Pasco County brands itself as 'Florida's Sports Coast' in pursuit of active travelers

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A zipline and aerial obstacle course at TreeHoppers in Dade City.
A zipline and aerial obstacle course at TreeHoppers in Dade City.
Holly V. Kapherr
Holly V. Kapherr

New Port Richey, Wesley Chapel, Dade City and Zephyrhills may not rank among the best-known cities in Florida, but the tourism board of Pasco County, now branded as Experience Florida's Sports Coast, is trying to change that. Pasco County, located on the Gulf Coast just north of Tampa, covers 742 square miles of hills (rarely found in Florida), coastline and several amateur sports complexes, and as of March is marketing itself as a premier destination for active-minded travelers.

"We needed an identity that spoke to the market segment we're trying to attract to our destination," tourism director Adam Thomas said. "Our lifeblood is sports, and we wanted to create a sense of place that showcased our various indoor and outdoor recreational opportunities both on land and on the water."

The town of Hudson is home to a 70-acre body of water for wakeboarding, paddleboarding and kayaking. Hiking, snorkeling, hot-air ballooning, ziplining, biking, off-road and on-road cycling, in-shore and off-shore fishing and boating round out the ever-growing list of activities available in the area.

The destination also hosts myriad "bucket-list" style adventures. Daredevils can jump out of a plane and fly 13,500 above the ground at Skydive City in Zephyrhills. Susan Stark, who owns and operates Skydive City, reports that the attraction has hosted guests from more than 40 countries. "There's also a self-propelled wakeboarding park, Lift Adventure Park, with over half a mile of cable and plenty of in-water jumps for some serious air," said Thomas.

Dade City is the county seat, and that's where guests can experience Giraffe Ranch: a safari park where guests climb aboard a Segway, Jeep, camel or llama and can view African animals (e.g. hippo, rhinoceros, zebra) as well as cattle and horses. The city of Zephyrhills has a tennis center under construction for both professional matches and training.

The area is also home to the state's largest hockey arena, which served as an Olympic training center the 2018 Winter Games.

"We lack a large beach resort that really anchors our accommodations, but we do have smaller branded properties like Hilton, Homewood Suites, Quality Inn and Hampton Inn that offer our guests a more intimate, small-town feel," said Thomas. A Fairfield Inn & Suites is currently planned, as is a Hyatt Place. The largest resort in the county is the Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, home to premier golf and tennis facilities.

A notable development in the county's recent history is the return of scalloping to the coastal areas. "We're the southernmost county in Florida that offers recreational scalloping, and 2019 is the first year we've been allowed to announce an annual scallop season since 1994," said Thomas. In that year, Florida's Fish & Wildlife Commission deemed the area overharvested, but it saw fit to grant Pasco County a 10-day season this year, as scallop populations have returned to healthy levels. "We're really honored to be able to offer scalloping again and hope we can further develop this offering to be a longer season in the future," said Thomas. Scallop season in Pasco County runs from July 19 through 28. Florida coastal counties with the longest scallop seasons run through Sept. 24.

Thomas said that before the rebranding to Florida's Sports Coast, Pasco County never really had a branding strategy. "It was kind of the OK Corral of marketing a destination. We have no metrics to show what tourism was like in the past here; we can only move forward, so that's what we're focusing on."

So far, the feedback from visitors, locals and county leaders has been nothing but positive, according to Thomas. The destination was recently awarded a Telly for their marketing video called "Let's Play: Florida's Sports Coast." "We have ambassadors heading out to consumer shows and on media missions to help introduce people to our destination. We have 24 miles of coastline and countless other activities with which to energize the marketplace. We are ready to tell people why they should come here."

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