Travel

Thirsting for ‘old Florida'? Dive into DeLeon Springs

If you are anywhere near central Florida this summer, don't miss DeLeon Springs State Park.

These days, it's hard to recommend a lot of places, because, well, they just cost too much. Some folks can afford to spend four bucks on a Coke, not to mention parking, and an admission price that rivals the GNP of a small Asian country.

For those on a budget (and even if you're not), DeLeon Springs, west of Daytona Beach, is paradise. If you and the family can't have fun here, y'all need to be auditioning for the Dr. Phil show.

What's so great about it? For starters, the admission price is a whopping five bucks a carload, for up to eight people.

Park your car and walk along the main path canopied by 400-year-old oaks. Keep walking – I know it's hot – you're almost there. Gradually the tranquility gives way to a somewhat chaotic sound up ahead – kids in a swimming pool on a summer day.

But this is no ordinary pool; it is (according to park ranger Roger Reynolds) the actual Fountain of Youth discovered by Spanish explorer Ponce DeLeon, a natural spring that stays 72 degrees year round. Although that's a bit chilly for some, it doesn't seem to bother the kids.

The day we visited, there were at least four games of Marco Polo going on, and the obligatory chubby kid doing cannonballs off the side.

DeLeon is a big spring, about the size of an Olympic pool, and there are several life guards on duty, as well as other staff nearby on a constant basis. Let the young'uns enjoy themselves without worrying about their safety.

The spring flows into another waterway, the Spring Garden Run, which in turn leads out to Lake Woodruff. There you will find canoes, paddleboats and even inner tubes (suitable for serious splash fights with your cousin) for rent.

Not partial to the water? There are numerous walking trails throughout the 600-acre state park and plenty of nice, oak-shaded spots for just relaxing.

The park stays busy: It opens at 8 a.m., and Reynolds advises getting there by 10. On a typical weekend, more than 1,000 visitors will come through the gates; double that on holiday weekends.

Time to eat

DeLeon Springs would be worth the trip just for the springs and the scenery alone, but then there's The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House, right on the park grounds.

The menu reads: “Welcome to America's Truly Unique Restaurant.”

I know you've seen that in a bazillion places, but this time they are not kidding.

You sit down at a wooden table with a large black skillet built into the middle of the tabletop.

Turn the skillet on; you are about to make your own breakfast.

For $4.50 per patron, the waitperson will bring you two pitchers: one contains unbleached flour mix, and the other, a mix of five, fresh stone-ground flours.

For the cooking-challenged, they will show you how to make them, and then you and the family can proceed to make the best pancakes you've ever had – all you can eat. And if you want eggs, they'll bring those – and you fix them exactly the way you like them. Sides and beverages go for $1.50 to $2.25.

(There are other selections available, but going to The Sugar Mill and not getting the pancakes, is akin to going to Lexington Bar B-Que for the tofu salad.)

If you want bacon, ham or other side meats, for health reasons they cook them in the kitchen for you.

Spreading the batter, turning the cakes, helping the kids with the eggs, the smell of the bacon sizzling in the kitchen, the collective groans after everyone has eaten way, way past the normal limit. … This isn't a meal, it's a celebration.

Indeed, owner Patty Schwarze tells me that since her family bought the place in 1961, there are dozens of families that meet there every year for their annual pancake gathering.

Even the staff is like a family, some of them having been there more than 25 years.

The old Florida

This is old Florida, this is real Florida: friendly and affordable. Patty and her staff take pride in the place and it shows. Just walk in, close your eyes and listen to the squeals coming from the kids making their own pancakes with mom and dad, then look around the room.

Nothing but smiles and people enjoying the most basic and enjoyable of rituals, the family meal.

As you might expect, on weekends you may have to wait to get a table. If you are in a hurry, go mid-morning, or after 2 p.m. They serve from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends/holidays. They do accept reservations, but only for parties of 10 or more, and no more than three of those per day. There is also a gift shop where you can buy their pancake batter mix to take home.

Having told you what they do have, I must warn you of a couple of features they don't offer:

No annoying Muzak piped in overhead.

No far-too-perky waitresses pushing today's special “awesome” dessert on you every five minutes.

And best of all, they are not part of a huge national chain, anxious to serve you and get you out of there in 20 minutes.

What's that? Oh, yeah. What the ranger said about the Fountain of Youth. I interrogated several children; none would confess to being certified grandparents before entering the water.

Don't know if I felt younger when I left the park.

