Where’s the Wildest Camping Experience in Florida?

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Palm Beach County

Palm Beach probably isn’t the place you think of when you think of wild.  But there’s a wild side to this area of Florida, that includes West Palm Beach.  If you go a bit further east, you’ll find it.  It’s Lion Country Safari, which is actually located in a small town called Loxahatchee.  We passed the post office, so we know.  Located adjacent to the attraction, that opened in 1967, is a KOA Kampground that is within walking distance to the park.  This is definitely one of the best camping experiences in Florida.

The entrance to the KOA Kampground in Loxahatchee is right on the grounds of Lion Country Safari and is the perfect place to stay for several days and visit the zoo.

The entrance to the KOA Kampground in Loxahatchee is right on the grounds of Lion Country Safari and is the perfect place to stay for several days and visit the zoo.

The Kampground

You’ll find all the amenities and more that you’ve come to expect from a KOA branded campground here next to Lion Country Safari.  There’s a wonderful pool and deck along with a small recreation room, clean laundry and showers, WiFi, and a plethora of outdoor activities including a kid’s playground, volleyball and lots more.  We loved it here and the staff were great.  In fact, there is a special that the campground offers for two night’s of camping that include tickets to Lion Country Safari.

The pool at the KOA Lion Country Safari was immaculate and the services great at the campground.

The pool at the KOA Lion Country Safari was immaculate and the services great at the campground.

The special costs USD135 and that includes two night’s of camping and admission for four at the attraction.  This is an incredible deal and makes for a great family weekend activity at a very reasonable price.  The cost of admission is normally USD29.95 for an adult alone.  Though don’t let that scare you – it is well worth the price of admission!  In fact, if you’re not camping, you can still go and I would encourage you to go!  You can even find discount coupons in brochure racks or on the attraction’s website.

Lions are right by your car as you drive through the safari at the Lion Country Safari in Palm Beach County, Florida.

Lions are right by your car as you drive through the safari at the Lion Country Safari in Palm Beach County, Florida.

The Wild Bit

You can read all about Lion Country Safari in travel reviews but you’ve come here for a bit more I suspect.  The entire experience is great when it includes the campground next door.  We came in on a Friday and relaxed a bit, went for a swim, made dinner and settled in for an early night.  The next day plan was to visit the park.  We opted to take our bicycles to the park rather than drive the motorhome.  The first part of your experience is the four mile safari ride in your own car (if you didn’t bring one like us, you can still hire one there – its basic but its cheap – and it has air conditioning).

There is so much to see in the comfort of your car when you drive through the Lion Country Safari.

There is so much to see in the comfort of your car when you drive through the Lion Country Safari.

I remember as a boy going through the Loch Lomond Bear Park in Scotland and thinking it was so cool.  It had opened in 1972 and was closed by 1975 – though the Blair Drummond Safari Park is I think in the same location there.  Well, nearly forty years later (or maybe more) I can honestly say this was just as thrilling in my fifties.  It was an absolutely awesome time and the best thing was we were in air conditioning and comfortable in the little rental car and could go at our own pace.  And we didn’t have to overhear conversations we didn’t want to hear.  And did I mention the air conditioning?  How cool is it to go through a zoo in the middle of summer in broiling heat and not break a sweat?  This is a priceless benefit to visiting.

Check out this zebra with her baby we saw while driving through the Lion Country Safari.  It is priceless.

Check out this zebra with her baby we saw while driving through the Lion Country Safari. It is priceless.

We entered a long corridor for cars that, for some reason, reminded me of going into Jurassic Park.  I was kind of excited so my mind was probably over-imagining.  You receive a cd or cassette (a little thing that came before cds that goes into a player in an old car that has music and voice on actual tape that goes around two spools).  With this playing we started our safari.  I was as excited as a little kid.  The four mile road around various themed areas took us at least an hour and a half to complete.  It was so nice to enjoy seeing the animals while in the air conditioning I will mention yet again.

Incredible views of wildlife abound when you take your car through Lion Country Safari.

Incredible views of wildlife abound when you take your car through Lion Country Safari.

We saw just about anything and everything and the tour was very informative and quite well done.  The Ostrich were probably the most active when we went through and were all over the roads and fields.  The rhinos were lounging together and looked like little puppies in some ways but giant massive puppies.  The giraffes were active and elegant and were posing so well for my iPhone.   It was a relaxing and exciting time doing the drive through the park.

Walk-Thru Safari

There is a terrific walk-thru safari park that is also on the same property and easily accessible to the campground. If you opt for the two night camping package two days worth of the park are included. We had a great time in the park walking around and looking at the gardens, animals and more.

There’s a small water park that looked great and inviting but is mostly for families and kids. There were also rides but, again, mostly for kids. But there is so much to see and do, don’t let that change your mind to visit if you don’t have kids – this is a park for all ages.

The waterpark at Lion Country Safari is great and there are even slides for the kids in addition to a splash park (not pictured here).

The waterpark at Lion Country Safari is great and there are even slides for the kids in addition to a splash park (not pictured here).

Two of the best things were the giraffe feeding that we did. I never knew a giraffe tongue was so soft and velvety.  And the camel ride was terrific. We went all the way to Turkey and intended on riding a camel and had to do it in our own backyard.  Tiffany the camel was so friendly and the handler was very informative.  It was a thrill to do as an adult and I’m sure even more exciting for a kid.  In addition to this there is a bird aviary where you can feed budgies and a petting zoo with really fun goats.

Here's me feeding a giraffe at Lion Country Safari.  Truly a memorable experience.

Here’s me feeding a giraffe at Lion Country Safari. Truly a memorable experience.

Throughout the day there are various programs that will inform and entertain you.  We managed to catch one of the animal shows and the staff were brilliant and the kids in the audience were captivated.  It was very enjoyable and a nice respite from the sun.  There’s plenty of opportunities for food and beverage in the park as well should you get thirsty or hungry.  And there’s boat rides too!  So much it is impossible to write about it all.

Riding the camel at the park was a highlight of our trip.

Riding the camel at the park was a highlight of our trip.

All in, this is an incredible experience in Florida and one that you shouldn’t miss – especially if travelling with children.  But even if you are just adults, it was a lot of fun and educational at the same time.  This is a treasured attraction in Florida and for good reason.  And if you’re camping, you can’t get any better than this for a zoo experience.

