Milt and Kay Olson spend every Christmas in north central Wisconsin with their children and grandchildren, enjoying a meal together, sharing stories of Christmases past and exchanging gifts, according to a report in the Wassau Daily Herald. Then they take down the Christmas tree, load up the fifth-wheel trailer and head south to escape the below-zero temperatures and snow.
The Olsons, who live in the town of Weston, are some of the more than one million “snowbirds” in the U.S. and Canada who flee winters in colder climes for Florida, Arizona, Gulf Shores, Ala., and other refuges. Snowbirds flee the frozen north to live in retirement communities, RV parks and condominiums where they walk the beaches, play golf and participate in other social activities while Wisconsin residents count the days until summer.
The Olsons stay in Wisconsin longer than most snowbirds, who typically are getting ready to hit the road right about now — as leaves turn and temperatures drop near freezing at night. The recession, high gasoline prices and a struggling housing market haven’t slowed the migration.
Milt and Kay Olson, for example, retired in the early 2000s from jobs at Northcentral Technical College. They decided it was time to go someplace warm, but they weren’t content on picking just one place. They bought a fifth-wheel trailer and a pickup and alternate among Arizona, Texas and Florida, staying at RV parks for three months and seeing sights throughout the area.
“In the grand scheme of things, the price of fuel is the biggest factor,” Milt Olson, 65, said. “It adds a couple hundred dollars, but you don’t decide to stay home for that.”
Tracking the number of snowbirds is difficult because studies are inconsistent and dated. A University of Arizona State study found that more than 300,000 winter residents were living in Arizona at the height of the 2002-03 winter season. A University of Florida study showed that 818,000 people spent the winter of 2005 in that state.
Stefan Rayer, a researcher for the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at UF who conducted the 2005 study, said the economic downturn and high unemployment likely have caused that number to drop slightly in recent years.
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As gas and diesel prices climb past $4 per gallon in Southern California, some snowbirds in ecreational vehicles say the rising costs could keep them closer to home, Palm Springs’ The Desert Sun reported.
They include Larry and Vivian Wiebe, who drive each year to the Coachella Valley from Alberta in their RV and are parked at the Palm Springs Oasis RV Resort in Cathedral City.
Fuel prices have risen about a dollar a gallon since the couple spent $579 on gasoline in November to make the 1,500-mile trip. Now, they’re faced with paying considerably more to get back home.
“It’s a strain. (But) we have to get back,” Larry Wiebe said.
If prices stay this high, the Wiebes said they may visit the Coachella Valley every other year instead of annually.
The price spike came late enough last year that it didn’t hurt local RV park occupancy, operators say. But they’re watching those prices closely and are worried that gloomy predictions of $5 gas will lead many RV owners to leave their rigs in the driveway.
“Are we concerned? Yes,” said Greg Sidoroff, vice president of Sunland RV Resorts, which operates Emerald Desert RV Resort in Palm Desert. “We just hope that our great guest service and marketing efforts will carry us through.”
Thousands of RV enthusiasts escape cold, cloudy hometowns each year to relax at the 20 or so parks from Desert Hot Springs to the Salton Sea. They spend money at local shops and restaurants, and provide cities with transient occupancy tax.
But driving homes-on-wheels that get 10 to 12 miles per gallon makes most RV owners extremely sensitive to fluctuations in pump prices.
“We’ve had a few cancelations across the system, but not a great panic as the last time,” Sidoroff added, referring to 2008, when prices at some California gas pumps hit $5 a gallon.
That $5 mark is the “psychological barrier” that keeps many RVs off the road, he said.
Sonoma County resident Roland Mellor agrees. He drove his RV to Cathedral City in March with his wife, Bev, for an annual gathering with friends. The couple usually visits Arizona, too, but gas prices prompted them to limit the trip to the valley.
“We look forward to the sunshine,” Mellor said. “Arizona lost out, Palm Springs made it.”
But if diesel prices were closer to $5, he’d consider canceling the trip altogether, he added.
Some RV enthusiasts are dodging the gas prices by avoiding the drive home entirely. Shadow Hills RV Resort in Indio just “had our best year ever” thanks in part to a new offer that allows visitors to store RVs on site for six months, said Paula Turner, the park’s co-owner.
“It’s cheaper for them to fly down and store it for six months,” Turner said.
For the return trip to Alberta, the Wiebes plan to prepare meals instead of spending at restaurants along the way to help offset costs.
