Castles by the beach: Sand Sculpting Festival takes over Fort Myers Beach

The American Sand Sculpting Championship Festival on Fort Myers Beach celebrated its 25th year, commemorated in this group sand sculpture, which was created Nov. 3. Laura Gates/ Banner Correspondent

The American Sand Sculpting Championship Festival on Fort Myers Beach celebrated its 25th year, commemorated in this group sand sculpture, which was created Nov. 3. Laura Gates/ Banner Correspondent

Amazin' Walter McDonald is an icon and regular People's Choice winner at the American Sand Sculpting Championship Festival, which was held on Fort Myers Beach Nov. 3-7. Laura Gates/ Banner Correspondent

Amazin' Walter McDonald is an icon and regular People's Choice winner at the American Sand Sculpting Championship Festival, which was held on Fort Myers Beach Nov. 3-7. Laura Gates/ Banner Correspondent

Kaylee Mason, 8, of Fort Myers, works on her sand castle during the Fort Myers Beach Sand Sculpting Festival Nov. 6. Laura Gates/ Banner Correspondent

Kaylee Mason, 8, of Fort Myers, works on her sand castle during the Fort Myers Beach Sand Sculpting Festival Nov. 6. Laura Gates/ Banner Correspondent

Fred Mallett works on his sculpture, 'Protect Your Nuts,' featuring dueling squirrels, during the American Sand Sculpting Championship on Fort Myers Beach Nov. 3-7. Laura Gates/ Banner Correspondent

Fred Mallett works on his sculpture, "Protect Your Nuts," featuring dueling squirrels, during the American Sand Sculpting Championship on Fort Myers Beach Nov. 3-7. Laura Gates/ Banner Correspondent

IF YOU GO

What: World Championship of Sand Sculpting

Where: Holiday Inn Fort Myers Beach

When: Nov. 17-27

More information: www.worldchampionshipofsandsculpting.com

— As master sand sculptors chiseled, brushed and blew grains of sand into place, spectators marveled and amateurs worked on their own sand masterpieces.

The 25th American Sand Sculpting Championship Festival drew about 50,000 people to Fort Myers Beach last weekend, including many who planned their vacations around this annual event.

Kathy and Doug Bingaman made a short, Friday-to-Monday trip to from Three Rivers, Mich., to watch the 16 master sculptors at work.

“We want to go back to Lake Michigan and try this,” Kathy said.

They learned sculpting tips during a hands-on Sand Sculpting 101 course taught by Siesta Key sculptor Libby Bennett.

“The key to sand sculpting is lots of water,” Bennett advised. “Lots and lots of water.”

To start a castle, she used a five-gallon bucked with its bottom carved out, adding water first, then shoveling in just enough sand to soak up the liquid. Bennett demonstrated how to make sand towers, arches and trees.

“It’s so much fun,” she said. “It’s digging in the sand. What’s not to love?”

Eight-year-old Kaylee Martin spent nearly four hours building in the sand, constructing a sand castle complete with archway before her parents dragged her away.

“I want the job you have when I grow up!” she told Bennett.

Meanwhile, three-year-old Isabella Yamen pilfered Bennett’s special sand-carving spoon. “I’m making a sand castle!” she announced as she etched wavy lines into her sand mound.

The Mason family moved to Bonita Springs from Kansas City in July, and 10-year-old Natalie was eager to learn this skill befitting a Floridian.

Bob Finney attended Sand Sculpting 101 at last year’s festival. This year, he brought along his kids.

“They need to learn to build sand castles since we live near the beach,” said Finney, also from Bonita Springs.

Most visitors paid a few dollars for an up-close view of the masters at work. They could cast a quarter vote for their favorites to determine the People’s Choice Award.

Amazin’ Walter McDonald is a frequent People’s Choice winner with his signature sand castles featuring archways and intricate detail. The Texan with the long, white beard has been sculpting for more than 30 years and has lost track of all his awards.

“He’s an icon,” said Andrew Cochrane, chairman of the event, which is put on by the Greater Fort Myers Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

The Bingamans cast their vote for Amazin’ Walter’s “Fort Myers Beach Bungalow.”

“It’s such a traditional sand castle,” Kathy Bingaman said. “It’s what you think of when you come to one of these events.”

The sculptures were diverse, from interpretive modern art pieces to political statements. Brian Turnbough’s “Piggy Banker” was an Occupy Wall Street-themed sculpture featuring a sinister pig dressed in finery with his money bags and an upward arrow signifying the ever increasing wealth of the “Richest 1%.”

Other sculptors happen upon their ideas from everyday life. Such was the case for Rusty Croft, whose “Tooth-Ache” sculpture featured an oversized toothbrush and a cavity-ridden tooth.

“I broke a molar when I landed here,” Croft told spectators inquiring about his inspiration.

Patty and Bobby Glenn of Cape Coral connected with the theme of Fred Mallett’s “Protect Your Nuts,” featuring two squirrels battling over acorns.

“This guy we can relate to,” Bobby said. “You’ve got to protect what’s yours.”

The festival brings in $15-20 million in revenue for area businesses, Cochrane estimates. It consistently has been rated as a Top 20 event for the Southeastern United States, he adds.

November is a big month for sand sculpting enthusiasts, with another large festival coming to Fort Myers Beach Nov. 17-27.

Several of the master sculptors will return for the World Championship of Sand Sculpting, featuring 24 of the most decorated Master Sand Sculptors from 15 countries around the globe, all vying for the World Title.

It is the first time the world championship has been held in Florida and is being billed as the “largest sand sculpting event ever held on Fort Myers Beach.”

The duo of November sand sculpting festivals means even more tourist dollars spent in Lee County.

“We want to bring commerce to this island, and this is a great way to do it,” Cochrane said.

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