Inside the Rise of Elaborate field trips

Student Tre’Lannah Dupris rides on the belly of a dolphin at the Theater of the Sea in Islamorada during The Villages Charter Middle School’s weeklong field trip to the Florida Keys in May 2018.

Swimming with dolphins in the Florida Keys.

Sleeping under a Saturn V moon rocket at Kennedy Space Center.

Touring the historical sites of the oldest city in the United States in St. Augustine.

Visiting the monuments and museums in Washington, D.C.

Catching a Broadway play in New York City.

These are just a few of the activities Sumter County students enjoyed while on school-sponsored field trips during the 2018-19 school year.

Gone are the days when field trips merely involved short excursions outside of school to nearby sites of local interest.

Today, elaborate trips packed with exciting itineraries — often venturing out of state and involving overnight stays — are all the rage.

Paul Ard attended school while growing up in Jacksonville, where he had the chance to visit the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Fort Caroline and St. Augustine on field trips.

None of those experiences involved an overnight stay, let alone one under the 363-foot-long Saturn V rocket — where he slept when he chaperoned the The Villages Charter School’s fifth-grade trip with his son, also named Paul, to Kennedy Space Center.

“I never had anything to this extent,” Ard said. “Not even close.”

Field trips to Florida’s theme parks and significant state landmarks like St. Augustine and the Kennedy Space Center play a part in the state’s tourism, where destinations attract school groups just as much as out-of-state visitors.

These are trips where admission costs, meals, lodging and transportation generate revenue for the state economy.

Tourism had an $85.9 billion economic impact in 2017 in Florida, based on the most recent data from Visit Florida, the state’s public private tourism marketer.

The Villages Charter School offers at least one field trip for each grade from kindergarten to eighth grade. One of its biggest is an Florida Keys trip for seventh-graders, typically during the last week of May, which the school’s staff organizes in-house.

During the 2018-19 school year, Sumter County’s schools offered students about 60 field trips. The Villages Charter School students participated in 11 trips.

Trips included Wildwood Middle High School’s senior trip to New York City and South Sumter High School’s trip to New York City and Washington, D.C.

It also included Wildwood Elementary field trips to destinations like Fun Spot America in Orlando and Legoland Florida in Winter Haven, according to county documents.

These trips are among the highlights of the school year for the students, such as Sophia Hurtt, 14, who took part in the charter school’s eighth-grade trip to Washington.

Sophia was able to see George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, and Yorktown Battlefield, site of the last major battle of the Revolutionary War, in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Although she enjoyed the monuments and museums they visited, she was particularly moved by the veterans’ memorials.

“It kind of made you realize how many people fought in the different wars and how much of an influence there is,” Sophia said. “I felt grateful because of the sacrifices they made for us, we no longer have to deal with conflicts like that.”

The trip cost about $1,500 per student. But the chance for students to broaden their horizons and inspire greater learning about the destinations they visit may outweigh the expenses involved in a trip, said Karin Hoffman, president of the Florida Association of Student and Educational Tours.

“They may not have had the opportunity to leave their neighborhood if it wasn’t for the experience,” she said. “How often do you get to do something that will make a difference for a student for the rest of their lives? Not often.”

Measuring the impact

Visit Florida does not track visits related to school activities.

But with more than 126 million people visiting the state in 2018, people come here for many reasons. Education is just one of them.

Orlando is the most visited tourism destination in the U.S. It attracted more than 75 million visitors in 2018, a new record for the city, according to Visit Orlando.

It’s also the third most-popular destination for student travel, said Terry Twitchell, director of Florida operations for the educational tour company WorldStrides.

Epcot, the park at Walt Disney World Resort where the charter school’s sixth-graders went on a field trip, drew 12.4 million visitors in 2018, according to a report from the Themed Entertainment Association.

Universal Orlando Resort is where middle-schoolers statewide — including eighth-graders at the charter school — attend Gradventure, when students have private access to the resort’s two parks for a night. Of these parks, Universal Studios attracted 10.7 million visitors and Islands of Adventure drew 9.7 million, the report showed.

SeaWorld Orlando, a trip destination for third-graders at the charter school and fifth-graders at Lake Panasoffkee Elementary School, attracted about 4.6 million visitors in 2018.

