And just where, you might ask, is America’s Seaplane City? Anchorage? Honolulu? Somewhere near Seattle?
Nope. You’re way off course. America’s self-proclaimed Seaplane City lies nestled on lovely Lake Dora in Florida, amid a charming chain of other lakes, not very far from Orlando.
Tavares, county seat of Lake County, Florida, is a former railroad town, a former orange-growing, citrus-sorting center. Good times come and go, and central Florida’s agricultural economy fell into a real slump a few years back. The need for rail service slowed, and the orange groves were hard-hit by disease.
Many thousands of acres of former citrus plantations and orange-packing warehouses became cow pastures, retirement villages, and vacant buildings. Though some resistant orange trees are being developed, the days of miles of glossy citrus trees may be gone for good.
So what’s a small city to do to keep the lights on? These days, county government occupies much of the downtown real estate. The Tavares city hall, an imposing county courthouse, the local lockup, and lots of law offices and bail bondsmen all figure prominently in the Tavares economy.
And for some years, that’s about all there was. On weekends, especially, the town, despite its perfect site, was very quiet.
That all changed when City Manager John Drury was having lunch one day overlooking Lake Dora. He watched pilots land, anchor, and wade ashore through the muck and water lilies for lunch, water weeds clinging to their flip-flops. There was something wrong with that picture, Drury thought.
“What if,” he mused, “there were a nice ramp and piers for pilots to make it easy to come to town for a meal?”
What if, wondered Drury, himself a pilot and a newcomer to Tavares, there were fuel, docks, aviation-oriented shops, festivals, and fly-ins?
That was 10 years ago, and happened to coincide with the mayor’s drive to redevelop the downtown. After a year of conversations with local residents, an out-of-town development firm hatched an ambitious plan, which was set in motion with remarkable efficiency.
Piers were built to accommodate visiting float planes, and a fuel dock was installed to sell 100LL and auto gas. (The city even arranged to have JetA delivered by fuel truck, with prior notice.)
The existing boat ramp was widened, with a gentle slope to allow amphibians to taxi to a newly constructed ramp.
By 2010, the City of Tavares officially opened its seaplane base, and invited float-flyers to come visit.
And visit they have, in droves, especially during the city’s two annual seaplane fly-in events. Several years ago, the Tavares Seaplane Base and Marina logged its 10,000th seaplane landing. Locals aren’t entirely sure what that number is now, but lots more, suffice it to say.
One good thing begets another, and another. A fine playground and splash park came into being in Wooten Park, drawing young families downtown. A pretty waterfront path through tropical gardens led to a brand-new convention center perched over the lake. New restaurants, shops, museums, and hotels sprang up, thanks to the spruced-up waterfront park.
The old railroad tracks between Tavares and Mount Dora are busy once again, with a historic wood-fired steam engine or a diesel-powered train, featuring Wild-West entertainment drawing tourists from all over. The trip between the two towns takes 90 minutes, round-trip.
It’s a rare weekend when there isn’t a festival of some sort in full swing in Wooten Park.
The freshly renovated waterfront park is also home to The Prop Shop, selling everything a pilot needs, from T-shirts to soft drinks, to airplane gear. It isn’t obvious whether it is possible to purchase a propeller there, however.
Housed in a replica of the historic Woodlea House, which was built in 1871 by the area’s most prominent citizen, Captain Melton Haynes, The Prop Shop proclaims itself to be the nation’s smallest FBO.
Its generous front porch offers rocking chairs, often occupied by senior citizens rating landings and reminiscing about their own good old days.
It’s right next door to The Jones Brothers’ Air and Seaplane Adventures office, a company selling floatplane rides, and seaplane instruction in a Cessna 180 on floats. The company’s plane hardly comes to a stop on weekends, as visitors line up for a $39 ride around Lake Dora. Passengers alighting from the seaplane circuit have one thing in common: A very wide grin.
Tavareans expect their little municipal park to be hopping even more than usual on the last weekend of April during the town’s annual fly-in festival. It’s Saturday, April 30, this year. Saturday’s “Planes, Trains and BBQ” will be followed on Sunday, May 1, by the Seaplane-a-Palooza. The Saturday event will feature a barbecue burn-off, music, train rides, and an antique car show.
On Sunday, the seaplanes take over the entertainment, with short-landing and quick-take-off contests, watermelon drops, and other feats of aerial derring-do.
There’ll be ramp space for the first few dozen amphibians, as well as dock space and beachfront for many more planes on floats. During the fly-ins, the water’s edge is often wingtip to wingtip with floatplanes bobbing in the wavelets. The Prop Shop employees will be directing amphibious fly-ins who plan to stay for the day, but won’t be participating in competitions, to the back of the ramp, and those who’ll need to get out will be positioned in the front row.
There’s no charge for the ramp, for the dock, or for the beach. There will be an FAA-qualified Air Traffic Controller on the Unicom frequency, 122.7, helping make order out of chaos, especially on Sunday,
Those pilots who haven’t made the floatplane conversion can land at nearby Leesburg International Airport (KLEE) and catch a cab to come share the fun.
Even if you don’t make it to the big splash-in, Tavares makes a pleasant stop almost any time. You may have the waterfront all to yourself, or you may be joined by a dozen other float pilots looking for an excuse to take a seaplane to lunch.