The Florida Air Museum plans to add an aviation-themed playground before the next Sun 'n Fun expo in April 2024. | Stephanie Claytor, LkldNow

The Florida Air Museum is working to bring an aviation-themed playground to southwest Lakeland before the next Sun ‘n Fun expo in April.

The museum has raised more than half of its goal of $500,000 for the project. The idea for the playground came about after witnessing so many children enjoying the museum’s weekly storytime sessions, which began in August 2022, said Eric Crump, the executive director of the Aerospace Center for Excellence, which includes the Florida Air Museum. 

“Seeing all those young kiddos on campus every week and how much they loved our Kid’s Discovery Zone in the museum made it obvious that there would be interest in expanded opportunities,” Crump said. “We want to make it easy for the entire family to visit the Florida Air Museum, and we want everyone in the family to have something to do while they’re here for a visit.”

A preliminary rendering by the Lunz Group shows some elements of the planned playground. The final design will include sunshades. | Provided photo.

The museum, located at 4075 James C. Ray Drive, off of Medulla Road, hopes the playground will encourage children to pursue a career in the aerospace industry.

According to a study produced by Boeing, “602,000 new pilots, 610,000 new maintenance technicians, and 899,000 new cabin crew members will be needed to fly and maintain the global commercial fleet over the next 20 years.”

“In addition to being a lot of fun, the playground will also feature multiple learning opportunities on the science and practice of flight,” Crump said, adding the playground will be geared toward children ages 10 and under. 

Eric Crump, Executive Director of the Aerospace Center for Excellence | Provided photo

“If we’re not sharing how awesome aviation and aerospace is with our young people, we’re not going to be able to maintain our fantastic national airspace system in the future.”

According to Crump, the playground will have a large play structure and several surrounding play areas, a sitting area for parents and large sun shades. 

“Every aspect of our structure will be aviation-themed, all the way down to the cushioned matting, which will feature the layout of an airport, complete with taxiways and runways,” Crump explained. 

Crump said the design is still being finalized. 

“We plan to break ground later in the summer with a completion date in advance of our 50th Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo in April 2024,” Crump explained. 

The playground will come in handy, considering the southwest Lakeland area is somewhat of a park desert, and booming with residential development, especially in the Riverstone community. The closest parks to the Florida Air Museum are Springhead Park, which is three and a half miles away in Plant City, and Christina Park, which is six miles away. 

There are three playgrounds located inside the Riverstone community, but only two that the public can access. The City of Lakeland is working to build a 101.5 acre park nearby at the corner of Pipkin and Medulla roads, but it’s not expected to open until 2030. 

The playground being built will only be open to patrons of the museum, which charges an admission fee. Museum members will be able to access the playground at no additional cost, Crump said. 

The museum is open Monday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sundays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

“If we’re not sharing how awesome aviation and aerospace is with our young people, we’re not going to be able to maintain our fantastic national airspace system in the future,” Crump said. “It’s never too early to plant that seed and inspire that next pilot, maintainer, air traffic controller, or astronaut. Watching that light bulb turn on over a young person’s head is about the most rewarding experience there is.”

Crump said there has been a “huge surge” of interest in the Florida Air Museum in the last year. 

“Actually, 2022 was the best year for Museum attendance in its 30-plus year history. So far, for 2023, we look to be beating those numbers. There is a huge interest in aviation and aerospace in general right now, and we also have a lot of new families moving to our area,” Crump said. Due to the surge in interest, Crump said they’ve been expanding exhibits, and have added programming such as a monthly youth speaker series, “Cookies ‘n Convos,” and the adult speaker series, “Wings ‘n Waffles.”

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for LkldNow. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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