Florida’s Best, Coolest, and Superlative
By Carlos Harrison
Alrighty, then! In no particular order, some of the best, coolest, and downright most unique things that Florida has to offer:
The 800 classic buildings clustered in the South Beach pocket between Ocean and Lenox Avenues and 23rd and 5th streets is the largest concentration of Art Deco and Steamline Moderne structures in the country. So sayeth the Independent of London, and even the venerable Art Deco Society of New York isn’t disagreeing. They list only 200 in the Big Apple. That’s a far cry from the horde of 1923 to 1942 Tropical Deco style buildings on Miami Beach. Which might explain why the Art Deco District is also the first 20th Century neighborhood to make the National Register of Historic Places.
Frank Lloyd Wright-iest
The great American architect called it “Child of the Sun,” and the 10 buildings and two additional structures on the Florida Southern College in Lakeland are the largest collection of his designs anywhere in the world. The construction of the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel began in 1939, and most of the rest of it – which now includes the school’s current administration building and business office, another chapel, a water dome and several other textile block buildings – was completed by 1958. And, in 2013, it became home to the newest (at least at the time), the Usonian House, built according to Wright’s 1939 design.
Bell-iest bird sanctuary:
The Bok Tower Gardens is home to the Singing Tower carillon, and that’s a big deal. A carillon is a collection of bells, including some truly massive ones, played by a keyboard. The carillon is one of the largest musical instruments to begin with, and Florida's set is one of the biggest in the country. The Singing Tower has 60 bells ranging in size from 16 pounds to nearly 12 tons, which makes the biggest ones some of the biggest in the country, too. And it’s set in the heart of gardens designed by architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. That’s got to be some kind of unique.
It took five years to transform the Lake Wales sand hill and plant the original 10,000 azaleas, 1,000 large live oaks, and hundreds of fruit shrub. Home to more than a 100 bird species, the sanctuary was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in 1929. Today it’s also known for the massive Victoria water lilies on the reflecting pool, stretching six to seven in diameter – large enough to hold a child without sinking. The carillon plays daily at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Oldest national wildlife sanctuary:
Thank Teddy Roosevelt for this one. In 1903, he designated Pelican Island, in the Sebastian Inlet, the nation’s first wildlife sanctuary to protect the brown pelican and other native birds on the island. More than a century later, it’s still there, and so are they. And so is Roosevelt’s preservation plan, which now includes some 530 refuges on 95 million acres.
First in Space Place-iest:
The Right Stuff. It’s right here. Cape Canaveral is known for several space exploration firsts. The first U.S. satellite, astronaut, astronaut in orbit, two-man and three-man U.S. spacecraft and, of course, the first successful mission to put man on the moon all lifted off from Cape Canaveral. There’s a whole string of other firsts, and their stories can be found at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and Space & Missile History Center at the cape. You can also get up close with a Gemini capsule, a space suit and tour the launch pads and control center.
First Navy Pilot Training Center-iest:
Imagine, a full century ago, the Navy established Pensacola NAS as the nation’s first permanent naval air station. It was the first Navy pilot training center, and the first U.S. naval installation to send its proud aviators into combat. And, its steps from some of the most beautiful sugar-sand beaches in the state.
Surrealist – Dali-iest, anyway:
Melting clocks, anyone? The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg holds the largest collection of the famed surrealist’s works in the U.S., including 96 of his oil paintings, more than 100 water colors, original drawings, sculpture, photos, and seven of his 18 masterworks. The museum moved to a new 68,000 square foot facility in 2011 that is as much a tribute to the artist as it is a home for his work. Wrapped in a glazed atrium that seems to ooze gracefully along the exterior, designed by the HOK architectural firm, the museum is also built to withstand 165 mph hurricane winds.
Ybor City, once known as the “Cigar Capital of the World,” was down to its last cigar factory by 2014. But the historic center of Spanish, Italian and Cuban immigration at the turn of the 20th Century is still going strong. It’s now a center for shops, restaurants (including Florida’s longest continuously operating eatery, the Columbia Restaurant), hip clubs, and a National Historic Landmark district comprised of more than 950 historic buildings.
Crocs like it hot, which is why South Florida is the only place you’ll find this thinner-nosed cousins to the better-known gator in the continental U.S. In fact, a cold snap carved a hefty portion from the existing population, but the toothy water reptiles have sprung back. The last count put their numbers at close to 1,500, and you can catch an occasional glimpse – from a safe distance, of course – lazing by the saltwater shore of the and Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, as well as the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks.
Yep, sorry. I know you were expecting it to be No. 1. That spot goes to Louisiana, but not by much. Out of the 4 million or so alligators in the U.S.A., 1.25 million call Florida home. That’s just shy of the 1.5 million Louisiana claims.
Creature from the Black Lagoon-iest:
The campy, classic, “just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” horror flick was filmed back in 1953 – in black and white, but 3D – at Wakulla Springs. It billed itself, in fact, as the “first underwater 3D” film. The lovelorn creature was fake, of course, but the scenery – the thick Florida vegetation draping the shore and the lazy river cutting through it – were real. Still are. And you can take a 40- to 60-minute wildlife sightseeing boat tour from Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park – creature not included.
Famous-est six-toed Cats:
Yeah, their most popular nickname ain’t Hemingway Cats for nothin’. Polydactyl kitties, ones with an extra toe on their tootsies, and the author had a thing. As the story goes, the king of macho literature was a softie when it came to his cats. A sea captain reportedly gave him his first, and probably shared the tale of how the extra-toed cats brought luck to seafarers. And, well, cats being cats, there are now somewhere between 40 and 50 of the first one’s descendants still living, lounging, and greeting visitors at the author’s Key West home.
Shopping-est Mall Destinations:
Florida is actually home to two of the top five malls for shopper traffic, attracting more than 25 million visitors a year – each! Aventura Mall, home to about 300 retailers, came in at No. 2 for most shoppers in the country on a recent Travel + Leisure list. It attracted 28 million people. Sawgrass Mills, the massive outlet mall in Sunrise that’s home to nearly 400 venues and shaped like a gator – a 1.8 million square foot gator – came in fifth, with 26 million visitors. That’s more people than visited the Magic Kingdom, by far.
Most-visited Amusement Parks:
Yeah, California may have more parks, but people like ours better. Seven of the 10 most visited theme parks are in Florida, and Busch Gardens in Tampa just missed that cut. Topping the list: The mighty mouse, naturally. The Magic Kingdom brought in more than 18.5 million people in 2013. And EPCOT, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios came in at 3rd, 4th and 5th overall, with more than 10 million visitors each. Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios took 7th and 8th places, with more than 8 million each, and SeaWorld took 10th place with just over 5 million. Busch Gardens counted 4 million.
Most-visited Water Parks:
It’s hot. They’re cool. It’s easy to see how Florida topped the list of the nation’s most popular water parks, too. The top four, in fact. No. 1: Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, with 2 million-plus visitors in 2013, followed by Blizzard Beach with almost as many.
So if you're looking for some fun things to do in Florida, we've got you covered. Looking at this list, why would you need to go anywhere else?