Terrific staff provide great commentary during various shows educating the public about the various animals.

Terrific staff provide great commentary during various shows educating the public about the various animals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art, Artists, Tourism and Florida

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A Brief History of the Selling of Art in Florida

Florida has somewhat matured over the years, especially in its attraction of artists to the state who come here for the relatively inexpensive cost of living and the sunshine.  It is also attractive because inexpensive housing and a fairly good base of art collectors come through the state.

The earliest art sold in Florida was not to Floridians.  It was to tourists. Artists such as Martin Johnson Heade or Frank Shapleigh rented studios at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine and these artists would paint and sell their wares to the wealthy tourists from up north.  Their cluster of studios became somewhat of a cultural attraction to the wealthy patrons staying at the hotel.  This having happened only over 120 years ago as the hotel opened in 1889.

The works were created generally as souvenirs for the wealthy and would typically be scenes that included flora and fauna typical of Florida or perhaps street scenes as was the case with St. Augustine.  Sunsets, steamers and flowering plants were common themes.  This was the start of the art industry in Florida.

Today, while we have certainly transitioned from the old itinerary using steamers and stagecoach, the fundamentals haven’t changed all that much.  Tourists still come in to Florida and still buy art and take it home with them.  While we don’t know for sure what percentage of art is bought by what are now Floridians, we do know that tourism makes up a significant, if not a majority, share of this as the two major art centers of Florida today – St. Petersburg and Miami – have become tourist destinations in the past century and continue with their international draw today.

But back to the 1880s for a moment, as St. Petersburg and Miami didn’t yet exist as incorporated towns in Florida, this was at a time when the railway ran as far south as Jacksonville and steamers plied the St. Johns River. The typical visitor’s itinerary consisted of a trip to Jacksonville, the largest city in the state, St. Augustine for its history, a steamer down the St. Johns River and another down the Ocklawaha.  There were variations on this itinerary and stage coaches were used to shuttle people from the ports where the steamers would call in to small towns such as Gainesville and Ocala.

The city of Jacksonville has changed dramatically since it was the first transportation hub of Florida tourists in the 1880s.

The city of Jacksonville has changed dramatically since it was the first transportation hub of Florida tourists in the 1880s.

Many of these early tourists were considered naturalists as they had an interest in nature.  There was, in fact, little else in Florida at the time.  While most paintings were nature scenes and landscapes, there were details of some of the flowers of Florida in some of these early paintings.

But the artist colony was focused in St. Augustine as the tourist center of the state was located there.  Tourism was in this case acting as the distribution channel for art.   It isn’t very dissimilar to some of the earliest cultural attractions in the state of Florida.  They relied on tourists to support them as the residents of the state were typically unable, for the most part, to support larger cultural attractions that primarily consisted of museums.

In the industrialized north, philanthropists funded museums and supported artists.  There was no tradition of this in the agrarian south and the model of support became something between fractured philanthropy and cultural tourism from the North.  The state’s earliest “museums” were designed to attract tourists.  These were in Jacksonville and St. Augustine.

The Vedder Museum in St. Augustine.  Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida.

The Vedder Museum in St. Augustine. Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida.

Slowly, artists began to locate in areas outside of St. Augustine.  St. Petersburg probably got the earliest start with artists, or visitors who took an interest in the arts, having had an arts club formed in 1917, ten years before the Florida Federation of Art was formed and well before the 1924 founding of the local arts club in St. Augustine.  Earliest museums in the state included the Ringling in Sarasota and the Norton in Palm Beach.  Art was starting to diversify as a commodity in Florida.   In the decades that followed the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg was soon exporting art in the form of reproduction posters throughout the world.

Today we have significant colonies of artists still in St. Augustine as well as Key West, Miami and St. Petersburg.  There are other clusters of artists throughout the state in other towns and cities of course and many towns now have an arts district.

Marketing Art and Tourism in Florida

The point of this article is to consider what is the next step in the maturation of the arts industry in Florida.  If you look at other similar destinations that have art as a common denominator, you’ll find a movement and an eager tourism industry embracing the “local” feel to the area in places such as Ashville, North Carolina, Richmond, Virginia and Provincetown, Massachusetts.   In much older destinations such as Paris or Venice, albeit far larger cities, the arts scene has flourished to include museums, cafes, galleries and artist enclaves.  In St. Petersburg, my hometown, a very active group called “Keep St. Pete Local” is heavily involved in maintaining the local character of the city that keeps it well positioned as distinct from destinations where a more chain style of infrastructure exists.

One of the arts districts in St. Petersburg, the Central Arts District, has links to the other districts with a trolley service.

One of the arts districts in St. Petersburg, the Central Arts District, has links to the other districts with a trolley service.

Miami and St. Petersburg are both in a unique position to be able to further develop their arts industries through tourism.  Art Basel in Miami continues to be a strong annual arts-related event that attracts tourists in great concentrated numbers.  St. Petersburg continues to draw cultural tourists year-round in what is developing as an arts fair that happens throughout the year and in multiple arts districts throughout the city.

While Miami has matured to include very high end art, St. Petersburg’s niche has been in accessible art for a much wider audience.   The “authentic” experience that a certain number of tourists are now looking for is readily accessible in St. Petersburg and in parts of Miami.  The Wynwood Arts District is rapidly maturing in Miami and several districts have emerged in St. Petersburg that allows the visitor a more authentic experience that isn’t created, such as was the artists studios at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine or the concentration of museums in some cities.

And while it is always up to the artist to sell his or her art, there are quickly becoming areas in the state that are more conducive to this.  And as always in Florida, it is seasonal.  It is up to the state’s tourism marketing organization and the respective county tourist development councils and convention and visitors bureaus to use the arts districts to attract more like-minded tourists and to direct those who are possibly secondarily interested in the arts to these districts.

Second Saturday Art Walks in St. Petersburg have become increasingly popular with tourists and residents.  Many other tourist destinations use this concept to promote the arts.

Second Saturday Art Walks in St. Petersburg have become increasingly popular with tourists and residents. Many other tourist destinations use this concept to promote the arts.