Did feel stuffed, though.

If you are anywhere near central Florida this summer, don't miss DeLeon Springs State Park.

These days, it's hard to recommend a lot of places, because, well, they just cost too much. Some folks can afford to spend four bucks on a Coke, not to mention parking, and an admission price that rivals the GNP of a small Asian country.

For those on a budget (and even if you're not), DeLeon Springs, west of Daytona Beach, is paradise. If you and the family can't have fun here, y'all need to be auditioning for the Dr. Phil show.

What's so great about it? For starters, the admission price is a whopping five bucks a carload, for up to eight people.

Park your car and walk along the main path canopied by 400-year-old oaks. Keep walking – I know it's hot – you're almost there. Gradually the tranquility gives way to a somewhat chaotic sound up ahead – kids in a swimming pool on a summer day.

But this is no ordinary pool; it is (according to park ranger Roger Reynolds) the actual Fountain of Youth discovered by Spanish explorer Ponce DeLeon, a natural spring that stays 72 degrees year round. Although that's a bit chilly for some, it doesn't seem to bother the kids.

The day we visited, there were at least four games of Marco Polo going on, and the obligatory chubby kid doing cannonballs off the side.

DeLeon is a big spring, about the size of an Olympic pool, and there are several life guards on duty, as well as other staff nearby on a constant basis. Let the young'uns enjoy themselves without worrying about their safety.

The spring flows into another waterway, the Spring Garden Run, which in turn leads out to Lake Woodruff. There you will find canoes, paddleboats and even inner tubes (suitable for serious splash fights with your cousin) for rent.

Not partial to the water? There are numerous walking trails throughout the 600-acre state park and plenty of nice, oak-shaded spots for just relaxing.

The park stays busy: It opens at 8 a.m., and Reynolds advises getting there by 10. On a typical weekend, more than 1,000 visitors will come through the gates; double that on holiday weekends.

Time to eat

DeLeon Springs would be worth the trip just for the springs and the scenery alone, but then there's The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House, right on the park grounds.

The menu reads: “Welcome to America's Truly Unique Restaurant.”

I know you've seen that in a bazillion places, but this time they are not kidding.

You sit down at a wooden table with a large black skillet built into the middle of the tabletop.

Turn the skillet on; you are about to make your own breakfast.

For $4.50 per patron, the waitperson will bring you two pitchers: one contains unbleached flour mix, and the other, a mix of five, fresh stone-ground flours.

For the cooking-challenged, they will show you how to make them, and then you and the family can proceed to make the best pancakes you've ever had – all you can eat. And if you want eggs, they'll bring those – and you fix them exactly the way you like them. Sides and beverages go for $1.50 to $2.25.

(There are other selections available, but going to The Sugar Mill and not getting the pancakes, is akin to going to Lexington Bar B-Que for the tofu salad.)

If you want bacon, ham or other side meats, for health reasons they cook them in the kitchen for you.

Spreading the batter, turning the cakes, helping the kids with the eggs, the smell of the bacon sizzling in the kitchen, the collective groans after everyone has eaten way, way past the normal limit. … This isn't a meal, it's a celebration.

Indeed, owner Patty Schwarze tells me that since her family bought the place in 1961, there are dozens of families that meet there every year for their annual pancake gathering.

Even the staff is like a family, some of them having been there more than 25 years.

The old Florida

This is old Florida, this is real Florida: friendly and affordable. Patty and her staff take pride in the place and it shows. Just walk in, close your eyes and listen to the squeals coming from the kids making their own pancakes with mom and dad, then look around the room.

Nothing but smiles and people enjoying the most basic and enjoyable of rituals, the family meal.

As you might expect, on weekends you may have to wait to get a table. If you are in a hurry, go mid-morning, or after 2 p.m. They serve from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends/holidays. They do accept reservations, but only for parties of 10 or more, and no more than three of those per day. There is also a gift shop where you can buy their pancake batter mix to take home.

Having told you what they do have, I must warn you of a couple of features they don't offer:

No annoying Muzak piped in overhead.

No far-too-perky waitresses pushing today's special “awesome” dessert on you every five minutes.

And best of all, they are not part of a huge national chain, anxious to serve you and get you out of there in 20 minutes.

What's that? Oh, yeah. What the ranger said about the Fountain of Youth. I interrogated several children; none would confess to being certified grandparents before entering the water.

Don't know if I felt younger when I left the park.

Did feel stuffed, though.

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