Florida’s Seaplane Mecca

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

Things seem to be rolling now for Tavares, Florida, to actually become the “Seaplane City” of its dreams. The city’s innovative waterfront redevelopment combines urban renewal with a niche aviation business perfect for the big lakes of north central Florida.

Perched on Lake Dora some 40 miles northwest of Orlando, Tavares is working hard to make something new of itself. Eclipsed by tony neighbor Mt. Dora, it’s dreaming big. City fathers are combining generous waterfront access, nearby restaurants and entertainment venues, and the area’s seaplane-friendly Harris Chain of Lakes into an enticing package.

Tavares Seaplane Base

Lakeside just a block or two from a spiffed-up downtown is freshly rehabbed Wooten Park. Included: A new seaplane base office building, large boat ramp for amphibs, fuel facilities, parking apron, and protected floatplane dockage.

Drop into this mix Orlando-based Southwest Captain Ricci (“Richie”) Rowe and business partner/CFI Eric Weaver. They responded to Tavares’ ad for a seaplane operator to execute the concept. Rowe and Weaver launched “Jones Brothers & Co. Air and Seaplane Adventures,” although there is nary a “Jones Brother” to be found there.

Plenty of Rowe family members were on hand the weekend I visited, however. Helping out were Ricci’s wife Michelle and son Parker. Weaver and others were at work, looking authentic in their hip boots and custom Jones Brothers T-shirts on their “Old Florida-style” front porch. Another friend and Southwest pilot, Kevin Oliver, was there earlier as his son Cavanaugh got his first seaplane ride.

Things are humming now since Jones Brothers’ 2010 start-up. They’re doing four single-engine sea ratings a month and a big business in sightseeing flights. They are particularly proud of the care and time they take with each ASES student, including some very entertaining splash-in lunches at various Lake County waterfront restaurants during training.

Another selling point: A beautiful Twin Bee, the Republic Seabee twin that Rowe says may be one of the last flying in commercial service. If you want an AMES, or just some interesting twin time, here is a good candidate. Another attractive offering: The newly restored PA-12 on floats. It’s a beauty! There’s nothing like sitting on the centerline in a floatplane, but they have a couple nice Cessnas on floats, too.

Flying out of Tavares is a hoot because every weekend arrival and departure has an audience. Flocks of people at popular watering holes along Wooten Park enjoy the show.

An arriving foreign-registered Caravan and its snarling turboprop really drew a crowd. After some nifty reverse thrust to back away from a visiting Sea Cub on the ramp, the Caravan driver and his lovely companion made their glamorous entrance into an adjacent luncheon spot. Impressive!

Aviation start-ups are scary things. And doubters abound for urban renewal programs, especially one to create “Tavares, America’s Seaplane City.” But with strong city support, local tourism investment, an advantageous natural location and solid aviation professionals at work, Tavares and Jones Brothers may be a match made in aviation heaven.

To date, more new businesses have set up shop along Tavares’ Wooten Park, including nine new restaurants. And the seaplane-crazed Jones Brothers in their charmingly “down home” new waterfront office are still smilin’.

For more information: JonesAirAndSea.com, MESRating.com, Tavares.org

EDITOR’S NOTE: Look for a more in-depth piece on Tavares in the March 4 print edition of General Aviation News.

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