Black and Tan coonhound sniffing a gopher tortoise

Why I hate Private Campgrounds

Alternate title: Why I only camp on public land

Last fall, I gave a talk about Florida’s public lands. While this involved some research, I’ve done the bulk of the work traveling – and camping – throughout Florida. Of all the times I’ve camped in Florida (not counting trips where I was invited and couldn’t bend people to my will), I can count the number of times I’ve stayed at a privately run campground on one hand: Twice. Once at a KOA in Tallahassee, and once at Port Canaveral’s Jetty Park, run by the Port Authority.

Make that three times. In September, we stayed at a Thousand Trails campground in Clermont. We had some simple, yet compelling reasons: We wanted a campground that would get us closer to the north end of the state, we wanted to stay somewhere with sewer hookups at the site, I wanted to stay somewhere with decent wifi so I could get some work done, and it was free. When we bought our Viking travel trailer from Lazy Days in March, it came with a free one-year membership to Thousand Trails. Thousand Trails campgrounds aren’t exactly the most back-to-nature campgrounds you’ll find in Florida; actually, quite the opposite. 

However, it met – on paper – all of our needs, so there we stayed. We made a reservation, pulled to the gate, and drove around to select our site. We found one with three bars of wifi, a small tree for shade, and not too many neighbors. While many of our state parks offer privacy via an abundance of vegetation, not so much at private campgrounds, because apparently the name of the game is to squeeze as many campers into their RV “resort” as possible. 

And these resorts are popular. They offer line dancing, karaoke, food trucks, and kids activities. Those first two things are part of a recurring nightmare I have when I’m stressed, so clearly I’m not the target audience here, but clearly the campground checks all the right boxes for many people. As we attempted to explore the campground over the next few days, we saw countless signs of more land getting plumbed for more campsites, more greenery getting cleared for grass. 

I don’t fault the campground staff, who were lovely. I admit I loved swimming laps in the pools. the My only complaint about the amenities? The paid wifi boasted all the reliability of a 1995 dialup modem. But we had a few days to recharge, and I could get decent wifi at the clubhouse, where I was able to tape my weekly episode of The Florida Spectacular, clear out my inbox, and submit a few articles to clients. 

Black and Tan coonhound sniffing a gopher tortoise
This was the extent of the wildlife we saw while camping at Thousand Trails. Apparently they built the entire campground on a gopher tortoise habitat. Photo by Cathy Salustri.

Barry did glimpse a gopher tortoise one morning, and we saw several trios of sandhill cranes (when it comes to birds that are my height or taller, these are far and away my favorites), but beyond that, that, the Thousand Trails Orlando stood in stark contrast to the past few weeks’ worth of waterfront or middle-of-forests campsites we’d enjoyed: one barren spat of land built on scrub, which I always tell people is something like the desert, Florida-style. For September, it wasn’t unbearable – but we’re Floridians. We slept with the windows open and the fan on, but by 9 a.m. our A/C unit hummed along with the other campers throughout the park.

The last full day of our stay, Barry said he’d found something I’d probably want to see. With Calypso as my bowsprit and Banyan running alongside Barry, we biked to the back section of the park, the one that warned it had no wifi and so we hadn’t bothered to check out the sites there. 

Once we biked passed the rows of RVs bleaching in the scrubby September sun and rolled downhill into Section D, the whole park changed. Trees lined the roadways and offered each site privacy. Instead of gravel or paved pads, the trailers and campers rested on grassy areas. Had we realized the wifi in the barren hellscape where we parked for the past three nights would be so awful, we wouldn’t have thought twice about checking out this wi-fi-less section (as it turns out, I had the same cell reception there as I did the rest of the park, we would have checked out this area and definitely stayed here. 

But that wasn’t the best part. The best part I was yet to see: A dog park.

Saw palmetto and pine trees in the woods.
The dog park was the nicest part of the park, in terms of nature.

Now, the literature all said the campground had a dog park, but given how… barren the rest of the campground was, I’d sort of written it off almost immediately. That was a mistake, because this is perhaps one of the nicest dog parks I’ve seen. Aside from a bench and some comfy patio furniture, the park set aside the nicest area of the property for a dog park. Pine trees shaded the fenced area; to one side, we saw a grassy, tree-lined clearing and, to the other, Lake Hancock. The dogs sniffed and rested and rolled and sniffed some more. As for me? I spent my time staring at what may be some of the last unspoiled privately owned bits of central Florida.

In the distance, we heard bulldozers.