By Kate X
All photos ©2022 Elegant Fowl unless otherwise noted
The ship channel between Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula definitely had some chop to it that day. A week’s worth of storms had soaked the region and brought with them a stiff chill. Fortunately, the churning waves didn’t affect the ride over on the ferry. The free, 24/7 service bridges Texas State Highway 87, the most direct route to Crystal Beach from the island. The 18-minute trip was as smooth as a dolphin.
The November 21, 2022 grand opening and ribbon-cutting party for the newly branded Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Crystal Beach was scheduled for 5pm. Dusk was closing in quicker due to the rain.
The “new” park is an updated rebranding of an existing RV resort and the result of an agreement between Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville hospitality company and a pair of local, southeast Texas developers. It’s the fourth of the Buffett brand’s Camp Margaritavilles, with sites in Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida. But this property is the first to be located right on the Gulf of Mexico and the first in the state of Texas.
The park originally opened in early 2022 as the Bolivar Beach Club & RV Resort, with a press kit featuring architectural renderings of sparkly new facilities bathed in gleaming whites and cerulean blues. The color schemes of both the original beach club digs and the new partnering Margaritaville brand are certainly complementary. But would this remix turn an understated, yet upscale beachside beauty into a cutesy, corporate Jimmy Buffett theme park?
With my destination just a bit farther up TX-87, visions of a Parrothead White Lotus began dancing in my head.
The Bolivar Beach Club & RV Resort soft-opened in early 2022, just in time to welcome the Mardi Gras and Spring Break seasons. The upper Texas Coast takes both of those parties quite seriously. The resort was partially the brainchild of Brad Ballard, president of NewCoast Properties, a local firm with stakes on the peninsula in two subdivisions: Laguna Harbor and Seagrass Beach.
According to the Houston Chronicle: The idea for Bolivar Beach Club “took shape when COVID-19 first hit, during routine backyard hangouts over White Claws between [Ballard] and his new neighbor, Minh Tran. The two became close friends and eventually business partners.”
And NewCoast’s holdings, including this new beachside RV resort, would join a number of other recent developments as markers of recovery, change, and expansion along Bolivar Peninsula. The area has been recovering since 2008, when a horrible wave of utter devastation clear-cut entire segments and towns.
Hurricane Ike’s landfall on the Texas Coast in 2008 is most notorious for its calamitous impact on Galveston. The recovery of that historic island dominated subsequent media coverage, but it was Galveston’s neighbor across the Texas Ship Channel, Bolivar that produced one of the most iconic photos of that savage hurricane season.
Damage caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008, in the Gilchrist community, Bolivar Peninsula, Texas
Photo in the public domain, NWS HGX and Galveston County OEM
The photo depicts the “Last House Standing,” as it was called, a lone structure against the stark contrast of the hurricane’s carnage. The region’s slow struggle to recover continues into the second decade after the disaster. Evidence of pre-Ike Bolivar is all but gone. While a number of businesses and restaurants have returned, that ol’ stilt-house and fish-camp vibe may never come back as new development takes hold and defines the area and its future.
Once inside Camp Margaritaville, the first impression is of elbow-room and openness. The rows of RV pads are generous and well-spaced. On this night, a low-key party buzz charged the air. Folks staying at the park, as well as guests coming just for the festivities, made their way in. One group started the party early, cackling and hooting around a fire pit across from the future home of Fins Bar & Grill, near the main entrance at Paradise Park.
My fears of a corny, over-branded Buffet-landia began to subside. The main change from those original architectural renderings was new branding and signage, the design of which struck a chord of not-too-tacky, but not-too-tasteful, either. After all, this is a vacation mecca aimed at Buffett-binging Parrotheads. They want a little cheese with that burger.
As I got out of my car, I experienced another sigh of relief. The first song to come blaring over the sound system at Camp Margaritaville Crystal Beach was not “Margaritaville.”
