When you arrive at De Leon Springs State Park in Volusia County (about an hour north of downtown Orlando) you see an old sign “Make a date with history! Ponce De Leon Springs. Nature’s ‘Camera Land.'”
This place has deep roots in Florida’s history and culture. It goes back as far as 6,000 years when indigenous tribes explored the springs. During the Civil War, the Spring was home to Florida’s only water-powered sugar mill. But it got torn down — rebuilt in the early 20th century. That very same building is where my family recently sat down for chocolate chip pancakes on a Sunday morning.
If you’re local to Orlando, you may have seen the news headlines a few months ago about the famous De Leon Springs pancake house shutting down. It did close, briefly. And it is back open with a new vendor — same make-your-own-pancakes style and Old Florida nostalgia. We’ve eaten here a few times over the years and honestly, it appears that nothing has changed.
The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant opened in 1961. That’s when the property became a private park and then later, in 1982, a state park. Today it is called the Old Sugar Mill Pancake House. Guests are seated at tables that have griddles in the middle of them. The server brings out two varieties of pancake mix: a buttermilk batter (super kid-friendly) and a stone-ground multi-grain variety (super filling), plus whatever other toppings the guests choose to purchase (we did chocolate chips). You then make your own pancakes right there in the middle of the restaurant. It’s fun, it’s unique, and it’s delicious! One word of warning: the griddles are extremely hot. You may want to skip this experience if you have a child who won’t be able to keep their hands away from it.
Then, you go outside and explore the park and the Spring fed river. The park itself is beautiful. There are old oak trees surrounding the picnic area, several hiking trails, and a crystal clear spring pool with water temps at a consistent 72 degrees. Back in the day, the springs were said to be a “fountain of youth.” We didn’t swim this time because that’s a bit cold for this Florida girl and my Florida kids, but we did take advantage of a guided hike from the park rangers. We learned about a type of anise tree that grows in the park and it smells just like licorice! And we walked to Old Methuselah, a 500-year-old Cypress tree.
Florida State Parks are full of interesting history and tourism relics from vacations of yore. I definitely recommend taking a trip down nostalgia lane and checking this one out!