Where Henry Flagler knew that there was a demand and clustered artists around a number of studios in the back of the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, our present day promoters of tourism, myself included, must make it easy for our visitors to find the artists and their works.

Art galleries, shows, festivals, arts centers, artist cooperatives, pop up exhibitions, and artist studios have all become part of the tourist experience in some parts of Florida.  To succeed in attracting more tourists who are prone to not only visit cultural attractions, buy locally-produced art we must target those tourists and let them know what the experience of visiting may include and that is art.  There are thousands of tourists that come through Florida’s cruise ports and a percentage of them all buy prints of art on cruise ships during art auctions.  They could easily be buying original pieces from Florida artists.

Many cities and towns in Florida have arts centers including Delray Beach.

Many cities and towns in Florida have arts centers including Delray Beach.

We must target the people who are most likely to buy art and spend time in our destinations.  Today, it is even more easy to focus on this with the demographic and psychographic information available combined with the myriad of distribution channels to reach these people.  For example, a number of articles have appeared recently speaking to the growing and flourishing arts scene in St. Petersburg.  These writers likely were reached through Twitter, blogs, websites and Facebook postings in some way.  Their articles then further reach yet more people and eventually a reputation as an arts center develops amongst those who are inclined to visit arts destinations.  Advertising messages also can be directed to these audiences and those responsible for marketing to visitors have access to make this happen.

It is important to look at the history of arts and tourism marketing to be able to understand how to move forward.  The essence of tourism marketing vis-a-vis the arts is to convince people to visit and buy art.  This is done through reaching those most likely to visit with your message.  Any destination can do this and with the right resources, can do it better than it is doing presently.

Camping near Disney in Florida

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Camping near Disney in Florida

The KOA Fort Summit is in Davenport, Florida but most people would just suspect it is in suburban Orlando.  It is really an excellent base for anyone wanting to visit the area’s theme parks and still have plenty of family camping time together.  This KOA is convenient to the standard suburban shopping fare with a Target, Best Buy, Penny’s, Ross, Dick’s and that sort of chain shopping located just a short bicycle ride away.  The shopping center is called Posner Park and also includes restaurants and other stores besides those that I’ve listed.

The camping cabins at the KOA SW Orlando are located on a ridge in the campground and would be the perfect place for a family gathering for anyone who doesn't have an RV.

The camping cabins at the KOA SW Orlando are located on a ridge in the campground and would be the perfect place for a family gathering for anyone who doesn’t have an RV.

We took our bikes to the shopping center and the only challenge was crossing the road.  Bless their hearts, someone in the Florida transportation department (or maybe the county) at least thought about pedestrians crossing the street but didn’t quite execute the job.  You must cross the cross street before crossing the main street.  Totally stupid and whoever justified this as a pedestrian crossing doesn’t deserve a public pension it is that moronic.

There is a wide variety of sites at the SW Orlando KOA for camping.

There is a wide variety of sites at the SW Orlando KOA for camping.

Enough of that rant.  There is plenty of shopping nearby the KOA was my point.  Including chain restaurants, chain gas stations and chain retail stores.  You will feel right at home here no matter where in America you came from most likely.  There is a free shuttle to Disney from this KOA campground and while we didn’t take advantage of it or inquire about its particulars we did note it and plan to come back and take advantage of that.

The pool is really quite large at the KOA Fort Summit in the Orlando area.

The pool is really quite large at the KOA Fort Summit in the Orlando area.

The pool here is quite large and we enjoyed that.  The store is well stocked and as usual, the staff very friendly.  We enjoy staying at KOA Campgrounds because of the consistency of quality and the amenities offered.  The games room was nice and the toilets and showers were immaculate.  The pool is in need of resurfacing but we weren’t bothered.  It was clean and I’m sure they will get to that soon enough.  The campground is quite hilly for Florida and we rode our bicycles right to the back of the campground up what is quite a large hill by standards in Florida.  There were a number of cabins located in this hill area and they must have a nice view from there.

As to what you can do from this as your base, well just about anything and everything.  There is all that Disney offers which is, well, just about anything and everything.  That’s been written about a million times so I’ll refrain from that.  There’s a lot in Kissemmee which is nearby as well as a nice resort and golfing opportunity at Champion’s Gate.  If you are going to any of the Disney area attractions this is the perfect camping spot for you.  Of course, Fort Wilderness on Disney property itself is perfect and in another category but if you can’t get in there or it isn’t in your budget, don’t miss Disney because of it.  The KOA Fort Summit is a great place.

The campground is quite large with an upper section and a lower section at the KOA Fort Summit near Orlando.

The campground is quite large with an upper section and a lower section at the KOA Fort Summit near Orlando.

You can save 10% on your stays at KOA – we joined and have saved quite a bit.  For more information on the KOA program, click here.

What’s there to do in Punta Gorda, Florida

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The Old and the New in Punta Gorda, Florida.

Having passed this exit a thousand times on trips back and forth to Naples from the Tampa Bay area, I finally decided to take my own travel advice and stop and see the downtown area of Punta Gorda.  Well, it is so much more than just the exit area and I’m so glad we sidetracked the slight bit to see it and experience it.

There were two highlights that we’d suggest on a visit to Punta Gorda.  Of course there’s more and I’m sure better but if you love local dive bars and don’t mind touristy festival marketplace type facilities then we may have a couple of gems for you too.  Shorty’s Place in downtown Punta Gorda is located just to the west of US 41 on West Marion Street in the downtown area.  It is a small downtown only a few blocks wide but historic enough by Florida standards of history.  This is a smoking bar so if that bothers you don’t come in because it isn’t subtle.  The owner and the bar tender were very friendly as were the locals hanging out here. There is a more open air section in the back but the main bar consisted of loads of beer memorabilia, primarily old beer cans, and there was no shortage of things to look at.

It doesn't get much more authentic and real as Shorty's Bar in the town center of Punta Gorda Florida.

It doesn’t get much more authentic and real as Shorty’s Bar in the town center of Punta Gorda Florida.

We had a beer or two here and enjoyed our stay.  It is easy to see why it is a popular place as the owner was extremely friendly.  Don’t miss visiting the toilets either.  They are pretty cool too.  This is old Florida at its best.  Not polished but still perfect.  In contrast to this old bar, which takes cash only and features packets of potato chips for food, is Fisherman’s Village a short drive down the road.

