Photos and Text by Kelsey Walters
On Monday night, August 8, 2022, The Old Spanish Sugar Mill at De Leon Springs State Park made the following announcement on their Facebook page:
After 61 years, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill will be closing its screen doors.
While it is unfortunate, the state has decided not to renew our contract and move forward with another concession in the DeLeon Springs State Park. We have been blessed to serve as a Central Florida staple since 1961. We sincerely thank you for making us your “go-to” for when you’ve got company or a chocolate chip pancake craving. Thank you again for sharing those memories with us. The Sugar Mill was without a doubt the coolest breakfast restaurant in America. Our business will close September 12, 2022. For more details, visit OldSpanishSugarMill.com
According to their website, the current operating restaurant will close its doors on September 12, 2022:
Our restaurant serving hours will remain 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Mon. – Fri. & 8 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sat. & Sun. Boat Rental & Take Out Window will operate 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily. Fountain of Youth Tours schedule will remain the same, departing at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 12 p.m. & 1 p.m. daily. These last few weeks will be extremely busy. All food service will be First Come First Serve & we will not be able to accept reservations or call ahead.
While this is extremely sad news for long-visiting locals and visitors alike, it is not the permanent end of the on-site facility. The restaurant’s building will remain with new plans for a restaurant.
The Sugar Mill offered further explanation on their Facebook page Tuesday, August 9, stating:
We are truly blown away after the overwhelming support following last night’s announcement. We have seen a lot of different information floating around so we are hoping to clear some things up: The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant is in fact closing, effective September 12. On this date, we will begin to vacate the building to hand over a blank slate the new vendor. The building itself will remain, with Guest Services, Inc. operating a new restaurant in its place. The building will be handed over to the new concession to create their own unique dining experience on October 1, 2022.
This is not the first time the famed pancake house was in jeopardy. Back in 2017, the Sugar Mill posted that their contract had not yet been renewed and was in danger of closing its doors. No announcement has been made yet regarding what restaurant will take its place in the popular park. Until then, here’s how you can make the most out of this beloved Floridian treasure.
A Flippin’ Good Time at the Springs
De Leon Springs State Park is no hidden secret. Arguably Volusia County’s most popular state park, flocks of Floridians and tourists alike swarm the park throughout the summer, and for good reason. This favorite spot is definitely considered a must-do, but if you go into it unprepared, you can be missing out on a lot this special place has to offer.
Each year for the past decade, or maybe even longer, I have been visiting De Leon Springs to celebrate my birthday each July. We’ve had parents, grandparents, in-laws and close friends join in the fun over the years, and now we get to share one of our favorite destinations with our daughter, Avery.
Each year, we pack up the car the night before and set out with our time-tested plan that makes for a fun-filled day and maximizes all this park has to offer. Especially on weekends, this beloved park can reach capacity quickly. By 9 a.m. the car line to pay and enter can be as long as half a mile, and once the park is full it can close temporarily. For this reason, we waste no time in the morning and arrive as early as our (often sleepy) kiddo will allow. As soon as we arrive, we race to the Old Spanish Sugar Mill to put our names in for what is by far my favorite part of the day.
The Sugar Mill is a Floridian classic dating back to the 1830s when its undershot waterwheel used 16 to 18 million gallons of water to crush sugar cane. After its destruction during the Second Seminole War in 1835 and again in the Civil War in the 1860s, it was reconstructed sometime in 1900. The original building’s chimney still stands just behind the restaurant. It wasn’t until 1961, when it was scheduled for demolition, that the new owner, Peter Schwarze, and his family decided to save the property and open a gristmill, and later the restaurant that is still family-owned today.
This spot is like no other restaurant you’ve visited in the past however. In an open-air setting with an early-American style and minimal modern touches, you cook your own breakfast and lunch right at your table on hot, inset griddles. Just about everything you order, except meat, is do-it-yourself. My dad hilariously found that out the hard way one year when he decided to order grilled cheese to get out of cooking, and was brought slabs of fresh baked bread, butter and cheese. Pancakes are all-you-can-eat and served in two pitchers of batter – unbleached white flour and
a blend of five fresh stone-ground flours.
The fun of flipping your own pancakes and other items in the old-time setting is what keeps visitors coming back time and again. Avery loves to announce that we have arrived for some of her daddy’s, “world famous pancakes.” Be sure to get your name on the list as early as possible, it can easily be a 3 or more hour wait to eat and I’ve seen plenty of disappointed families wait until they’re hungry for lunch to go ask for a table and be turned away. We like to pull in, get our name on the list and only then unload our car and settle in for the day.
Once our spot is secure, we set up for our day in the water. The natural spring is fed from the underwater aquifer and stays a cool 72 degrees year-round. The swimming area is partially enclosed, but this isn’t your standard swimming pool. With a concrete rim, the remainder of the 500-foot-wide “pool” is the natural sandy bottom of the spring ranging from 18 inches to 30 feet at the spring boil. You can bring your own floats or purchase them at the rental station, which also has a DIY air pump available for a small fee. We typically hop out of the water to soak up the warmth of the sun and dry off about 30 minutes to an hour before we expect our name to be called for lunch (the Sugar Mill doesn’t allow wet bathing suits inside and your table will be given away if you don’t come after three calls).
Another popular offering at the spring is the river boat tour. The 50-minute tour of the Spring Garden Run and surrounding river dives into the area’s rich 6,000 year history as well as the abundance of wildlife. We signed up for a tour a few months ago while we waited for our table at the Sugar Mill (you won’t lose your spot on the waiting list, but be sure to let them know you’re heading out!) and of all the wildlife boat tours we have been on over the years, this one had the most sightings by far.
We headed out with a big group of friends and a wild little gang of our mini mes and spotted over 20 gators including a few nests of babies, countless birds, manatees and even an otter – my first sighting in the wild. The kids were enthralled with the gator hunting and the tour length was just enough to keep their attention. The boat is wheelchair and stroller accessible so no one in your party has to miss out.
Other areas of the park offer a quiet getaway from the crowds, such as a small museum chronicling the history of the area and its tourism, including the famed waterskiing elephant that used to draw big crowds in her heyday. Short and easy hiking trails will lead you through the woods to a massive cypress tree that
is over 600 years old and somehow survived Florida’s rash of cypress milling in its early years. A longer four-mile trail offers the chance to spot wild deer, turkeys, hogs and even black bears. A launch is available for kayakers, canoeists and paddlers to explore 22,000 acres of lush landscape.
Plan for a full day of fun and you’ll have a great time any day of the year and see why this special place brings us back year after year!
DE LEON SPRINGS STATE PARK
601 Ponce de Leon Blvd., De Leon Springs 32130
Open 8 a.m. to sunset, 365 days a year
Entry: $6 per vehicle (2-8 people)
THE OLD SPANISH SUGAR MILL GRILL & GRIDDLE HOUSE
Open weekdays from 9 a.m- 2 p.m. | weekends: 8 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day
Pancakes: $6.50 per person