Walter Carl Ray Sr. and W.M. “Shorty” Davidson
Walter Carl Ray Sr. and W.M. “Shorty” Davidson owned the management company that took Florida’s Silver Springs from its place as a wonder of nature seen by less than 1,000 visitors a month, many of them local, to an international attraction that became the then most visited tourist destination in Florida by 1962.
Ray and Davidson embarked on a development and advertising program in 1924 that grew one of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders into one America’s best known attractions.
Mr. Ray, in charge of business affairs, developed the first gasoline powered glass bottom boat fleet, then, encouraged by Thomas A. Edison, moved to a fleet of electric powered boats that became world famous. His commitment to beautification of the 80 acres around Silver Springs was an attraction itself and Col. Davidson’s many advertising ideas saw attendance grow from 11,000 visitors to more than 800,000 annually by 1950; more than 1.5 million annually by 1962.
Ray and Davidson’s plan was simple: “Advertise when no one else does, and use those methods not used by others.” Signs saying “See Silver Springs” were nailed to trees throughout the Southeast, many by “Shorty” Davidson himself. Billboards were erected at state lines in the eastern United States on highways headed south. Bumper strips were used as a major advertising tool. Small mileage machines designed to go in motels, restaurants and service stations told the correct mileage from that location to all major cities and to Silver Springs so patrons could tell the mileage to the attraction. Trucks with dioramas of Silver Springs toured the country. In the mid 1950’s, the attraction purchased 7 million brochures in a single printing, unheard of at the time.
More than 50 motion pictures where shot at Silver Springs, some starring famous actors, including Gary Cooper, Burt Reynolds, Sean Connery and Tom Cruise with actresses Kim Basinger, Jane Wyman, Jane Russell, Claudia Cardinale, and others.
Ray and Davidson were widely recognized as leaders of the Florida tourist industry until their retirement upon the sale of the Silver Springs attraction in 1962. They were innovators: they worked to bring visitors to Florida, believing their advertising would bring visitors to Silver Springs and then elsewhere in Florida. And included in their long list of achievements was that they maintained a “clean” attraction, a “family attraction,” as well as one that was aesthetically beautiful and perfectly maintained.