For anyone interested in beer history, the interior of Shorty's Bar in downtown Punta Gorda, Florida is fascinating.

For anyone interested in beer history, the interior of Shorty’s Bar in downtown Punta Gorda, Florida is fascinating.

It is on the water and is a typical festival marketplace that most waterside towns have – from Baltimore to Miami.  Though this isn’t something you’d expect in a small town much less Punta Gorda.  It was really quite well done with a wide variety of shops and restaurants.

The covered walkway along modern shops at Fisherman's Village in Punta Gorda, Florida.

The covered walkway along modern shops at Fisherman’s Village in Punta Gorda, Florida.

At the end of the pier, with shops and restaurants/bars on both sides, is Harpoon Harry’s.  This is where we opted to grab some lunch and it was well worth the walk out here to find it.  The service was excellent and the food was really very good.  The views were great too as we got a seat right on the water.  I don’t recall all the shops on the pier but they were pretty predictable and suited to visitors to the area as well as residents.  It was a nice mix of product and on a hot day the covered Fisherman’s Village is quite pleasant.

The view from our dockside table at Harpoon Harry's in Punta Gorda was perfect.

The view from our dockside table at Harpoon Harry’s in Punta Gorda was perfect.

So, taking my own advice of getting off the exits and into the towns, I finally ventured off my favorite exit between St. Petersburg and Naples for gas.  It was well worth it and I would highly suggest you try the same thing.  There are other things to discover in Punta Gorda, these were my two discoveries.  I hope you find yours.

Fisherman's Village is quite popular and for good reason in Punta Gorda, Florida.

Fisherman’s Village is quite popular and for good reason in Punta Gorda, Florida.

 

Pine Island: Florida Lost in Time

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A Florida Island Destination Back in Time

Having lived in Florida for nearly thirty years and having traveled around the state many times for business and leisure it is rare that I find an area so vast that I have never explored but this most recent weekend trip took us to a place we’d not been to before.  Pine Island is located between Fort Myers/Cape Coral and Sanibel/Captiva Islands in the southwest area of the Florida peninsula.

It was no more than two hours from the Tampa/St. Petersburg area to get there but another time and world away from it.  As you drive down along the main road (which is County Road 78 or Pine Island Road) into Pine Island from the expressway, you soon pass the usual suburban clutter and enter a world that time has not caught up to.  When you leave the suburban blah scene you’re nearly there and the Pine Island Chamber of Commerce will be on your right.  The first town you go through is absolutely adorable and a complete throwback in time.  It is called Mathlacha (it is pronounced MAT Luh Shay or we’ve also heard mostly in southern American English accents Mat-luh-SHAAAY) and is home to under 800 residents.

The main road through Matlacha is both colorful and historic.

The main road through Matlacha is both colorful and historic.

There are places to eat and sleep here as well as shop.  The entire town pretty much is an historic district to 20th century Florida before the word “condo” became part of the Florida lexicon.  In this district, which is honestly no more than a few blocks long, you’ll find Bert’s Bar & Grill followed by the Bridgewater Inn and then cross another small bridge to the main part of the town where there are multiple restaurants, ice cream shops and some other options for accommodation.  It doesn’t get much cuter or quainter than this stretch of road to give you a feel for what Florida looked and felt like when cars had names like De Soto, Studebaker and Nash.  They are painted all sorts of bright colors now but the feel is still here.

Mulletville is an excellent bar and restaurant in the historic little town of Matlacha, Florida.

Mulletville is an excellent bar and restaurant in the historic little town of Matlacha, Florida.

We ate at Mulletville on the main road across from Pizza Bella.  It is a great place and I could highly recommend it to anyone.  There is outside seating on a canal and there’s a bar and restaurant inside.  Like the rest of the community, it is a bit of a throwback in time but the food is fresh and delicious.  Down the road are some shops you can walk to including some “art galleries” and other shops.  If you’re into the Margaritaville look, have tiki statues around or love the geckos to decorate your patio then you have found nirvana with Matlacha Menagerie.  The shops are all fun to go through no matter your taste though.  So ramble around and by the time you get down the road there is a convenient ice cream shop to greet you.

The food at Mulletville in Matlacha is very good.  Here is the scallops with black beans and rice.

The food at Mulletville in Matlacha is very good. Here is the scallops with black beans and rice.

If staying here is in your future, Knoll’s Court Motel is where you want to continue your throwback in time.  It is impeccably clean and about as old Florida as you can get.  There’s a small number of rooms at this old motor court that is on the water and has a dock.  The rooms are clean and the terrazzo floors gleam.  I loved this place.

To continue your journey you head west toward Pine Island Center which has a hardware store and several places to stop and shop including a Winn Dixie supermarket south of Pine Island Center in a shopping center.  This area has some historic interest to the mid century but for the most part it has been developed to include the shopping center and even a modern Dairy Queen.

The main road at the KOA Pine Island.

The main road at the KOA Pine Island.

To the south there is the small town of St. James City and to the north of the island there is Bokeelia.  As we were travelling in our RV we went to the KOA in St. James City and have nothing but wonderful things to say about the property.  There’s everything you expect at a KOA including a super clean pool, friendly campers and staff, a great store and a great experience.  We loved our camping neighbors and had a great time camping here.  There are cabins, a few lakes, clubhouses, showers, laundry facilities and more.

The pool at the KOA Pine Island was excellent and located near a club house, recreation center, store, showers and more.  It was spotless clean.

The pool at the KOA Pine Island was excellent and located near a club house, recreation center, store, showers and more. It was spotless clean.

St. James City is pretty much a string of old time dockside bars.  Fishing, if you haven’t been able to tell until now you’ve not been looking, is huge in this area of Florida and right the way along from Matlacha you will notice fishing boats and pleasure boats everywhere.  In St. James City you’ll find a general store, which we didn’t go into but which I was dying to see, and several bars starting with the Ragged Ass Saloon, Froggy’s, Low Key Tiki and Woody’s Waterside.  You could ride bicycles here from the KOA and do your own pub crawl if you wanted to.  There are wide bicycle paths along the main road on the island making it easy to cycle up and down the island as well as some nature paths which we didn’t get a chance to explore this trip.