Tampa drew 23 million visitors in 2018, according to Visit Tampa Bay. Of those, about 4.1 million went to Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, where eighth-graders at the charter school embarked on a trip for Physics Week.

The Museum of Science and Industry, Glazer Children’s Museum, ZooTampa at Lowery Park, and Dinosaur World — the latter in nearby Plant City — are other popular trips for Sumter County schools.

Brevard County drew 6.4 million visitors in 2017, according to Visit Florida. Kennedy Space Center is a major driver of the county’s tourism; it attracted 1.6 million visitors that year, a NASA report showed.

Delaware North, the concessionaire that operates the space center’s visitor complex, does not track visitor data and could not quantify how many school groups visit on an annual basis.

But Rebecca Shireman, a spokeswoman for Delaware North, said numerous school groups from Florida — as well as out-of-state and international ones — take field trips to the space center because it’s where the story of the U.S. space program is told.

“There’s no better way to learn about it than by being here and experiencing it,” she said. “The past and present are apparent and taking place all around our guests. After a visit, students understand that there are many more exciting milestones ahead and they can be a part of history, too.”

Brady Hunt, who’s entering sixth grade at the Charter School, went on the Kennedy Space Center trip last year. He said sleeping under the Saturn V rocket and sharing the moment with his friends was a great experience. He also enjoyed the up close views of the Space Shuttle Atlantis displayed in flight at the visitor center and seeing the history of America’s space program.

School field trips also are part of the lifeblood of the economy of the nation’s oldest city.

Most, if not all, of Florida’s fourth-graders take field trips to St. Augustine because fourth grade is when children learn about Florida history.

St. Johns County collected more than $11 million in tourist development taxes in part because of tourists’ interest in St. Augustine, county documents showed.

Wildwood Elementary Principal John Temple traveled to St. Augustine with fourth-graders and teachers. He said many students never saw the city or its oldest structure, the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, prior to the field trip.

The excitement they felt for being in a new place gave Temple a sense of pride.

“It’s overwhelming joy, for the opportunity for them to see this,” he said. “Just to see the smiles and the eagerness to absorb what they’re taking in is truly amazing.”

Where the costs go

Each dollar a student or parent pays to travel on a field trip pays for multiple components that make that trip possible. Day trips tend to involve fewer costs, with parents and students footing the bill for admission, transportation and meal costs when applicable.

Even though trips to destinations like SeaWorld ($104.99 for a single-day, single park pass) and Legoland Florida ($99.99 for single-day admission) may not appear to break the bank for students and their parents, one significant cost can add up for the school districts — transportation.

Florida school districts traveled at least 10.4 million miles in the 2017-18 school year for field and activity trips, the Florida Department of Education stated in its annual school district transportation profiles, released in April. The department’s report contained field trip mileage for all but one Florida county, Miami-Dade.

“Activity trips” refers to travel associated with school activities, including athletic teams’ games and matches, band performances, and conferences related to fields of study, such as FFA for agriculture students.

For example, Wildwood Middle High School’s boys’ basketball team and cheerleaders traveled in March to Lakeland for a state championship game. The school spent $2,915 on lodging and $939 on meals.

By multiplying the 2017-18 field trip mileage and the state’s average operating expense of $3.60 per mile, field trip transportation cost school districts a total of at least $37.6 million in the 2017-18 school year.

In the tri-county area, transportation costs for field trips in 2017-18 were $160,995 in Sumter, $309,212 in Lake and $28,188 in Marion, the Education Department stated.

Documents provided by the Sumter County School Board showed transportation costs, such as the cost of buses and gasoline, ranged from $256 to $842 for trips to destinations in Orlando.

It cost $1,004 in transportation costs alone for Webster Elementary School to take its fourth-grade students this year to St. Augustine, documents showed. The trip was funded through a donation from Hope Lutheran Church’s Women of Hope Ministry.

Longer journeys and more elaborate activities require more expenses.

For example, just to swim with dolphins at Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, one of the main attractions of the Charter School’s Keys trip, cost $200 per person — 25% of the $800 trip’s cost.

But these experiences have lasting values that outweighs the cost, said Meghan Ortiz, the seventh-grade teacher who organized the trip. She described swimming with dolphins as life-changing.

