After years of battling, Florida glass-bottom boat attraction will become wheelchair accessible

People entering Silver Springs State Park on July 3, 2017, in Ocala, Florida, USA. Courtesy: Shutterstock – Image by Miosotis_Jade

One of Florida’s coolest nature attractions will soon be wheelchair accessible, granting access to one of Florida’s largest disabled travel demographics.

Once only accessible for non-disabled patrons, the Silver Springs glass-bottom boat tours are in the process of launching a boat with a flat deck and proper aisle space for convenient wheelchair access.

“They won’t have to separate from a boyfriend, husband, sister or family, which often happens to people with disabilities,” Florida State Parks Foundation volunteer Paula Russo said. “They are left behind at the dock, which is what’s going on now. This boat is going to change all that.”

In 2015, Russo had a table set up at Paynes Prairie State Park in Alachua County advocating for people with disabilities in state park trails, where she was approached by a woman in a wheelchair asking what she was gonna do about the glass-bottom boat accessibility problems for patrons in a wheelchair. It was at this moment that Russo, a powered scootered user due to childhood polio, would begin to make a push for accessible glass-bottom boats. 

Six years later, that woman’s question at Paynes Prairie State Park will be answered.

A boat that will soon be in operation will not only cater to its non-disabled passengers, but also their significant others, best friends, children, siblings, parents, and beyond who otherwise would’ve had to sit on the dock waiting for the tour to return. 

“No one has to call in advance and say, ‘Hey, I’m a cripple. Will you bring out your special boat?'” added Russo. “No, they will show up just like anybody else would. This boat will be in daily operation.”

The special boat is nearing its completion at the St. Johns Ship Building shipyard just north of Ocala National Forest. The wheelchair-accessible glass-bottom boat will feature two, 4 by 16 foot, crystal clear, Coast Guard-approved viewing ports with almost inch-thick glass panes. 

Florida’s springs exhibit some of the most beautiful and vibrant waters in the world, like something out of a sci-fi motion picture. Visiting Florida’s springs on a boat like such can give passengers a look into the state’s beautiful natural scenery and diverse ecosystems.

Despite winning the nation’s top honors for best park system numerous times, something was missing to make it more inclusive. The park system released an apology for its failure to provide accessible glass-bottom tours for individuals in wheelchairs, “Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate wheelchairs on board the Glass Bottom Boats due to the historic nature of the boats.”

Although the fleet has been refurbished over the years, the boats remained the same structurally speaking, all having been in operation for over half a century, and due to the original formatting of the boats, they were seemingly impossible to reformat for wheelchairs.

The vessel Russo had envisioned to create will soon cure the wound that many visitors have long suffered from. She and Al Pendergrass, a park volunteer, are making that dream a reality. Not only will the ship be outfitted for wheelchair accessibility, but it will also have special electronics for hearing aids, night light capabilities for late-night tours, and fitted with underwater video cameras.

An estimated total of $430,000 was gathered from donations by the following organizations: Florida State Park Foundation ($200k), Felburn Foundation ($100k), Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund ($90K), Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida ($20k), Cape Leisure Corp ($10K), and Friends of Silver Springs ($10k).  

Also, the boat will sport a new propulsion system, the only of its kind to be approved by the Coast Guard, according to designer and Vice President of Lay, Pitman & Associates, Steve Aprile. The naval architectural firm has created plans for a multitude of ferries, casino boats, tugs, and other boats traveling down the Mississippi River.

Existing boats in the fleet carry 16 lead batteries, each weighing roughly 400 pounds each. The new boat will carry four lithium batteries, think EV powered vehicles, and will weigh less than half in comparison to its lead counterpart. Pair those batteries with brand new electric outboard motors, and this boat will reach a top speed of 4 miles per hour. The ship will be able to carry 30 passengers at an average weight of 185 pounds. As customary, the boat was named after Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, the Seminole tribe’s only female chief, Chief Potackee, who sadly passed a decade ago this month.

Specs aside: the most important part of the build is that it will finally be outfitted for people in wheelchairs. It is expected to be completed within the next few weeks and will be launched via crane into Silver River. 

One thing is for certain, the voices of those who have long been denied the possibility of riding on the river will no longer be ignored.

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