In the last five years working at Silver Springs Park, Chris Cotton has plenty of stories to tell about his time taking care of the park’s animals.
He recalled the time he met a Kodiak bear on his second day of work and his two-year friendship with two giraffes named Kimba and Khama.
But his fondest memories came from before he started working at the park when he visited Ross Allen Island for the venomous snake shows.
To Cotton, 33, his everyday experiences are instant memories. But as of this year, that’s just what the park will become: memories.
As part of a deal with the state of Florida, the park closed the island on Monday as the first step in becoming a state park this October.
In January, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet approved an agreement to let Palace Entertainment, which owns the park, break out of its lease early and return the land to the state.
The ailing park has not been profitable for at least a decade, said Stan Miller, a wildlife keeper. Attendance has fallen drastically for the old-fashioned nature park, which Miller said has struggled to compete with other attractions in Orlando and Tampa Bay.
“As great as this park is, we just can’t compete anymore with the tourism,” he said.
The park agreed to pay the state $4 million to break its lease, all of which will be used to return the area back to its original state.
The park has been an Ocala landmark since the 1870s, but falling ticket sales and increasing nitrate pollution forced the state to take over.
Workers like Cotton and Miller are among the 150 employees that have yet to be informed of when, exactly, they will lose their jobs, or if they will be offered new jobs working for the new state park.
“They’re not telling us anything here at the bottom,” Cotton said. ‘We’re all in the dark.”
Jennifer Diaz, external communications manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, said in an email that the department has plans to absorb only some of the park employees to work in recreation.
Other workers have searched for new jobs but some, including Cotton, still go to the park.
“It’s hard, and I’ll admit that there are some days where I don’t want to come to work because of it being so depressing, but I still come to work because it may be my last day,” he said.
For Cotton and the rest of the park employees, the island’s closing marks the end of an era.
“It’s an end of a lifetime,” Cotton said. “I’ve enjoyed my time here. It’s just sad to see it come to an end the way it is.”