Woody's Waterside in St. James City features excellent food, cold beer, dockside and inside seating and fast service.

Woody’s Waterside in St. James City features excellent food, cold beer, dockside and inside seating and fast service.

Bokeelia is the town on the northside and is an interesting mix of mostly new construction, mobile homes and a few older homes.  There is a single story house on the Main Street in Bokeelia that demonstrates what the town must have looked like before any modern construction.  It is a simple single story white house with a fire place and it is on the water.  It was occupied when we visited but can be viewed from the street.  While time may have slipped by much of this island the town of Bokeelia was discovered by suburban pioneers who added large homes designed to withstand a huge storm surge making this end of the island a little less interesting to the traveler though very appealing to those living here.  You will find Cap’n Con’s Fish House across from the municipal pier and ample parking.  The food is good and the beer is cold here and there is even a four stool bar inside.  There’s outdoor seating too.  This is another throwback in time that I hope never disappears from Florida.  These types of places are what Florida is all about.

The ouside of Cap'n Con's Fish House in Bokeelia is as laid back as the inside.

The ouside of Cap’n Con’s Fish House in Bokeelia is as laid back as the inside.

One of the fairly obvious things about the island that is still worth mentioning to anyone who hasn’t visited is that there are no beaches on the island.  This is perhaps why it remains such an attractive place today without over development.  And I cannot believe that I’ve lived in Florida for thirty years without visiting it or ever hearing about it.  And I’ve worked in the tourism industry for all of those thirty years!   I hope you’ve enjoyed looking at a part of Florida that doesn’t have an exit and doesn’t have a beach but it is another time and only requires your mind to take you back there when you visit.  We definitely want to return after having done this cursory exploration.  Enjoy.

The municipal pier in Bokeelia.

The municipal pier in Bokeelia.

#SavedByTheShell #FortMyers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camping in Daytona Beach/Port Orange Florida

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The Daytona Beach Area

There are no shortage of things to do in this relatively small town on the east coast of Florida with a colorful past in racing and beach going.  Once a haven for drunk Spring breakers, it has done a good job of rebuilding hurricane-damaged properties on the beach that now attract couples and families more than anything else.  And with its convenience to the Orlando area – it is pretty much a distant suburb of the big O – it is positioned quite well for vacationers to the Sunshine State.

Port Orange

This is Daytona Beach’s inland neighbor on its southern border.  Port Orange is a town about the size of Daytona Beach but instantly looks cleaner and nicer when comparing the inland areas.  Much less known, but a place to consider either stopping in or visiting as a base to explore the myriad of attractions and nature nearby.  Unlike Daytona Beach, this is a new town that grew up without a historic downtown.  But there is no shortage of suburban style shopping in this clean Orlando suburb and its proximity to Daytona Beach and the other beaches on the Atlantic make this an ideal base to explore the area.

There was an art show on while we were there (I was a judge) and the City Center Circle in Port Orange couldn't be any more perfect a location for such an event.

There was an art show on while we were there (I was a judge) and the City Center Circle in Port Orange couldn’t be any more perfect a location for such an event.

Area Attractions

The beach is the obvious primary attraction though plenty of people come here because of the Daytona International Speedway, known for its Daytona 500, is midway between Port Orange and Ormond Beach and quite near the only shopping mall in the region.  There are a few museums in the area and a nice little historic downtown that is quite charming and directly on the intra-coastal waterway – locally called the Halifax River.  Probably a one day itinerary might include some beach time, a visit to the downtown for lunch and a visit to one of the area museums – the Museum of Arts and Sciences is particularly interesting with something for everyone – as the former director I’m biased but given this forum of objectivity that I try to maintain, I still would suggest it.  If museums aren’t your thing, a tour of the Daytona International Speedway is fascinating even to someone who isn’t into the racing that goes on there.

From food to art to crafts there was something for everyone at the Port Orange Art Fest.

From food to art to crafts there was something for everyone at the Port Orange Art Fest.

The Nova Family Campground

We camped here in our RV for two nights while I judged a local art fair that was set up around a collection of municipal buildings that are arranged around a lake making it one of the prettiest municipal complexes in the state.  You can easily ride your bicycle here from the campground in under ten minutes.  There was a nice heated pool at the campground and a well-stocked general store that had everything from beer to fridge magnets and most things in between.  The staff were very friendly and there is a wide array of options here.  We saw cabins and yurts, tent sites and pull-through RV sites.

The Nova Family Campground nearest the town center of Port Orange is a great friendly place with many wooded sites and lots of options from tent camping to pull through big rig sites to cabins.

The Nova Family Campground nearest the town center of Port Orange is a great friendly place with many wooded sites and lots of options from tent camping to pull through big rig sites to cabins.

There are primitive sites and ones with full hookups.  Shady sites and sunny sites too!  In other words, you will find what you are looking for here – except fire rings.  Camp fires are allowed but the only ones we saw were in open areas of people’s campsites without fire rings.  It was a little odd but it apparently works.
One thing we did not encounter here that is so common everywhere is bugs.  We were really surprised given the wooded atmosphere that bugs were not a problem – could have been the time of year (April) but it was surprising and pleasantly so!

The pool at the Nova Family Campground is a perfect place to relax on a hot day if you're not busy going to the nearby beaches, shopping or visiting a museum or the Daytona 500 track.

The pool at the Nova Family Campground is a perfect place to relax on a hot day if you’re not busy going to the nearby beaches, shopping or visiting a museum or the Daytona 500 track.

 

The Best Beach Camping in the Florida Keys

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Long Key State Park

There are three state parks in the Florida Keys that offer camping options: John Pennekamp State Park, Long Key State Park and Bahia Honda State Park.   Long Key is in the middle of the other two options and is located not too far south of Islamorada.  I’ve written about John Pennekamp State Park before in a previous story here.

This little convenience store in an old gas station still sells gas and just about anything you would need on Long Key, Florida.   In case they don't the only other shop on the island is just about a block away.

This little convenience store in an old gas station still sells gas and just about anything you would need on Long Key, Florida. In case they don’t the only other shop on the island is just about a block away.

If you’re familiar with the Florida Keys, you know it is a bit of a drive to get from Miami to Key West.  The scenery is fantastic and it is a pleasant drive – but it does take some time.  We encountered quite a bit of traffic due to one of the keys having an art festival which backed traffic up on the only road in and out of the keys so be prepared to take your time and enjoy the journey.  There’s also only two lanes on much of the journey so relax and look at all there is to take in.

