CRYSTAL SPRINGS — The fourth-graders listened intently as guide Jessica Wallen shared the myth of Spanish moss and how it originated with star-crossed lovers: an explorer and a red-haired Indian princess who spent their lives in a tree.
"When they died, the forest missed them and made this to look like the Spaniard's gray beard," she said, holding up a strand. She then peeled back the outer layer to reveal a red strand. "There's the Indian princess' hair," she said as the kids all oohed and aahed.
The story behind the moss, which actually is neither Spanish nor moss, was just one of the things the students at Chester Taylor Elementary and other area schools learned Wednesday during a field trip to Crystal Springs Preserve, where officials celebrated the opening of a new picnic pavilion and boardwalk-style trail.
"We have bubbles in our mouths," Chester Taylor teacher Amanda Plaisted told students as she quieted them just before the dedication, which included a ribbon-cutting ceremony and barbecue chicken lunch served on china plates.
After two students cut the oversized blue ribbon on the trail, the kids walked through and peered across the water in hopes of spotting alligators.
"I can see an alligator!" shouted 10-year-old Barry Chapman. "His head's poking up out of the water."
The additions to the 525-acre preserve just north of the Pasco/Hillsborough line were made possible by donations of $100,000 from Publix Super Markets Charities and $250,000 from the Community Foundation of Greater Lakeland. The Publix donation was a challenge grant, which the Crystal Springs Foundation matched with private donations. Publix then matched that money with an additional $20,000 every year for the next five years.
The privately-owned preserve, which serves more than 50,000 visitors each year, features a 4,000-square-foot laboratory and classroom to teach the public about the wise use of water and the need to protect Florida's natural habitats. It also serves as the main spring water source for Zephyrhills Water, with a spring that discharges 40 million gallons of water a day.
"We are honored to work with the Crystal Springs Foundation and support its efforts to create and educate an environmentally conscious community," said Kim Jeffery, president and chief executive officer of Nestle Waters North America, Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water's parent company. He said the company would like to do more to close the recycling loop and find a way to reuse the plastic water bottles.
"Seventy percent of plastics go into a landfill," he said. "We can't continue to handle resources like we do today."
Robert Thomas, whose family owns Two Rivers Ranch and sells spring water to Nestle, opened the education center in 2005 after reaching a legal settlement with activists and beefing up his contract with Nestle. The spring used to be used as a public swimming hole, and Thomas angered some when he closed it. On Wednesday, he recalled those days and said the property has been restored to pristine condition.
"There used to be junked cars out here," he said. "Nestle Waters has helped us transition the old swimming hole concept to a living lab and nature's classroom."
After lunch, former Chester Taylor principal and district administrator David Scanga thanked Thomas.
"You've turned this into a real gem," he said.
The kids then visited the nearby survival display and learned how to build a lean-to and collect water by closing a plastic zip-top bag over a plant.
"I think this was really cool," said 9-year-old Alexa Ferritto. Her friend, Maddy Muniz, 10, agreed and said she also likes the gators.
"The big ones are scary, but the little ones are cute."