Area Parks Offer Special Programs To Attract Kids & Adults
By D. Fran Morley, Condo Owner Magazine, Volume 18, Issue 3 (Summer 2014)
With our beautiful Gulf beaches, we can forgive tourists for not realizing that there is more to our outdoors than surf and sand. Sometimes, locals need a reminder too, and our parks and facilities are doing their best to show off all they have to offer with programs and events designed to educate and entertain children and adults.
In Okaloosa County, park officials have an interactive way to get people of all ages into the parks. “The Okaloosa County Geocache Trail (OCGT) was established using several parks, from the beach access in the south end of the county to camping areas and boat launches in the north end,” explained Michael Anderson, Cadd technician with Okaloosa County Public Works. “Geocachers participating in our OCGT will experience the wide array of public recreational facilities that Okaloosa County has to offer. The geocaches are hidden in a way to make the trail enjoyable for all ages, and we are offering a trackable coin upon completion of the trail.”
The trail, set up to be enjoyed all year around, has been exceptionally well received by the participants, Anderson said. “We have had very few negative comments and plenty of positive feedback. So far, we had more than 3,600 ‘finds’ logged. The most finds have been on Beach Access #1 trail, on Okaloosa Island, but the trail with the most popular points is James Lee Park, which has exceptional views, even from the shade of the covered pavilions.”
A popular program at Henderson Beach Park in Destin is Stargazing by the Shore. According to the park website, volunteers from the Northwest Florida Astronomy Association set up several telescopes for public viewing of star clusters, planets, and galaxies and are on hand to answer questions about the night sky. The park closes at sunset, so those attending the star gazing event should arrive before sunset, the site advises.
“I believe that many of the people who come to Gulf State Park do not realize that our park is more than just the beach,” said Kelly Reetz, naturalist at the park located in Gulf Shores, Ala. “Through education and programs, we are able to expand the public’s knowledge of the natural environment, and as a result, they are more likely to take a personal interest in preserving our natural areas and protecting those areas for the benefit of native wildlife and future generations.”
Programs and special events, such as Gulf State Park’s Memorial Day Beach Luau, a planned 5K race and haunted hayrides for Halloween, kids and adult activities for the city’s Coastal Christmas Kickoff and a New Year’s Eve Beach Bonfire are good marketing for the park as well, said Lisa Laraway, park superintendent. “We don’t have a budget for advertising, but events put the park in the spotlight and bring people here to experience all that we have. Social media has been great for getting the word out about everything going on.”
In spring 2013, the park added another level of attraction, Gulf Adventure Center, which rents kayaks and paddle boards and features a six-station zip line course that flies participants over Lake Shelby. “Like the programs, this gets people to the park and talking about what there is to do here,” Laraway said. “We even had Alabama’s First Lady, Dianne Bentley, on the zip line. She said it was on her bucket list! You know that is going to attract attention for Gulf State Park.”
Along with special events and other attractions, regular programs are a good draw. “The weekly Guided Pier Walk is our most popular program,” Reetz said. “We discuss a variety of topics, from the Gulf of Mexico to dune habitats. Guests can see the fish that are being caught and learn about different types of fish, birds, crustaceans, shells and marine mammals. The walk is different each week because we never know what is going to be caught or seen in the water. In the winter, we often have repeat guests so we offer a short lesson on a specific animal or conservation topic associated with the Gulf, often based on questions from the previous week.”
At St. Andrews State Park in Panama City, programs also highlight the culture and history of the area, said Brian Addison, park manager. “Our program on the life of our hermit, Teddy Tollofsen, is really important when discussing the history of the park and the area. Tollofsen was a sailor shipwrecked on St. Andrews Peninsula in 1929 who lived on the beach in the remnants of his boat for 25 years. From this and other programs, tourists in the summer and locals and snowbirds in the winter learn that the park is more than just a beach.” The park’s most popular program, Native Plants as Food and Medicine, is offered year around because of the demand.
5 Rivers Delta Resource Center in Spanish Fort, a facility run by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, is on Mobile Bay and is part of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta—another area that even locals may not be that familiar with. In addition to offering programs and workshops for children and adults, 5 Rivers is the site of numerous community events, such as Alabama Coastal BirdFest, Delta Woods & Waters Expo, and fund-raising programs such as Kiwanis Club’s Taste of the Towns and Dragon Boat Races staged by The Fuse Project.
“Whether we have a hand in planning and implementing programs or just serve as a venue, programs like these enrich our facility and the community,” said Shonda Borden, assistant manager. “Event participants may never have been to 5 Rivers before, and it gives us a chance to highlight the amazingly diverse Mobile-Tensaw Delta.”
Regularly scheduled programs include a story time for pre-schoolers that sneaks in basic science, math and reading lessons, Growing Up Wild (for grades K-2), and the Sunday Animal Ambassador series that highlights a native animal. Classes for adults have included those on hurricane preparedness, Alabama Master Naturalist, Wilderness Survival, and Becoming an Outdoors Woman.
Borden says students who took a class there several years ago still come to visit and still talk about what they learned. “One of our students may be in a position one day to make decisions about an environmental problem. Maybe what we do here today will make a difference when or if that time comes.”
For more information about special events and activities at our area parks and facilities, search for them by name on Facebook or other social media sites or visit:
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