AUBURNDALE – If the summer months are an ideal time to attract visitors to Polk County’s numerous lakes and outdoor activities – what Mark Jackson calls the county’s “eco-tourism” – then tourism officials may have an added opportunity this summer as well.
The next few months are expected to be the last summer that Polk County will operate without a project expected to dramatically alter the landscape for tourism here: the arrival of Legoland Florida, the new theme park in Winter Haven that Merlin Entertainments is building, modeled after the successful parks in Europe and California.
And Jackson, Polk County’s director of tourism sports marketing, said from his office in Auburndale that in addition to promoting what Polk County has now, he also plans to spend months advertising that Legoland will be opening in October, and do what he can to help build anticipation for the theme park’s arrival.
“Not having Cypress Gardens anymore and not having Legoland yet, we’ve seen a little bit of a dip in tourism in the summer months,” Jackson said, “although it’s looking very, very good this coming summer.”
Cypress Gardens, the former theme park in Winter Haven, closed two years ago, and Merlin Entertainments purchased the property in order to build Legoland Florida. Despite the lull in tourism in the past couple of summers, Jackson said Polk County still has plenty to attract visitors during the school vacation months.
“Sports is a real plus for us – sporting events and those types of things that really carry us through the summer months,” he said. “But from a genreral tourist standpoint, we also have a lot of eco-tourism around the lakes. A lot of folks from Miami and Fort Lauderdale and that area like to come up and go boating and fishing at an affordbale price, and that’s been a heavy emphasis for us.”
The county has also gotten a boost, Jackson said, from the debut of Direct Air last month, the first regular passenger service from Lakeland in 23 years.
“With Direct Air in Lakeland, we’ve seen some tremendous results,” he said. “Actually by the very first day of its inaugural, they sold 27,000 tickets into and out of Lakeland, so that’s a pretty good number and for this year, it’s been a signicifcant focus for us in targeting those markets to promote Lakeland and Polk County as a destination. Admittedly a number of them will go to the beach and many of them are spending the night here and taking the opportunity to explore what we have in the area, our attractions like Fantasy of Flight and Bok Towers.”
Hank Longo, manager of Polk Outpost 27, the tourism office on U.S. 27 in Davenport, agreed that the arrival of Direct Air and coming of Legoland give the county plenty to draw in visitors this summer.
“We’re definitely promoting Legoland here, and we have our Legoland brochures and are making people aware of that,” Longo said. “We’re making sure they can go online and find out whatever they want to know about Legoland, and we will be selling Legoland tickets eventually.
“We’re also promoting Direct Air, the new airline that is going in and out of the Lakeland airport,” he added. “That’s a very big thing in the county right now. And we have a whole list of events that we provide for our visitors that come in, from the Flying Tigers baseball to the summer concert series at Bok Towers to Classic Albums Live at the Lakeland Center. We have a whole host of events that go on in the summer that we promote on a regular basis. There’s all kinds of things going on.”
But this summer is particularly special, Jackson said, because of the outreach Polk County’s tourism office is doing to neighboring businesses.
“As Legoland approaches, it’s been a very long process educating the community,” he said — particularly the business community. Jackson wants businesses to understand the target audience for Legoland – families with young children – and start doing what they can to make their company as “family friendly” as possible.
“I think we’ve given 40 presentations to local chambers and economic development groups and so on,” he said. “We want to prepare businesses to become family friendly, because with Legoland, the new target market will be families with children. With Cypress Gardens, the target market was 45 and up, and with Legoland, it’s now 45 and down. We’re seeing some results, not only from preliminary activities, but from some of the businesses that are changing the way they do business, changing some of their infrastructure to become more family friendly in a way that caters to families – fun things for kids to do, and so on.
“It’s up to the businesses themselves and the communites if they want to capitalize on this new market,” Jackson added, “but it’s going to be a huge shift and a new way to do business.”
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