By JR Harding
Life in Action magazine
There is nothing like soaking up the sun’s warm rays on a pristine sandy beach. If you use a wheelchair, that statement takes on a whole new meaning because finding an accessible beach can be like searching for an elusive oasis.
Florida residents and others with disabilities need search no farther. William Joseph “Billy Joe” Rish Recreational Park is a 98 acre beach paradise located at Cape San Blas in the Florida Panhandle. This park has been developed specifically for people with disabilities and their families and shows how some vision and planning can magnify one of nature’s treasures by expanding access. The current vision of the park is to allow people with disabilities and their families to enjoy an affordable, barrier-free outdoor recreational experience.
Originally envisioned by State Representative Rish in the early 1970s, the park has maintained its natural qualities through a county ordinance which mandates environmental protection and limits development to ensure pristine views on Cape San Blas. The park is owned by the state of Florida and operated by the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities (APD) with two full-time staff.
More than a Beach
One of the unique features Rish Park offers is access to St. Joe Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, which are renowned for scallops, wildlife and estuaries. The bay side of the park is currently being renovated to improve its accessibility, but the north side of the park will soon permit access to the bay through a boardwalk. Visitors with the appropriate fishing permit will be welcome to capture their limit of scallops in St. Joe Bay. At the same time, the south side of the park drops visitors into miles of sugar white beaches that are known for seasonal sea turtle nesting.
The park has two family cabins that can house up to seven people. They each contain a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and two bathrooms, complete with a roll-in shower. The cabins are maintained in a rustic fashion and users must bring personal items such as sheets, towels and groceries.
Rish Park can also house 107 people in the six dormitory-style group cabins. Visiting groups can utilize the industrial kitchen located in the main lodge. If the weather is unfavorable, the main lodge contains a large projector screen that allows groups to watch movies and play video games. Next to the main lodge is an Olympic-size, accessible swimming pool. Visitors can use the grills located by the pool while listening to music of their choice over a speaker system.
The current 2.1 miles of updated accessible boardwalk enables visitors to access the beach. Through the available beach wheelchairs and Mobi mats, wheelchair users can equally enjoy the beach with their family. For visitors that prefer to ride in luxury, there are two Beach Scoots (golf carts with hand controls) available for use. Groups and visitors are encouraged to bring personal equipment like kayaks, pontoon boats, snorkeling gear and anything else that could be useful on your family or group vacation.
The State’s Commitment
Following the 2004-05 hurricane season, the state of Florida invested $3.5 million to update Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues and repair damage on the Gulf side of the park incurred during the storm season. The park is a tribute to the state’s continued investment in accessible economic development and tourism.
In the future, visitors can expect Rish Park to be more dynamic and accessible due to a recent $1.4 million appropriation. This revenue is specifically designated to enhance the north side of the park that has access to the St. Joe Bay. The accessible boardwalk from the beach all the way to the bay will be modernized to allow both freshwater and saltwater fishing. A floating dock will be included in the bayside renovation of the boardwalk. The dock will have all of the appropriate accessible features for adaptive sports and recreation.
APD is working to secure more funding for enhancements such as accessible nature trails, tree forts, campground, RV park, miniature golf course, multipurpose sports area for adaptive tennis and basketball, and additional family cabins.
Rish Park is open all year and encourages both overnight stays and day visits. Reservations can be made by calling 850.482.9386 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday. An online application is available on the Rish Park website, www.rishpark.org.
Overnight guests pay $15 per night per person. Groups of more than 60 people pay $12 per person per night. The day visits are $5 per person. Groups can rent the entire park for $650 per night.
The physical address of the park is 6773 Cape San Blas Road, Port St. Joe, FL 32456.