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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Florida Beaches are Simply Sublime

Florida Beaches are Simply Sublime

Wahoo! I was just there – Gulf Islands National Seashore in Pensacola – a long ribbon of bright white sandy beach so alluring it had to be singing a siren song:

“Come, sift the sand between your toes. Stay here. Stay here. Forget your worldly cares. Stay . . .”

Floarida beaches - beach sand
Different types of beach sand. Photo by David McRee

And the emerald green waters of the Gulf of Mexico echo the beach promise of sun and fun.

Florida beaches will have their way with you

Yep. Florida beaches can and will have their way with you. The sand sighs as you take off your shoes, sink into the sand and sift sand between your toes. There is the promise of natural detox plus getting gritty and feeling great. All this without even getting wet yet. Just stroll and watch the pelicans skim the water’s surface. Bend down and do the shark tooth shuffle, looking for castoffs from the deep. Inhale. Renew. Revive.

And the sunsets, ah well, line up and enjoy the awesome sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s a thought – go to the Sandbar Waterfront Restaurant in Anna Maria, take an outside table and have a front row seat for the sunset.

Floarida beaches - sunset
Sunset photo by David McRee

Sunrises over the Atlantic are pretty spectacular too. Once a photographer and I showed up at Anastasia State Park early, before sunrise, to do a newspaper story on a gentleman doing sandcastle building practicing for a national competition. As the sun came up, casting golden light on the water and the beach, his castle grew taller and taller and more amazing. I looked around and thought: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

You are nodding your head. You know what I’m talking about. Still it comes as a nice surprise that others are nodding their heads too. Nine Florida beaches, including Gulf Island National Seashore in Pensacola are among the top 25 beaches in the United States, just named in a Travelers’ Choice 2013 award posted by tripadvisor.

The other beaches are Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville; Caladesi Island State Park, Dunedin; Pensacola Beach, Pensacola; Clearwater Beach; St. Andrews State Park, Panama City; Fort DeSoto Park, Terra Verde; Siesta Key Public Beach, Sarasota; Pass-a-Grille, St. Pete Beach.

Florida beaches - Mexico Beach
Mexico Beach in the Panhandle. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

My goodness! The only other state to come close to those numbers is Hawaii. These Travelers Choice awards are like winning the Oscars. Everyone wants to go see the movies that won. Let’s go experience all the beaches that one – a nice spring project for you.

Florida beaches include some friendly for dogs

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Obi, my Welsh corgi, accompanied me to the Panhandle last week. Dogs are not allowed on Pensacola or the Gulf Seashore beaches but we found a small beach on a bayou that did the job. Obi isn’t about to get his paws wet. At Bayview Park dog park in Pensacola he enjoyed running around in the sand with other dogs while one dog got really serious about digging a deep hole at the waterline – all the way to China?

Florida beaches - dog beach
Dogs getting acquainted at Bayview Park, Pensacola. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

Patricia Collier is the keeper of a site for Florida Pets that includes lists of dog-friendly beaches. For example, one of the award-winning beaches, Fort DeSoto Park in Terra Verde has a Paw Playground and beach so if your best friend has four legs and likes water, here you go.

Florida is shaped like an upside down boot dipped in water on three sides with a total of 663 miles of beach and 2,276 statute miles of shoreline. Oh, and in addition, Florida has more than 11,000 miles of rivers, streams and waterways – many of these shorelines sport sandy beaches.

The beach sands are calling. Will you answer the call? I have to go now, the sun is setting on Lido Beach and I don’t want to miss it.

Florida beaches - Lido Beach sunset
Lido Beach sunset, Sarasota. Photo by Lucy Beebe Tobias

In my Florida travels I meet fantastic people who are travel writers, residents, newcomers, guides and entrepreneurs, all are digging into the Florida places they love and finding treasures worth keeping.

In his own words, here is David McRee whom I got to know when he served as Beaches Expert for VISIT FLORIDA the same time I served as Authentic Florida Expert. David loves Florida beaches and he is the real deal, he grew up near Florida beaches. Be sure to check out his beach blog. You will like it.

The continental United States has thousands of miles of beaches along its coastal states, but it is Florida’s beaches that reach into the warm waters of the Caribbean.

I started enjoying those beaches with my family before I could even walk. More than fifty years later those are still some of the fondest memories I have: Daddy teaching me to dog paddle, Mama trying to keep me covered with Sea & Ski suntan lotion, and me trying to eat an icy-cold banana popsicle from the beach snack bar before it melts under the hot July sun.

At the beach our senses are awakened. We inhale salty air mixed with coconut oil fragrance and we smell burgers cooking on the grill; we hear the laughing of gulls and the steady roar of the ocean; and we feel the salt from the sea drying to a crust on our skin under the summer sun.

In nature, the most vibrant places are often found at an edge, where forest meets field, where cold meets warm, where east meets west. The beach is the edge where the salt water wilderness meets the familiar.

The beach inspires wonder and invites contemplation. The stark simplicity of water, sand, and sky helps remove us from overwhelming busyness and technological distraction of modern life. We can hear ourselves think again.

Florida beaches - seashells
Seashells on the beach. Photo by David McRee

During my childhood years, my home beach was on Anna Maria Island, a seven-mile strip of white sand and tall Australian pines, with communities where the locals outnumbered the tourists for most of the year.

