Fort De Soto – St Petersburg, FL

Fort De Soto Sunset

On a recommendation from our campsite next door neighbors at Fort Wilderness in Disney World, we headed about two or three hours southwest to St Petersburg, Florida. These neighbors are Tampa locals and recommended we stay at Fort De Soto County Park (St Petersburg is just outside of Tampa). Chris had already read about Fort De Soto in his never-ending research to find cool places to camp. It’s a bit tricky to get into for any length of time. This (being Winter) is their high season, what with all the snowbirds here from all the colder states, so finding a site that we would fit into that was open for more than two nights was not possible on the park’s website. We decided to go anyways, on our two night reservation (the Disney World neighbors tipped us off that Fort De Soto holds ten percent of their sites for walk-up reservations). We figured we had at least two nights booked and if we could get more while we were there, cool. So we made our way down the road, heading for our new destination.
We pulled off the road to get gas in the Moho, and saw a sign that said “Fantasy of Flight, 1 mile” with an arrow pointing in the direction to follow.

The very exciting side trip to Fantasy of Flight in "Orlampa," which is the nickname of the area between Orlando and Tamp

The very exciting side trip to Fantasy of Flight in “Orlampa,” which is the nickname of the area between Orlando and Tampa

Neither of us were sure what this place was, we hadn’t read anything about it in our research on things to see in Florida, so we decided to check it out. GOOD DECISION! Chris’s dad is a pilot and flew for TWA for years (in fact, that’s how he met Chris’s mom, who was a flight attendant) so interest in airplanes runs in Chris’s blood. Fantasy of Flight turned out to be a private collection of planes owned by a guy named Kermit Weeks, who has been collecting and designing aircrafts for decades. His collection and the museum were quite impressive and well-maintained. You enter in through a rounded door with a big canvas and nylon net-like military-looking contraption hanging over it. This is your first clue that you are about to step back in time and experience what life was like for a pilot from the beginning of flight in hot air balloons, to pilots in WWI and WWII, and beyond. The first room you walk into from the dark, winding hallway contained a large hot air balloon display with old videos showing actual flights on the wall. Then, down another dark hallway, you are suddenly surrounded by red, with a plane over your head and the walls of the trenches of WWI all around you.

Surrounded by sights and sounds of WWI

Surrounded by sights and sounds of WWI

The red lighting in the room and the sounds of gunfire and bombs going off around you with scratchy radio voices yelling military-like commands quickly give you a small experience of what it must have been like to be in those bunkers and underground trenches all those years ago. There are cots built into a little side room with old oil lamps and collapsed areas and, if I remember correctly, a few of your fellow soldiers that didn’t survive. It’s very dramatic and wonderfully done. As you enter the next section you see WWII propaganda posters with Uncle Sam and war bonds. You walk through a briefing room with your commanding officer, who’s showing on a wall from an old film reel in silhouette in black and white, telling you your mission and what sort of enemy planes to look for. After the short video, you walk out of the barracks onto a makeshift runway at night in the snow (not real snow, just part of the decor to get the vibe of the time just right) and up onto your bomber to take off.

Inside of the WWII bomber

Inside of the WWII bomber

You enter the back of the bomber, and see the seats where the soldiers would have controlled the guns, the radio, and you even go into the part of the plane where the large missiles and bombs were held. You walk through and down out of the cockpit, back onto the runway and out of the time warp into the present-day museum of the collection of unique airplanes of Mr Weeks. The displays ranged from the very old to the very bizarre.

Early 1900s airplane... or bicycle?

Early 1900s airplane… or bicycle?

We had a great time looking at everything, and were very impressed by the way the whole experience was set up. We even had lunch in the little cafe in the museum. And then, Chris saw it… an old biplane on the actual runway outside, taking what looked like visitors up for a flight. When he asked for more info, he found out that you could indeed fly in this 1940s Boeing Stearman aircraft, used to train WWII pilots. Better than that, once you were up in the air, your co-pilot (the real pilot) would actually let you take over control of the plane and teach you how to fly it! Chris couldn’t pass up the opportunity for this experience, and knew sharing it with his dad would really give the “old man,” as we love to call him, a laugh. So while Zeph napped and I read in the car, Chris went up for his flight. He was gone about forty minutes and came back with a very large grin on his face. I think he enjoyed himself thoroughly.
After a four hour or so side trip to Fantasy of Flight we got back on the road to St Petersburg. Side note: have I mentioned that Florida’s freeways are not free? It seems, from the lightness of our pockets and change holders, that every “free” way in Florida is a toll road. That being said, the main freeways/tollroads/highways in this state are very well-maintained compared to some states we’ve been in (Texas and Louisiana). So a half hour or so and $10 or so dollars in toll fees later, we arrived at our new home. At first I wasn’t sure what to think about the place… the bathroom facilities looked like they’d been there since the Flinstone days, and everything was very tropical. Like in a “there must be giant bugs that live in this jungle” sort of way. Bugs + me = not friends. It took me all of about ten minutes to fall in love with the place though, round mosaic river rock yellow bathrooms and all.

One of the three campsites we stayed in at Fort De Soto County Park in Tierra Verde, outside of St Petersburg

One of the three campsites we stayed in at Fort De Soto County Park in Tierra Verde, outside of St Petersburg

The roads are not paved for the most part, they are all packed crushed shell. Basically they are like hard white sand, which made the jungly beauty and color stand out. Plus we were back to camping on the beach, which always makes us happy. We stayed the first two nights in the spot we booked online, then Chris (wonderful man that he is) woke up at 4am on friday morning and headed to the campsite office to wait in line to try to get a walkup spot. Why 4am? Why not when the office opened at 7am? We’d heard from other campers that the demand for walk-up sites was high and if you wanted a chance at all you needed to get there super early. Chris was second in line, behind a guy who’d gotten there at midnight! Chris said after he got there at 4:15am or so, about ten other people quickly showed up. Long wait short, we got a great site for the weekend. I went Monday morning at 8 (office opened at 9, and we knew the line on Monday would be nothing like Friday) and got us the same site for three more nights. I think in all we were at Ft De Soto for eight or nine nights. That’s a long stay for us, which means we really loved it!
The first day we were there we rented a canoe around 10am and cruised around the waterways. Fort De Soto is on a barrier island with little inlets lined with mangrove trees everywhere. Supposedly there are manatees and dolphins in there sometimes but all we saw were some fish. Zeph loved being on the boat and was attempting to wander about. He eventually made it to the bow and I’m pretty sure he thought he was the king of the world. We stayed out for a couple of hours, exploring and staring into the beautiful water, which wasn’t too deep in most places, until the wind picked up and we headed back to return the boat.

Captain of the Ship

Captain of the Ship

From there we went over to North Beach, also on the barrier island. This beach was voted “Best Beach” (by whom, I have no clue) in 2005 – there were signs everywhere informing us – and we were not disappointed. The beach was a wide expanse of the white sugar sand (I think it feels more like flour but I don’t get a vote) and the water was shallow and crystal clear. The three of us were the only ones on the beach besides a group of forty or so snowbirds from Montreal playing bocce ball. How do we know they were from Montreal? Well, Zephyr happens to be just about the best conversation starter ever invented! Everyone wants to know how old he is, will he give them a high-five, if he likes the beach (duh), how he does with traveling, etc. Seriously. Everyone wants to talk to us, and tell us how old their kids and grandkids are, and talk to Zeph. Of course the three of us eat it up. We’ve made so many new friends recently, from all over the country (and a few from our neighborly country to the north). Thank you, Zephyr, for being so adorable that you can’t help but attract people around you to love you immediately.

Zeph caught in a sunbeam at North Beach

Zeph caught in a sunbeam at North Beach

Chris and Zeph did a lot of fishing from our campsite. Well, Chris did. Zeph would just go stand next to him and say “Yessie” which is what he calls himself (because he can’t say “Zephy”). That basically means he wants to do whatever we are doing. Even I got in on the action, and almost broke Chris’s fishing pole so I decided to retire my fishing career after a few minutes. And between the three of us, we caught… nothing. Not a fish, not a bird, not a rock, not a beer can, nothing. Guess the dolphins were eating up everything in front of our campsite. Or maybe we didn’t use the right bait. Chris tried every lure and other weird-looking thing in his tackle box. We saw a little ten year old girl catch a fish just down from us. No fish for dinner for us, though.
Chris and I have been looking forward to spotting some manatees in the wild in this part of the state. They love warm water and actually can’t live in water below 68 degrees or something close to that. I was looking online for cool stuff to do in the local area (and our neighbors told us about it, too) and found the Big Bend Power Plant Manatee Viewing Center. Basically the place is a giant coal power plant that uses the seawater surrounding it to cool off the processing plant (or something, I didn’t pay too much attention to this part) and then pumps the warm water back out into this small bay, and the manatees come here every year to stay warm. The power plant, or the city or state or county that runs it, decided to build the Manatee Viewing Center on the other side of the bay from the plant so people could come and see the manatees. Nice positive press for the plant, cool place to see the manatees for the town folks. Your tax dollars at work!

