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Campground hosts enjoy a permanent vacation

CLERMONT — Miles away from the nearest highway, Joe Ortaliz sat on his front porch on a Saturday afternoon, strumming his guitar and belting a familiar Tom Petty tune. The day before he had pulled a 48-hour shift at the City of Orlando Fire Department, and it wouldn't be long before he'd have to make the 45-minute drive back to the station once again.

But these days, being off work means being off grid — and it's just the kind of unconventional lifestyle Ortaliz and his family of five have grown to appreciate.

For more than a year, Ortaliz, 46, wife Trish, 42, and their three sons have called a variety of Florida state parks home; more specifically, the 40-foot fifth-wheel camper that comes with them everywhere they go.

The Ortalizes serve as campground hosts in the Florida State Park system, a volunteer position that allows the family to live on site for free in exchange for minor upkeep and being a consistent presence on the grounds for visitors.

It's a job that is typically filled by retirees, people who have spent their lives working to reward themselves with laidback RV living.

The Ortalizes decided to get a head start.

Joe is still a full-time firefighter — a job he's done for nine years — and Trish spends her days homeschooling their kids, ages 11, 9 and 7. At first, Joe admits, he had trouble wrapping his brain around his wife's suggestion to become campground hosts.

"We started thinking outside the box," he said. "I grew up, 'You've got to have a home, you've got to be solid and stuff.' She's like, 'No, this will be home.' Then you kind of realize, home is what you make it."

Before they began full-time camping, Joe and Trish, both native Floridians, lived in a house in Orlando right down the street from Joe's parents and brother. He'd been in the house 20 years, he said, when a mortgage issue brought on by the Bank of America and Countrywide merger forced them to short sell their house to get out from underneath it.

"I could have continued to fight it, but all that does is put a lot of stress on you, a lot of strain on you, and at the end of the day, the market went down," Joe said. "So what are you going to do? Okay, you want it? You take it. We'll start over again."

And in their home on wheels, that's exactly what the Ortalizes did.

The house is reminiscent of any other made of brick and mortar. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom camper features three television sets inside, a fireplace, and a walk-in closet. In the boys' room, an Atari video game console is flanked by bunk beds on each side and a Harry Potter poster.

Cutting down their possessions to just the things that fit in the camper and a 10 x 12-foot storage unit, Trish said, has made their minimalist lives refreshingly simple.

"Forty-five minutes to clean the place. It's much better than cleaning a three-bedroom, two-bath house," said Trish, laughing. "Before, it was coming home to mow the lawn, or what do we have to do for the house? Now it's like he's coming home to vacation."

The job of campground hosts requires some attention. The Ortalizes are responsible for cleaning the bathrooms, tidying up the campsites after visitors check out and helping campers when problems arise. They're always there to lend a tool, Joe said, or help people get into locked campers.

For Lake Louisa park manager Scott Spaulding, the Ortalizes are indispensable, allowing him to delegate tasks that make his job of running the park a lot smoother.

"It's a family affair for them, and basically, it's unique," said Spaulding, who has been the park manager at Lake Louisa for four years. "The Ortalizes, their mainstay is having their kids in a really wholesome environment, and what better environment is there than a state park?"

On that Saturday afternoon, Alex, 11, rode his bike around the grounds as Ethan, 9, and Trent, 7, fished off the dock until the sun dipped below the outer edge of Lake Dixie and it was time for dinner. That night, it was chicken cooked over a campfire.

The Ortalizes don't plan to live like this forever. They dream of one day owning a large piece of land and building a home on it.

"Every week we go (look at properties). We're traveling all over," Trish said. "But we'll go, 'Oh, we'll pass on that one.' 'It's nice, but let's wait.' "

Because when home is on 4,500 acres of the great outdoors, what's the rush?

Contact Kelly Parsons at kaparsons@tampabay.com. Follow @_kellyparsons.

Campground hosts enjoy a permanent vacation 07/04/16 [Last modified: Monday, July 4, 2016 6:47pm]
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