Forever Florida: A Dozen State Icons


Florida is sun. Florida is also swamp. Florida is miles of sand, no two grains alike. Florida is people — native residents and new arrivals — and odd-looking creatures unlike any other. Florida is all of this and more.

Read on for the 12 icons that we think help to define our state, our experience, and by extension, our collective selves: the true Florida.

The Sun

“In brightening dark past homes cocooned in mist and shade we rush to catch the sun lifting from Tampa Bay our daily doubloon from nature’s treasure chest ...”

-- From the poem “Lassing Park” by Peter Meinke, Poet Laureate, St. Petersburg, Florida

The Glades

Perhaps no place in Florida has seen as many changes as the Everglades, the wetlands that start near Kissimmee and extend south across the state. And few people know it more intimately than Michael Grunwald, author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise. We asked him three questions about the beloved wetlands.

·       What is so dramatically appealing about the Everglades?

“The Everglades really was America’s last frontier. And frontier stories are always exciting. You’ve got this mysterious, impenetrable, inhospitable, bizarre landscape, in a region with all kinds of ingredients for financial opportunities. It’s always attracted schemers and visionaries who wanted to mold it into their dreams.”

·       Has anything in Florida ever gone from so loathed to so loved?

Early settlers described the region as godforsaken and loathsome, a place to be drained and developed. Wetlands were seen as wastelands back then; conservation meant draining and “reclaiming” and “improving” swamps. Now just about everyone understands that the Everglades is a special place — not only its subtle beauty, but the way it protects our drinking water, absorbs our flood waters, provides kitchens and nurseries for wildlife, etc.” [Its history] reflects changing American attitudes toward the environment.

·       How has your impression of it changed over the years?

“My first reaction to the Everglades, [visiting] in August 2000, was that it seemed hot and sticky and gross. But I’ve learned to appreciate the place. It’s amazing how this vast wilderness exists so close to our megalopolis. Floridians call animal control thousands of times every year to get the alligators out of their backyards; we tend to forget that we’re in the alligators’ backyards.”

The Theme Parks

Walt Disney World. Orlando. Opening day. Oct. 1, 1971. Phil Holmes was 19. He stood in the Magic Kingdom at the bridge to the Haunted Mansion, looking across the Rivers of America into Liberty Station. He felt the anticipation swell up in his chest. His job would be to take tickets and let people onto the spooky, swirling car ride. His post would require standing, attention and most of all, good cheer. He was ready.

Prior to this, Holmes had worked at a gas station and a bowling alley, but this was a different kind of summer job. He had never missed a Sunday-evening showing of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, which fueled his excitement. “I had nothing but good feelings about what could be,” he said recently, looking back on his first day. “I had seen enough of the news articles to know it was going to be pretty wonderful.”

His feet hurt that first day taking tickets at the Haunted Mansion. He’d worn a cheap pair of black shoes, even though his mother warned him not to. He was exhausted by the end of his shift — and exhilarated. In a small way, he felt he was doing something to make these people happy, to take them to a place far away from their daily lives, the way the TV show did for him.

He gets those same feelings today, he says, while taking visitors through the opening of Disney’s new Fantasyland attractions. This time, however, Holmes isn’t a teenager taking tickets for the summer. He is vice president of the Magic Kingdom — and the magic continues.

The Space Race

Today, when people come through NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, they’re a little troubled. Is space travel still going to happen? Can a child still dream of becoming an astronaut?

True, it’s a changing time. The Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011, putting many people out of jobs in the transition. But means of space exploration are changing and advancing, not ending.

“There are a lot of people who have a misconception about what has taken place out there for the future,” says Mark Smith, a NASA communicator who gives tours at Kennedy Space Center. “People think that since the shuttle program ended, space programs are done. That’s not the case.”

The staff is focused on what’s ahead. The center is expanding to become a hub for both government and commercial space flights as well as preparing for the new Space Launch System being developed by NASA.

In the meantime, tours at Kennedy Space Center are more comprehensive than ever. On several new Kennedy Space Center Up-Close Tours, guests can explore areas off-limits since 1978, including the Vehicle Assembly Building and the Launch Control Center, where engineers counted down in dramatic fashion. You can go out a quarter-mile within the security border and take pictures of the 350-foot-high Launch Pad 39-A.

As for what’s to come, only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: the possibilities are as infinite as space itself.

The Manatee

Sometimes the best attractions are a surprise. Take the manatee. Nicknamed sea cows for their unconventional looks, they’re rotund and slow, weigh more than 1,000 pounds on average and can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. Their cumbersome bodies bear scars collected by the blades of boat propellers, caused when fast-moving boats and hard- to-see manatees meet in the state’s myriad waterways.

But they are considered beautiful at TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. This viewing station is almost as much of a surprise as the manatee itself.

