Fourth-graders flock to city
With six field trips to St. Augustine under her belt, fourth-grade teacher Katie Evans thinks the Castillo de San Marcos is "by far" the most popular attraction for kids coming to St. Augustine.
Her student, 10-year-old Breanna W., contradicts her.
"The Old Jail," Breanna said when asked her favorite spot so far. She's got the "Official Trusty" sticker to prove it.
Evans, chaperones and 18 students from Freedom Elementary School in DeLand were taking in the sights Tuesday, part of the annual late spring invasion by the state's fourth-graders.
For students, it's a chance to see living history. For area attractions, train and trolley operators, gift shops and merchants, the invasion is a welcome boost that comes during what used to be a dead time.
The winter crowd has left, families can't come until after school ends, the festival season is pretty much over, and there's no bike or race week to bring in visitors.
"Between Easter and the summer season there's been a void historically. It's the end of the year, and the schools are looking for something to keep their kids engaged. It's the perfect time for us. ... The tours have been a boon for business this time of the year," said John Fraser, whose family owns the Fountain of Youth and who is chairman of the board for the St. Johns County Visitor and Convention Center.
Fraser has seen those crowds build since his father first gave him a chance to work the gift shop in 1986.
"Over the last 25 years, and especially over the last 15 years, there has been just a huge influx of kids coming to St. Augustine," Fraser said.
The steady increase had a "little blip" during the 2001-02 season because security was a concern after 9/11.
"This year especially I think we'll be looking at a record year," Fraser said, adding, while the economy is sagging, parents still seem to have enough to give their children money to buy souvenirs in St. Augustine.
Fourth grade is when students in the state take Florida history.
"The fourth grade Next Generation Sunshine State Standards is Florida studies, so Florida students statewide should be studying the state's history and also a little bit of government," said Ted Banton, program specialist for advanced academic programs and for social studies with the St. Johns County school system. "Once FCAT is over, we see a huge number of students converging on our city. ... It's part of the fourth-grade experience."
The experience is one shared by decades of Florida students.
At one point, the Florida Legislature reportedly required students to make the St. Augustine trek.
Jay Humphreys with the Visitor and Convention Center said, the effect of the visit can be long lasting.
When the staff surveyed brides, asking why they come to St. Augustine, "A huge percentage said 'Because when we came here in the fourth grade I decided this is where I wanted to be married,'" said Humphreys.
Women generally decide where their wedding will be, and Humphreys speculated that coming to St. Augustine at the age of 10 or 11 and seeing a castle and horse-drawn carriages makes an impression.
One woman who lived in California had the entire wedding party come to St. Augustine, all because of memories of her fourth-grade trip to the Nation's Oldest City.
"The fourth-grade trip pays long-term dividends," he said.
Businesses and tourism officials actively seek the fourth-graders, working with schools and helping arrange trips and tours.
To keep students interested, tourism officials have been working "toward maybe diversifying our appeal a little more" and getting attractions to "expand their offerings to appeal even more to children," Humphreys said.
Static exhibits aren't as popular as they once were, Fraser said.
A couple of newer attractions -- such as Fort Menendez at Old Florida Museum and the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum -- opened with interactive exhibits and/or re-enactors as a way of increasing their appeal.
"For kids, things have to move," Fraser said.
At the Fountain, for example, that's meant a beefed-up Indian village with re-enactors and an updated planetarium.
For his part, Banton believes the city's "rich and diverse history" serves as a continuing draw.
"I think any time a kid gets the opportunity to see living history they just get really jazzed up. It's pretty cool," he said.
A TWISTED TAIL/TALE
As any teacher will tell you, things don't always go as planned.
"Whoo! Whoo!" called out a group of fourth-graders heading out on a red Ripley's sightseeing train with guide Ralf Ingwersen as he pulled off from the old Fort.
Among his instructions to them: "Have fun. I will without you or with you."
The hour-long trip includes unique and historic St. Augustine sights such as Spanish conquistadors, Timucuan Indians, the Oldest House and the Mission of Nombre Dios.
After all, fourth-graders are there to reinforce their study of Florida history.
But, for this group, the memory they'll probably carry home was the sight of Keith and Dawna Woodward, who rescue reptiles, out for a walk with four of their charges.
Their six-foot plus Colombian red tail boa, known as Rocky, was wrapped around Dawna Woodward, but rose up to take a look at the kids. As he moved his head back and forth he appeared to be waving at the kids, and the kids definitely waved at him.
Put that in your history book.