It was later in life that I discovered the curious variety of beaches in Florida. We have the most famous shelling beaches in the world: Sanibel and Captiva. We have some of the most important nesting beaches for Loggerhead sea turtles in the world on Brevard County’s Atlantic coast beaches.

Florida beaches - beach
Beach photo by David McRee

We have everything from crowded resort beaches with amenities that could challenge Disney World (Panama City Beach and Clearwater Beach) to quiet natural beaches on islands that can only be reached by boat (Anclote Key and Cayo Costa).

We have some of the purest white-quartz beaches in the world. But which is the whitest? It could be Siesta Key beach, or it could be one of the beaches in the western Florida panhandle, like those on Santa Rosa Island. You’ll just have to visit them all to decide for yourself.

But don’t think you have to have a beach with white quartz sand. How about looking for fossilized shark teeth on the dark gray sands of Venice? To really appreciate the beauty of Florida beach sand, dig your toes into the brown-orange sands of Ormond Beach or the biogenic sands of the Florida Keys, made up not of minerals and shell fragments, but of tiny bits of coral and forams–shells of tiny single-cell marine organisms.

Just because you’ve seen one Florida beach doesn’t mean you’ve seen them all. Explore. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll find.

David McRee writes about Florida beaches and islands at BlogTheBeach.com

Floarida beaches - Beach scene
Beach scene. Photo by David McRee










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Gentle Manatees Swim in Florida Waters

Gentle Manatees Swim in Florida Waters

Manatees were here before mastodons stomped down Florida grasses.

Before Indians inhabited prime seaside real estate. Even before Ponce de Leon got himself killed wandering around Florida looking for the Fountain of Youth.

Manatees pre-date Disney and interstates

Yes, way back, some 45,000,000 years ago before Interstate 75 even existed and Walt Disney had yet to invade Orlando.  West Indian manatees gathered then and now in shallow Florida waters during the winter months. These peaceful creatures swim slowly  munching peacefully on sea grasses and water hyacinths.

J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island has a new look at this ancient Florida resident. See their manatee exhibit tucked in a corner inside their free Visitor/Education center. The center is a large round room loaded with worthwhile exhibits and a delightful book store. The Center hours: 9-5 from January through April and 9-4 May through December.


manatee exhibit at Ding Darling
Marvelous Manatee exhibit at “Ding” Darling NWR, Sanibel Island

Did I mention the fact that these large aquatic mammals bother no one? Normally, you’d think that would help survival.

But now, after surviving 45,000,000 years a predator has arrived on the scene, slicing and dicing manatees with cruel efficiency even the saber-toothed tiger could not match.

Boat propellers.

A table at the new manatee exhibit lays out the forensic evidence why one manatee died. Among the big clues – boat propellers.

Fast boats. Slow manatees. The combination is a disaster in the making. Manatees that are not killed carry scars from boat encounters. Manatee zones exist in many coastal counties – areas were boaters are supposed to slow down to idle speed.

But wasn’t the point of getting those big-assed motors to go fast? You better believe it. So it comes as no surprise to you, dear readers, that the Pacific Legal Foundation, on behalf of the Save Crystal River, Inc. (pro boater) wants the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to down list manatees, thus ensuring the manatee zones will be gone and they can be run over at will.

Currently manatees are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 along with the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978.

Read more at Save the Manatee Club web site.

View manatees in Florida

If you’ve never seen a manatee, now is the time. Winter months they congregate in warm rivers. Here are some viewing opportunities:

The park staff at Blue Spring State Park in Orange City counted 302 manatees on Dec. 31, 2012. The St. John’s River water is shallow. Viewing is excellent. But if you can’t get there right away, then check out the free wild manatee cams at Blue Spring State Park.

Tampa Electric’s Manatee Viewing Center has an education building and plenty of manatees during the winter months.

Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River is not only beautiful but a favorite warm water hangout for manatees.

Notice I use the word “view” – so much healthier for the manatees than swimming or diving with them (a big tourist industry in Crystal River, please refuse to participate).

Imagine you are sitting in your living room, munching on a healthy salad made of organic greens, when suddenly a snorkeler drops down from the ceiling and gets right in your face. Then he starts snapping pictures, waving his hands and more snorkelers arrive. They start poking you. A nightmare that happens to manatees every day in Crystal River. Mothers, children, fathers, all this stress for manatees even before they leave the safe “living room” (manatee zone) and encounter boat propellers.

Speaking of salads, manatee programs at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Homosassa include feeding a whole lot of lettuce to resident manatees (injured and orphaned manatees are rehabilitated and some are permanent residents). The times are 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3:30p.m. daily.


manatees at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Outdoor benches provide a viewing area. Also get a look at manatees underwater by going down inside the Fish Bowl underwater observatory.

The saber-tooth tigers and mastodons are gone, extinct. Manatees live on, wild and free, and their existence is dependent on you and me.

Note this advice from Save the Manatee: Call 10888-404-3922, #FWC or *FWC on your cell phone or use VHF Channel 16, marine radio, if you see an injured, dead, tagged or orphaned manatee, or if you see a manatee being harassed.


Lucy Beebe Tobias is the author and illustrator of “Mary Margaret Manatee: the adventures of a young Florida manatee” a positive story book for 4-10 year olds that includes a study guide in the back.




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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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