Escape the long lines and crowded theme parks. These Florida roadside attractions are just as fun but offer unusual twists ranging from shrunken heads, to the world's largest gift shop, to alligator farms and everything in between.
It's a safe bet that Florida's the only place where you can look down the throat of a 13-foot alligator, stare up at a life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex and walk the streets of Jerusalem all in the same day. It's this kind of quirkiness and wonders, natural and manmade, that gives older Florida roadside attractions and theme parks an unrivaled character.
These original Florida tourist attractions focused on what came natural - the state's abundance of sparkling fresh and salt water, unique wildlife and tropical climate - and added a little dazzle to make them seem unnatural.
Time may have glossed them with nostalgia, but in my revelry of all that's vintage, I found the parks from Pensacola to Key West to be more than roadside kitsch. They're a blast. Also, their small size gives them a folksy personal touch that makes you feel like you're the guest of honor.
Ripley's Believe It or Not!
The wackiest of Florida kitsch can be found in the nation's oldest city, St. Augustine. Believe it or not, it is here that Robert Ripley stayed during his trips to Florida. The executive of the company chose to display his eclectic oddities in what would spawn the freakiest museum chain in America - Ripley's Believe It Or Not!
After traveling the world collecting oddities such as a shrunken head and a stuffed cow with two legs protruding from her back, Ripley decided the Moorish Revival residence Castle Warden with its battlements, massive chimneys and rose windows was the ideal place to display his wacky collection.
My husband James and I find the home almost as interesting as its contents, although not as shocking or hilarious. The tramp chair, little more than an iron cage, evokes terror. According to the museum's description, Britons of old would put a homeless person in the metal chair and drag him through the streets. My favorite is a replica of the Tower of London made of matchsticks.
More of Ripley's weird collection can be seen at the Ripley museums in Orlando and Key West. The St. Augustine location is the first and celebrated its 60th anniversary in December 2010.
It's no coincidence that some of Florida's oldest theme parks lie in the center of the state, as this was once the primary route to Southern Florida from the north. Before Interstates, most visitors drove down Highway 27, which stretches from Georgia to Miami. But there was one attraction northeast of Ocala that pulled them slightly off the beaten path.
When I reach Silver Springs Nature Park, I find the water a blue hue unlike any natural color I've seen. I would think it had been dyed if not for the expansiveness of it. Its sheerness gives me the feeling of looking down into a giant fish bowl. The 137-year-old park and its waters are truly one of America's great natural wonders.
Although the park has added zoo animals and the glass-bottom boats remain the premier attraction. The boats have been upgraded since the park originally opened, but the vessels still have an old-fashioned feel, friendly captains and a clear view of the deep lagoon's bottom and all the fish and crustaceans that swim in between.
The boat captain tells us that the seven large springs release 550 million gallons of water a day.
It's chilling to see a natural wonder that remains a mystery, but not as chilling as the water. The springs stay 72 degrees Fahrenheit year 'round.
Back on land, the park's museum is almost as captivating as the blue waters. Filmmakers discovered the springs as an ideal underwater movie set. Photos from early Tarzan movies to James Bond films fill the room. I am surprised by the number of celebrities who have visited these waters. But then again, how can anyone miss them?
Spring-fed waters are also home to other old Florida theme parks. Manatees are the attraction at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It is one of the few places to see manatees year 'round. Plus, an underwater observatory allows you to get within inches of the sea cows without getting wet. About 20 miles south of Homosassa Springs on U.S. Hwy. 19, Weeki Wachee Springs has Florida's only "live mermaid" show. These mythological maidens, half fish, half woman, perform shows daily.
Sunken Gardens, an original Florida roadside attraction dating back to 1930s, is one of the state's premier botanical attractions. Once owned by the Turner family and now operated by the city, the gardens remain dazzling, spanning over four acres in what was once a fertile lake bed below the surrounding walls.
Wander along winding pathways lined with Florida flora and tropical species, visit the flamingos, tropical birds and more. Throughout the year, Sunken Gardens is home to weekend festivals, such as the annual Orchid, Hibiscus or Hot Pepper festivals. Take advantage of ongoing classes such as yoga or hoop dancing in the garden. Sunken Gardens shares its historic main building with Great Exploration Children's Museum, a hands-on fun learning center for children to explore.
Lion Country Safari
America's first drive-thru cageless zoo, Lion Country Safari keeps humans in the cage of their cars as lions, giraffes, monkeys, rhinos and even wildebeest roam freely. I must admit that I'm a little nervous when the attendant at the entrance hands me a detailed pamphlet and tells me that the wild animals may come right up to my car. I become even more squeamish when he reminds me that the rhinos have the right-of-way (however, he assures me that I have nothing to worry about).
The drive-through park with more than 900 animals is divided into seven areas that mimic regions of Africa, India and South America. I enter Las Pampas, named for the grasslands of South America. No concern for my vehicle here. Tapirs, which to me look like pigs with long legs, look up at me as I pass.
