Nudist resort is bringing in business

Owner: Controversial change to resort saved business

COCOA BEACH, Fla. – Nude men and women lounge around the shimmering pool on sunny weekends at Fawlty Towers Resort, chatting in beach chairs and soaking up rays in the buff.

"I'm going to be very honest. I hate bras and underwear and bathing suits. I love to be naked," Joanne Destefano said Friday while skinnydipping in the pool.

Destefano and her husband Joe say swimming and sunning bathing in the buff is a way of life for many reasons.

"It's really nice to have something like this so close to home because I love nudism. Its environment is beautiful and nobody judges you," Destefano said.

The couple lives in Lakeland and like so many other nudists they now have a new spot to frequent.

After nearly going under as a struggling motel, Fawlty Towers reopened May 1 as a re-branded, clothing-optional resort. Now, manager David Broad says weekend business is brisk, and the no-clothes strategy has saved the 32-room facility from fiscal oblivion.

"We are expected to be nearly full tonight. Which this time of the year we wouldn't be close to being full. No where near that," resort manager, David Broad said.

Broad says although the decision may be controversial to go nude, it's saved this resort.

Guests like the Destefano's say they're planning another trip back soon.

But the au naturel strategy has caused controversy. Two days after the grand opening, the Cocoa Beach City Commission ordered research on whether the facility ran afoul of hotel, health, alcohol or public-nudity regulations.

Debra Key, a Cocoa Beach resident who is involved in Girl Scouts, complained to commissioners that Fawlty Towers could corrupt children's minds and attract prostitution.

"It doesn't stay behind closed doors. The type of perversion that comes to these places — they bring the drugs along with it, the sexual promiscuity," Key told commissioners.

But City Attorney Skip Fowler later determined that Fawlty Towers is operating in legal fashion. In a memo, he cited Pasco County's status as the unofficial nudist capital of North America, boasting six resorts along a 6-mile stretch of U.S. 41 north of Tampa.

Broad said Fawlty Towers — which was named for the 1970s British sitcom — cannot compete with chain hotels and their superior advertising budgets. Compounding matters: Florida's lingering economic downturn and NASA's retirement of the shuttle program at nearby Kennedy Space Center.

"My hat's off to them. They're trying something different," said Bob Morton, executive director of the Naturist Action Committee of Oshkosh, Wis. This non-profit group fights for nudists' rights in communities across the USA.

"It may or may not work for them, but they'll make some adjustments and say, ‘That's the best idea we've ever had' — or, ‘That really stinks,' " Morton said.

"You have to ask the Cocoa Beach city commissioners: Would they be happier to have the place shuttered with a ‘For Sale' sign on the window?" he said.

In a similar business-model switch, the shuttered Mira Vista Resort in Tuscon, Ariz., reopened as a nudist facility in May 2006. The historic property formerly operated as a guest ranch, a shelter for abused women funded by Suzanne Somers, and a gay health spa before closing in December 2005, said Suzanne Schell, co-owner.

"Had we just bought this place as a traditional hotel, we would not have lasted. It's lasted because we've got this nudist niche," said Schell, who also co-owns Laguna Del Sol Nudist Resort near Sacramento, Calif.

"You've got a clientele of people around the country looking for nudist places to go to. It makes it a little more viable, and we've been able to survive a significant downturn in the hospitality industry better than a lot of properties," Schell said.

Cocoa Beach City Commissioner Skip Williams has called for new zoning regulations to prohibit future nudist resorts, much like his city has done with strip clubs and tattoo parlors.

Judy Dryson, who has lived in Cocoa Beach since 2001, thinks clothing-optional business will negatively impact real-estate values — and "it kind of reeks."

"I am disgusted with this decision for Fawlty Towers. I don't think the city needs any more sleaze than it already has," Dryson told commissioners last month.

"I wouldn't buy here if I had a family and learned all this (about) what's going on in the town," she said.

On the other hand, Cocoa Beach resident John Buehler was introduced to nudism at Fawlty Towers. He has visited three times by purchasing $25 day passes, and he enjoys drinking pints of Guinness and playing darts at the tiki bar.

"I disagree. I don't think any of that will happen," Buehler said of dire predictions of crime and falling property values.

"For one thing, the owners have a lot to lose. So they'll police things," he said, sitting on a bar stool in the buff.

Broad hopes Fawlty Towers can capitalize on the clothing-optional cruise industry. In November, Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas will offer a nudist cruise from Port Canaveral that may attract nearly 4,000 passengers.