“It had been something that I dreamed of doing since I was a little girl,” Ortiz said. “It’s amazing to be able to be so close to and swim with such beautiful creatures.”

Kayaking in the Keys was a relaxing experience for eighth-grader Morgan Chandler because of the quiet atmosphere. Only five students and one guide paddled through, as mangroves towered above them. The water was clear enough for her to notice tiny jellyfish.

“You went under mangroves and had to push your way to paddle,” she said.

The experience was challenging but rewarding, Morgan said.

Another highlight for Morgan was Aquarium Encounters in Marathon, where she fed sharks. Students reached out to give them cut up pieces of raw fish.

“They snapped at the food and made a loud sound,” she said.

While the Keys trip was organized in-house by charter school teachers, other trips involve packages with a tour company, many of which are all-inclusive.

Some go through EF Tours, one of the largest educational tourism companies in the country, for their tour packages. Costs of EF’s domestic and international tours include a full-time tour director, sightseeing tours with local guides, entrance fees at the tour stops, transportation, meals and lodging.

One look at the website for Florida Association of Student and Educational Tours, Hoffman’s group, shows a number of companies competing for schools’ field trip solutions. They bear names like Student Group Tours, Scholastic Journeys and Straight A Tours.

Hoffman herself operates a company, Sonshine Educational Tours, which specializes in domestic field trip packages that include itineraries in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

These trips provide real-world applications for classroom lessons, said Wendy Amato, chief academic officer with WorldStrides.

“Educational travel moves students beyond ‘been there, seen that’ to ‘understand it, know how to expand on it,’” she said.

It’s difficult to quantify the popularity or economic impact of educational tours. That’s because the providers have a wide, customized variety of experiences, Amato said.

But the greatest impact and value she sees in educational tourism is its potential to change people’s lives.

“Students come away with so much academic learning, yes, but also social learning, too,” Amato said. “I love hearing from parents who have seen their child grow while traveling, teachers who say their students are truly different in the classroom after they return, or from former students who have pursued a career path because of what they learned.”

Jennifer Hooten, a teacher at South Sumter High School, leads its senior trip to New York City and Washington,  booked through Educational Tours, based in Inverness.

She said the $1,150-per-person trip evolved from when she graduated from the school in 1994. Back then, it didn’t include the stop in New York.

For many of the students, just being somewhere other than Florida makes the trip a new and exciting adventure for them, Hooten said.

“Some of these kids have never been out of Florida,” she said. “They may never have the chance to go anywhere to travel.”

The trek started with a bus ride leaving last Dec. 9 and arriving in Washington that night. Some students were fascinated just to experience the rest stops, she said.

The seniors spent that Monday in Washington, traveled Tuesday to New York and stayed in the city until Thursday afternoon.

In Washington, the students saw landmarks, including the White House, a Smithsonian museum of their choice and Arlington National Cemetery.

Their trip in New York started with dinner and attending a Broadway performance of “Wicked.” The following day included a ferry tour, a visit to the 9/11 memorial, and tours of Central Park and Times Square.

“They see Times Square on TV so often with New Year’s Eve and the ball dropping, so for them to see it for themselves is exciting,” Hooten said.

The 2019-20 school year will be Hooten’s fourth time leading the senior trip. Although the itinerary is mostly the same each time she goes, each one excites her because of how the students react to what they see.

“Not only do they get to see our nation’s capital and a lot of the things we learn about in government and economics classes growing up,” she said, “but they’re getting to do that with their friends. I don’t think it gets any better than that.”

Why educational tourism?

Less than two decades ago, retired teacher Jack Ciotti rarely took students on elaborate field trips.

The Village of Country Club Hills resident, who spent nine years teaching history at a Catholic school in Yonkers, New York, would simply take his students to nearby historical sites. They traveled to places like Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, the land and mansion of a wealthy Dutch merchant; and Sunnyside in Tarrytown, the former home of author Washington Irving.

When he taught in Yonkers, most of his students were inner-city and immigrant children who didn’t have enough money to pay for trips. But he felt so strongly about the field trips, he often paid their admission costs out of his own pocket.

Ciotti says he was very lucky. In Westchester County, New York, there’s so much history between the Dutch settlers and the Revolutionary War.

