Monthly Archives: April 2021

April 2021 – Wither Callaway Gardens?

Part of the reason we’ve always had a fondness from FDR State Park is that it is located adjacent to Callaway Gardens, which has also been one of our favorite places: thousands of acres of stunningly beautiful gardens, miles of bike paths, two golf courses, a wonderful butterfly house, (until recently) a world-class greenhouse, countless natural and hybrid azaleas, all geared towards what has always been the mission of Callaway Gardens: to provide opportunities for recreation and spiritual renewal in an area of natural beauty.

But this trip, we saw something we were not expecting … Callaway Gardens looked like it was struggling, both financially and philosophically.

Attendance had been slipping for years, down from one million visitors per year at its peak in the 1990s to about 400,000 in the past few years. There were several management missteps, including adding an upscale hotel, spa, and housing developments, all of which led to the Gardens bleeding cash, eventually having to sell off about 7000 acres (of its 13,000) to cover its debt. In fact, the upscale hotel, which was designed to complement the Mountain Creek Inn, actually ended up diverting guests, even after the Mountain Creek Inn underwent a $3 million expansion. A new CEO was brought onboard in 2015 (he came with a background in resorts and theme parks — including Dollywood and Silver Dollar City) who made some substantial changes, including closing the Sibley Horticulture Center, a greenhouse that was always one of our favorite stops and that was renowned as one of the most advanced greenhouse complexes in the world. That CEO left a couple years ago, and management is now in the hands of HFE Corporation, a company that operates and manages family-oriented theme parks and attractions and is a unit of Herschend Enterprises, the nation’s largest family owned themed attractions and entertainment company.

All of this led to what was a palpable change in the way the Gardens now present themselves. Indeed, even before knowing about the Gardens’ financial woes, we all remarked that it looked like the Gardens was cutting costs and struggling to make ends meet. Besides the closed hulk of the Sibley greenhouse, the grounds themselves were visibly less up-kept, the Mountain Creek Inn is shuttered, and the crowds were noticeably diminished. Plus, there was something incongruous about Callaway Gardens, of all places, closing the greenhouse and garden, while keeping the zip line. To be sure, I like theme parks as much as the next guy, but one would think that a place billing itself as “gardens” would have room for a bench among the flowers.

I’m sure that part of the Gardens’ woes can be attributed to a series of unfortunate external events. Troubles started after 9/11 with the decline in the travel industry, its real estate ventures got walloped by the 2008-2010 real estate crash, it made some bad financial decisions, and it’s certainly suffering right now from the COVID slump.

But I wonder if something else isn’t driving the decline in attendance. Callaway Gardens always sold itself as a place of quiet, introspective beauty. A place of spiritual renewal as much as anything. Obviously, a place to to renew one’s soul is only attractive to people who think they have a soul, which is an increasingly rare belief in America nowadays. And quiet solitude in a place of natural beauty has a hard time competing with the frenetic pace and fractured attention spans of a technology-crazed populace.

All of which may explain why Callaway thinks, probably correctly, that the secret to the Gardens’ future lies not so much in spiritual nourishment as in theme park exhilaration. Whether it can actually build itself up into the kind of would-be theme park that can successfully draw visitors seeking that kind of experience remains to be seen.

But an even bigger question in my mind is whether, succeeding or not, we may lose something of what made Callaway Gardens worth going to, namely that it was precisely not a theme park experience. I don’t know. Maybe the Callaway Foundation, which owns and oversees Callaway Gardens and which is committed to the original Callaway legacy, can strike a balance of attracting enough of the sort of theme-park clientele to keep the gardens going, while preserving enough of the quiet, subtle, natural beauty of the area to provide spiritual nourishment for the rest of us. Or maybe that’s an impossible balance. Or maybe there’s no market for spiritual goods in a world where people find all the affirmation they need in a theme park. We shall see…

April 2021 – No Rules Camping

Over the years, Roosevelt State Park near Pine Mountain has always been one of our favorites. Miles of hiking trails, a lake for fishing, nearby attractions, vicious geese that attack small children … what’s not to like? We were here last four years ago (“Preparing for the Next Big Trip“) with Cliff and all the little girls, so, when Jennifer and her girls had a three-day weekend available, it was back to FDR State Park.

The entire picture album for the trip is here: FDR State Park – April 2021.

And because FDR State Park was one of the places we first went camping when we moved to Georgia, it was also the place where we developed our principles of “no rules camping.” Here’s the deal. When we were raising our kids, we had lots of rules: we go to church and Sunday school every week; you eat what’s put in front of you; you do your chores before you play; TV only if you get all A’s and B’s, and then only 30 minutes per day; we pick your friends; bedtime means bed time; no R-rated movies until you’re 18; and dozens of others. Maybe we had too many rules … that’s one of the things one thinks about in hindsight after the kids are grown: what did I do right or wrong as they were growing up? But, right or wrong, we were basically a rule-based family.