“We won’t be eating, we just have to buy gas,” said Anna Calvert, also of Alberta.
It may be the first week of December, but 80-degree temperatures persist in Tucson, Ariz.
That’s exactly why hundreds of people up North pack up their things and head to the desert for the holidays. But, in a rough economy with controversy surrounding the state’s immigration law, some tourist industry workers were worried about this season, KGUN-TV, Tucson, reported.
Cactus Country RV Park manager Dan Workman admits he was worried amid talk of boycotts and gas prices, but as the season begins, he’s pleasantly surprised.
“The tourism is good for us this year,” he said, “The whole thing about boycotting Arizona has not affected us here at the park so that’s a good thing for us.”
Workman’s 284 lots are 80% full, and booked solid after Christmas. He also credits the failure of a popular rival RV park, Beaudry RV Resort, this Fall.
“When Beaudry did shut down, those guests actually started flooding area parks,” he said, “and we did take quite a few Beaudry guests in and they’re still coming in at this time.”
One of those was Suzie Nations, a first-time Arizona visitor from Texas.
“We pulled into the parking lot there and found that it was closed down,” she said, “That was a real shocker so we needed to find a place for the night and the next day we ended up here.”
For other winter arrivals this year, no boycott, bankruptcy or bad economy could stop their stay. Ed and Helen Niederhuth from Iowa have been married for 56 years, and they’ve been wintering in Tucson for the past 33.
“We just enjoy this beautiful weather and not shoveling snow,” said Helen, “it’s like a second family, so we come back and they come back and it’s a great time.”
Justin’s Diamond J RV Park has been operating for the past 3 years in Tucson. Management says they’ve been growing in visitorship each year, and expect to do so again.
While representatives from Crazy Horse RV Park say so far they’re seeing fewer visitors, they have high hopes for a post-December rush.
For all the oil spill claims and cleanup work by BP, retirees from the North may be the best survival bet for some Gulf Coast resort towns this winter, ABC News reported.
After a disastrous summer tourism season and a slower-than-normal fall, Northern and Midwestern visitors known as “snowbirds” already are flocking along the Gulf for the winter, filling up condominium parking lots and campgrounds with cars and RVs from states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana.
This annual migration of the AARP set is worth millions to the coastal economy and typically serves a financial bridge for tourist-dependent condominiums, restaurants and stores between the holidays and the start of spring break season, when business picks up again.
This year, snowbirds are critical for the companies and property owners who have suffered for months because of the BP oil spill. Without the snowbirds, some businesses teetering on the edge of solvency may not make it until the weather warms up again.
“You take that away when they didn’t have anything to start with and you start a whole new tier of desperation,” said Tony Kennon, mayor of this beach town on the Alabama-Florida border.
The local tourism agency is advertising in the Midwest, inviting snowbirds to return to the coast. Winter rates always are far less than summer prices, with many condominium owners renting out their units to Northern visitors for months at a time. Some condominiums and motels are offering even lower prices than normal this year, with prices reduced by two-thirds at a few.
At the Gulf Breeze RV Resort in neighboring Gulf Shores, workers didn’t know whether snowbirds would be scared off by images of oil hitting beaches during the summer. Would they go elsewhere this year, perhaps to the East Coast or farther south into Central Florida?
Julie Kenney, who works at the RV park, was relieved to see campers from the Midwest begin arriving earlier than normal in late October. The resort’s 250 sites are now about 80% full, and it’s completely booked after Jan. 1 without any spill-related discounts.
Several California RV parks and resorts that cater to snowbirds are reporting stronger advance bookings for the upcoming winter season than last year at this time, according to an informal survey of private park operators.
“Business is looking up,” Debbie Sipe, executive director of the California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC) said in a news release. “Several of our affiliated parks in Southern California are reporting very strong bookings for the upcoming winter season.”
Of course, not every park is seeing an upswing in business. Campland on the Bay in San Diego and Rancho Los Coches RV Park in Lakeside both anticipate slight declines in their winter business compared to last year. But their experiences appear to be more the exception than the rule. Here’s what other park operators are seeing:
- Happy Traveler RV Park in Palm Springs: “We’ve been booked (for the upcoming winter season) since June,” said park owner Diane Marantz. She said the park has 125 to 130 sites and that the same people come back year after year.
