Park visits drop after fee increases

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

Did a 60-percent entrance fee increase at some of Florida’s most popular state parks turn some visitors away last year?

The number of park visitors decreased from 21.4 million in fiscal year 2008-09 to 20.1 million in 2009-10, according to parks data requested by the Florida Tribune. The 6-percent decline followed entrance fee increases from $5 to $8 per carload at some popular state parks.

And while there were fewer visitors this past year, the park system collected more revenue than the year before in part because of those increases — $52.7 million compared to $43.6 million in 2008-09.

Park officials last year described the entrance fee increases as “modest.” This year, they said a combination of factors — including a cold winter and short spring — could have turned some people away.

“You know, it’s really hard to tell,” said Donald V. Forgione, director of the Florida Park Service.

Park officials also noted that attendance had broken records in the three previous years.

Last year, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said the fee increase was needed to allow park visitors to pay more of the cost for operating state parks.

Rep. Ralph Poppell, chairman of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee, said he agrees with that strategy. But he also said the down economy could be affecting visitation.

“If in fact it looks as though some of the actions taken last year are not working exactly, then we should take another look at it,” said Poppell, R-Vero Beach.

More than half of the drop in visitation occurred at eight of the state’s 10 most visited parks.

Seven of those popular parks had their entrance fees increased to $8. But they also could have been most affected by the cold weather this past winter because they are beaches.

The largest decreases in monthly attendance statewide occurred December through March.

Top 10 state parks: (FY2009-10 visitors) (change from 08-09)
Honeymoon Island 1,119,837 (-13.6%)
St. Andrews 809,986 (-11.3%)
Cape Florida 766,384 (-15.6%)
Gasparilla Island 734,113 (-13.3%)
Pennekamp Coral Reef 721,091 (-9.3%)
Lover’s Key 742,643 (-0.1%)
Anastasia 602,093 (+0.1%)
Bahia Honda 484,070 (-6.7%)
Stump Pass Beach 471,305 (-8.7%)
Delnor-Wiggins Pass 403,183 (-18%)

(Photo courtesy of the state Division of Parks and Recreation. Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting