“Every acre of this camp is sacred ground. Here young people by the hundreds come to meet Christ and accept him as Savior and Lord of their lives. Through many generations, we trust that these beautiful and substantial buildings and these lovely grounds on the shore of this gorgeous lake will be saying to all who pass that Florida Methodists believe that the gospel of Christ is exactly suited to mingle with the warm rush of youth’s blood and to keep time with youth’s bounding heart.”– Dr. Ira Barnett
Our story begins in the 1940s with a team of circuit riders and a crazy dream.
In the years following WWII, American churches across the nation launched into a massive undertaking to develop programs for young people. Among Florida Methodists, that movement happened in the form of “Youth Caravans” and “Comradeship Teams,” young adults who traveled the state all summer to put on programs for children and youth. These “Adventure Camps,” “Life Institutes,” and “Youth Assemblies” were so successful that in 1944, the Methodist Conference in Florida formed a committee to look for a suitable property to build a permanent campus for youth ministry. In 1946, they acquired 47 acres from the city of Leesburg and the Central Florida Boy Scout Council, and fundraising began to build a camp on the shores of Lake Griffin. At the time, Leesburg was a bigger city than Orlando and the meeting point of two major state highways that connected the north and south of the state. That same year, Warren W. Willis was appointed Director of Youth Work. Warren went to work leading the traveling summer team and raising funds to build on the Leesburg property.
The dream for a camp took off. Donations came in from churches, and young people gave their own money at regional youth rallies. Additional land was donated and purchased, and acres were cleared. Lake County built a road from the highway out to the property, the first buildings went up in 1948, and the first summer programs were held at Florida Methodist Youth Camp in 1949. Residential camp programming took off in Florida, and additional properties were developed over the next few decades on the northern and southern ends of the state and on the west coast.
Warren Willis served as the first director of the Leesburg camp, and under his leadership FMYC grew to become one of the premier Methodist camps in the country. Each summer, thousands of young people packed their bags and came on buses to learn and grow on these sacred grounds. The road from the highway to the property required them to cross a rickety wooden bridge; campers would exit their bus with their bags, wait for their bus to creep gingerly across the bridge, and then reboard on the other side. Not a single building had air conditioning, but that didn’t stop campers and counselors from filling them. To honor Warren’s decades of service to the young people of Florida, the camp was renamed Warren W. Willis United Methodist Camp years after his retirement. A massive construction project in 1991 added four big lodges and eight cabins that drastically improved lodging accommodations, and many recreation elements have been constructed over the years. Camp programs continue to take place every summer, and additional youth programs happen on the site in the spring and fall. Between programs, the camp hosts retreat groups from churches, schools and colleges, and nonprofit groups across the state.
As those first generations of campers grew into adulthood, they realized a need for another facility geared toward adult use. Plans were made to purchase and build on the property across the street from the youth camp. A team of people led by Charles Babcock (Coral Gables) worked to raise the millions needed for construction, and in 1979 the Life Enrichment Center opened with 200 lodging rooms and multiple meeting spaces. This property housed huge gatherings of United Methodist Men’s and Women’s retreats, couples retreats, clergy trainings, and spiritual formation retreats. Lee Pearson, who had served as Assistant Director of the youth camp under Warren Willis, was entrusted as the first director of the LEC, and a building on the property bears his name. Scott Auditorium, built in 1991, drastically expanded the capabilities of the site with seating for up to 800. Over the years, the LEC has added new friends as other denominations and nonprofit groups have come to see the site as a home away from home.
The two sites operated separately for decades, each with its own staff, budget, and client base. In 2016, the decision was made to merge the youth camp and the conference center into one cohesive site. Today, the Warren Willis United Methodist Camp and Conference Center continues its mission of 70+ years, as we prepare a sacred space in a natural setting for all to grow in community and connect with Christ.
We are located in Fruitland Park, FL, only a few miles from the intersection of state highways 441 and 27. We are on the shores of Lake Griffin, part of the Harris Chain of Lakes. We are 60 miles from the Orlando Airport. Tampa airport is 94 miles away. We are 72 miles from Gainesville and 130 miles from Jacksonville.
We are only 3 miles off the highway, so guests are never too far from stores and supplies.
We are a ministry of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. The mission of the UMC is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Read more about the ministries and impact of FLUMC at https://www.flumc.org/.
We are accredited by the American Camp Association, which means that we care about guest and camper safety enough to undertake a peer review process, implement industry best practices, and submit to regular reviews and inspections. If you would like to know more about the standards adopted by ACA sites, you can find them at https://www.acacamps.org/.
We are connected to a national network of Methodist camps and retreat centers through United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries. The Seven Foundations of UMCRM are to:
- Provide Sacred Spaces Set Apart
- Nurture Christian Faith and Discipleship
- Engage in Creation Formation
- Partner with United Methodist Churches and Agencies
- Extend Christian Hospitality and Community
- Develop Principled Spiritual Leaders
- Inspire and Equip Lives for Love and Justice
You can learn more about UMCRM at http://umcrm.camp/.
We are a Green Lodging Designated Site through Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. This designation is issued to organizations that, in addition to providing hospitality, “make a voluntary commitment to conserve and protect Florida’s natural resources.” We’ve earned this title by implementing environmentally-sustainable practices in five areas:
- Communication and Education (Customers, Employees, Public)
- Waste Reduction, Reuse and Recycling
- Water Conservation
- Energy Efficiency
- Indoor Air Quality
Our “Green Team” is always looking for ways that we can be even better stewards of creation. You can learn more about Green Lodging here: https://floridadep.gov/osi/green-lodging/content/about-florida-green-lodging-program.