Except when we went camping. Then, perhaps sensing that the little darlings needed a respite from the regimentation of our family life, we established no-rules-camping. It worked like this — when we were camping, there were no rules. You were free to do whatever you want. Really, whatever. Well, not exactly “whatever.” We did have two rules: we had to know where you were, at least within a search-party radius, and the kids could not physically harm each other, at least not seriously (mental abuse was OK). But subject to that, the kids really were free. They could jump on their bikes and go where they chose, head off into the woods, walk into the lake fully clothed (that actually happened), eat or not eat whatever they chose, wipe their worm-baity grubby little hands all over their clothes; stay up until all hours; play in the mud; whatever. We figured that, other than the normal, perfectly acceptable risks of being outdoors (cuts, bruises, broken bones; drowning; ticks; snakes; etc.), there was relatively little harm from easing up on the reins, it was fun (and probably healthy) for kids, and frankly it gave us a few days off from having to constantly socialize the little darlings. And it was fun for us too.

I think rules-based parenting is probably passé nowadays. But even still, there seems to be a delight in the freedom that a camping trip provides. Within minutes of our arrival on this trip, for example, the girls literally ran off into the woods, following the azimuth provided by their geocaching app, in search of some trinket. I don’t remember if we knew where they were or not — we certainly knew that they were on foot so they couldn’t have gotten too far — but it brought to mind memories of countless trips over the years, and the pure joy of watching kids doing what they do best, which is being kids.

What a great trip. We’re already talking about fitting in another three-day excursion this Fall, and I can hardly wait.

March-April 2021: Ft. Wilderness

Oh no! Not another Walt Disney World / Fort Wilderness post?!? Yup. Well, sort of. It was indeed back to the Disney Fort Wilderness campground (for the seventh time in the past nine years, plus a boatload of times before that), but this trip was different. First, it was a full-blown family reunion, and second, it was done during the COVID clamp down.

Family Reunion. With the family spread out over 1000-plus miles of the eastern side of the U.S., getting everyone together takes effort. A lot of effort. Specifically, it required our driving ACE down 400 miles from Atlanta, Cliff hauling his RV 1000 miles down from New Jersey, Summer and the girls flying down from Philadelphia, getting Robert’s RV 100 miles up from Tampa, putting Jennifer and the girls on a plane from Atlanta, and somehow timing arrivals and airport runs to get everyone and all of the RVs in the same place at roughly the same time. Actually, now that I write that, I have no idea how that happened. But, thanks to extraordinary effort by everyone, it did. Amazing.

And it was worth it.

Friday night dinner, before Jennifer and the girls arrived. The bottle of wine on the table is for the adults, except in case of a widespread kid-meltdown, in which case any form of subduing the children is permissible, including forced inebriation.
The Cousins” (as they refer to themselves) at the Ft. Wilderness pool on Saturday. The “campground” is so full of things to do that all we did was to hang around there all day.

Jennifer and the girls, and Robert, Laura, and the boys, all left on Sunday, so the rest of the week was Cliff, Summer, and the girls, along with the two of us. That meant two days of the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, plus a couple more days of pool time, fishing, horseback riding, some really incredible dinners, and continued lizard catching.

Anyway, I won’t go on and on. The last time the whole family got together was back in the summer of 2019, so this gathering was long overdue. It was great for the grownups to spend time together, but it was even better for The Cousins.

The full family album is available here:

COVID. Obviously, a crowded theme park, with tens of thousands of people crammed within inches of each other, is a recipe for a super-spreader event of Biblical proportions. (Think of the angel of death hovering over Fantasyland, with the first-born son of each family dropping dead in the boats on It’s a Small World.) (As opposed to the parents keeling over after they’ve heard the refrain for the 95th time.) To prevent such a thing, Disney implemented a large number of restrictions designed to limit the carnage: only a limited number of people were admitted to the park (although you couldn’t prove it by me) and advance reservations were necessary to enter; masks were required everywhere, and there were warning posted that patrons failing to “properly wear” a “suitable mask” “would be asked to leave”; the lines were rerouted to prevent people from passing within inches of each other, along with signs posted reminding people to maintain a six-foot distance; crowd-producing activities (like the fireworks show) were cancelled; and several attractions were closed. And, for the most part, the guests seemed to abide by the restrictions and everyone seemed to take things in good spirits. As is evident from our pictures, we were fully masked up all the time and no one seemed to much mind.

I must say, though, that some of the restrictions seemed a bit much, more like they were drafted by lawyers, or bureaucrats suffering from the nail clipper syndrome, or by corporate PR types intent on corporate virtue signaling, than by sensible health professionals. Or maybe designed to limit the online complaining by the mask-Nazis who incite social media mobs whenever their sensibilities are offended. In any event, some measures seemed more than necessary. For example, we traveled to and from the Magic Kingdom in open-air boats where everyone, even if the boat was fully loaded, would be masked up, situated several feet apart anyway, in the open air, sitting in a 10-knot breeze as they traveled across the water. Even still, Disney chose to limit capacity on those boats to about one-third. Seriously? People were waiting in line under much riskier conditions, just to limit a situation that hard to imagine posing any realistic risk. Other examples abound: spraying down the seats and tables with disinfectant, plexiglass barriers everywhere, restaurant seating restricted to every-other-table, and so on. In a sense, I suppose, Disney should be commended for taking health measures seriously and trying to make everyone as safe as possible. Nevertheless, the experience could have been better under more sensible management.

After everyone had left, Wendy and I stayed one extra day to decompress and have a relaxing dinner at Narcoosie’s, the waterfront restaurant at the Grand Floridian Resort. As we sat there, running through the events of the past ten days, we agreed it was one of the best RV trips we’re ever had. We’ll savor the memories forever …