DeLeon Springs State Park
601 Ponce De Leon Boulevard
De Leon Springs, Florida 32130
Guest Review By JoAnn Chang
You may not normally think of a state park as a destination for all you can eat pancakes. In central Florida, De Leon Springs State Park offers the ultimate pancake experience.
It’s hosted at the site of a historic sugar mill, wrapped in the beauty of the nearby second magnitude spring and surrounding nature.
How did a state park become the home of a pancake experience to begin with? To answer that, we must go back through the long and storied history of De Leon Springs State Park.
The ancient history of the Mayaca people, who lived in the area for over 6,000 years, offers true historic significance. But the story we’re looking for begins when the park was a small piece of the 2,000-acre Spring Garden Plantation.
This thriving plantation grew cotton and sugar cane and became the home of Florida’s first water-powered sugar mill. Destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, the footprint of the mill remains.
The plantation itself turned into a tourist destination called Spring Garden in the late 1800s. Later, the name changed to Ponce de Leon Springs to draw in more tourists.
They lured them with the promise of yet another location of the Spanish explorer’s famed fountain of youth. These types of roadside attractions were very popular in the days before attractions like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.
Ponce de Leon Springs even offered a skiing elephant attraction. It was during this era that the current rendition of the mill became what is now known as the Old Sugar Mill Pancake House.
When you step inside, it’s clear you’re some place special. The host greets you with a hearty southern welcome. Wait staff bustle through the space, laden with jugs of pancake mix and trays crowded with toppings and sides.
Light fills the small room and highlights the warm wood that clads nearly every surface. Anchoring the main room on the far right are the giant gears and mechanisms that were once brought to life by the large waterwheel outside.
The wheel would turn, crushing sugarcane into something similar to the syrup sweetening the many pancakes inside.
To the left you get a peek into the open-air kitchen, full of activity to serve the room full of diners and the stream of people making use of the walk-up window outside.
Straight ahead, you see an alcove used as a gift shop, featuring the usual tourist treasures and unique local art pieces. Just to the right of the gift shop is a smaller room featuring a wood-burning fireplace.
It’s perfect for warming the space on a frigid winter morning (yes, even in Florida).
Only a handful of tables dot the space, each featuring two griddles built into the middle, surrounded by hardback chairs. Once seated, you’re quickly greeted by a server offering a simple menu for review.
The highlight is, of course, the all-you-can-eat pancakes and toppings. The price for all you can eat buttermilk pancakes is $7.99, served with maple syrup, molasses, and honey.
There are also eggs and
bacon you can cook on your griddle and other breakfast and lunch staples for
those not interested in cooking their own meal. There is an extra charge for these.
For those willing to pass up pancakes for lunch, the Cuban sandwich is rumored to be quite good.
The server takes your order, turns on the griddle and speeds away to get what you need to start your breakfast adventure. Once armed with non-stick spray and spatula, your choice of classic buttermilk or multi-grain batter in hand, you’re ready to get started.
Within minutes, you can have several mounds of batter bubbling away and ready to flip. Once your golden-brown beauties are done, it’s time to decide how to finish them.
They supply maple syrup, molasses, or golden honey to top your pancakes, but the pancakes are flavorful enough to stand on their own as well. The pitchers of batter are ample, but they will be quick to offer more if you haven’t had your fill yet.
This experience has a cult following locally and among visiting snowbirds. With such a small dining space, the wait list builds quickly. “I’ve seen the wait as long as four and a half hours,” said General Manager Sparkle Rex.
If you aren’t keen on waiting, you’ll need to arrive well before the park opens. On our first trip to try this experience, we made the 2-hour drive across the state to arrive 30 minutes before the park opened at 8am.
The line of cars waiting to enter the park was already 30 cars deep. After finally making it inside the park, we walked to the Mill to find the wait for a table was already 2 hours long.
During the winter, it can be easier to score a coveted table. On our second visit, the same arrival time allowed us to be just the fourth car in line to enter the park and seated right away. By the time we left, there were many families waiting for their chance to sit and enjoy their breakfast.
If you prefer a later start for breakfast or a more leisurely brunch, it’s best to approach this experience with the wait in mind.
Thankfully, the park offers much to explore while you wait. De Leon State Park offers a 50-minute Eco/Heritage tour for a reasonable fee. This tour focuses much time on the 6,000 years the Mayaca Indians lived in the area they called Acuera or “Healing Water”.
If you would prefer to explore the waters under your own power, you can bring a kayak or canoe or rent one at the park. It’s a great way to discover Spring Garden Lake and the creek with a leisurely paddle.
There is also Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge next to the spring and swimming basin. Spring Garden Run connects to nearby Lake Woodruff and all the way to the St. Johns River with several manatee zones along the way.
Those that prefer to stay on dry land can stroll through the park visitor center and its small museum, a quick walk across a small bridge from the mill.
Many exhibits outline the 6,000-year history of the park. There are also highlights about Queenie, the water-skiing elephant. Kids will enjoy the touch table highlighting bones and shells of local wildlife and a children’s area.
Others may choose to follow in the footsteps of the great John James Audubon on the Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail. The trail is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
Many birds and other wildlife call the park home. Park rangers can offer a list of birds to watch for, including a great number of wading birds and even the occasional nesting bald eagles.
A stroll around the park also reveals ruins and other details of the old plantation’s history from the Spanish-American and Civil Wars. There is even a horse-drawn road grader on display that park officials found in the nearby woods.
In warmer weather, you can also take advantage of the swimming basin surrounding the headspring. The water is a constant 72 degrees and a comfortable way to beat the Florida heat.
Swimmers can explore the basin with depths ranging from just 18 inches to 30 feet at the spring head. There are no lifeguards present, so be sure to take care and stick to the roped off areas.
Be warned, many locals may have the same idea, and the swimming area can often become crowded.
It’s clear De Leon Springs is a special place. “Last year, a couple got married on the back porch of the sugar mill. They were 92 and 93 years old,” shared Rex. “So many people enjoy the history here. They’ve been coming for many years and some even met their spouse here.”
While the pancake experience has remained virtually untouched for years, some fresh additions are on the horizon.
“We’ve been considering different toppings and new pancake flavors for a flavor of the month. Eventually, we want to incorporate lunch items into the griddle experience as well,” revealed Rex.
Pancakes at the Old Sugar Mill Pancake House and a day at De Leon State Park are a great family adventure all year round. The cost to enter the park is $6 per vehicle, which covers up to 8 in the car.
The park is open 8am till sunset all year round. If the park gets full, the gates may be closed temporarily, so be sure to arrive early during peak season if you want to be assured of entry.
With a little planning and preparation, you’ll be sure to have a great experience and create memories to enjoy for years to come.