Recreation and Preservation
A family enjoys camping at Florida Caverns State Park, circa 1972.
While preservation of cultural and natural resources was a paramount purpose of state parks from its inception, the founders recognized that state parks should also "provide our permanent residents with wholesome places for active and passive recreation in natural settings devoid, insofar as possible, of commercial activities."
The first parks developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) included picnic areas, camping facilities for tents and trailers, cabins, concessions and nature trails. Boat rentals, swimming and fishing were common recreational pursuits. By 1940 six state parks had picnic areas, three had overnight cabins and three offered tent camping and swimming. By 1954, 17 state parks offered tent camping and two offered trailer camping. Four parks offered group camps, seven had nature trails, eight had enclosed recreation buildings and eight offered swimming. These became the standard forms of recreation for state parks.
In 1938, after three years of development and with three parks officially opened, average yearly attendance at parks was around 50,000. By 1953 attendance had surpassed one million. Hugh Taylor Birch, the only beachfront state park in south Florida, accounted for nearly 325,000 of those visitors, nearly one-third of all park attendance.
In the mid-1950s, Florida State Parks established nine parks with segregated areas and three segregated parks. In 1964, as the result of a lawsuit filed by the National Association for Advancement of Colored People, the Florida Board of Parks and Memorials removed all segregation signs and opened state parks to all people.
A hiking tour of Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.
During the 1960s and 1970s, recreational offerings continued to focus on camping, picnicking, boating, fishing and nature appreciation. There were 37 campgrounds, 18 youth camps and six parks with overnight cabins in 1970. Sixty of 73 parks offered picnicking and 44 had nature trails. Water-related activities included 50 parks with fishing, 39 with boat ramp facilities and 36 with swimming areas. State park attendance topped 10 million for the first time in 1972-1973. Of that, 1.4 million were overnight guests.
The late 1970s and 1980s recreation activities became more diversified as the emphasis on outdoor adventure activities expanded. Park users were looking for trails for hiking, regular and off-road bicycling, horseback riding and rollerblading. The initial state leadership for the development of a system of long distance recreational trails began in the Florida Park Service. Florida's first state rail-trail was the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail. A total of six trails were eventually established on abandoned railroads that were converted to paved multi-purpose trails. Two others circled the dike around Lake Okeechobee and followed the old Florida Keys Highway. In 2005 seven of these trails were transferred to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Greenways and Trails. Long-distance hiking trails were developed in parks in cooperation with the Florida Trail Association, and many park trails were connected to the Florida National Scenic Trail.
One of Florida's original roadside attractions became a state park in 2008. The mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park perform daily in the underwater theater.
Over the last three decades, several tourist attractions have come under management, including DeLeon Springs in 1982, Wakulla Springs in 1986, Homosassa Springs in 1988, Rainbow Springs in 1990 and Weeki Wachee Springs in 2008. Many of the attractions' most appropriate activities such as boat tours, wildlife programming and even the Mermaid Show at Weeki Wachee Springs are being preserved as examples of early tourism and for recreational enjoyment.
During the 1990s, more than 100 new cabins were added to parks across the state. Campgrounds have been improved and new ones constructed to provide updated restrooms, improved accessibility for all, electricity for large camping rigs and even sewer hook-ups.
Recreation facilities and programs continue to attract more and more visitors who seek outdoor experiences in places much less developed than commercial campgrounds and attractions. In 2008-2009, state park visitation exceeded 21.5 million people. Beach visitation still accounts for a majority of park visitors. The Florida Park Service has continued to respond to the new and changing recreational visitor needs, while maintaining that early vision of providing recreation while protecting precious natural areas.