Florida's state parks are wrapping up their busiest year ever. In 2003, more than 18 million visitors hit the trails, campsites and beaches in the 157 parks around the state. The record numbers mean big bucks to Florida's economy.
Atlanta resident John Arrington and his wife spent the morning strolling the trails in Maclay Gardens State Park. The quiet walk was just the break they were looking for as they visited relatives for the holidays.
The Arrington’s are among a record 18.2 million visitors to Florida's state parks this year. Concerns about travel and the dragging economy caused business to slump after September 11, but the numbers have bounced back stronger than ever.
Tom Flanigan at the state's tourism agency Visit Florida says the increasing trend toward driving vacations appears to be playing a big role.
“The vast bulk of people who went to Florida's state parks were in fact auto visitors to Florida, so that would seem to have some ongoing impact on the number of people that are coming to our state parks,” says Flanigan.
And that pays big dividends to local economies. Park visitors generated nearly $574 million in economic impact last year. Entrance fees will be going up at state parks on the first of the year, but at four to five dollars a carload; they will still be one of Florida's most affordable family getaways.
Surveys show more Florida tourists are looking to connect with the great outdoors these days. Canadian visitor Hilda Zado says she's just not a theme park kind of person.
Florida's state park system is one of the largest in the country, covering more than 600,000 acres. Florida's busiest state park in 2003 was the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Miami, with more than a million visitors.