The state park at Long Key has a small beach area for day visitors with picnic amenities and showers.  Who wouldn't want to just sit here and look at the ocean?

The state park at Long Key has a small beach area for day visitors with picnic amenities and showers. Who wouldn’t want to just sit here and look at the ocean?

The nearest village is Layton with a tiny population of about 200 at Mile Marker 68.5. It’s still amusing to see Layton call itself a “city” but it does. It even has a “city hall” and “city limit” signs.  If Nutbush were tropical, this is what it would be, I imagined.  It does boast two convenience stores – both of which we visited on our bicycles from the campground so you have options if you forget anything on your camping trip.  There isn’t much of anything else on the island so be prepared for that.

This is a fairly typical campsite for RVs at the Long Key State Park in Florida.  A picnic table and fire ring are provided on an ocean-front site.

This is a fairly typical campsite for RVs at the Long Key State Park in Florida. A picnic table and fire ring are provided on an ocean-front site.

You’ll settle in easily at the campground which is on one road with the main highway on the one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.  All the sites are directly on the ocean and we saw plenty of larger motor homes easily navigating themselves into the sites.  Our 30 footer fit perfectly with plenty of room.  The bathhouses were immaculate.  Picnic tables and fire rings were at all sites and campfire wood was for sale at the office for $5 cash for a bundle.  There were plenty of tent campers located on the lower numbered sites as these sites are much smaller and can’t accommodate an RV.  The reservations system is great and allows you to really select a good site.

Oceanfront camping is perfect as we sit under our awning looking at the water at Long Key State Park.

Oceanfront camping is perfect as we sit under our awning looking at the water at Long Key State Park.

This campground fills up fast – as do the others in the Florida Keys – so plan your visit well in advance.  While camping here we saw some iguanas and some large crabs that lived in fairly large holes that they dug in the ground.  There are hundreds of these things.  And you can’t quite get a good picture of them because as soon as you sneak up on one they race away back into their hole.  But they are interesting and various colors.  So, if you go and see lots of holes in the ground you’ll wonder no more what they are.

A view from the top of our RV of the campsites at Long Key State Park directly on the ocean.

A view from the top of our RV of the campsites at Long Key State Park directly on the ocean.

The nature trails at the park are great for walking.  We rode our bicycles up to the trails from the camping section and walked the boardwalk trail around to the parking lot and then did the other trail which is a lot longer.  I wouldn’t suggest doing it in summer without water as there are sections of the trail that have no shade at all.

The views you see whilst on the nature trails at Long Key State Park can be stunning.

The views you see whilst on the nature trails at Long Key State Park can be stunning.

Rhe views along the water are great and the natural environment you walk through is incredible.  There are picnic tables and grills under shelter on the boardwalk trail and I would imagine would be used mostly by day trippers to the park.  But then so is your own campsite for that matter.

This nature trail takes you right by the ocean and is a pleasant walk at the Long Key State Park, Layton, Florida.

This nature trail takes you right by the ocean and is a pleasant walk at the Long Key State Park, Layton, Florida.

We did take our bicycles to the convenience store as I mentioned and along the way there is a nature path on the other side of US 1 from the state park that we ventured into.  It led to the Gulf of Mexico and is a pleasant diversion.

The town of Layton has a nature trail that will take you through a magical trail to the Gulf of Mexico nearby the entrance to the state park and convenience stores on the island.

The town of Layton has a nature trail that will take you through a magical trail to the Gulf of Mexico nearby the entrance to the state park and convenience stores on the island.

On this side of the road is the Lime Tree Bay Resort.  We didn’t go into it but I should think there might be a bar and there were rentals of canoes and kayaks on this side of the road if the resort doesn’t allow non-guests to rent.

The views you see whilst on the nature trails at Long Key State Park can be stunning.

The views you see whilst on the nature trails at Long Key State Park can be stunning.

If you’re looking for a relaxing camp experience, Long Key State Park really offers a great getaway but not so remote that you can’t pick up a bottle of Gatorade if you need it.  You can go directly into the Atlantic Ocean from your campsite if you want.  We did and it is very shallow.  We went out quite a distance and the water never got beyond our waists by any means.

This boardwalk will take you through nature to the Atlantic Ocean at the Long Key State Park.

This boardwalk will take you through nature to the Atlantic Ocean at the Long Key State Park.

Still it is nice to float in and plenty of people put their beach chairs directly in the water in front of their campsites.  It is very relaxing.  So get out there and relax!

All campsites have ocean views at the Long Key State Park in Layton, Florida.  This is the view looking south from our site #51.

All campsites have ocean views at the Long Key State Park in Layton, Florida. This is the view looking south from our site #51.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camping in the Everglades of Florida

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Trail Lakes Campground, Ochopee, Florida

In the tiny town of Ochopee, known for its post office which is about the width a large dog house, there is a welcome center and some air boat operators as well as a campground called Trail Lakes Campground which is located at the Skunk Ape Research Center.  This is the Big Cypress National Reserve – sometimes referred as Preserve but it isn’t a jam – its just the way American English works sometimes.

The entrance to the Trail Lakes Campground includes a general store, skunk ape research center and exhibits and is well worth popping into.

The entrance to the Trail Lakes Campground includes a general store, skunk ape research center and exhibits and is well worth popping into.

Having lived in Florida for many years, the Everglades is not as exotic or foreign as it would be to most people.  So I try to put myself in the shoes of someone visiting from elsewhere and it really is an incredible place to discover a tropical nature that is unique to this part of Florida.  And there is no shortage of things to do and see for the outdoors lovers in this part of Florida.  While here we saw wild deer and alligators and plenty of birds.  It is full of nature and the natural surroundings will be unusual to most visitors.

Nestled in the Everglades is this fairly rustic campground in the town of Ochopee, Florida.

Nestled in the Everglades is this fairly rustic campground in the town of Ochopee, Florida.

