OCALA — Florida’s 150 years of treating tourists to gushing springs, lolling manatees, curious fish and emerald grasses undulating in invisible currents is about to take a turn because of a chance remark.
In 2015, Paula Russo, a volunteer for the Florida State Parks Foundation, set up a table for a public event at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville. Russo, relying on a powered scooter because of childhood polio, was there to tout state park trails and paddling for people with disabilities.
“And this woman came rolling over in her manual wheelchair with children trailing along with her,” Russo said, recalling as many as five from about 5 to 12 years old. “She said something to the effect that ‘this is all very nice, but I took the kids over to Silver Springs to go out on a glass-bottom boat and I couldn’t get on the boat. It’s not accessible.’”
“What are you going to do about it?” the woman implored.
That challenge became a marathon for Russo, who will “beat my head until I get where I’m going or I’m bleeding” as an unyielding advocate for parks and people with disabilities.
Nearly six years in the making, Russo’s response to that woman in the wheelchair is taking shape. Emerging from yellow-green fumes of aluminum welding are the distinctive lines of a particular craft.
At the center and bottom of its 37-foot hull are two, rectangular openings, where nearly inch-thick panes of Coast Guard approved strength will be inserted for a window of crystalline clarity 4 feet wide and 16 feet long.
Yet to be launched, the glass-bottom boat already is endowed with reverence and with expectations for a vessel built in Florida by Floridians and meant for what the state is about: the world’s tourists, and especially those with disabilities.
Of scores of such boats plying Silver Springs since the 1800s, the one nearing completion at the St. Johns Ship Building shipyard near Palatka will present a flat deck, ample aisles and will be the first ever with dedicated, convenient access for wheelchairs.
It will cater to those who know exclusion and chagrin, Russo said.
“They won’t have to separate from a boyfriend, husband, sister or family, which often happens to people with disabilities,” Russo said. “They are left behind at the dock, which is what’s going on now. This boat is going to change all that.”
“No one has to call in advance and say ‘hey, I’m a cripple. Will you bring out your special boat?’” she said. “No, they will show up just like anybody else would. This boat will be in daily operation.”
The state possesses hundreds of remarkable, free-flowing springs. Silver Springs near Ocala, constituting a close-knit family of dozens of springs, drops jaws.
The Florida park system, a four-time winner as the nation’s best, resorted to an apology for one of its most popular parks: “Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate wheelchairs on board the Glass Bottom Boats due to the historic nature of the boats.”
Russo would be delayed in her mission to cure that deficiency.
“I had to take a break because unfortunately I came down with cancer and I had to be treated,” Russo said. “There was a good year or more where I did nothing about my idea.”
Russo and a park volunteer, Al Pendergrass, the “nuts-and-bolts” guy, would brainstorm over designs and funding.
Their first thought was an off-the-shelf pontoon boat — not stately but doable, they thought, until they were stymied by myriad rules that Russo has long fought for.
“When people ask me ‘have you thought about converting a pontoon boat,’ I say ‘have you read the American with Disabilities Act regulations,’” Pendergrass said.
The two embarked on a go-big-or-go-home journey. They commissioned a legitimate, glass-bottom vessel worthy of Silver Springs. It would have underwater lights for night tours, special electronics for hearing aids and capacity for underwater video cameras.
Funders were recruited: $200,000 from Florida State Park Foundation; $100,000 from the Ocala-based Felburn Foundation; $90,000 from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund; $20,000 from the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida; $10,000 from the Friends of Silver Springs; and $10,000 from Cape Leisure Corp., a concessionaire that operates the glass-bottom boats.