State parks enjoy another record year

Honeymoon Island State Park

Florida’s state parks set a record for attendance this past fiscal year in spite of — or perhaps with the help of — the economic downturn, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Last year 21.4 million people visited Florida’s parks. That’s an increase of 700,000 people, or 3 percent, from fiscal year 2007-08, which also was a record-setting year.

The increases show the demand for recreational and educational opportunities that are affordable and close to home, DEP officials said.

“Breaking attendance records is always good for state parks,” said Jessica Kemper Sims, information director for the Florida Park Service. “It means people are still visiting state parks and still enjoying the value of the cultural and natural resources.”

Honeymoon Island State Park remained the No. 1 park with almost 1.3 million visitors, an increase of nearly 20 percent in one year. Honeymoon Island is located on a barrier island in Pinellas County north of Dunedin.

Florida’s top 10 state parks in attendance accounted for more than one third of all visitors. Entrance fees at six of the those parks increased from $5 to $8 on July 1.

Sims said only the future will tell if attendance will continue to rise.

“State parks are still affordable family recreation,” she said. “People are looking for that right now, to stay closer to home and get outdoors more.”

Gasparilla Island State Park in Lee County also saw a boost in visitation of more than 20 percent, moving it from seventh to fourth among the top 10.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in the Florida Keys and Lover’s Key State Park in Lee County both saw decreases of more than 9 percent last year but they remained in the top 10. Managers at the two parks could not be reached for comment.

Top 10 state parks
Honeymoon Island 1,296,809
St. Andrews 910,568
Cape Florida 909,114
Gasparilla Island 846,987
Sebastian Inlet 796,018
John Pennekamp 795,274
Lover’s Key 743,434
Anastasia 601,293
Bahia Honda 518,569
Stump Pass Beach 516,360

(Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do no redistribute without permission).