Explore Ocala with Nana & Grandchildren

Explore Ocala with Nana & Grandchildren

I am delighted to present a guest blogger this month – Barbara Fitos, Executive Director of the Community Foundation for Ocala Marion County. Barbara also has another title: she is Nana to four awesome grandchildren. For her blog she shares lively descriptions of the connections between generations and the joy of the Fitos4 having adventures together in Ocala.

By the way, Barbara makes the best cheese grits this side of paradise. Just thought you should know.

Her dream is to someday have a regular column called “Through Barbara’s Eyes”.

And so it begins here. Enjoy



Those of us blessed to be grandparents have a special bond …we can share photos and anecdotes endlessly and when a dear friend, colleague or mere acquaintance joyously announces that they are about to become one – we each smile knowingly and say “Just wait!” Perhaps most importantly, we are there to support each other in life’s sorrows – illness, separation or loss. It matters not what we are called – I inherited my dear mother’s “Nana” title – because we carry that name proudly and whether our grands live in close proximity or hundreds of miles away we as grandparents are linked forever to their lives.

My only son Joseph was raised here in Florida and both sets of his grandparents still resided in my hometown in New Jersey.   Thus time spent with them was precious whether here in Florida celebrating Thanksgiving in shorts – something Nana Rose never adjusted to! – or the Christmas holidays in New Jersey seeing snow for the very first time. Memories and legacies abound.   Some of my fondest memories are of Grandpa Fitos taking long afternoon walks around our neighborhood on a very patient journey of discovery with his two year old grandson…and of course, visits to the iconic Silver Springs.

Ocala - pop pop and great grands
Pop Pop and great grands

Grandchildren live just an hour away from Ocala

And now my son has blessed me with four wonderful grandchildren who I affectionately call the “Fitos4” – yes I said “only” and “four”!   Further blessings abound in that they reside only a little over an hour from Ocala.   With four in tow, they are obviously an active and busy family.

As such, memory sharing plays an important role in their family tradition-making. The grands, for example, curiously want to know about Daddy as a little boy – “Nana – did Daddy really do….?” Well…

My dear Mother – their great grandmother “Nana Rose” passed away long before the grands were born. My youngest granddaughter came rushing out to meet me during one Sunday dinner visit with a photograph in hand saying – “Look, Nana, do you know who this is?   Daddy found this picture!” It was a photo of my Mother with my son – so very special making the connection that Nana Rose was indeed my Mother! Three of the four grands were blessed to know my Dad – their “PopPop”.   He spent the last six years of his life here in FL with all of us – a bridge to the generations…grace abounds!

Mamie & Pop, my son’s in-laws and Marah’s extended family, are vital in creating family memories – Thanksgiving dinners, a special Christmas Eve celebration. While they reside here in Ocala they have a beautiful home on Lake Ontario in upstate NY – a summer vacation tradition eagerly awaited each year.

Overnights provide unique opportunities for exploring and creating new experiences (although only two of the four at a time – wisely!). All things in NanaB’s world belong to NanaB – like the lovely little park across the street.   “Nana, let’s go to your park!” Once there, however, the conversation went like this – “Nana, this is a very nice park but it has no swings!” So off we go to explore the park around the corner, complete with swings, slide & monkey bars – better!

Favorite local pastimes in Ocala for Nana and Grandchildren

Favorite local pastimes include visiting Brick City Center for the Arts when dog houses ruled; Downtown Farmers’ Market; Christmas on the Square (carriage rides with “real horses, Nana!”) .

Ocala - downtown square with Christmas lights
Ocala – downtown square with Christmas lights

Future planned outings include the labyrinth at Sholom Park; Silver River State Park; Art Camp at the Appleton Museum; Turkey Trot at the Frank DeLuca YMCA (for my “Runner Girl” – taking after her Mom – an accomplished marathon runner).

And this “library lady” would be totally remiss without mentioning books, books and more books.   Books that I cherished when my son was little to be passed on to another generation…Good Night Moon, Pat the Bunny, Where the Wild Things Are, the Best Christmas Pageant Ever…and discovering new finds on trips to the library and bookstores – the favorite to date “The Day the Crayons Quit” – a read aloud-laugh out loud delight.   And my dear friend and brilliant author, Lucy Beebe Tobias’ “Mary Margaret Manatee” is a must!

Ocala is the horse capital of the world

And, of course, living in the “Horse Capital of the World” grandparents and grands alike must see and visit some of the amazing farms that surround us. The generosity of spirit of owners and breeders is evident in the open farm policy of many who welcome tours and visitors on a regular basis.   The Founding Chairman of our Community Foundation, Frank Hennessey and his lovely wife, artist Carol Hennessey, are the proud owners of Hennessey Arabians .   Foaling season is not to be missed! And the grands have a standing invitation to come and see up close and first hand this amazing breed.