In 1970, Tampa Electric began operating a plant here on the edge of Tampa Bay. But it wasn’t until 1986, when Big Bend Unit 4 opened, that the plant began to attract manatees, drawn when the heated saltwater (a byproduct of the plant’s cooling process) released into the bay unwittingly creating a warm haven for these creatures that instinctively seek out higher temperatures when the water drops below 68 degrees.

People gathered to watch the manatees, and a side project was born. Now in its 27th season, the attraction draws an estimated 200,000 people who come from November through April to gaze down on the hundreds of manatees that laze and graze here, dotting the horizon with glimpses of tail, snout or gray belly.

The gentle creatures also congregate at several other spots around the state, including Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County, Crystal River in Citrus County and Manatee Park in Lee County. But please remember this: it’s illegal to feed or touch a manatee, so eyes only, please.

The Natives

The word Seminole is heard throughout the state: It’s the name of a county, a city, even a college mascot — all of which pay homage to some of our earliest inhabitants, the Seminole Tribe of Florida. (Florida is also home to a second federally recognized tribe, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.) After a traumatic 19th Century that involved three wars, saw disease and forced relocation that reduced their numbers from the thousands to a few hundred, the Seminole tribe is thriving today, and involved in commercial interests ranging from cattle to casinos.

But remembering heritage is an important mission, says Willie Johns, outreach coordinator for the Brighton Reservation, who also works with the tribal-run Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Indian Museum on the Big Cypress Reservation in Clewiston.

The museum collection contains more than 30,000 Seminole artifacts, including life-size dioramas showing Seminole life in the 1800s, plus artwork, historic documents and oral histories of tribe members. The museum is also an active center for exhibitions and performances from contemporary Native American artists. But the tribal mission isn’t limited to past and present; it’s also about protecting their land for future generations via the Seminole Everglades Restoration Initiative, a $65 million, multiyear project that aims to mitigate the effects of development on their homeland, improving water quality and providing better flood control throughout the region.

After all, there are few better ways to celebrate heritage than by assuring a legacy for generations to come.

The Names

Take a road trip through Florida with a little kid in the back seat and count the giggles, the questions, the pictures of road signs snapped. No doubt, we have some strange names.  According to the Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources, there is interesting history behind some of the state’s stranger monikers.

BOCA RATON - Referred to as Boca de Ratones on early maps, it translates to “rat’s mouth,” a warning of sharp harbor rocks that could damage anchoring ships.

YEEHAW - Having nothing to do with a rodeo, Yeehaw comes from the Muskogee for yaha, or wolf.

ZELLWOOD - This little town known for its sweet corn was named after winter resident Col. T. Elwood Zell, who published the 2,200-page Zell’s cyclopedia in 1876.

MASARYKTOWN - The editor of a Czech newspaper founded this town in Hernando County, naming it after a president of Czechoslovakia.

WITHLACOOCHEE - Derives from Creek Indian words we (water), thlako (big) and chee (little).

APOPKA - The name of a 19th Century Seminole village, it translates to aha (potato) and papka (eating place).

PASS-A-GRILLE - Thought to have come from the French phrase passe aux grilleurs, which refers to fishermen who used to stop here to grill and salt their fish.

The Gator

No one knows our native reptile better than the folks at Gatorland, the central Florida theme park family-owned and operated since 1949. We asked Tim Williams, the so-called Dean of Gator Wrestlin’, for some facts about this iconic creature — and added a few of our own for fun.

1. Christopher Columbus first named the reptile, calling it

el lagarto, “the lizard” — which eventually became alligator.

2. There are only two species of alligator in the world: the American (Alligator Mississippiensis) and the Chinese alligator (Alligator Sinensis). The American alligator is found in coastal North Carolina and then south throughout all of Florida and west to Texas.

3. Alligators have approximately 82 teeth that they shed and regrow throughout their lives.

4. Per federal records, airplanes in America collide with an average of one alligator a year on runways.

5. Alligator babies are 6 to 8 inches long at birth and have an egg tooth on the tip of their nose that cuts a hole in the egg.

6. Alligators live about 50 years in the wild. The record length for one is 19 feet, 2 inches.

7. Gators have one the hardest bites in the animal kingdom, so strong it can bite through a car.

8. Though the jaw muscles used for biting are strong, the muscles used to open the jaw are weak, you can hold a gator’s jaw shut with a piece of duct tape.

9. Per local news reports, an alligator trapped in Hilton Head in 2012 had the following in its stomach: 53 fishing lures, a half-pound of metal sinkers, two baseballs, one tennis ball, two other balls, a beer can, 48 rocks, two turtles and one 4-foot gator.

10. Florida has the world’s largest gator population — an estimated 1.25 million or one per every 15 human residents.

Key West

This vibrant island — lively with wood- frame houses set just feet from each other, sun-kissed tourists bar-hopping down Duval Street and chickens roaming through the lawns — is a place apart with a lifestyle all its own, one that has drawn and cultivated artists of all types over the past century.

