Award Winner: 
Jennifer Merrick, A Wild Wizard Adventure at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates
Category Sponsor: 
Chelsea Hotel, Toronto

Published in Vacay.ca, June 30, 2016

A Wild Wizard Adventure at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates

How does a vacationing Canadian family find themselves in a classroom with 29 home-schooled Florida kids and a ‘Wild Wizard’?

It was the guilt.

We had misgivings about pulling our kids out of school for a week. But the lure of four extremely cheap last-minute tickets was too strong to resist. We allayed our pangs of conscience by telling ourselves that we weren’t just going to play on the beach, but seek out educational opportunities. It would be a learning experience.

Accordingly, on the first day of our vacation, armed with journals, we ignored the white sand in front of the Pink Shell Resort and headed off to the Ford and Edison Winter Estates, just outside of Fort Myers on the southwest coast of Florida.  You couldn’t ask for a place with better educational value than the homes of two of the most brilliant minds of our time. Thomas Edison was, of course, the inventor of the practical electric light bulb, the phonograph and over 1000 other innovations, and Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company and revolutionized industry with his assembly line techniques. What we didn’t know is that these two influential men were friends, who worked together, vacationed together and lived side-by-side at their winter homes in Florida.  Their estates were combined and opened to visitors as a museum to showcase their remarkable lives and the designs that changed history.

Could there be a more perfect learning opportunity?

It got even better. The day we visited coincided with the monthly home school classes that ran at the site.  Was this only for Florida home-schooled kids or could anyone join?  The receptionist wasn’t sure so she tracked down the person in charge of the program for us. Glen Beitman, AKA the Wild Wizard, has been a teacher for 15years and has been running this program for four. “Parents use it as an opportunity to connect with other home-schooled families, as well as to learn,” he tells us. 

“You’re welcome to join us.”

And so here we were with 29 other kids and a wild wizard. He told the kids that when Ford was eight years old he took apart a pocket watch and more impressively, put it back together again. When he was 15, he did the same with a steam engine. As the program continues, it was easy to see how the Wild Wizard got his name. Gadgets were built, contraptions were demonstrated and games were played, all while learning about levers, pulleys, axels and inclined planes. Kids had an active role in all of it.

Ears still buzzing, we wandered around the estates. The kids played tag around one the most extraordinary trees we had ever come across. This native India Banyan tree was a gift from tire industrialist Harvey Firestone in 1925. It’s now over an acre in diameter with some 350 tangled roots branching creating what looked like a magical forest of trees.

What magic a brilliant mind can create.

We explored the men’s homes, guest houses, laboratories and offices, which gave a window into their working lives filled with learning, innovation, business and discovery and their private lives spent entertaining guests, fishing, swimming and gardening. There was much overlap between the worlds.

To be honest, the kids weren’t too interested in much of it and ignored us when we pointed out some old family vacation photos of Edison and Ford’s. Likewise, the original wicker furnishings and writing desks meant little to them. What did grab my son’s attention were the inventions in the Estates Museum. All sorts of contraptions, innovations and creations are exhibited, including multiple phonographs, telegraphs, stock-tickers, voice recorders, domestic appliances, an assortment of light bulbs and an x-ray machine. There was also 1940 V-8 engine which was reportedly built on the back porch of Ford’s home on the grounds and a custom-made Model T Ford, a gift to Edison from Ford.

From a child, Edison was an inventor and after watching a cartoon video on his life, my son turned to me and said, “Mom, anything is possible”.

The guilt vanished.

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Edison & Ford Winter Estates – 2350 McGregor Blvd. Fort Myers, FL www.edisonfordwinterestates.org

On our vacation, we stayed at the Pink Shell Resort. Its beach, kids’ activities and family-friendly suites made it an ideal base to explore the area’s attractions www.pinkshell.com

To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk. – Thomas Edison

Award Year: 
2016