We happened to just use this as a stopping point on our way from St. Petersburg to Long Key, Florida and were travelling in our RV.  We stopped in Naples to visit my mother for lunch for her birthday and wanted to get a bit of a start on the trip to the keys so we traveled on to Ochopee where Trail Lakes Campground is located.  The WiFi was terrific at this campground.  The bathhouse could have had fewer mosquitoes for my taste but this is the Everglades so don’t expect a bug-free environment with a heated pool and shuffleboard!

The views of the Everglades are stunning from the Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee, Florida.

The views of the Everglades are stunning from the Trail Lakes Campground in Ochopee, Florida.

There are apparently residents in this campground and is a mix of all sorts of camping and living options.  We saw some people in tents and others in vehicles that looked as if they hadn’t moved since they put down in this campground many years ago.  But it is all part of the experience of travel and well worth a couple of nights here.  The staff at check in was super helpful and very nice.  We’d easily stop back here and spend another night and take in one of the local attractions if time allowed.   Just another adventure on the journey!

This alligator was sunning itself on the other side of the small pond near our campsite at Trails End Campground in Ochopee, Florida.

This alligator was sunning itself on the other side of the small pond near our campsite at Trails End Campground in Ochopee, Florida.

 

How Museums Survived the Financial Crisis

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The Financial Side of Non-profit Cultural Institutions

I recently gave a talk to a group of accounting educators about “the financial side of non-profit museums” while they toured our facilities at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg. It was very interesting to them and it occurred to me that this might be an interesting blog post for some others. I will specifically be addressing and referencing (without naming any) Florida institutions since that’s where I’ve spent my 25+ year museum career.

The museum sector experienced the same economic issues as other sectors starting in about 2006-2007 and even a Wikipedia entry was created to reference the period specifically for museums.  Museums are often not as nimble as their profit-focused counterparts and the staff at museums often not as entrepreneurial as their for profit colleagues.  Their mission of caring in perpetuity for artifacts that have been donated combined with their mission of education whether it is history, science, art or something else is sometimes without regard to real cost.  Why then did some manage to survive and others not? Why did some organizations go away while others become absorbed in a government college or university?  And what of the ones who actually did survive and actually thrive?

Culture of Cultural Institutions

Financial constraint isn’t something that a lot of museum professionals understand.  Even in its simplest terms of money out cannot exceed money coming in is not easily understood.  At one institution I recall a number of meetings to come up with new net income ideas.  After a while, it does have an effect and staff begin to understand the true costs.  Costs they don’t see on a daily basis such as insurances, utilities, payroll taxes, the actual cost of those benefits they receive and so on.  It takes time to build a culture of understanding true net income in a museum or arts institution.

When raises weren’t given or benefits cut there were staff who couldn’t comprehend it at the time.  “But I’ve been here for 12 years,” rationalized one staff person to me one day as if that explained why they were due a raise.  “But of course the artifact MUST fly first class with a courier,” underscored another staff person as if completely oblivious to economic reality.  “But so and so NEEDS more hours, you CAN’T cut them,” argued a supervisor.

Budgets were given and freely spent.  “It is in my budget,” was a common museum staff persons cry.  Historically, museum professionals were given a budget and they would spend it for little regard as to where the income came from to actually pay for it.  The transition from one-sided thinking has been a slow one but one that many museums now have completed.  Aligning expenses with off-setting revenue has been one approach taken by many museums.  The more entrepreneurial of employees thrived in this type of environment while the budget spenders didn’t fare so well.

Government Funding

The first things that went in the financial crisis for museums were endowment fund income and balances, followed rather quickly by government support.  Some intuitions would receive federal, state, county and city funding.  An organization too reliant on government support quickly found itself in trouble if it didn’t have a good earned income model.  State of Florida funding was zero for several of these lean years.  During that time, some institutions were absorbed into government schools which somehow still were funded and often received additional operating dollars based on expanding their physical space.

It has a cascading effect.  State money went to nothing or next-to-nothing in the State of Florida.  County government funding could include a county school district or the county government itself supporting an institution.  In some cases institutions found themselves faced with multiple cuts from their county organizations which also included tourist development councils that saw declining revenues from bed tax dollars and also made cuts.  City governments faced declining tax collections and also cut funding to cultural institutions.  Usually the government support eroded within a year or two of each funding source going away causing great strain on the cultural institutions.

Endowments

We all know that the value of endowment funds dropped significantly.  Across the State of Florida auditors were making sure that the principle balance didn’t go below what a donor had given.  Museums were not receiving as much income from their endowments.  And matching endowment programs at the state level completely stopped.  Those institutions who didn’t have endowment funds were obviously less affected by this situation, however, they were not able to start endowment funds during this time period.

Furthermore, there was, and in some cases still exists, a negative feeling by trustees about endowment funds.  Some institutions just didn’t have the financial constraint to not tap endowment funds and spent principal balances.  Obviously, not a practice I condone.

Donations and Foundations

Foundations for the clear reason above found their principals being eroded and cut back on giving significantly.  This had an effect on larger as well as smaller institutions.  Donors, whose portfolios declined dramatically, cut back considerably in their giving.  They simply didn’t have it or believed that they were in a financial crisis themselves despite being worth millions in some cases.

A colleague who ran a museum on Long Island told me that the Bernie Madoff scandal was catastrophic for some institutions there and I’m sure that had an effect on other locations such as Palm Beach County.  It became more important than ever to thank existing donors with fewer (if any) development staff in place which further did nothing to help the situation.

Earned Income

Those organizations that could quickly react to the rapidly growing financial crisis, whose news seemed to grow darker by the month for some institutions, were the ones to survive.  Those who continued to do the same gala events and rely on the same government dollars and the same foundations quickly found themselves in trouble.  Earned income was the way so many institutions survived.  I recall one institution balking at serving popcorn (a highly profitable product) in its theater because someone would have to be hired to clean it and it would ruin the floors.  They sought help from a governmental body eventually for more support.

I’ve written about various forms of earned income elsewhere in this blog.  But let me repeat that small things can make a huge difference and getting staff to understand this is very important because it is they who have to implement any changes and embrace them.  Vending machines, as one example, are often placed in out-of-the-way places or behind walls with no signage so as not to interfere with the art experience by museums, can have a positive effect on cash flow as well as net income.  I know of one institution that regularly received over $20,000 in vending income alone.