- Fountain of Youth Spa in Niland: “Our rental units are booking up nicely,” said Jolene Wade, the park’s managing director, adding that the park’s winter RV site rental business is “on par or a little stronger than last year.”
- Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort and Marina in Newport Beach: Andrew Theodorou, the park’s general manager, says he anticipates his winter bookings to be “flat to a slight increase over last year.”
- Rancho Los Coches RV Park in Lakeside: This park’s winter business is expected to be down slightly from last year’s figures, according to park operator Bill Milligan.
- Shadow Hills RV Resort in Indio: “It’s unbelievable how we’re doing right now,” park owner Paula Turner said of the 120-site park. “We’re already at 93 (advance reservations) for Jan. 15 and 108 for Feb. 15.” Turner added that she has seen the pace of reservations accelerate at her park even though she has raised her rates. She attributes the increase to new snowbirds who have never come to her park before as well as her park’s dog friendly atmosphere. “We are very dog friendly,” she said. “I would say about 50% of our guests have dogs.”
- Sunland RV Resorts, which owns and operates RV resorts in Palm Desert, Hemet, San Diego, El Cajon and La Mesa: “We’re going to have as good of growth as we had last year and double digit growth at some of our facilities,” said Greg Sidoroff, operations manager for the La Jolla-based RV resort chain.
- The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course in Borrego Springs: Spaces at this 90-site RV resort are sold out for the January to March period with a waiting list of roughly 100 people, said Daniel Wright, the park’s general manager.
The start of November marks the start of winter visitors arriving in central Arizona’s Valley.
Among the early arrivals, Mary Lange, who was found this week lounging by the pool at the Desarama RV Park in Mesa, according to KTAR-TV, Phoenix.
“Feels pretty darn good. It’s about 86 degrees here, very nice,” Lange said.
She comes to Arizona from Iowa the last week of October each year and stays until the last week of April.
A survey by the Arizona Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds indicates many parks are seeing more business this year. The Towerpoint and Good Life RV Resorts in Mesa said winter reservations are up 15%.
However, the Shangri-la Resort in Yuma said things are about the same as last year, and the Rincon Resort in Tucson expects a slight decline.
Lange believes people are coming. She said there were “a lot of travel trailers, a lot of motorhomes already on the road the second weekend in October,” when she was traveling.
Nancy Lou Fiumidinisi runs the Deserama RV Park and has been getting ready for the “Snow Birds” to return.
She said workers “have painted the clubhouse inside, the restrooms, resurfaced the pool. A new sign out front has been fixed.”
Fiumidinisi has a “Welcome Back” banner draped across the front entrance.
“From what I’ve heard from some of the residents who are coming to their home here for the winter, they said Interstate 40 was loaded with RVs headed this way,” Fiumidinisi said.
Lange keeps busy during her winter vacation.
“I work for Wal-Mart. I transfer down here, work down here for six months and work back up North for six months,” she said.
She believes she has the best of both worlds: “I can have the summers up home and the winters down here.”
Meanwhile, Valley hotels are hoping for a better winter.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Kristin Jarnagin with the Arizona Hotel and Lodging Association, although she said, “The most recent numbers we have, from September year-to-date, they show we’re still about 15% down in occupancy and about 30% down in revenue.”
Revenue is down because of discounted rates, she said.
She believes the worst is over and things have started to stabilize.
“Of course, it will rebound. It always does. People love to travel and they love to explore, that’s just part of human nature. It just depends on how long it’s going to take,” she said.
Jumping in the RV and driving off into the sunset is a dream for a lot of people.
Harriet and John Halkyard actually did it – and so did Mike and Terri Church.
This weekend, the two couples will be spinning tales about their travels at the Snowbird RV Show and Sale at Tradex in Abbotsford, British Columbia. And there are some very interesting tales, because they have been to some very exotic places, according to The Vancouver Sun.
The Halkyards, for example, claim to be the first people to drive an RV up the historic Tea-Horse Road between China and Tibet, where they camped at the base of Mt. Everest.
“The Chinese travel authority and the Lonely Planet [travel guide] both describe that road as the most beautiful and the most dangerous in the world, which I’ll second,” relates Harriet Halkyard over the phone from her home in Houston.
“It was amazing, and fascinating. The road was good and passable for a couple of horses, but that was about it. We were knocking boulders off 2,000- or 3,000-foot cliffs, like into the Grand Canyon. It was not a good road, to put it mildly.”
Were you scared?
She pauses and sighs.
