Old Florida Attractions Offer Time-Honored Charms
Take a tour of Old Florida with hidden gems, surprising shows and more at these unique Sunshine State attractions.
In the late 1940s, Sir Winston Churchill watched a cockatoo pedal a bicycle across a high wire at Miami’s historic Jungle Island. And today, audiences can still watch the same charming feat, which opens this ever-popular attraction’s world-famous Winged Wonders bird show.
Florida’s hidden corners, back roads and traditional favorites are packed with unique experiences that Floridians and visitors alike continue to cherish today, as they did decades ago.
One-on-one experiences with kangaroos, lemurs from Madagascar, reptiles, camels and other hand-raised exotic animals remain popular at Jungle Island. The three animal shows smartly blend elements of nostalgia with edu-tainment about the environment and quirky photo ops. Regular promotions at the animal park include Buy a Day, Get a Year and special events such as the Spooktacular Halloween Weekend and traditional Easter Eggstravaganza.
In Fort Myers, the Edison & Ford Winter Estates and Gardens were the second homes of the two great inventors who got “sand in their shoes,” just like Damon Runyon, the writer who coined that phrase about falling in love with South Florida. Today, the estates host hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, and even the occasional destination wedding in the gardens.
Kids (and even teens) are often fascinated by Edison’s Laboratory, one of Old Florida's attractions that is filled with the original apparatus and equipment that Edison used to conduct his rubber research. The Estates Museum galleries are filled with Edison and Ford artifacts, including an original working light bulb and phonographs. Throughout the year, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates offer free admission for numerous groups including teachers, fathers and veterans on special days.
The Overseas Highway to Key West was originally dubbed the “Over-Sea Railway” and widely heralded as “The Eighth Wonder of the Manmade World.” Originally completed in 1938, the Overseas Highway incorporates 42 bridges over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, and leads to many “off the beaten path” attractions.
One of them, the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center has 2.5 miles of trails and wooden walkways crisscrossing the hammock. It’s home to remnants of pirate ships and a 600-year-old dugout canoe.
At the Nature Center, an informative exhibit on the life cycle of sea turtles includes a rare giant leatherback carapace on display. Also on-site is the Marathon Wild Bird Center, which nurses injured pelicans, cormorants, egrets and other birds back to health. From November through April, the guided trolley tours are a refreshing way to explore the expansive property.
Further south through the Middle Keys on the Overseas Highway, which was named an All-American Road in 2009 by the Department of Transportation, is the world-famous Seven Mile Bridge, the ultimate Old Florida attraction. Under the National Scenic Byways program, roads can be recognized as National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads based on their archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities. Best of all, a stroll on the historic Old Seven Mile Bridge, which runs parallel to the new Seven Mile Bridge, is free every day.
Another old favorite, the glass-bottom boat, was invented in Central Florida’s original tourist spot, Silver Springs and became an instant sensation. At Silver Springs, visitors can still glimpse the Old Florida that enthralled Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in nearby Cross Creek. Today, the attraction includes a petting zoo, carousel and the same glass-bottom boat rides that first became popular more than 130 years ago.
Visitors can buy an All-Access Silver Pass, or the all new All-Access Platinum Pass, which includes entry for a year, a free wild waters pass, free parking, free concerts, Festival of Lights and more. Parking is only $8 for non-pass holders, and a daily ticket still gets you a grand view of unspoiled Florida beauty from those glass-bottom boats peering into the crystal clear springs.
On the other side of the spectrum, The Flagler Museum in Palm Beach is grander than many European palaces. A National Historic Landmark completed in 1902, this 100,000-square-foot mansion features world-class art from the Gilded Age. Today, it hosts high tea in the Cafe des Beaux-Arts from the day after Thanksgiving through the Saturday before Easter. Classical music recitals are held each January and February.
During Grandparents Day on Sept. 8, the Flagler Museum offers special activity guides to all kids. Activities include making scrapbook pages, conducting special grandparent interviews and having a family photo taken in front of the Flagler’s private Railcar No. 91.
Across the state, an 100-foot mural depicting the Gulf floor gives visitors to the Destin History & Fishing Museum the feeling of swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Exhibits within the 4,000 square-foot exhibit space include historic photographs and artifacts of early Destin & the Fishing Industry; and the Famous Fish Wall Shark Tank & Reef Ecosystem featuring 75 mounts of locally caught fish in Destin, which is renowned as the “World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.”
A large collection of antique fishing rods and reels is on display, including one that belonged to Ernest Hemingway and is constructed of split bamboo with an original Penn Reel. It is also home of the oldest seine fishing boat still in existence, The Primrose, which was built in 1925. Adjacent to the property, the original Destin Post Office offers an alternate glimpse into the past.
Florida’s original attraction, St. Augustine, continues to beckon folks much as it did in the 1500s, when Ponce de León first landed on and named Florida in 1513. Today, the town is known for Castillo de San Marcos, Flagler College, the Lightner Museum, historic reenactments, costumed interpreters, gourmet restaurants and the St. Augustine Lighthouse that ensures safe navigation of its shores. One of the most economical ways to see the attractions is to purchase a trolley ticket, which allows three days of unlimited travel to interesting spots throughout the town.
Many of Florida’s original attractions remain alluring today. Along with our spectacular beaches, these heritage locations continue to draw visitors and locals every day – and offer deals that make sure all curious and fun-loving parties get to see this side of the Sunshine State.