Visit Virtually: Popular parks, attractions adjust to COVID-19

The beach at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve near Jacksonville.
The beach at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve near Jacksonville.

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — While the coronavirus pandemic has altered many travel plans, a number of attractions are offering an interactive virtual experience in the era of social distancing. 

Some popular theme parks are providing virtual rides. You can even gaze at sea creatures at aquariums online or become an at-home park visitor at national and state parks across the country. 

Ellen Leroy-Reed, executive director of the Friends of Guana Tolomato Mantanzas Research Reserve, said they used to get about 300,000 visitors each year to their site near Jacksonville. And she said she’s thankful that before the pandemic, they were able to launch a virtual program for students unable to travel.

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“When we found out that we were shutting down, we realized this is a wonderful opportunity for us to take the VR program that we typically bring to students with the headsets and put it onto our website and share it through email or setup webinars with students,” Leroy-Reed said.

Visitors now can experience the world of estuaries from the comfort of their homes through virtual reality with science lessons that meet state educational standards.

Leroy-Reed said the VR experience is more immersive with pop-ups visitors might otherwise miss when trekking along on the vast more than 76,000-acre reserve. 

“You can learn what to look for when you can come out and tour these spaces and learn about research projects that are happening that you would otherwise not have noticed,” she said. “Or you can learn about a specific plant or animal that is vital to that particular ecosystem.”

Some parts of the reserve sites, which stretch from Ponte Vedera to Palm Coast, still are open for hiking, canoeing and wildlife observation. These federally protected sites are possible because of the Coastal Zone Management Act which Congress passed in 1972 to help states conserve waters and coastal habitats. 

The educational programs at GTM are now available online for students up to fifth grade but content will soon expand for students through 12th grade.

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