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Iconic RV resort marks 50 years

SARASOTA — When the first two groups of campers came to the Sun-N-Fun park on Fruitville Road, 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 group of Mennonites.

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. The Sarasota landmark is also celebrating its 50th anniversary.

It was half a century ago that three Ohio couples set out on a mission to build a recreation center off a then-unpaved stretch 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 other amenities had initially failed to find substantial profit.

"We probably owed money to everyone in town," said Hysell."

The couples continued to introduce new attractions and activities, but nothing seemed to work, said Dick's wife, Laura, 79. Even a free bus service to bring people to the park didn't help.

"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.

But it didn't stop them.

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

The women pitched in by economizing, like preparing a potato soup for the whole group.

At a recent gathering at the park to celebrate the 50th anniversary, retired Judge Lynn Silvertooth laughed as he remembered the three men 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."

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. The grounds, at 18 feet above sea level, were ideal for camping.

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

Sun-N-Fun now has more than 1,500 sites.

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

If we had a Wal-Mart here, they'd never leave," said current manager Tim Deputy.

Iconic RV resort marks 50 years 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 10:37pm]
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