“These field trips were maybe $15 to $20,” Ciotti said. “The most expensive trip I took them on was about $30 per student.”

The value of destination learning is similar, whether the destination is half an hour from home or halfway around the world.

Joy Gorence, a retired teacher in Naples, traveled internationally with high school students for 25 years. She’s travelled with multiple tour groups, including several trips with WorldStrides. Her travels took her to Italy, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, France, Portugal, Tunisia and Austria, to name a few.

She thought immersion in the cultures students studied would give more meaning to their learning.

One example was a trip where Gorence took about 30 students to Italy one year and had tour guides split them up in groups. She made arrangements with restaurant owners within a connecting piazza in Florence to serve the students, specifically requesting the waiters not speak English.

“(Students) had to try to communicate in Italian,” she said. “They ordered things they normally would have never ordered.”

When someone is immersed in the experiences of a given destination, they’re capable of visualizing what they learn about it, Gorence said.

It helps counter the difficulties many students have because of dependence on technology, where “everything is visualized for them,” she said.

“When we went to Greece ... when you’re walking in the footsteps of where Socrates and Plato walked and the guide is telling you what happened there, (students) remember that later on,” she said.

The average international field trip Gorence went on lasted about a week to a week and a half, and the cost averaged around $4,000.

That’s enough money to go on the charter school’s seventh-grade Keys trip five times.

But it’s not an expense just anyone can handle paying for. Gorence thinks field trips — especially the international tour packages — are becoming too expensive. She mentioned a nine-day trip to Greece that cost her students $1,500 in the late 1990s is priced at just under $5,000 per person today.

High costs for such trips compete with other critical expenses tied to students’ transition to college from high school, she said.

High school seniors “now have so many other expenses with applying for colleges and graduation that it often comes down to pay for a car, apply for college or go on a trip,” she said. “We’re getting less and less seniors going on the trips now. It’s getting financially straining.”

Some schools have tried to alleviate the burden. Wildwood Elementary pays for its field trips through fundraising events throughout the school year, Temple said.

Most schools rarely offer overseas field trips because of the high expenses involved. But that doesn’t mean teachers won’t organize them.

Elizabeth Buchanan, a Spanish teacher at The Villages High School, organized a two-week trip to Europe that included stops in Spain, France and Italy.

Domestic or international, many trips like those offered at schools today weren’t typical in the times when many school staffers and parent chaperones grew up.

Cathy Rowan, vice principal of The Villages Charter Middle School, said she couldn’t recall anything like the Gradventure trip she organized for eighth-graders graduating to high school.

Growing up near Detroit, the big field trip she remembered taking with her class was to Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. She said it was part of a lesson on science and industry.

Greenfield Village, America’s first outdoor museum, preserves historical buildings from the 17th century to the present to show how Americans lived and worked since the nation’s founding. The Henry Ford Museum, named for the founder of the Ford Motor Company, includes exhibits dedicated to innovation in America.

Rowan observed that educators in a given area take advantage of sites close to home for field trip opportunities. That explains why charter school students got to see St. Augustine and the Kennedy Space Center.

“It brings a depth of learning they wouldn’t otherwise have,” she said. “We want our kids to learn in any way possible.”

Claire Brooks chaperoned the Keys trip for a second time this year with her youngest daughter in the class. She chaperoned once before when her oldest daughter was in seventh grade. She jumped at the opportunity to chaperone because the destinations in the itinerary excited her.

Even for someone who traveled to Washington in eighth grade and went to Europe in high school, Brooks thought the Keys trip was on a different level — something she attributed to the teachers who organized it.

And it went back to the value of what children learned on the trip.

“We could ask our kids to read books about this stuff,” Brooks said. “But when you see the sea turtles, you see the pollution and the invasive species, it makes you want to be a part of this community and help out.”

Being there inspires the students to care more about how their actions, such as throwing litter out the car window, may affect the wildlife they interacted with, she said.

Teaching that knowledge in a way that sticks with students later in life makes trips like that one worth every dollar.

“How do you even put it into words?” Brooks asked. “They learn so much: vocabulary, empathy, environmental sciences, teamwork, symbiotic relationships, putting what they learned into an application. It’s hands-on. It’s what you want to offer as an educator — real world experience.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or