Lakeland Rocks
By Elizabeth Morrisey

It could be called a phenomenon or maybe it’s just a trend, but the Polk County community has latched on to painting rocks and hiding them in cities – and the smiles it’s bringing are contagious.

These painted treasures, big and small, are hidden at parks and local businesses and many Polk County cities have started Facebook pages. Polk City’s even handing out hand-painted rocks after children visit with Santa.

“I have no idea how this spun out of control the way it did,” says Scooter Urquhart, who started Lakeland Rocks on Facebook mid-October. Now 12 other pages have spun off from the Lakeland page. “You never know what may speak to someone. You are bringing a smile to a complete stranger.”

The Lakeland Rocks Facebook page now has almost 28,000 members and it continues to grow, Urquhart says. Winter Haven Rocks has about 1,900 members, Bartow has 1,500, Mulberry has more than 500, Lake Wales is up to almost 700 and Auburndale has about 400. The idea is that when when someone finds a rock, they can keep it or re-hide it. Then if they want they can paint their own and hide it for someone else to find.

Merissa Green, communications director for the city of Auburndale, sees painted rocks in planters, bushes and parking lots every time she walks into City Hall. “I look at it as a great marketing tool,” she says. “We had Breakfast with Santa and if you found a certain rock, you won two tickets. It’s a treasure hunt.”

Some local businesses are even giving discounts or free food if anyone finds one of their rocks. In November, BD’s Mongolian Grill taped coupons to painted rocks, and held a rock painting party where patrons received 25 percent off their meal. Employees of both Chick-fil-A restaurants in Lakeland painted rocks and if someone was lucky enough to find one, they could turn it in for a free cookie.

“We’re always looking at what’s going on in the community, so we thought why don’t we make our own and people can get a cookie,” says Scott Brickhouse, owner of both Chick-fil-A locations. He says they continue to hide them around Lakeland.

How did it all start? Urquhart and his family found a painted rock in Vancouver around Labor Day. His wife wanted to bring the idea back to Lakeland and painted 250 rocks to hide around town. “It’s cool to see it grow and see what art ends up on it,” Urquhart says. From Christmas scenes to encouraging words painted by amateurs or novices, people can find just about anything during their scavenger hunts around town.

Some compare it to Pokemon GO, but they say this is even better. “You get an actual prize,” says Lexi Urquhart. She found some of the rocks in Vancouver, Washington, where she married Scooter’s son. “It’s interactive and families are hanging out together.”

Lakeland Rocks recently held its first Rock Swap at Lakeland’s Peterson Park and had 250 people show up. Locals Marley and Madison Peters who attended the event have painted about 200 rocks and hidden them around the Lakeland area. “You find them even when you’re not looking,” says Madison Peters. Her favorite rock had Dori from the Pixar movie Finding Nemo painted on it. They like to hide their painted rocks in parks and some businesses.

Lakelander April Roberts has three children under the age of 10 and they love finding rocks around Lake Mirror. “It’s a good stress relief,” says Roberts. “It’s something fun to do with the kids and gets them out of the house.”

Urquhart says many people are being touched through hiding and finding the painted rocks. Besides parks, Polk County residents are now hiding them near hospitals, cancer centers and assisted living facilities. “People are branching out and being more creative,” he says. “Spontaneous drops have the biggest impact.”

One thing Urquhart is most excited about is seeing people from all walks of life getting along and acting as a cohesive group. “It’s all positive. There’s not much to smile about in the world,” he explains. “It’s changing how people are treating each other.”

He’s not sure how long this trend will last, but he hopes it doesn’t end anytime soon. Urquhart is already planning another rock swap in the spring. “Some people think it’s silly, but when you find your first rock you’ll understand.”