Greeters showered arriving guests with VIP leis and lanyards. Instead of “Margaritaville,” the soundtrack chimed with bouncy steel drums from the less played-to-death “Earl’s Dead (Cadillac for Sale).” I, like many of those Parrotheads, appreciate a deep cut.
Paradise Park opens to an arcade, pool complex, VIP box seats (for big shows), a ½ scale football field, and music venue. Dipping temperatures tried to dampen the mood, but the heated party tent offered relief, lots to nosh, and a view of who shows up to these things.
Plus, the Paradise Bar was open, pouring “Boat Drinks,” as the song says, Somethin’ to keep them all warm.
And warm was the wish of this frosty evening. Instead of wacky parrot hats and blinding floral prints, the crowd was decked for the weather. The spread of party food was plentiful and included a pulled-pork slider station. Between that and the ample heaters, the portable party tent stayed toasty. The warmth and comfort were nice, but the nearby beach and open air beckoned.
A big inflated bouncy pad kept the kids of both RVers and VIPs happy, and I looked out toward the Gulf, over the row of campers and 5th Wheels parked for the night. Overhead, a lazy stratiform of cloud cover cloaked the beach, looking like the ceiling of a cozy pillow fort. It was easy to imaging being tucked under a pile of blankets, slouched in the aqua Adirondack next to the fire pit, on the slab where my currently nonexistent Class-B sits, gazing up at the sky to watch those glorious clouds get in formation.
Those kids on the bouncy pad were jumping like kangaroos, shedding their jackets. They must be Yankees and used to these temperatures, I noted with envy.
Folks were still tightly congregated in the tent, so I headed back over to the surprisingly large-for-an-RV-park music venue, where a deejay and a pair of stiltwalkers were stepping very carefully and braving the chill. The stage faces the football field where guests will be able to bring camp chairs to enjoy future shows. An elevated perimeter around the field will accommodate VIP Lounge seating during events. General admission for all concerts and events, however, is free to RV guests.
The venue was intentionally outfitted to accommodate everything from national touring bands as well as small bands and local performers. It boasts a state-of-the-art house PA system including top-notch sound and lighting equipment and in-house talent booking.
As 5 o’clock neared, I met DJ Bo Wilson. He traveled from Florida for this gig. He’s been a DJ and entertainer for over three decades, with over two-and-a-half of those working with Team Buffett. He started out working as a freelance stiltwalker at the Margaritaville in Orlando, where he was soon offered a regular position. Wilson still works with some of the same folks at the corporation, but now has his own entertainment company and books his own roster of stiltwalkers and other entertainers as a regular contractor for Margaritaville’s myriad properties.
“They call when they have jobs. When they have the need, it can be anything,” said Wilson. “Anything” might be airbrush tattoo artists, T-shirt cannon operators, body painters, face painters, jumbo props, bounce houses, caricature artists, balloon artists, theme characters, the aforementioned stilt walkers, and more.
It’s always Mardi Gras in Buffett-ville, and Bo brings the party.
The stiltwalkers this evening were low-key hype dancers, bobbing along to Wilson’s set of Earth, Wind & Fire, Luke Bryan, Bob Marley, Nancy Sinatra, Outcast, and of course, Alan Jackson’s “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” the duet that not only namechecks but features Jimmy Buffett and arguably relaunched the 2.0/new millennium version of the old salt’s career.
At 5 o’clock, the officials took to the stage with Bolivar Beach Club founders Ballard and Tran on the mic to share thoughts about this new partnership with the hospitality giants. “We are thrilled,” Ballard said “to officially kick off our partnership with Margaritaville to bring their global brand to Crystal Beach.”
Officials christen the new Camp Margaritaville with a massive Margarita toast and fin salute
Two ribbon cuttings commenced, one for Margaritaville and one for the Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce. Flanked by the stiltwalkers, the dozen or so officials onstage – including the local crew as well as M’ville brass – lined up to propose a toast, each hoisting a ginormous face-sized margarita.
