Tips to Beat the Heat and Make Memories w/our Favorite Lakeland Mom
By RJ Walters
As a committed mother to two young boys—Jacob and Austin, now 14 and 12 respectively—April was trying to find options for summer camps years ago, but found herself in a never ending labyrinth when calling around and searching for answers online.
As a Lakeland native who is confident in her research skills, April figured not only could she solve the summer camp riddle, but she could also help other moms by posting them online.
She Google’d and YouTube’d her way through building a website—which became LakelandMom.com—that took up so much time that her husband, Matt, started nudging her to monetize her venture, especially after about two years of curating hundreds of posts on LakelandMom.com. “He would make jokes like, ‘When are you gonna start making money off this?,’” she said. “And then he would send me job listings, and I was like, ‘I have a job.’ And he’s like, ‘It’s a hobby.’”
That “hobby” has turned into a financial blessing for the Mucci’s and served as the foundation of a profitable website. Her site garners more than 2 million page views per year and consists of a directory of events, camps, places and experiences. Her site was also the catalyst for Lakeland Moms Facebook Group, a private community of mothers.
April is the lady behind the keyboard working diligently to promote ways for locals to spend their money and time close to home, which is nothing out of the ordinary for her family.
Her parents, Scott and Peggy Neslund, opened Family Fun Center in 1981 when April was 1 year old. More than 10 years ago, her brother, Brian Neslund, took over the business, where he continues to provide kids and families with a family-friendly, safe environment to make memories together.
Mucci—who is a board member for Friends of Bonnet Springs Park, Florida Children’s Museum and the Randy Roberts Foundation—jokes that she is so deeply rooted in Lakeland that it takes extra effort to remember not everyone has grown up in a town where, for example, Publix is king, entertainment options like her brother’s business have been around for decades and there are as many, if not more, things to do outdoors than indoors.
She said her goal is to sustain an online community where there will always be a spot for free directory and event listings, and also be a premiere website for local businesses to promote their on-going and one-time offerings.
Sitting down after a nostalgic photo shoot at her brother’s business in early April, that included an intense game of air hockey with her boys, we asked Mucci her secrets to making the most of the summer months.
She will be the first to say she finds a healthy balance from chill days at home with the family mixed in with memorable outings, and it seems her boys would agree.
Jacob, who is going into 9th grade at McKeel Academy, said he is most looking forward to hanging out with his friends at the house and at fun local spots this summer, while Austin, who is set to enter 7th grade at McKeel, is excited to hit up the beach, specifically Ana Maria, with his grandparents.
Austin said his mom has taught him the importance of family by providing a loving home for he, his brother and the family dog, and Jacob agrees, with a plug for his mom’s business weaved in.
“It’s great…I mean she knows everything and always has something planned for us to do,” Jacob said. “If we’re trying to figure out something to do, she’ll be like, ‘You know what we should do? We should look on LakelandMom.’ [That] is always our solution.”
What follows is a short guide of some of Mucci’s favorite ways she encourages families to enjoy Lakeland throughout the summer.
Beat the Heat: Where to go when it feels like 100 degrees out
The average temperature in Lakeland in June and July is a balmy 91°, meaning anything just above normal pushes us toward triple digits. Throughout this piece we will highlight a number temperature controlled options, like visiting the library, lacing up at Skate World and hitting up local bowling alleys, but here are a few more sure bets that April adds to her list of spots to beat the heat.
Public and Private Pools
Find your sunglasses, grab the snacks and don’t forget the sunscreen! Lakeland is blessed with two great outdoor aquatic facilities at Gandy Pool and Simpson Park that have comfy seats and large pools to accommodate all ages for just $4/per person. For an elevated pool and lounging experience, you can check out what private clubs offer. For example, The Club at Eaglebrooke offers a social membership for $90 per month after a one-time $500 membership activation fee is paid. That membership offers access to the pool and activity courts, and also provides discounts on food and complimentary yoga classes.