Ocala horse drawn carriage & grandchildren
Ocala horse drawn carriage & grandchildren

Equestrian events abound throughout the year as well. HITS – Horses in the Sunshine – the annual hunter/jumper winter circuit featured the prestigious World Cup in 2015. The famous Live Oak International that for over twenty years has hosted the premier combined driving event brings equestrians from all over the world to Ocala, FL for this four day event in late March. Ocala’s own Florida Horse Park features year round events including polo.   And one unique event perhaps not as well-known is fox hunting. The Perry Plantation in Gainesville, FL is home to Misty Morning Hounds Hunt Club that hosts traditional fox hunts throughout the season (without live foxes – licorice/anise scents are used instead!) complete with traditional attire, the blessing of the hounds and a sumptuous breakfast following the early morning hunt – spectators follow the route in tally-ho wagons.

We as grandparents are privileged to share in the lived lives of our grandchildren and have that rare opportunity to enrich their lives and ours in creating these special memories of beaches and theme parks, sports events, holidays and birthdays… but most especially those unique community places that become the essence of family life…Blessings to all my fellow “G’Mas” and “G’Pas”.

Ocala - sign to Nana


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Rainbow Springs State Park has Azaleas

Rainbow Springs State Park has Azaleas
Azaleas in bloom at Rainbow Springs State Park
Heatherann Cundiff and azaleas in bloom at Rainbow Springs State Park. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

Yes, all the azaleas are blooming! That’s the good news from Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon.

Rejoice. Do not hesitate. Pack up the kids, the family dog and its leash. Alert your neighbors, get together and carpool or caravan. This is huge. The azaleas blooming at Rainbow Springs means spring has officially arrived to North Central Florida.

Rainbow Springs State Park has amazing azaleas everywhere you walk

It is a sight worth seeing – masses of azaleas blooming along old brick walkways, meandering up the sides of waterfalls and cascading down the hillside to the headwaters of the Rainbow River.

In the Florida timeline there are two eras: BD and AD. Translation: Before Disney and After Disney. Rainbow Springs was a thriving private attraction in the BD era. A Wild West theme had cowboys and their horses – the old stable are still visible in the back area of the park. Glass bottomed boats glided on the Rainbow River. Overhead, gondolas went through the air on a suspension cable, going into tropical bird aviaries. And the azaleas, ah yea, they were here, by the hundreds, a blooming reminder that landscaping in Florida doesn’t have to be tropical to be beautiful.

waterfall at Rainbow Springs State Park. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias
waterfall at Rainbow Springs State Park. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

When Interstate 75 arrived, everyone drove straight to Disney. In the AD era, old time attractions like Rainbow Springs died. The horses were sold. The glass bottom boats sank to the bottom of the river. And the azaleas? They stayed on, blooming in the fullness of Florida springtime, oblivious to the economic downturn.

A developer bought the headwaters and surrounding property. The Rainbow Springs residential area began to grow. Being able to go to the springs was a perk of having a home nearby. Some green thumbs noticed that under the jungle of overgrowth were beautiful azaleas and other plants. They formed a garden club called the Friends of Rainbow Springs and began weeding. In the fullness of time the developer decided to build condos at the headsprings.

Condos? The green thumbs thought not.  They fought to save the springs and won. A combination of county and state monies purchased Rainbow Springs State Park in 1990.

Rainbow Springs State Park volunteers keep flowers blooming

But there was no money at first for staff so the same homeowner volunteers became the Friends of Rainbow Springs State Park. They kept it open, kept it maintained and waited for improvements. For one dollar you could visit the park. The park has staff now, and many amenities including covered picnic, a swimming area, gift shop and restrooms. It is still one dollar to get in the gate. Such a deal!

Guided garden tours are given the first and third Saturday of the month through April. Tour starts at 11 a.m. No reservations necessary.  The walk around the gardens is about one mile. Some of the walk is on uneven brick surfaces with slightly steep grades going uphill.

You’ll go by beautiful manmade waterfalls leftover from the private attraction days, get a glimpse of the old stables, hear about the springs and how what we do with our lawns affects its water quality, see the Rainbow River Run and of course, lots of azaleas.

Rainbow Springs state park - Headwaters of Rainbow River. Note canoeists on the river. Photo By Lucy Beebe Tobias
Headwaters of Rainbow River. Note canoeists on the river. Photo By Lucy Beebe Tobias

On the second Saturday of every month except June, July, and August, there is a guided bird walk that starts at 8:30 a.m. On your own, you can take a backcountry nature trail that meanders for 2.5 miles. The free trail guide is in the gift shop or ask for it at the main gate.
Dogs are not allowed on the bathing beach or concession areas. They may walk the trails of well behaved an on a six-foot hand held lead.

