By Suzy Kridner
CANAVERAL NATIONAL SEASHORE -- One of Florida's best-kept secrets is an attraction that's even better now that the long-awaited Apollo Beach Visitor's Center has opened.
No longer will visitors have to sit on folding chairs to view a video about the Seashore's history that had been shown in a temporary trailer on the grounds.
Now there's a room filled with chairs and a large screen to show the video that tells the history of the Seashore and what's available to locals and tourists who want to enjoy it.
The recreational paradise has back country camping, horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, fishing, surfing, swimming on 24 miles of an undeveloped beach, boating and bird watching opportunities.
You can drive, hike and boat through this national park area with its barrier island, open lagoon, coastal hammock, pine flat woods and offshore waters.
The 57,661 acres of Canaveral National Seashore are in both Brevard and Volusia Counties.
The Visitor's Center also has plenty of space to display information on the hiking trails, species of turtles and birds, and back country camping.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 30, keynote speaker T.C. Wilder highlighted the milestones in the park's development and the journey to the long-awaited Visitor's Center.
"It was a long-time coming," said Myrna Palfrey, superintendent of the Canaveral National Seashore.
"Visitors can spend one-on-one time with our rangers or volunteers," she said.
"We've been providing services out of temporary structures for 20 years."
She also introduced T.C. Wilder, "who has dedicated most of his life to Canaveral National Seashore and is our No. 1 advocate."
Mr. Wilder is one of the founding members of the Friends of Canaveral and he introduced in the audience Art Graham, former superintendent of the Seashore.
"The National Park Service came through looking for a spot for a National Seashore in 1955," Mr. Wilder said. It was another 20 years before President Gerald Ford signed an Act of Congress creating the Seashore on Jan. 3, 1975.
Fortunately during the dedication, the park's most prolific residents, the Salt Marsh mosquitoes, weren't in attendance, Mr. Wilder told the crowd gathered under blue skies on the banks of the Indian River.
The barrier island was preserved through the work of three federal agencies: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has managed the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge since 1963, and the National Park Service, which has run Canaveral National Seashore since 1975.
Mr. Wilder had praise for the early volunteers and politicians such as U.S. Rep. William Chappell, who championed the cause of the Seashore.
Congressman Bill Chappell sponsored federal legislation in 1988 to purchase "Seminole Rest," which was also known as Snyder Mound, and to expand the Seashore's boundary to include the site on the west bank of Mosquito Lagoon at Oak Hill.
Mr. Wilder pointed out last week the many species of wildlife such as Bald Eagles, spoonbills, turtles, manatees and porpoises -- and from April to November the Salt Marsh mosquitoes.
Mr. Wilder said he chaired the committee to preserve the Eldora State House as the Eldora History Interpretive Center.
"The Seashore belongs to you the people and we want you to come and enjoy it," he said. "That's what the Visitor's Center does, it tells you about it."
Shawn Benge, deputy regional director of the Southeast Region of the National Park Service, came from Atlanta for the celebration. He said Canaveral is one of only 10 national seashores in the country and "is one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service."
The Canaveral/Merritt Island Seashore stretches from Bethune Beach at the north boundary to S.R. 402 at the southern boundary adjacent to Kennedy Space Center.
The Apollo Beach Visitor's Center is at 7611 S. Atlantic Ave., New Smyrna Beach. The telephone number is (386) 428-3384.
Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at the Information Center and 6 a.m.-8 p.m. at the park's north district.
Admission is $5 per day per car or motorcycle. Seniors can purchase a national park senior pass for $10. Other passes are available.
There are weekly nature programs and also a Junior Ranger program for children.