The manatees hang out just below the plant where those dock-looking things are

The manatees hang out just below the plant where those dock-looking things are

Actually the plant could be privately owned, I have no idea how these things work… but I digress. Anyways, we checked the place out. It was a cool setup, with a few spots to look into the bay and info on the surrounding native plants and other creatures in the bay. We saw Tarpon (big fish) hanging out, and a two foot black tip shark. We even saw a two foot spinner shark jump up into the air and spin (hence the name, I guess). The manatees were there too, across the bay. We saw some of their backs floating just above the surface, and could see them moving just under the dark water where the warm water poured out from the plant, but nothing up close. It was pretty much worth the trip, especially because on the way back to the Moho we stopped at Morgan Farms (on a tip from our neighbor) to get some fresh strawberry milkshakes.
The last day at Fort De Soto we decided (because Chris’s brother Kenny recommended it) to go to the Salvador Dali Museum downtown. Dali was a Spanish surrealist painter who got famous for his shocking and strange art, his eccentric personality and his long thin black mustache. The museum was very much a tribute to Dali’s style, the building was oddly shaped and the staircase inside went all the way to the ceiling. There was a maze outside in the garden and lots of grade school students cruising around in their school uniforms with felt black mustaches on their faces.

At the Dali Museum, the strange staircase in the background

At the Dali Museum, the strange staircase in the background

I walked quickly with Z through the two rooms of the actual Dali paintings. There were signs everywhere to be quiet and not touch anything and Zeph was doing neither of these things very well. So I kinda glanced around, then took Z outside to run. Chris stayed in for awhile, sitting in to listen to some of the docents explain the layers and meaning to Dali’s paintings. He came outside to meet us, and insisted we go back in so he could show me what he just learned. Dali’s art is like an onion, lots of layers and can have somewhat of an offensive feeling to the eyes if you are sensitive. Chris showed me painting after painting, explaining “see, there’s a picture of God carrying Jesus in the clouds,” or “that’s actually Dali’s wife’s face on that crusader’s body” or “if you look closely, you can see Abraham Lincoln’s face on the backside of this naked woman” or, my personal favorite, “this painting is a still considered a sin to look at by the Catholic Church.” I’m not sure how to sum up this experience except to say Dali was a trippy dude and I am now a fan of his madness. In fact, Dali is quoted as saying “the only difference between me and a madman is, I’m not mad.”
Across the walkway from the Dali Museum was a performing arts center-type place, which had a Titanic Artifact Exhibit going on. Zeph had just fallen asleep in the stroller so Chris and I figured, why not? We like Leo and Kate just as much as the next guy. The exhibit cost just as much as the Dali Museum (about $20 per adult). The lady that welcomed us into the exhibit handed us each a small card explaining these were our identities on the ship and at the end we could find out if we survived or not. Then she told us not to touch the little white alarms on the glass housing for the artifacts, as they were very sensitive and would trigger an alarm. What’s the first thing Chris does when we walk into the first room of the exhibit? He says “What’s this?” and tries to pick up the little white alarm. I’m just about to tell him that’s the alarm we are not supposed to touch when the darn thing goes off. It’s LOUD and high-pitched. The woman who just warned us comes into the room to turn it off, and Chris walks in the other direction innocently, looking around for the culprit or idiot that just set the alarm off. After quietly questioning his motives, he told me he thought someone had left their digital camera on the display and he was going to find out who left it there. In his defense, the alarms DID look like a small white digital camera.

The front of the Dali Museum

The front of the Dali Museum

Zeph woke up about two minutes after the alarm sounded and we continued working our way (carefully) through the rest of the exhibit. Overall the exhibit seemed small and nowhere near as cool as the Dali Museum. We felt a wee bit like $20 was way too much to charge to view the exhibit, very few actual artifacts and too many crappy pixelated blown up pictures of artifacts. We didn’t stay more than ten minutes, and brought Z back outside to run around before heading back to camp.
Fort De Soto and St Petersburg were quite charming for us. I think we could have stayed at Fort De Soto a lot longer if the reservation situation was a little easier or we knew more in advance how the system worked. But maybe that’s the whole idea, so everyone gets a chance to visit.

  • Allie

    Those sunglasses are too funny! And I’m impressed at naked zephs tan lines! Great pics and blog. I think of my dad every time I see Chris with the bike for zeph to ride on the back. Great memories. I love you guys!

    • zephyrsunrise

      HA HA, So true. Every time I get on the bike and pull away I think of the feeling of sitting in that back seat with dad pulling away. When we were small there was some serious g-force when dad was picking up speed.

      -Chris