The evening would not have been complete without the ceremonial throwing of the “fins.” Fins are the official/unofficial gang sign of Parrotheads that involves making a “fin” with one or two hands and placing it over one’s forehead while trying not to look like I Dream of Jeannie.
As the crowd slowly started to dissipate, I wandered across Paradise Park, into the Fin City Arcade. Situated in the building with passthroughs to the pool area, the arcade features state-of-the-art video games, ol’ classics, and electronic simulators. A smattering of tweens and teens took turns staring longingly at the E-Claw games loaded with Squishmallows, baby Yodas (ok, ok, “the Child…”), and other big-eyed stuffies for prizes.
The License to Chill pool is, according to the website, “the largest RV resort pool in the country.” And at 75′ by 200′, it ain’t a fish tale. There are two distinct sides of the pool: one for families and one for grown folks only. These are divided by the License to Chill Bar, which is a 75-foot-long swim-up bar with barstools on both sides, 150′ length in total.
There is a 40-person hot tub on each end of the pool, with the Gulf-side warmed by the glow of an elegant fire feature. There are 50 cabanas at the pool, available to rent by the day. And the VIP boxes for the music venue are located above the arcade in the long building that serves as the pool entrance. I don’t know what I would have done had I realized the pools are heated. They may have had to forcibly fish me out with a crane.
As I looked around at this fits-like-a-glove partnership, the questions occurred to me more than a few times: Did a couple of neigh-bros really dream this up and make it so? Or was it spawned as a development scheme to attract offers from bigger players? Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The resort, as designed, feels like a pretty thorough and fairly unique dream come true. Maybe these new pals simply created the sort of place they’d like to visit? And maybe the timing of COVID just amped up the urgency, making the camping angle even more appealing?
Over in Margaritaville-ville, as COVID realities began to gut crucial numbers like heads-in-beds and Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) revenue, much of the lodging industry looked toward pivots. The pandemic incited a roadtrip-RV-camping boom – or at least mini-boom – across the nation, as state-by-state COVID inconsistencies made “outside” feel like a safer bet for overnight travel in the U.S.
Camp Margaritaville locations began to manifest during this time. According to Business Insider: “For now, Margaritaville won’t be building any RV camps from the ground up. Instead, to expedite the expansion of its RV resorts arm, the company will rebrand existing RV resorts to fit the Margaritaville ‘lifestyle.’ This means updating existing RV resorts with stronger programmatic, food, and beverage offerings, for example.”
Margaritaville’s first foray into the Texas camping scene certainly fits right into this nutshell.
With the added bonus of access to 27 miles of unrestricted beach access, Camp Margaritaville RV Resort Crystal Beach has the blessing of location-location-location. Sure, there’s plenty of luxury and Landshark on tap, but that’s all lagniappe.
Even before its recovery reality, Bolivar Peninsula always felt like a remote, yet not isolated, getaway – neither too far away, nor too overpopulated, especially relative to nearby travel markets. A pop over to Galveston for shopping or museum hopping is one breezy ferry ride away. And the easy reach from Houston gives folks from Texas’ largest metro area one more fabulous coastal gem for planned or spontaneous escape.
Soon after the grand opening party, Camp Margaritaville released its events calendar, with holidays and party days planned deep into the new year. And speaking of the New Year, the park has already booked its first big bash, The New Year’s Eve Celebration, featuring Houston high-energy party band, A Sure Thing. The public is invited for a $10 cover, which includes complimentary champagne toast and party favors.
The new year will not only see the eagerly anticipated opening of Fins Bar & Grill, but also, says Ballard, “We hope to deliver beach cottages or additional lodging options with full access to the amenities of the RV resort.”
All collaborations are tests of will, fortitude, and good chemistry. Time will tell if the White Clawed dreams of a couple of coastal Texas colleagues will mix nicely with a multi-million dollar margarita empire. The essential ingredient in our book will be great hospitality. If they get the recipe right, you know what they say:
Rising tides raise all “Boat Drinks.” You gotta go where it’s warm. 🌊