“Aw, heck, if I’m going to go, that’s the way to go,” she said. “I don’t want to die in bed, you’ve got to take a risk now and then.”
The Halkyards achieved some renown in RV circles for a book they co-wrote, “99 Days to Panama.” It details how one day they quit their day jobs, hopped in a rig they had just purchased and drove all the way from Houston to Panama.
That sounds kind of dodgy, as well, but Halkyard says it was relatively easy.
“We didn’t know what we were doing, hardly even knew how to empty the tanks, but we decided to go,” said Halkyard, 63.
“I think my husband thought when I said Panama I meant Panama City, Fla. I didn’t know if we were going to make it back, I didn’t know if the vehicle was going to make it back, I didn’t know if the dog was going to make it back, but it was very easy. That’s the message I’m trying to get over to people.
“The roads (in central America), for the most part, are like country byroads — the Pan-American highway is two lanes. Yes, there are potholes, and yes, there are cows and donkeys and people all over the place, so you stick to about 30 miles an hour. Once you got into that frame of mind, of just going slowly and gently, it’s a piece of cake. There were no horrendous challenges at all.”
The Halkyards are part-time RVers — they still have a home in Houston, and John (an ocean engineer) still takes contracts designing offshore platforms.
The Churches, on the other hand, left their accountant jobs in Seattle in 1992 and haven’t looked back. Today home is a Fraserway RV hoisted on the back of a 2004 Chevy 3/4 ton truck.
“Truthfully we intended to take a year off, it was a sabbatical for us,” says Mike Church.
“But we liked the lifestyle a lot. We found it was much less expensive than we thought, so we decided we could continue to do it the rest of our lives if we wanted.”
The Churches are classic snowbirds — they mosey around up North in the summer, then split for Mexico or the U.S. Southwest for the fall and winter. They’ve written seven travel books aimed at RVers, and this weekend will be giving hour-long spiels on snowbird destinations.
“We’ve gotten around quite a bit,” notes Church, 58.
“We’ve been in all the states of Mexico at least six times, we’ve been as far south as Panama, we’ve travelled throughout Europe and into Greece and Turkey.”
Because they live full-time in their rig, they also are great at dispensing advice on the RV lifestyle. This is key, because given the current economic malaise, people are being more cautious about getting into recreational vehicles.
“(An event like) the Snowbird show is a great way to get familiar with RVs before you make a commitment,” he says.
“What looks good in the showroom or on the lot might not be the ideal rig for what you want to do. Do you enjoy the outdoors, do you want to spend time in the woods in government campgrounds? If you do you need a smaller rig, cause big rigs don’t work really well for that. But if you want to take your rig and sit on the beach in one place for three months, maybe you want a fifth wheel or a big trailer.”
There are also spots where you can park your RV for next to nothing, such as the land yacht mecca Quartzsite, Ariz. Located in the middle of the desert between Phoenix and Los Angeles, Quartzsite is almost unbearably hot in the summer – the average daily high is 108 degrees fahrenheit in July. But for the winter the weather is gorgeous, with normal highs of 66 in December and January.
“In the summer there’s nothing [there], but drive through Quartzsite in January and there are RVs as far as the eye can see, scattered around the desert,” says Church.
“All the land around Quartzsite is what we call BLM land, for Bureau of Land Management, which is a federal organization. They charge for camping on the land, but it’s roughly $180 for six months. So you can conceivably spend the entire winter there for almost nothing. You just have to have solar, so you have electricity, and you have to deal with the water issue, which isn’t difficult to do.”
Recession or no, there are still a lot of people on the RV trail — Church notes the Texas-based Escapees RV club that has 75,000 members, and Halkyard says there are an estimated 1 million RVers overall in the states, including weekenders.
“It’s like being in a bubble,” says Halkyard, who was a university lecturer and worked in a travel agency before she took up the RV lifestyle.
“You are cut off from all the annoyances of the outside world, and yet you can stop and pop that bubble any time you like. I just find it so relaxing, and educational as well, because you get to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet, and go into places you wouldn’t normally go. For instance (last year we took a) trip to St. John’s, Newfoundland. If we had flown in, it would have been lovely, we could have stayed in a nice hotel and met all the other visitors. But we didn’t, we drove in and therefore met the people who are really there.”
Harriet and John Halkyard’s website is www.99daystopanama.com; Mike and Terri Church’s website is www.rollinghomes.com.