Ticket sales, memberships, retail sales, exhibit and artifact loan fees, licensing, food and beverage income, alcohol sales, real estate (by which I mean unused office space or a store-front or any tangible property that could be positioned as income earning) and more are all ways some museums are closing the gap between expenses and income.  Much is written about Unrelated Business Income Tax and there are times when museums are subject to UBIT should their earned income go too far away from their mission.  For example, an art museum would be exempt from selling reproductions of its collection but might be subject to income tax on coffee mugs that just have the name of the city in which the museum was located on them.  So, be careful with venturing too far into earned income without understanding any tax implications.

Expenses

While labor is usually the number one cost for a museum, some institutions waited too long to cut too few.  Some institutions simply could not see some expenses as “unnecessary” and continued to spend.  Some institutions continued to do larger exhibitions without regard for recouping expenses.  The cost of travelling exhibitions for institutions is significant.  In fact one museum director, when asked by yours truly when I sat on a grants panel, couldn’t explain what accounts payable was to me properly.  He reiterated to me that it was expensive to do large exhibitions (which I have done and know quite well) and that is the reason for his accounts payable which I noted had increased from over $100,000 in one audit to over $300,000 the following year to his most recent year which was approaching $600,000 in accounts payable.  It wasn’t long before the museum was absorbed into a government supported school.

It is a careful balance that must achieved in the great financial web that museums find themselves in and a qualified director is probably the best resource an institution has.  It is easy for finance committees to discuss line items and details and even make changes to museum budgets without understanding the ramifications.  In other cases, it is necessary for boards to intervene when directors cannot themselves understand the complicated financial model of running an institution that needs a diversified revenue stream and a positive cash flow.

After prolonged cutting there comes a time when it really is impossible to cut more without having serious ramifications on the mission of an organization.  But this usually isn’t the first or even second round of cuts for most organizations.  Some institutions cut dozens of jobs and the average person wouldn’t even notice it if they were a visitor.  The marketing gets cut and visitors decline which is all about revenue.  If a curator is cut, there usually isn’t an off-setting revenue line that is affected which was an area that was a target by some museum directors during this time.

It is this challenging balance game of mission and net income that museums now must face though since the economic recovery began it has become a bit less stressful for cultural institutions and they are much stronger and more nimble and entrepreneurial than they were just a decade ago.

Summary

So the strongest museums were able to survive during this crisis and make cultural changes within their organizations that hopefully will allow them to thrive into the next economic cycle.  They were nimble, entrepreneurial, financially restrained, innovative, and exceptional.  Any museum professional who sat around a management table and focused on what had always worked probably found themselves without a job or, worse, without a museum.

I haven’t tried to point any fingers in this but to summarize a talk to accounting educators that found the real life applications of accounting interesting in a museum environment.  One instructor came up to me afterwards and we chatted about it more.  I’m now fairly convinced that a good understanding of accounting and finance is critical to an institution’s success.  And that doesn’t mean just having a well-qualified CFO – which helps – but a staff that understands accounting and finance at some level.

For more information on museums and professional operations I strongly encourage anyone to really go through the American Alliance of Museum’s web site as the organization is an invaluable resource to museums and has been incredibly helpful and advanced as an organization in helping institutions make it through the financial crisis not only by surviving but of course by thriving.  It just takes the right mix of staff and entrepreneurial spirit and having some fun along the way.

 

How to find Nature and go Camping near Orlando

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Wekiwa Springs State Park near Orlando, Florida

Well having lived in the metro Orlando area for five years, I was surprised to learn about this park after moving back to the Tampa Bay area.  I stumbled upon it somehow while looking for a weekend getaway in the RV and I’m certainly glad I did.  It is easy to see why there are warnings that the park fills to capacity sometimes on the weekends in summertime.

The beautiful view from our campsite at Wekiwa Springs State Park.

The beautiful view from our campsite at Wekiwa Springs State Park.

This little gem of a park is actually quite big.  Wekiwa Springs State Park is located in Apopka, Florida – now a suburb of Orlando.  There is a great campground here and it is very natural – very “old Florida” feeling – by that I mean before expressways and chain stores and quite frankly a lot of people.  There are two “loops” and the one we were in allowed pets since we travel with our two dogs.

Picnic areas were around the actual springs at Wekiwa Springs State Park.

Picnic areas were around the actual springs at Wekiwa Springs State Park.

We brought our bicycles along and went to the springs area which is really quite nice.  There is a place you can rent various gear for snorkeling or canoeing and kayaking as well as sundries at the springs themselves.  There are plenty of grassy areas to have a picnic here and people were in the 72F/22C degree water which was very clear and inviting.  It was a relaxing “old Florida” feel to the springs area.

Wekiwa Springs, Apopka, Florida.

Wekiwa Springs, Apopka, Florida.

Our campsite was nicely wooded and one night we saw a family of deer grazing in the field behind the RV.  The sites were nicely spaced and the bathhouses were clean.  Our site was plenty big enough for our 30 foot RV and we enjoyed sitting outside though it wasn’t difficult to imagine it wouldn’t be too pleasant during particularly buggy times but we always travel equipped – in this case we really didn’t have many bugs (this was in March).

A view from up the hill of the springs at Wekiwa Springs State Park.

A view from up the hill of the springs at Wekiwa Springs State Park.

We took our bicycles to the trail head where there are also horse trails.  It is called the Sand Lake Area.  A lot of the cycling is on sandy soil making it a little more challenging.  And sometimes the bike trail is shared with the horses – so you know what to expect along the route there!  We ended up down a hiking trail and turned back due to the narrow path and wet trails.  We saw people camping in tents along the way so if that is your thing there appears to be primitive camping available.  Easy to get plenty of exercise here and if horseback riding is your thing this is nirvana.

The trail head parking area at Sand Lake, Wekiwa Springs State Park in Orlando.

The trail head parking area at Sand Lake, Wekiwa Springs State Park in Orlando.

All in all, this is a park well worth visiting for a weekend getaway if you live in Florida.  If you are just visiting, it makes a great base for plenty of other activities in the metro Orlando area too.  And of course it has excellent value.  so happy discovering – see what you can explore soon.

Horse trails and bike trails often share the same line on the map at Wekiwa Springs State Park.

Horse trails and bike trails often share the same line on the map at Wekiwa Springs State Park.

 

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