© 2024 Central Florida Public Media. All Rights Reserved.
90.7 FM Orlando • 89.5 FM Ocala
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Personal mission and teamwork bring wheelchair-accessible glass-bottom boat to Silver Springs

The new all-access glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs State Park is a little taller than the old boats in the fleet. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE
The new all-access glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs State Park is a little taller than the old boats in the fleet. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE

For the first time in more than 30 years, Silver Springs, now a state park, has a new glass-bottom boat.

The green-and-white bus-shaped aluminum vessel looks a lot like the others at Silver Springs. But on the inside, it has room for large wheelchairs and foldaway seats allowing people with disabilities to enjoy underwater views with loved ones.

Here's how that boat came to be.

[caption id="attachment_191472" align="alignleft" width="400"]

Paula Russo's wheelchair can easily navigate the viewing area on the new glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs. And fold-up seats enable friends and family members to sit alongside people in wheelchairs. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE[/caption]

The glass-bottom boats head out from the dock above Mammoth Spring and cruise down the cypress-lined Silver River.

The passengers all sit around the open center of the boat and look down at fish and turtles, sometimes even manatees.

The captain spins stories about underwater statues, a centuries-old canoe and vents in the riverbed that churn sand and spew water from the aquifer.

"We're in real time," he says, "seeing this crystal clear water and exactly where it's coming from -- as well as a lot of fish feeding off of some of the grass down here -- and looking how limestone reacts to the light below us to give it this blue effect."

It’s an astonishing view of a unique place.

"The course of this river, these five miles, everything is pristine," says David Rossiter with Friends of Silver Springs State Park.

"It is as it was 500 years ago. It is a unique opportunity for visitors to come and experience really what the Park Service calls the real Florida, the old Florida."

Until a few weeks ago, that experience was closed off to many people with disabilities. The old boats just were not built for wheelchairs.

[caption id="attachment_191473" align="alignleft" width="400"]

Bridger Webb pilots the new boat on the scene Silver River near Ocala. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE[/caption]

Then Paula Russo dreamed up the boat that is now called Chief Potackee - Betty Mae Tiger Jumper. It’s named for the female former chief of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

"It was Paula Russo's genius that said we need a way to get those people out there so they can experience," says Rossiter. "We needed a way so that disabled people are not excluded from this."

Russo is a polio survivor and disability-rights advocate who uses a motorized wheelchair herself. She works for the Florida State Parks Foundation.

The Silver Springs concessionaire began running the new boat last month. But its story started six years ago, when Russo was helping out at another state park.

She says she met a woman in a wheelchair surrounded by kids.

"And she rolled up to my table and looked at my materials and said, 'Well, all of this is very nice. But I just took my grandkids to Silver Springs State Park to take them out on the boat and it's not accessible and what are you going to do about that.' And I took that on as, like, a personal mission."

There is no way to make the old boats accessible.

"So the only thing to do is to build a brand new boat," says Russo.

She began raising state and donor funds totalling nearly half a million dollars and got others involved, like park volunteer Al Pendergrass. 

[caption id="attachment_191474" align="alignleft" width="400"]

The gin-clear water allows a wonderful view of the underwater scene. Photo: Joe Byrnes, WMFE[/caption]

He says the whole, long process was an “orchestrated dance” with the Coast Guard, boat builder and engineers. Each improvement added new costs and new problems to solve.

This boat has better batteries and two motors instead of one. It's taller and lighter and has an audio system for the hearing impaired.

Russo says they considered a pontoon boat but then said no, "because I wanted people with disabilities to have as close to the same experience as anyone coming here to take a boat ride."

She knows from her own experience what it’s like to be left behind.

"Life is still very, very good," she says. "Having a disability doesn't mean that you have to sit back and just, 'Woe is me,' but when you do get left behind you have to say, 'OK, straighten out your attitude and be grateful.' It's a bit demoralizing.

"But we don't have to do that here at Silver Springs anymore."

She is excited that everyone can now enjoy the view together. 

Joe Byrnes came to Central Florida Public Media from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.