It was the time before Disney World, when there were no interstates and much of the coastlines still sat as undeveloped as the inland cattle ranches. Florida was a completely different state. And it was less than 40 years ago.
It was the era of the roadside attraction. Driving past their empty parking lots now (when you can-the new highways bypass most), it’s hard to imagine when they ever thrived. But thrive they did. It was a simpler time, when all that Middle America needed for true happiness was a parrot on roller skates.
Call it what you will-kitsch, camp, smarm, ticky-tack-we love it! It’s the stuff of our earliest memories. I was only three, but the scenes are so vivid I can almost touch them: riding around the state in the back seat of our Nash Rambler, eating homemade tuna sandwiches, playing with my View-Master, stopping at a souvenir shop to ogle shellacked alligator heads and buy a 10-cent citrus sipper (those things you jammed into oranges to get juice all over your shirt), and finally arriving someplace magical, like the Miami Seaquarium, Lion Country Safari or Pirate’s World. Then I’d sleep the whole way home and the folks would carry me in the house with my new felt pennant.
This is our heritage. And it is under siege. I curdled earlier this year when I heard Cypress Gardens was shutting its gates after 67 years. And I grabbed my heart when I learned the mermaids at Weeki Wachee were facing possible eviction by their landlord, the water management district, over upkeep of the park. Meanwhile, we’re witnessing the advent of the new roadside Florida, a terrain of topless truck-stop billboards and tourist "info" centers luring visitors into the seven circles of hell that are the time-share pitch.
But there’s a silver lining. In the past, some great pieces of old Florida simply went under. However, it appears we’ve now reached an age where residents understand and appreciate the value of their cheesy history:
* Various plans are now being floated to purchase and preserve about two-thirds of the Cypress Gardens property.
* The Weeki Wachee revelations prompted a public outcry, intense media coverage including a segment on the NBC nightly news, and a rallying of retired mermaids to protest the water board’s actions.
* Back in 1999, the residents of St. Petersburg even voted to raise their own taxes to take over the failing Sunken Gardens.
Many grande dames of the roadside will clearly be here a while. But who knows which others will make the cut? We’ve already lost Kissimmee’s Xanadu-Home of the Future, and the Chimp Farm near Clearwater. How much longer will we have to enjoy the rest? It is with this in mind that I’ve urgently begun taking my children on a tour of bygone Florida.
Marineland (just south of St. Augustine) – The world’s first "oceanarium" is one of the state’s true gems. They won’t be building any more along such magnificent stretches of oceanfront real estate. The sky-blue motif, that giant "Marineland" arch, and the vintage 1938 tropical architecture can’t help but evoke emotions for the "lost" Florida. When it first opened, traffic was backed up for miles along A1A. How times have changed. When I visited four years ago, it seemed more a ghost town attraction than marine park. I got the feeling it wouldn’t be open another, well, five minutes. Most of the shelves were empty in the gift shop, where they also weren’t running the air conditioner. I didn’t see another person half the time I was there. And instead of dolphin high inks before a packed crowd in the stadium seats, you could actually buy your way into the tank for a one-on-one show (currently $120). Fortunately, there’s been a movement to save the park, and it appears to be making a comeback. If you go nowhere else, go to Marineland. But don’t expect action-packed entertainment. You’ll still pretty much have the place to yourself, which is actually a plus if you’re in more of a meditative, Bok Tower Gardens frame of mind.
Citrus Tower (Clermont) – In my pre-school eyes, this might as well have been the Space Needle. Built in 1956 along then-bustling U.S. 27, this 22-story tower provided sweeping views of orange groves that rolled across hills to the horizon in all directions. Today, the groves are all gone, and we should probably just call it the Suburb Tower. My folks passed by the tower many times, but we never stopped. I remember being pasted to the Rambler’s window as the tower went by, and my grandmother in the front seat telling me stories about the groves being so vast and maze-like that people sometimes got off the road and became hopelessly lost, driving up and down identical rows of orange trees for days until the rescue teams came. That was my grandmother-telling a little kid crazy stuff.
So, when a recent business trip took me up Highway 27, I decided I had to stop and finally ride the elevator to the top while it was still open. The lobby was another ghost town, but the gift shop was still selling original View-Master reels of the tower and labels from old citrus packing crates. I rode the elevator on up and had the observation deck all to myself for a half hour. There is a little slot where you can drop a penny and listen to it go all the way down a 22-story pipe, and then make a wish. I stuck my penny in and turned around. The vista of subdivisions slowly disappeared, and I could see the orange groves again and some hapless tourists trying to find their way out.
