The growing population of the island is impossible to ignore as traffic and social scenes grow.
Whoever said Floridians don’t experience “seasons” has clearly never tried (and waited) to turn left on Gulf of Mexico Drive from October until April.
OK, so maybe fall weather in Florida is a rarity, but there’s a whole different type of season, when the colors of the license plates change and the population of Longboat Key begins climbing toward its winter peak of around 20,000.
That’s right, season’s here and with it a growing slate of “Welcome Back” parties and a crunched calendar.
“We get excited this time of year when our old friends that we haven't seen for the whole summer are back,” said Paradise Center director Suzy Brenner.
One of the earliest signs of change is on the road, but most of the traffic issues stem from the mainland, according to Police Chief Pete Cumming.
“There are chokepoints on either side, in Manatee County and Sarasota County, that affect us dramatically during the season,” Cumming said.
The police will try to keep traffic moving, but the department can’t do much to relieve congestion or otherwise quicken the pace. An increase in bicycle traffic is also expected. Cumming wants motorists to take care around bikes and cyclists to stay alert.
Though things are getting more crowded, the island’s population and business are still below what they will be in January and February, the real heart of season. Last season was tinged with the tail end of a summer red tide bloom that hit tourism hard. In August, though, tourist tax revenue in Sarasota County was up 25% from the same time in 2018. Another sign of a potentially bigger season: Air travel to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport has been trending higher for nearly two years with an influx of new flights, airlines and destinations.
“Normally we start to see an influx of people sometime in October until right around Thanksgiving, but it does seem that a lot of people leave and go back to where their families are for Thanksgiving,” said Brenner. “We definitely see a lot more people ... and then it drops off again in December. It's a very strange schedule.”
At the Longboat Key Education Center, Director Susan Goldfarb said they are inching up to about 3,500 class registrations even though not a lot of people are in town yet. That number will get up to about 5,500 in the height of season after the new year.
"We see 500 people a day in January, February," Goldfarb said. "Thank goodness for the snowbirds because the tourists are a different animal because they want the sun, the sea and the restaurants. It's really for the snowbirds who are here for enough time to come to a course that lasts for a month."
To give it your all during the season, you have to make sure you have a successful preseason, so businesses, condos and restaurants often use September and October to get ready to hit the ground running.
“We do a lot of planning for the winter in the summer, and it's a really good time for me to connect with other community and senior centers and learn what other groups are doing,” said Brenner. “It's so hard when we're busy to do that when we're so focused on activities and programming here.”
After the back-to-school drop in family vacation traffic, restaurants such as Harry’s Continental Kitchens take a September vacation to brush up on maintenance.
“It doesn’t pay to be open,” said General Manager Hal Christensen. “If you don’t make and save enough money (in the offseason), a lot of places may not make it because they don’t know how to budget.”
At the Tennis Center of Longboat Key, two courts are ready again for play after six weeks of maintenance, time that just isn't available in the winter, said Manager Kay Thayer.
“We have to be a lot more precise with our scheduling and everything because it gets so busy that every court counts,” she said.
The Tennis Center, along with the Education Center of Longboat Key, rely largely on residents and folks who stay on the island for a while to come play or take a four-week class to make their money to keep things running from May to September.
“We definitely don't make the money we do in the season and that's why the season is very important to us, to make our money to keep our members happy,” Thayer said. "People found their best friends here by being here at the Tennis Center. I think everybody's excited about getting back to their routine with their usual groups and (going) out and also socialize off the court.”
However, with more people come more crowded beaches over the next few months. Cumming specifically noted the expected increase of boaters on the shoal off Jewfish Key and beachgoers on Greer Island. The department has a grant from Manatee County to station a part-time officer on Greer Island during season.
“We try to keep a handle on that, because they can get out of hand,” Cumming said. “In years past we’ve had problems, not serious ones, but problems enough for the residents … that life becomes more difficult to manage because of all the people and the behavior.”
With an increase in people comes a subtle increase in crime as well. This often takes the form of vehicle break-ins at beach access points. The police department will respond to the new crowds by using more patrols and dipping into its reserve program. Although Cumming doesn’t expect his officers to be swamped, they will certainly be busier. It will take them a little longer to respond to non-emergency calls.
“We’re trying to keep people safe and keep ‘em moving and keep ‘em happy,” Cumming said. “When you put in more in a confined area, people tend to be less happy sometimes. We look forward to making it through the season with everybody in one piece and feeling good.”