Last outdoor paintball range in county thrives in Loxahatchee Groves

Over the pops of the guns, you can hear laughter as a group of teens spreads across a field. They race and hide between large spools, dodging colorful paint-filled missiles from their opponents.

This is the scene any summer day at Hot Shots Paintball, the last outdoor paintball range in Palm Beach County and one of the largest in Florida.

Since 2005, the venue has offered paintball fans a place to gather and have mock battles at one of 10 fields on Hot Shots’ 20-acre site in the far southwest corner of Loxahatchee Groves.

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But the property has been an activities center for much longer — as evidenced by its 30-year-old clubhouse, a holdover from the land’s former life as Southern Pines Golf Center.

For nearly two decades, Southern Pines was a popular driving range, with a nine-hole, par-3 golf course added in 1994. That’s when Jeff Simke came on board as the center’s golf pro.

Simke’s career took a turn in 2004 when he was introduced to paintball by his sons, who played the game at a birthday party. “I said, ‘You did what?’” he recalled, smiling. After learning more about the sport, the man who had dedicated his life to golf, including two years as Hall of Fame golfer Jack Nicklaus’ caddy, had an idea.

“I realized this was the perfect place for paintball,” Simke said. He went to the county with his plan: Open up the east side of Southern Pines as a paintball field and keep the driving range in operation. County commissioners at the time were eager to give fans of the growing sport a place to play, and paintball came to Southern Pines in 2005.

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Soon the demand from an eager, paintball-loving public overwhelmed the driving range. “As it got a little crazier, I was much more worried about a paintballer getting hit by a golf ball than a golfer getting hit by a paintball,” Simke said.

Hot Shots now has 10 fields with a variety of themes. Simke said the most popular field is “The Bus,” where players engage in combat around the remains of a 1962 Greyhound bus like that used on “The Honeymooners.”

Simke’s favorite field to design was “The Plywood City,” which includes an elaborate maze where teams compete against each other. “The Bus Field is great, but we worked the hardest on the maze,” he said.

Another popular field is “The Junkyard,” where several of Simke’s old cars and pickups serve as barriers for players. “As opposed to turning them in for scrap, we put them out on the field,” he said.

A field known as “The Spindles” was the site this past week of a battle between faux-warring factions of Wellington High School students. The industrial-sized spools on what used to be part of the driving range were no match for the crew of teens.

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“I thought it would hurt more than it did,” 14-year-old Wellington resident Kristen Blackmore said of getting hit with her first paintball. She said she “definitely” will return to Hot Shots.

Wellington resident Preston Hays, 17, comes to Hot Shots a few times a year. “It’s really fun,” he said, “and a great workout.”

But Hot Shots isn’t just for the young. Simke recently had his oldest customer: 86-year-old Korean War veteran George C. Bolton, who joined his family on the field for a birthday party. “What a great inspiration,” Simke said. “When he found out his family was going to do paintball, he said, ‘Count me in’.”

As other paintball ranges have come and gone in Palm Beach County, Hot Shots remains, a holdout along a busy corridor primed for development. To what does Simke owe his success? When asked recently, he pointed at the air-conditioned bathrooms in his clubhouse and smiled. “If you were a mom here with her kids and nine birthday party guests, would you want to be in a Port-o-Potty in the middle of August?” he said.

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