Ernest Hemingway made his home here during the 1930s and ’40s, writing his draft for A Farewell to Arms and meeting his third wife Martha Gellhorn at Sloppy Joe’s.

Playwright Tennessee Williams was a frequent visitor and is thought to have written the first draft of A Streetcar Named Desire here.

Jimmy Buffett strummed his 6-string in the Key West bars long before he became Jimmy Buffett.

So what gives this place its magic? For artist Ray Rolston, who was born in Guyana and spent time in New York before settling in Key West, it’s the fact that everything is within walking distance, so you can think and dream while you’re walking.

It’s the way people cheer every night when the sun sets at Mallory Square, where he sells his work — colorful streetscapes and slices of life from his adopted home.

It’s the theaters just steps away from coral reefs, each offering its own unique type of inspiration. It’s the unstructured life — how people swim in the morning and go free-diving on their lunch breaks; how gay, straight, black, brown and white are all welcomed with the same enthusiasm; how the island’s natural beauty and free spirit attracts people you might never expect.

It’s how you can’t judge the scruffy guy sitting on the barstool next to you, who could be the leader of a Fortune 500 company or a great artist or writer. In Key West, all are equal and all are celebrated.

The Immigrants

Florida has always been a magnet for new life, but never more than today. In 1940, only 4.1 percent of all Florida residents were foreign-born, a number that has nearly quintupled since then.

In 2011, 87,903 people took their citizenship oaths in the state; that’s 13 percent of all new Americans processed that year, second only to California. From 2010 to 2011, Florida had the largest increase in naturalizations in the country, with the lion’s share occurring in South Florida (Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach areas).

Why does Florida draw so many immigrants? Myriad reasons, says Saundra Amrhein, a Florida journalist who spent years interviewing immigrants for her book, Green Card Stories. They come for opportunity — to work in agriculture, construction, tourism and health care. they come for investments, buying property and making new homes. They come for family, to join loved ones old and new. And they stay for a lifestyle that embraces multiculturalism, as evidenced by all of the communities that came before them and thrived.

Becoming a citizen is a long process, and one not entered into lightly by immigrants, who must renounce their former citizenship as part of the process.

After three to five years of permanent legal residence, potential citizens can apply for naturalization, a process that includes a background check and oral interview testing their English skills and knowledge of American civics. The years-long effort reaches is climax when these new citizens gather — in one of Florida’s eight immigration offices or at statewide events like the annual “Race to the Fourth” day at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, complete with carnival rides, fireworks, live music — to take the 140-word oath, pledging to “support and defend the constitution and laws of the United states of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.“

The Water

Thousands of years ago, Florida was a prairie. It took the melting of glaciers in Georgia and Alabama to create the wetlands we know today as the Everglades and the swampy Big Cypress Preserve.

Underground springs — more than 300 in all — began to fill with cool water that never climbs higher than 70 degrees.

Blackwater rivers — with water stained dark by decomposing plants — began to trek through Northwest Florida, some filtering their way to clear the trek toward the Gulf.

Rainwater dissolved the porous limestone foundation, creating a kaleidoscope of inland lakes.

Beds of sea grass blanketed the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, creating shelter for oysters and stone crabs, while billfish and pelagics rode the northward flow of the Atlantic Gulf Stream.

The marine bounty lured ospreys, herons, egrets and more: Florida’s original tourists, attracted by water.

The Sand

You may think sand is all the same. Then you get close to it, take off your shoes, feel the grit between your toes, examine the color and realize: sand is endlessly variant, and no two grains are alike.

Blair and Dawn Witherington know this, too. The authors of Florida’s Living Beaches, they had their first date on the sand, in 1997 at the Archie Carr National Wildlife refuge. Since then they have traveled all over Florida, scooping samples into vials they display in their Melbourne home, in a case made from an old shipwreck they found on — where else? — the beach.

There is sand from Daytona Beach, where the particles are so fine that they pack tightly together, forming a surface so dense people can drive on it. There are gold sands that have been carried through the underwater bedrocks, colored by algae and coral.

There is nearly 100 percent quartz sand from the Northwest, the kind people call sugar sand for its dazzling white appearance. There is black sand from Venice Beach, colored by crushed fossils.

But this diversity doesn’t just span regions; it can be found on a single beach. Look closely the next time you watch the tide goes out: you’ll see a streaked mosaic of carbonate sand from the lower beach packed with bits of coral, seashells and animal matter, then fluffy sand from the dunes just steps away, lifted and dropped by winds and untouched by the tide.

There is color, texture and complex beauty on every beach — the key is to look for it.

-- Stephanie Hayes



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Maddy June 9, 2013 9:22 PM
I love Florida.
As a native,I enjoyed reading this...I'm so homesick and have been for many years :-( I will come home when the time is right :-)