Classic Florida Attractions

By: Chelle Koster Walton

Not to be outdone by the big theme parks, Florida's classic attractions have evolved into local favorites and enduring legends.

Florida's early roadside attractions strove to satiate America's appetite for the eccentric with rare animals, flamboyant gardens, crowd-thrilling acts and human oddities. Many such attractions became extinct with the rise of the state's major theme parks. Others adapted to the changing times and anew environmental conscientiousness to endure as a precious bit of Florida history. Flash back at any of these:


Gnarly and tyrannisaurish, gators became emblematic of Florida roadside attractions. Nothing drew in the crowds like these chompers. Many attractions devoted themselves primarily to the prehistoric beasts, including Gatorland, a 110-acre attraction that opened in 1949. Through the years it has introduced snakes and other animals, shows, a get-wet playground and a petting zoo.


When Key West toppled from its position as one of the country's richest towns to one of its poorest, the federal government sent the Works Project Administration in 1932 to build an open-air aquarium and jump-start tourism. The Key West Aquarium today lures visitors with homey charm and the promise of petting a shark during the tour. To show its eco-conscience, it has become involved in raising baby sea turtles in conjunction with the Marathon Turtle Hospital.

MARINELAND, Marineland (south of St. Augustine)

Tourists love dolphins and all the other creatures under the sea. Marineland, near St. Augustine, capitalized on that love affair in June 1938 when it opened the world's first "oceanarium," an aquarium that recreates the ocean's diversity of marine life. The oceanarium was originally built for underwater filming. Marineland thrilled early crowds with a realistic view of ocean life. Today it takes an ecological and interactive course with dolphin encounter programs in the 1.3-million-gallon series of dolphin habitats.


Here, monkeys in the wild peer down at you - in YOUR cage. Monkey Jungle began in 1933 as an experiment on the territorial instincts of monkeys. Uncaged, the crab-eating macaque monkeys hung around. People came to look. When the monkeys objected to the intruders, founder Frank DuMond built cages for the visitors. Amazonian monkeys have joined the jungle, along with others, including tamarins, for which Frank pioneered a breeding program.


In a city full of "oldest" superlatives, St. Augustine Alligator Farm opened in 1893 to score as the world's first of its kind. During its 119 years, the park has grown from a farm staging gator wrestling to a zoological park with the world's only complete collection of crocodilians, not to mention snakes, monkeys, birds and educational wildlife shows.


In 1878, Hullam Jones glued a window to the bottom of a rowboat and simultaneously invented Florida tourism and the glass-bottom boat. Now grown to a 350-acre animal and nature park, it has added live animal exhibits and shows, a water park, Wilderness Trail, Kids Ahoy! Playland and the Lighthouse Ride.

SUNKEN GARDENS, St. Petersburg

Sunken Gardens began in 1935 as one man's obsession with Florida's ability to flourish. Visitors paid to peek and before you knew it, tourism overgrew the gardens. Residents and the city saved Sunken Gardens from demise in 1999. Today, the classic attraction has added butterflies to the lush waterfall-splashed gardens.


Esther Williams and Don Knotts were among the stars filmed on location at Weeki Wachee, also known as Mermaid City near Spring Hill. The park and its underwater mermaid theater opened in 1947 when a Navy frogman instructor devised a way for his sexy and sequined mermaids to breathe through hoses under water. Today, a wilderness river cruise, water slides and flumes have added modern appeal to the classic underwater mermaid shows.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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