Nature and Education Exhibits at Lovers Key


While construction of the new $4 million Welcome & Discovery Center at Lovers Key State Park (LKSP) does not begin until Fall, its nature and education exhibits are coming to life! The Board of Directors for the Friends of Lovers Key State Park (FOLKS), who will fund the Welcome & Discovery Center exhibits, previewed the designs with representatives of Split Rock Studios from St. Paul, Minnesota, on Wednesday, February 27, at the Bonita Springs Chamber of Commerce. FOLKS committed to raise the $1.5 million for the Center’s exhibits and furnishings, with the State of Florida providing the construction cost.

Conducting the exhibit preview for 14 members of the FOLKS Board and LKSP staff were Split Rock Studios Project Manager Emma Field, Exhibit Designer Jakub Janiga, and Exhibit Designer Sarah Bartlett. “While we were already working on the schematic designs, this is the first time we actually saw your fantastic park and its different habitats,” marveled Emma. “We are so excited to share your wonderful story with your visitors!” “We designed the exhibits so visitors can follow their own individual curiosity,” explained Jakub, “as each display serves as a stand-alone exhibit, meaning you never worry about losing the narrative to understand what is going on. There is plenty of space between displays to accommodate large crowds on rainy days as well as a lot of room for mobility issues. We have overhead clouds and seagulls suspended from the ceiling to give it a feeling of space.”

Hidden Gem to Public Treasure

Sarah stated that the exhibit area walls will have displays focusing on various aspects of the park, such as its history, what it means to be a barrier island, estuary information, and recreational activities, along with its Gift Shop and office. “Visitors will understand that this land goes back to the Calusa Indians or possibly even before, and how the State of Florida, Carl E. Johnson and Lee County preserved it from development to become this public treasure for all to enjoy. Exhibit walls will feature mounted photographs and objects like shells used by native peoples or gear from fishing camps to provide visual cues of each time period, so visitors know that LKSP is much more than just an amazing beach, hopefully saying, ‘Oh My Gosh – there is so much to see and do here!’”

The Split Rock team then walked attendees through the various planned exhibits.

Barrier Islands

There will be an interactive barrier island map exhibit, “to provide perspective, to orient people to where they and the park are, with push buttons that light up the barrier islands to illuminate what they were like in the 1940’s, 1950’s, 1980’s and today,” Sarah offered. “It includes graphics panels to point out various habitats to explore, so people will know what to look for, along with recreational opportunities. Exhibits will communicate a lot, without a lot of words. The Welcome Desk has a fishing shack theme and rustic look.”

This display will present water quality information, stated Sarah, “about estuaries or Red Tide, although this part is interchangeable, so when water quality is excellent, you do not panic people. You will encounter fun moments of discovery, like critters that live in the sand under your feet, with reading rails to explain what you encounter near the water, like the wrack line and seaweeds. We will build in these moments of discovery with real-life replicas, where you lift lid doors to find brief descriptions of where you can go in the park to explore these environments.”

On The Dunes

“This display island focuses on nesting sea turtles and dune plants,” explained Sarah, “so it will have items like sea oats and a loggerhead turtle replica who just made up her nest to lay eggs. It will have various bird species, with replica scrape nests and slightly camouflaged eggs, to let people know to be careful when exploring this habitat. The display will have information about safe turtle lighting, so the little hatchlings live, and why you should not scare birds off their nests to avoid cooking their eggs, but in a positive approach and not wagging a finger, so people get on-board. There will be a digital screen with a looping video showing baby turtles moving safely to the Gulf, so visitors see why turtle-friendly lighting is so important. We will look at having Roseate spoonbills and Wilson’s plovers overhead, to better match this scene.”

Maritime Hammock

This will be an illustration of a forest canopy, said Sarah, “with push buttons to hear birds like a screech owl and warbler, to become familiar with what you will experience as you walk that area. The display will have things left behind by animals, to teach kids and adults how to spot wildlife, because often people look around quickly, do not see anything, and think nothing is there, but if they know what to look for, they might scan down and see 25 little critters all around their feet, like tiny crabs, as well as other animals and plants that are a big part of a Hammock habitat, like butterflies, Gumbo Limbo trees, and Sabal palms. Another topic is invasive plant species, like the Brazilian peppertree and Australian pine.”

Coastal Strand Environment

“There will not be any overhead canopy here,” Sarah offered, “as this is an open habitat, but we will have seagrapes, on an angle, to show how sea spray gives them that wind-swept movement. We will surprise you with plants people will not believe are here, like Prickly pears, and information about animals like snakes, most that are not poisonous. A major component will be the Gopher tortoise and its burrow – the community center of the neighborhood! We utilize lift doors to showcase some of the 350 animals that use those burrows as their homes as well, like cottontail rabbits, snakes and beetles. There will be another digital screen of a Gopher tortoise, showing how surprisingly fast they move and how they dig their borough. We will illustrate why visitors must drive slowly through the park because the rare Gopher tortoise lives here, and please do not put them in the water if you find one, because they are not swimmers like sea turtles!”

Mangrove Estuary

lovers key, nature exhibits, fort myers beach
Visitors will be able to walk through mangrove roots in the Mangrove Estuary exhibit.

“This is where we shrink you down,” enthused Sarah! “We will produce huge mangrove roots so you walk right through them, from an underwater viewpoint, to get a different perspective, to see all the little creatures that start their lives in mangrove roots. You see a spoonbill nesting overhead and learn about surprising creatures that live among the roots, like seahorses, so this is the one exhibit I can’t wait to experience! We again stress water quality here, as clean water is crucial to the four types of LKSP mangroves, but we need to do more homework here on fish, to add them to this display.”

Outdoor Adventures

“The final thing before you head out into the park are outdoor adventures you enjoy at LKSP,” beamed Sarah! “Photographs and a digital screen shows hiking, biking, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, ranger-led programs, and more, with room to promote current or seasonal events like your Concert Series. This is a perfect spot for promotional materials, to encourage Social Media posts of your LKSP experiences, and the ‘Donor Wall’ with your four levels of recognition.”

Adult & Calf Manatee

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A mother and calf manatee will welcome visitors to the Lovers Key Welcome & Discovery Center.

Sarah closed by discussing the manatee sculpture at the Welcome & Discovery Center entrance. “They will be lifesize, with the adult 13 feet and calf five feet. I predict this becomes the face of the Welcome & Discovery Center and a wonderful experience, as the manatee will be adorable! We simulate them with a waterline and seagrass, and will surround them with six reading rails of manatee information, including their less-than-positive interactions with humans. They will be fiberglass and durable to hold up in the weather. We are exploring ways for people to walk right up and touch them, but want to avoid especially children sitting on them, because if we do this right and people can photograph their kids nose-to-nose with the manatee, that will be on every Social Media site all across the world!” LKSP Manager Katie Moses felt it important “the sculptures feel like real manatees, so people are not tempted to touch a living one.”

A Fun Project

FOLKS Board member Tim Horvatich stated the State pushed building construction “back to November 2019, so our fundraising and final plan to Split Rock must be complete by January 2020.” FOLKS President Rich Donnelly asked Split Rock for access to the presentation materials, “to show off the high end and professional exhibits for fundraising.”

“I am not a content expert,” concluded Sarah, “so I need you all to review this material for nuances. To stay on-track, we must receive revisions by the end of March. You will still have another chance after that to re-read everything and approve changes before it goes to graphic design. This is a fun project and we love presenting your story!”


By Gary Mooney