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Florida’s Sun-N-Fun RV Resort Marks 50th Year

August 18, 2009 by   - () Leave a Comment

sun-n-fun-rv-resort-logoWhen the first two groups of campers came to the Sun-N-Fun park on Fruitville Road in Sarasota, Fla., original co-owner Dick Hysell feared it would become another failed business venture.

One camper asked where he could buy a case of scotch as he handed over the $2 nightly charge. The other trailer housed a conservative group of Mennonites, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

As Hysell drove home that evening, he realized the natural conflict that could arise.

“I just thought I better get there early in the morning to get them apart. Then there they were, having coffee and doughnuts together,” said Hysell, 81. “These are campers. They’re real friendly and they do things together. From then on, it was easy.”

The Sun-N-Fun RV Resort is now one of Southwest Florida’s largest mobile home and RV parks — a Sarasota landmark celebrating its 50th anniversary that continues to attract tourists and the same winter guests year after year.

Resort’s Origins

It was half a century ago that three Ohio couples set out on a mission to build a recreation center off a then-unpaved portion of Fruitville Road that is now a short drive east of Interstate 75.

A decade in, they actually started to make money from their efforts.

The 250,000-gallon pool, miniature golf course, restaurant and a multitude of other amenities had initially failed to garner any substantial profit.

“We hadn’t made a penny,” said Hysell. “We probably owed money to everyone in town.”

The couples continued to introduce new attractions and activities, but nothing seemed to work, said Dick’s wife, Laura Hysell, 79. Even a free bus service to bring people to the park did not help business.

“Not a single person in town said, ‘Gee, that’s a good idea.’ They asked, ‘Are you crazy?'” she recalled.

The Hysells, Marvin and Marilyn Keyser, and Duane and Evelyn Werstler had their share of doubts and struggles during their first years of financial hardship.

But the rough start did not stop them.

The men would take odd jobs building porches and roofs or boarding up homes before hurricanes.

The women took other frugal measures, like frequently preparing a simple potato soup for the whole group.

“It required very little, and that’s all we could afford,” said Evelyn Werstler, 84.

At a recent gathering at the park to celebrate the 50th anniversary, retired Judge Lynn Silvertooth laughed as he remembered the male counterparts of the three couples approaching him for legal counsel.

“These three guys walked in and said, ‘We’d like to open a business, but we don’t have any money,'” he said.

Silvertooth happily agreed to help for free.

“They worked like goats,” he said. “They dug out that pool by themselves and ran it all. They did very well for themselves.”

1969 Season Opening Recalled

Mike Swain, who also attended the celebration, was a reminder to the former owners of an amusing memory of their attempts to promote the park.

Swain, now 68, was hired in 1969 to skydive into Sun-N-Fun’s pool to draw attention to its opening for the season. Unfortunately, it was a windy day.

“I didn’t even come close to the pool,” Swain said, chuckling. “I was dragged along the highway, cars stopped. I had dodged the power lines. I was all beat up, but they still paid me.”

Introducing campsites to the park officially changed the game and gave the couples a taste of the comfortable lives they would eventually lead.

A flood at the Myakka State Park revealed an opportunity to the owners. The Sun-N-Fun grounds, at 18 feet above sea level, were ideal for camping.

The 175-acre park grew from accommodating only a few hundred trailers to about 1,000 when the three couples sold it in 1978.

Sun-N-Fun now has more than 1,500 sites for RVs to settle in for a week or the whole winter season.

And guests barely have to leave the resort, with a restaurant, poolside bar and grill, entertainment and many activities within footsteps.

“It’s like living in a bubble,” said current manager Tim Deputy. “You don’t really have to leave it. If we had a Wal-Mart here, they’d never leave.”

The original owners built the community aspect into the resort, past visitors said.

The park was run by devoted spouses. The couples’ children worked there as lifeguards, bartenders and servers.

And visitors were invited into the extended family by way of a church choir, parades, luaus, bingo parties, and pancake and chicken suppers.

Elaine Staudt, 83, stayed at Sun-N-Fun during school breaks with her family for 10 consecutive years, always reuniting with friends from previous stays. Just the thought of the hay rides brought a smile.

“Somebody always fell off,” Staudt said. “This place is just full of fun memories.”

After speaking to a few of the former owners’ children and reminiscing on his days as the “hot lifeguard,” Bob Mang, 64, said he was overwhelmed by the park’s growth.

“They were just spectacular owners with such entrepreneurial spirit,” Mang said. “They took a swimming pool and turned it into a real community.”

Along with creating lasting memories with fellow campers, current guests also have their choice of 150 activities a week, such as wood turning, exercise and jewelry-making classes.

“You can be as busy as you want or as relaxed as you want here,” Deputy said.

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