Cypress Knee Museum (Palmdale) – Hurry up and get to this one. It’s the quintessential Mom-and-Pop roadside attraction, and it doesn’t look like it has many breaths left. It all started with one man, Tom Gaskins Sr., and a vision: to share cypress knees with the world. Cypress knees are those bony things that stick out of the swamp around the base of the trees; and over his lifetime Gaskins collected thousands of them. He stripped the bark and polished the wood into abstract creations that he exhibited in the Florida pavilion of the 1939 World’s Fair before opening his own attraction. Gaskins’ passion was knees that arguably resembled other things, and now there’s an extensive array of floor-to-ceiling glass cases housing the Hitler-knee, the Madonna-knee, the FDR-knee, knees resembling countless animals and one with a Salvador Dali title: Lady Hippopotamus Wearing a Carmen Miranda Hat. If it sounds kitschy, it is, but Gaskins elevated it to a rarefied art form.
Gaskins died in 1998, and when I visited the following year, it was already covered with dust. I didn’t see another soul, not even a caretaker. Just a house-trailer where I could hear a television. I stuck my money in the admission box and took the tour. One the way out, there was a faded black-and-white photo on a bulletin board that made it all worthwhile: a young Gaskins smiling proudly outside his newly opened attraction a half-century ago. (Note: This may just prove the point of this article. It now appears the museum may be closed. Whether it’s permanent or not is another question. Still, if you’re driving by, it’s worth a look from the outside, where numerous tree branches are festooned with carved-wood lettering spelling out mottos such as: "Forget Disney.")
Weeki Wachee (Hernando County) – This one definitely blew my mind as a little kid. The tails, breathing under water-what’s going on here? The folks explained. So the first thing I did the next time I was at a swimming pool was get a garden hose and go down to the bottom until the adults pulled me out. Along with dolphins wearing hula shirts, the Weeki Wachee mermaids are possibly the most important icons of old roadside Florida. They’ve been featured in countless TV travelogues about the Sunshine State and in the novels of John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard. They must be saved! One of the endearing aspects of the park is it remembers its history. Many former mermaids return for reunion swims, and there’s even a mermaid hall of fame at the park. It’s just a small corner in one of the buildings, but it’s the spirit that counts. The wall is jammed with 50 years of old photos tracing the evolution of costumes and hairstyle fashion. In order to stay afloat, the park has changed with the times. There are water slides and the main show is a production of The Little Mermaid, which means-gasp-there’s a guy in the pool. But my children seemed to enjoy it in between questions about tails and breathing.
Bok Tower Gardens (Lake Wales) – Remember those old postcards that read, "Welcome to FLORIDA"? And inside each of the big letters was a signature image of the state? Bok Tower was usually inside the "F." It is the classiest of all Florida attractions and will most likely outlive all of us. The edifice was the dream of Dutch immigrant Edward W. Bok, publisher of the Ladies Home Journal, who wanted to give something back to his new homeland. So he commissioned the ornate gothic tower, which was built from pink and gray Georgia marble and coquina rock from St. Augustine. It rises 205 feet from the top of a rare "mountain" ridge in the middle of the state and houses a world-famous 60-bell carillon that still rings today. Carved with art deco script on the base is the dedication stone, saying the tower was presented to the American people on Feb. 1, 1929, by President Calvin Coolidge. Be very quiet when you visit; if the state has a church, this is it.
Sunken Gardens (St. Petersburg) -While the gardens themselves are the oldest attraction in the state (1903), they were a private project before eventually opening to the public in 1938, barely getting beaten out by Cypress Gardens for the official title. It was recently taken over by the city, so the alligator wrestling and other shows are gone. It’s now more of an outdoor botanical museum, which may be the way of the future for other venerable landmarks.
Sponge-O-Rama (Tarpon Springs) – The history of the sponge! Hurray! Who wouldn’t love the sponge district in northern Pinellas County? It’s as much a cultural experience as tourist destination, the quaint businesses in the Greek enclave still being operated by descendants of the original divers. The gift shops and Mediterranean restaurants along Dodecanese Boulevard are anchored by the Sponge-O-Rama exhibit that will tell you the whole story. (And for the parents, there’s traditional belly dancing nightly at Zorba’s.)
Cypress Gardens (Winter Haven) – The oldest Florida attractions of all opened in 1936. Water ski tricks and Southern belles with parasols. Another childhood mystery of mine: What’s going on under those hoop skirts?
Coral Castle (Homestead) – In the 1920s, a heartbroken Edward Leedskalnin began constructing this monument to his fiancee back in Latvia, who had canceled their wedding. It’s a mystery to this day how the slight man of a hundred pounds single-handedly moved blocks of hewn coral weighting many tons each. Theories involve gravitation grids, magnetism and UFOs. Whatever the method, Leedskalnin died with the secret in 1951. But the results of his obsession are a beautiful and fascinating glimpse into early frontier life south of Miami. Today, it’s a new kind of Florida frontier. The area around the castle has become so dicey that the attraction is now ringed with spools of concertina wire like you’d find at a maximum-security prison. Yikes.