Want more? Ranger programs also include guided canoe/kayak trips, guided snorkeling trips and on the third Saturday of each month there is Music on the Grounds – open mike and coffee house at 8:30 p.m. Bring a chair, a mug a musical instrument, perhaps some poetry and hang out with local talented artists.

Rainbow Springs State Park address is 19158 S.W. 81st Place (off U.S. 41), Dunnellon, Fl. 34432, phone (352) 465-8555. Their Web site is under: www.floridastateparks.org

Admission is $1 per person, children under the age of six admitted free.

Lucy Beebe Tobias is the Authentic Florida Expert for VISIT FLORIDA and the author of “50 Great Walks in Florida.” Chapter 18 in “50 Great Walks” is all about Rainbow Springs. She lives in Ocala.

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Liberty Bell Museum Rings True in Melbourne

Liberty Bell Museum in Melbourne, Florida

The Liberty Bell Museum is pointed out by a small arrow on a city map. Hummm, I thought the Liberty Bell was in Philadelphia and I am in Melbourne, Florida. What’s up?

Curiosity got the better of me. I’m glad it did. Got turned around and lost getting there but hey, you are not really lost if you find what you were looking for, right?

A sign says the museum opens at 10 a.m. I have the pick of the parking lot. It is empty except for me. The museum building looks odd – a round shape with a curved top. Windows are painted on the side. Why no real ones?

Liberty Bell Museum has a replica of the original bell made in 1751

Promptly at 10 a.m. a white-haired woman comes out the museum front door carrying a banner with a flag hanging down that says, “Open”. She looks determined. Maybe because she faces a long walk down a long boulevard, a good city block in length, then onto a lawn bordering a street where she puts the sign into a holder.
Liberty Bell Museum - raising the flag
The Liberty Bell Memorial Museum and Melbourne Military Memorial Park sit together. The grand boulevard reflects that bigger design.

I take it as a good sign someone came out the door and head for the museum entrance. The door opens just as I reach for the handle. A woman holds an American flag. She looks surprised to see me.

“Come in,” she invites. “I’ll be right back to give you a tour.” She too is on a flag mission and puts up the American flag on a pole near the bottom of the museum steps. I wonder do museum volunteers flip a coin to see who gets the long walk flag duty and who gets the short walk?

Inside the main round room, sure enough, there is a liberty bell right in the center. This one doesn’t have a crack.
Liberty Bell Museum has a bell replica

For our nation’s 1976 Bicentennial Celebration the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, England, the same one that cast the original bell made in 1751, sent a letter to all 50 states asking if they’d like to buy a bell replica.

Melbourne school children raised $13,000 and a bell was purchased. Florida’s replica at the Liberty Bell Museum resides inside a water tower, recycled to be a museum (hence the round shape and no windows).

Liberty Bell Museum actually lets you ring the bell

You can ring the bell using a rubber mallet. The harder you hit, the deeper the sound. It has a lovely reverb that goes on and on, mellow and mysterious.

I felt it was an honor to ring the bell inside the Liberty Bell Museum. With tongue firmly in cheek the docents give me a business card announcing I was now a member of the Ding Dong Society. I am not making this up.

Docents, all volunteers, are gracious and knowing. We walked around looking at glass cases and exhibits on the walls. Lots of memorabilia packed in a small space. Melbourne had a Naval Air Station that was one of seven U.S. Navy operational training bases during World War II. They also had a German POW camp.

A hole was cut in the water tower wall and a long rectangular room added for more museum space. In here are many military uniforms, which brought back memories of my dad dressed in his Navy blues.
Liberty Bell Museum has service uniforms

My docent points out a case full of binoculars. On the wall a small WWII poster says “Will You Supply Eyes for the Navy?” She tells me FDR himself asked the American people to donate their binoculars and include their name and address so the glasses could be returned after the war. The case if full of binoculars never returned because the owners are unknown.

Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. No admission charge. Donations welcomed. The museum sits right next to the Melbourne water tower. Both the museum and the memorial park are part of Wells Park.

The park continues across the street with a huge pond and a walking path all the way around. Nearby are picnic tables and playground equipment.

I loved learning bits and pieces of history here in Florida. Did you know we had a liberty bell replica and a Liberty Bell Museum? Me neither. I’d go back and ring the bell again in a heartbeat.

©2008 Lucy Beebe Tobias. All rights reserved. Lucy is an author, artist, and authentic Florida expert living in Ocala, Florida

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