charm of the Old Sugar Mill and the delicious results we got from our pancakes converted me.

De Leon Springs State Park: Pancakes at Old Sugar Mill

Pancakes on the griddle at the Old Sugar Mill in De Leon Springs State Park

The pancakes are $4.50 per person. For $1.85, you can add things to sprinkle into your pancakes – blueberries, banana slices, pecans, chocolate chips. Making the pancakes is not messy or difficult. You can add a side of eggs, bacon or sausage and the menu includes a selection of salads and sandwiches. Prices are reasonable, although you do have to pay $6 per carload to enter the park.

De Leon Springs State Park: Old time tools in Sugar Mill restaurant

Old time tools decorate the Sugar Mill restaurant in De Leon Springs State Park

The modestly sized rustic restaurant is decorated with old timey tools and memorabilia. One side has a mill wheel in a small stream. The restaurant looks unchanged over the years. It still lacks air conditioning or heat!

It is immediately adjacent to the swimming area and in summers, families come for the day to swim and have breakfast or lunch.

We came on a drizzly winter weekday and half the tables were open. But there were indications everywhere of the place’s popularity. When you stop at the park entrance booth, a sign shows how long the wait at the restaurant is. When you go to the boat dock, there’s a sign that says “Waiting on pancakes? Take the tour boat and you do not lose your place on the waiting list.” (It’s a one-hour nature tour down the Spring Garden River.)

While it’s hard to imagine waiting three hours for pancakes, this place does go on our list of funky Florida finds!

 

The charm and history of DeLeon Springs State Park

The Old Sugar Mill restaurant truly is the site of an old sugar mill, and for me, that’s a big part of its charm.  In fact, DeLeon Springs has many layers of history, playing notable roles in all the major events that affected Florida history.

Old photo at  De Leon Springs State Park

A statue of Ponce De Leon and a bathing beauty were photo opps at the old attraction at De Leon Springs. Little Candace Berner O’Brien poses with the statue in 1954. Her mother was the model for the bathing beauty.

The park actually played a part in Florida’s pre-history too. It has mounds built by early people and two ancient canoes have been found in the spring. The oldest was carbon dated to about 4050 BC – among the oldest canoes found in America.

European settlers came in the 1820s to build a plantation that produced cotton, corn, rice and eventually sugar cane.  This park has a visitor center that does a good job telling the story of this era, with attention to the labor that made it possible – about 250 slaves.

One powerful flyer in the museum describes the 1855 records of the plantation that list all the possessions – Peter, valued at $600, Anna ($800) along with Zack the mule ($125.) While it is shocking enough to see people listed along mahogany tables and mules, the museum points out the saddest item listed:  “Blind Sarah: Worthless.”

De Leon Springs State Park: Original wheel for old sugar mill

The original wheel for the old sugar mill is on display at De Leon Springs State Park.

The plantation figured in the Second Seminole War, during which one of its owners was killed by Seminoles and the plantation was burned, and in the Civil War, during which the rebuilt plantation was again sacked.

De Leon Springs State Park: The spring and swimming area

De Leon Springs State Park: The spring and swimming area

When tourists began flocking to Florida by railroad in the 1880s, what had been known as Spring Garden got a tourist-friendly name of DeLeon Springs, suggesting Ponce DeLeon’s fountain of youth.

Vintage sign at De Leon Springs State Park

The sign recalls the roadside attraction that was once at De Leon Springs.

Eventually,  DeLeon Springs became one of Florida’s great pre-Disney roadside attractions, with a hotel, ballroom, beautiful gardens, tram and boat rides.  The Old Sugar Mill pancake house dates to this era. Another of the attraction’s memorable features was Sunshine Sally, a water skiing baby elephant.

By 1980, DeLeon Springs was no longer viable as an attraction and its future seemed to be as a real estate development. Fortunately, the community rallied to buy the property and it became a state park in 1982, joining several other former attractions as parks, including Weeki Wachee and Rainbow Springs. (This fall, Silver Springs in Ocala joins the state park system after a long history as an attraction.)

The park has preserved many items from its history. Near the restaurant, there’s an outdoor exhibit of what’s left of the original mill wheel from the original sugar mill plus other pieces of mill equipment . Signs mark the locations of key points from the park’s days as an attraction.

Kayaking, swimming and hiking at DeLeon Springs State Park

De Leon Springs State Park: Live oak tree and azaleas in spring

De Leon Springs State Park: Live oak tree and azaleas in spring

Even without the history, which obviously fascinates me, this would be a swell park. There are activities in the water, on the water and on the land.

In the water:  On a hot day, the 19 million gallons of 72-degree water welling up from an underwater cavern beckons to all. A concrete-rimmed pool with a diving platform was created in the 1920s. Snorkeling is permitted in the spring. Depths range from 18 inches to 30 feet at the spring boil and water visibility is near perfect. The pool is surrounded by the park’s lovely grounds and picnic areas.

On the water:  You can launch kayaks or canoes from the park or rent them from the concessionaire ($10 an hour; $21 for a half day and $30 full day.)  We didn’t get to paddle here but this is a popular kayak trail that I will return to experience.

Kayaks can launch right near the headspring and you paddle about 4.5 miles on Spring Garden stream to Lake Woodruff. Along the way, Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge is on the river’s north side.  You can continue kayaking along the shores of Lake Woodruff and there are scenic side creeks to explore too.

Kayakers are likely to see wading birds and alligators. Manatees are common in winter and the lucky spot otters year around.

If your group includes those who don’t paddle, consider the 50-minute narrated nature and history tour that leaves from the park at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. All tickets are $14; children under 4 are free. The tour tells the history and identifies wildlife aboard the open-air pontoon boat.  For information, call 386-837-5537. (Tour boats run only when there are eight people buying tickets.)

On the land: DeLeon Springs has magnificent ancient live oaks and cypress trees and it was “dressed up” during its attraction days with azaleas and non-native palms.  (I loved the blooming azaleas on my March visit.)

A half-mile paved nature trail passes through a hammock and leads to Old Methuselah, a huge bald cypress tree that is more than 500 years old. There is also a 4.2-mile Wild Persimmon loop trail in the park.

Planning your visit to DeLeon Springs State Park:

Recommended nearby stops:

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