Family Fun Center
It’s not just part of Mucci’s upbringing and her family lore, Family Fun Center been around since before the release of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The arcade has more than 100 games, including everything from retro classics like Galaga and Skee-Ball to modern hits like Crossy Road and Axe Master. For a little more action, you can suit up for laser tag, and when you’re physically spent you can enjoy some concessions, including their classic pizza which they have sold more than one million slices of. Add in a beautiful mini golf course for when the temperature’s a bit lower and tie in the kids play space inside, and there’s something for everyone.
Defy or Urban Air
North Lakeland is home to two high-flying, big bouncing fun zones. Defy is an extreme air park where you can parkour, unleash your inner American Gladiator, zipline or enjoy one of dozens of unique spring loaded trampoline surfaces. Urban Air is inside Lakeland Square Mall and offers up a ropes course, indoor playground, trampolines, a Wipeout mission, climbing walls and more.
Lakeland Ice Arena
Lakeland’s only ice rink offers open skate for the public every weekend throughout the summer. During cool-down time skaters—or their friends who are just there as spectators—can enjoy concessions and a full bar or try their hand at arcade games.
Hidden Gems to Uncover
Websites like LakelandMom.com and social media make it hard to stay out of the local spotlight for long, but April has a few suggestions for fun that might considered more “under the radar.”
Mulberry Phosphate Museum
The free museum examines the impact phosphate has had locally from prehistoric times until today. “They have a pile of rocks basically that came from the mines….with little shark teeth in it,” Mucci says about the historic spot located in the city’s original train depot. The museum also has several galleries that bring to life the history of the area, and just across the street is the Mulberry Cultural Center.
Murals, Murals Everywhere
Lakeland is rich with artistic talent, and in recent years buildings throughout the city have become canvasses for expression for all to enjoy. There is everything from the massive and intriguing “Watchful Woman” painting near Thom Downs Antiques to the fresh citrus-infused “Cultivate” mural near Catapult. Mucci’s website, as well as Visit Central Florida and LAL Today combine to provide addresses and artist information on almost every mural in Swan City.
Playgrounds for all Interests and Ages
Mucci and her kids have enjoyed many of Lakeland’s fine playgrounds over the years, and everyone should heed her one unchanging piece of wisdom: “Go early in the morning or after dinner so it’s not so dang hot.” Mucci mentioned several parks to check out that might not roll off the tongue as quickly as Common Ground or Bonnet Springs. The train playground at Woodlake Park is a favorite—and as we featured earlier this year, you can play pickleball or tennis at the facility as well. A relatively new addition to the Lakeland play scene is McGee Park. Located off Edgewood, the car-themed playground includes tires to climb, vehicles to “drive” and a gas pump that always sells gas for the same price, alongside a number of well manicured sports fields. And nothing makes the kids say “yo ho ho” quite like the Pirate Park at Lake Parker, where kids can run, climb towers and ride a zipline until they call mayday.
On the Cheap
Here are some of Mucci’s favorite affordable, and even free, ways to make the most of summer.
Sign up for Free Skating Passes
Kids and adults alike have been groovin’ to the beat and spinning in circles for nearly 50 years at Skate World in Lakeland. On kidsskatefree.com parents can sign up for Free Skating Passes, which offer free skating at select times on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for children ages 12 and younger. Don’t have skates? A rental will only set you back $3 per kid.
Don’t Forget Your Local Library
Storytime, sewing classes and Lego club are just a few of the many engaging and educational activities that kids and teens can enjoy in the comfort of air conditioning at the three Lakeland Library locations. Visit www.lakelandgov.net/departments/library for a calendar of events throughout the summer.
New Cinema Comforts at Old Cinema Prices
Cinemark at Lakeland Square Mall has released its schedule of eight family-friendly flix for the summer of 2023 that cost only $1.50 per ticket for the 9:30 a.m. showing on Wednesdays. This year’s lineup consists of: “Minions, the Rise of Gru,” “Sonic the Hedgehog,” “Mummies,” “The Bad Guys,” “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank”, “DC League of Super Pets,” “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile” and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.”
