For half a century, Fort De Soto, a sandy, sun-kissed gem, has attracted millions of visitors from around the globe.
Its 1,136 acres makes it Pinellas County's largest park. The beaches are ranked among the nation's best.
On Saturday May 11, Fort De Soto Park officials, friends and volunteers will celebrate its 50th anniversary. It's a milestone the entire Tampa Bay area should toast.
The park boasts a cadre of some of the most dedicated volunteers in the county. They've been a vital part of the park's upkeep after years of budget cuts and staff reductions left the park with a skeleton staff.
No one knows that more than Waldo Rowell, who has logged more than 2,500 volunteer hours to the park. No other volunteer has logged more — at 89, he's also the oldest.
Rowell and his wife, Barbara, began volunteering in 1991, although she admits she stopped after Pinellas schools stopped bringing kids to the park for tours.
Today, Waldo has three days of physical therapy at Bayfront Medical Center and three days at the fort. He tends the historic trail, where all the living quarters were when it was a military post.
The fort's history is just as important to volunteers as the park.
In 1900, the former Army post was named after Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto.
In 1938, Pinellas County commissioners bought the 271-acre tract on Mullet Key for $12,500.
Two years later, the War Department turned Mullet Key into a bombing range. In 1941 the tract was returned to military status as a subpost of MacDill Field.
After the end of World War II, Mullet Key was sold back to the county for $26,495. That price included the original 271 acres and 613 acres the military had occupied.
Soon after, extensive plans were drawn up and on May 11, 1963, Fort De Soto Park was officially dedicated.
Today, the park draws 2.4 million visitors a year. That number represents an almost 15 percent decline in attendance after the county implemented a $5 entrance fee in 2012.
Saturday's event will include activities throughout the day reminiscent of the opening of the park, including music, a barbecue, a water ski show and Miss Florida as a special guest. The day begins with a sea oat planting and a rededication ceremony. Organizers say the event will be held rain or shine. For information, call (727) 582-2267.