By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
Lutz and his wife, Marcia, are members of the Paradise Lakes nudist resort, a Club Med-style getaway in Pasco County, whose pools they visit two or three times a week.
"It makes me comfortable with no clothes on," said John Lutz, the father of three grown children. "The main thing is the openness and friendliness of the people."
They're not alone. Land O'Lakes is recognized as the U.S. capital for nudist resorts: The community's five resorts draw more than 100,000 visitors a year, making them big players in the tourist business for a county that lacks beaches or theme parks. The most popular key word search on Pasco County's official tourism Web site: nudism. And ads for the resorts appear in mainstream magazines, such as Travel & Leisure.
The American Association for Nude Recreation, a Kissimmee group representing 253 nudist clubs nationally, lists 50,000 members, including 10,700 in Florida. That's up from 40,000 total members in 1992. (Florida figures for that year were not available.)
Demand is strong enough to attract developers of new nudist communities for those who want a permanent home, not just a vacation spot. Caliente, now under construction on U.S. 41, is selling some lots for $125,000 each.
The typical nudism enthusiast can afford it: Average buyers are about 50 years old with household incomes of $75,000 and higher. Lutz's fellow nudists include doctors and lawyers. Not that you'd know it from looking at them.
"When no one is wearing clothes," Lutz said, "only if you talk to someone do you realize what their background and economic status is."
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Pasco County got its start with nudist resorts around World War II. Tampa tax lawyer Arthur Brubaker, son of a Mennonite minister, bought an orange grove near Big Moss Lake, to which he invited friends to go skinny-dipping.
Brubaker's former property, called the Lake Como Resort, remains mainly a rustic campground and RV and mobile home park, fragrant with orange blossoms this time of year. It's run as a co-op by 101 lot owners, who bought the 200-acre resort from the previous owners in 1997.
But recent upgrades, including clay tennis courts, are helping it compete with bigger and newer resorts. New county water and sewer lines will open the resort to further development.
"We want to preserve the rustic feel, but we have to grow, too," spokeswoman Jackie Murphy said. "We're a business."
One of Como's residents, a Brooklyn-born nudist named Fred Bischoff, realized the movement lacked an upscale resort. He bought about 70 acres bordering Lake Como and started Paradise Lakes in 1981.
Of its 566 residential units, 392 are condominiums, including 71 newly built condos called the Fountains of Paradise.
Paradise is hedonistic in Club Med fashion. Amenities include a Key West Tiki and Piano Bar, L'Attitude Night Club, a full-service restaurant called P.L. Hemingway's, five swimming pools, miniature golf and a 56-room hotel.
Its crowds this spring include hundreds of guests, mostly middle-age and mostly couples, luxuriating naked pool-side, slapping volleyballs and sipping mai tais in the shade.
But there are rules prohibiting sexual contact in public. Paradise says it runs criminal background checks on new members and will throw out people who are there just to gawk.
Bischoff sold his controlling stake in the resort in 1999 to Pinellas County real estate broker Joe Lettelleir and his partners, Roger Broderick and Barry Santerre.
"I would say 90 percent of nudist clubs are mom-and-pop operated, " said Lettelleir, who isn't a nudist. "Many grew out of a need to find a location to practice social nudism. There are only probably eight in the country to approach full resort status."
More resorts followed Como's lead. The Island Group is a 75-member day club with a pool and hot tub. Another, called the Riverboat Club, is a campground that draws several thousand people each year. The Oasis, a new 28-home community for nudists that's discreetly shaded by a wooden privacy fence from the Wal-Mart next door, has quickly disposed of $79,000 lots.
The biggest challenge to Paradise's supremacy is Caliente, the 351-unit resort that's under construction and promises to be more upscale than its competitor.
William Baldwin and Chuck Foster, Caliente's president and vice president, learned the business while working at Paradise. The pair found an investor in Lutz health products millionaire Carl Anderson, who has sunk an estimated $6-million in cash into the project.
When it comes to Caliente, Paradise's owners strike a cheerful, the-more-the-merrier pose, figuring there are enough nudists to fill both resorts. With the completion of the Caliente, Land O'Lakes will count more than 1,100 houses, condominiums, mobile homes, RV lots and hotel rooms dedicated to nudists.
Despite its confident ads touting the "most modern, spacious and upscale nudist resort on the planet," Caliente has been behind schedule. The owners held a groundbreaking ceremony in July 1996, collected deposits from dozens of nudists, and didn't bulldoze any of its lots until December 2000. They promised their clubhouse and sandy lakeside beach will open by Christmas.
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Resorts such as Paradise have worked to attract newcomers, those who have tried occasional skinny-dipping but don't practice the daily nudism of the most avid enthusiasts.
Ads in traditional travel magazines target novices. But most of the resort business appears to come from word-of-mouth and, increasingly, the Internet. The resorts are attracting more British, German and Canadian visitors. The proximity of Tampa International Airport is key.
One strategy that helps attract newbies: marketing a resort as "clothing optional."
"A surprising amount of these people naked at the pool would not consider themselves nudists," Lettelleir said. "Our philosophy is: Don't sell the religion, sell the experience."
And many of these amateur nudists have money to spend.
Until he died in April 2000, millionaire Tampa lawyer Edward Rood silently owned half of Paradise Lakes. He maintained a lush three-story condominium there with an indoor pool and waterfall.
And during millennial celebrations at Paradise two years ago, Lettelleir said, a cook spilled boiling water from a lobster pot on his leg.
"Workers ran out to the nightclub and asked, "Is there a doctor in the house?' and four doctors came," Lettelleir said.
Another sign that nudism is going mainstream: Community leaders endorse it. Caliente's groundbreaking in 1996 drew a Who's Who of Pasco leaders, including ex-Sheriff Jim Gillum. And former Pasco County Commissioner Sylvia Young wrote a letter on the nudist industry's behalf to a Naples commissioner who was wavering about whether to approve a nudist resort in Collier County.
Even the Little Everglades Steeplechase horse race in Dade City, a haunt of staid old Florida money, accepted a sponsorship from Paradise this year.
One reason for support is the tax dollars generated by the industry. Because most nudists are upper-middle class empty-nesters, there is less demand for public services such as schools.
Paradise's yearly payroll for 96 employees is $1.8-million. Caliente expects to employ a like number in fields such as food service and groundskeeping.
"Paradise Lakes was the first big first-class one around. They pay substantial taxes, and they're good citizens," said Mike Wells, Pasco's property appraiser and a former county commissioner. "That industry, dollar for dollar, pays more than their share of taxes in this county."
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