Show Your Retro Bowling Skills to Your Kids Without Breaking the Bank
Lake Wales Bowling and Cypress Lanes in Winter Haven are part of the nationwide Kids Bowl Free program that you can sign up for at kidsbowlfree.com. For just the cost of renting shoes—and probably an alley pizza or a few vending machine trips—kids ages 2-18 can bowl for free, everyday of the week at Lake Wales Bowling and Monday through Friday at Cypress Lanes.
Worth the Splurge
“I’m a pretty frugal person, so if we’re going to spend $100 or more as a family of four, that’s a big deal,” Muccia said. When she and her family do decide to splurge, though, here are some of the local places she points to for making memories.
Enjoy a Safari Without Going to Africa
Many locals still don’t know about the wild animals that A.) are not in a zoo or B.) the alligators they are hoping to snap a pic with at Circle B. But, Safari Wilderness Ranch at the edge of Lakeland near Polk City, is a place to encounter everything from waterbuck to lemurs to zebras and more. “It’s like a theme park safari guide, but better because the animals are literally right there!” says Mucci, who has gone on several field trips to the ranch with her boys. “I mean you can reach out and pet the zebra, though I think they tell you not to. There are animals you can feed; there are llamas, there are ostrich, there are cattle, and there are all kinds of crazy animals!” The ranch is known for its wide range of safari tours, like its 2.5 hour safari truck tour that runs $119 per person, but it also is accommodating for birthday parties, offers overnight glamping, and couples can even tie the knot there as a “wild” way to kick off their marriage. The most economical option is a 1-hour self-drive tour of the site, which runs $125 per vehicle of up to seven people.
Ax-Caliber and Woodchuck’s Axe Throwing are a pair of local spots just miles apart to de-stress and see how hard and straight you can throw an instrument that has been vital to civilizations for millennia. Ax-Caliber is known for its great food offerings at breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as its delicious coffees, craft beers and its unique virtual axe throwing range. Woodchuck’s is an alcohol-free range located inside N7 Nitro Kava Bar that is open from 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. seven days a week.
Your 60 Minutes Starts Now…
At Escapology Lakeland your mission is to work as a team to locate clues, figure out riddles and solve puzzles that will help you work your way through, and ultimately escape from, a fun themed environment, in an hour or less. The downtown fun spot offers up to four unique themed experiences at a time.
Commit to a Year at Lakeland’s Newest Museum
Located inside Bonnet Springs Park, the Florida Children’s Museum is an eye-opening, innovative space filled with two stories of engaging interactive educational exhibits that allow kids to experience the joy of play with a distinctive Central Florida flair. Memberships for an entire year start at $120 per year for one adult and one child, and additional children are just $20. And you can share the fun because up to three guests each visit can enjoy 50% off general admission.
The Simple Pleasures
Not everything has to be on the calendar or check a box. Do what works best for you, at home, or on the road.
It Doesn’t Have to Be Extravagant
As Mucci puts it, “everyday doesn’t have to be magical or unique,” and sometimes having a plan to live your best life at home is just perfect. Get stocked up on craft supplies and don’t forget how easy it is to facilitate a classic water balloon fight. “I remember my kids playing baseball with water balloons, and they absolutely loved it,” Mucci said.
Schedules Help Everyone
Even on days where you stay put, it can help everyone rest easier with a basic schedule or routine. “Either it’s this hour is for quiet time and this hour is for everyone to play outside, or it’s a weekly schedule where three days a week you go places and two you are at home,” Mucci suggests.
Slow Down and Travel
Even though Mucci is the unofficial queen of “go here” and “do this” in Lakeland, she admits that some of her favorite days are spent in the same place she curates her website from—her home. And she also encourages families that have the means to find a way to travel at least once during the summer to try new things and see new sights.