They began rumbling in over the weekend, as many as 2,000 homes on wheels gathering for the 27th annual rally of the Southeast Area Family Motor Coach Association at the Hernando County Airport.
License plates read from all over North America: Vermont, Indiana, Colorado, New York, Maine, Ontario.
There are roughly 300 more registrants this year than in 2007, said Charlie Schrenkel, the new national area vice president and rally chairman. The number of coaches translates to about 4,000 visitors to Hernando County.
With the price of fuel so high these days, who would have thought so many would still make the trek?
The cost didn't deter Clara Roy, 77, and her husband, seven-year attendees from Rumford, Maine, who spend winter in St. Petersburg. "When you consider you're bringing your house with you and don't have to pay for motels, and campgrounds are still relatively inexpensive...," she trailed off with a shrug.
Pretty reasonable, she indicated, to drive south in their Winnebago Adventurer.
Edward Moriarty who drove 550 miles from his home in Townville, S.C., said his fuel cost ran about $100. He tanked up in Georgia, where diesel was selling at $3.19 a gallon, at least 50 cents a gallon less than in Florida. Every RVer knows to fill up before reaching the Florida border, he said.
The 64-year-old agreed with Roy: Expenses are less than some other modes of travel when you are bringing your home with you. He spends five to six months a year on the road in his RV.
Margo Alexander, 64, from High Springs, nodded her head. She and her husband, volunteer chief of security for the rally, paid $3.59 a gallon for diesel fuel in Florida. But their trip was a mere 127 miles.
Rally chairman Schrenkel isn't exactly sure from where he arrived. He has lived in his RV for 11 years, although he hails originally from New York and owns a small farm in Pennsylvania and "a pad" near Polk City. His current Bluebird model runs about 12 miles per gallon.
Schrenkel's not surprised by the increased attendance at this year's rally because membership in the association has grown so. In 1965, when Roy joined, membership was about 300. Now it has 120,000 members, counting more than 20,000 in the Southeast region that includes Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
The challenge in his first year of managing the rally, Schrenkel says, is "just coordination of all the volunteer departments." Some 700 volunteers staff security, parking, programming, entertainment, logistics, information, communications and more.
He added, "We get excellent coordination from Hernando County, Brooksville, the sheriff's department and emergency services."
The Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce and the Hernando County Tourism Bureau are on site to tout local venues. "They're very helpful," Schrenkel said.
Pat Crowley, president of the chamber, said some local restaurants and shops enjoy a 10 percent increase in business during the rally.
About 100 chamber members provide items for rally visitors' welcome bags: pencils, pens, discount coupons, samples of RV cleaning materials and waxes, for example.
Pat Rupe of the Tourism Bureau did not have a handle on how many of the rally participants take in tourism sites, but she said many arrive early - as much as three weeks - and that's when they roam. They take day trips to historic Brooksville, Weeki Wachee Springs and golf courses.
Once the five-day rally begins on Wednesday, the participants stay pretty much on site, taking advantage of educational seminars - weight and tire safety, fire protection, engine and motor home systems, safe driving, and others, visiting exhibits and sales pitches by about 200 vendors - and then they drive their bring-along cars to restaurants throughout the county, Schrenkel said.
Don't forget local shopping, interjected Roy, from Maine.
Beth Gray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
27th annual Southeast Area Family Motor Coach Association rally
Where: Hernando County Airport, south access, Broad Street
When: Open to the public 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and Friday; 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday; 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Admission: $6 for one day, $10 for a three-day pass