As I pull into the Ruaha National Park section, I experience a moment of girly awe. Two female Impala antelopes, delicate creatures whose tan and white fur looks as soft as a teddy bear, are bathing one another with licks of the tongue. I want to herd them into my car and take them home, but there just isn't room.
It's not until I reach the Gorongosa Reserve that I see the park's namesake. A pride of lions are stretched out sleeping underneath a large tree. Only an occasional swish of a tail tells me they are alive. It's noon and hot. I find out later that they are most active in the morning and late afternoons.
In the Serengeti Plains, I find a pair of ostriches only too eager to greet me. The two towering birds stand on the side of the road looking toward my car as if they want to hitch a ride. So, I stop. One comes up to my passenger window and cocks his head to the side as he checks me out. I kick myself for not getting more batteries for my camera. But then again, it's not a sight
I can forget.
My hour-and-a-half-long self-guided tour ends where my trepidation began - the white rhinoceros. Much to my relief, they paid about as much attention to me as the lions did. But a smacking giraffe looked my way with mild interest. The striped zebras were too busy grazing to notice.
The Safari also has a walk-through park where you can take boat rides, feed a giraffe, cool off in the water park, see spider monkeys and pet a pygmy goat and other more docile wild animals. For an unforgettable sleep, pitch your tent in the park's KOA campgrounds next door.
Dolphins from St. Augustine to Key West were drawing laughs before Mickey and Goofy were born. Although the older marine parks can't compete with the newer SeaWorld Orlando in size, the Miami Seaquarium, Theater of the Sea, and Marineland make up for it with intimacy and character.
After all, it's pretty tough to compete with the playfulness and innocence of Flipper the dolphin and his lagoon at the Miami Seaquarium. The Flipper TV series was filmed here, and the park continues to be Flipper's home. More than 50 years later, Miami Seaquarium is the longest operating oceanarium in the U.S.
Because of this famous dolphin's nostalgic charm, my husband, James, and I make our first stop at Flipper Lagoon, where Atlantic bottlenose dolphins dance across the water to show tunes. Needless to say, part of the fun is the kitsch. But their leaps, spins, tail walks and flips are enough to draw our awe and get us a little wet. We sit in the splash zone.
Not to be missed is the Killer Whale and Dolphin Show where, miraculously, this traditionally vicious whale (hence the name) makes friends and performs with Pacific white-sided dolphins.
It takes us three hours to see the park's four shows and watch 200-pound sharks eat lunch while an animal marine specialist tells us about different shark species. We lament that we didn't make reservations to follow the path of many celebrities and swim with the dolphins in the Dolphin Odyssey program. The one-half-hour program allows you to touch and hug the dolphins. Reservations are a must.
While you're in the area, check out other tropical wildlife at Jungle Island and Monkey Jungle, both in Miami. Island Jungle is famous for it's bird shows and Monkey Jungle is a park where you can mingle with the monkeys.
Theater of the Sea
Farther south, another marine park offers a chance to swim not only with the dolphins, but also sea lions and stingrays. Theater of the Sea in Islamorada is about half the size of the Miami Seaquarium, but offers closer experiences with marine life without going for a dolphin swim.
I am able to sign up to swim with the dolphins only three hours before it starts, but during the season, reservations are taken weeks in advance. However, in the meantime, I watch the dolphin show and am one of six chosen from the small audience to meet a dolphin up close. Satisfied with my dolphin encounter, I change my reservation to instead frolic in the shallow waters with the sea lions.
I wade into the clear waters with a small group of children and join more than a dozen friendly and whiskery sea lions. One in particular pals up with me. I call him Slick (so original), shake his fin and let him sniff my cheek.
The sea lion swim lasts about one hour, including the educational pre-swim. Afterwards, I lounge on the beach and watch kids play in the waves.
Having no sea legs, I pass on the four-hour sightseeing cruise which includes time spent snorkeling but make plans to return for the stingray swim.
Key West Aquarium
The Key West Aquarium may be small, but it is far from insignificant. Within footsteps of famous Mallory Square, the aquarium is Key West's oldest attraction. Built during the Depression by the Works Progress Administration, it is the world's first open-air aquarium. However, now much of the building is enclosed to allow all-weather viewing.
As I stumble in from the rain, I am grateful for this. For once I find myself entering a marine park to get dry.
The first thing I notice is the tidiness of the old, well-preserved building. Within a few steps inside I see sharks and rays in the long marine tank that runs the length of the building.
I join in on a tour as a guide points out seahorses and a giant spiny lobster. The guide moves along to identify hundreds of other colorful fish and sealife living in the numerous tanks along the walls.
My favorite part of the tour is watching the indoor sharks dine. I get to see the predators eat up close, behind the safety of glass. Even though they are smaller than Jaws, you get a sense of their table manners.
Outside it has conveniently stopped raining. The group is led through the backdoor to an enclosed ocean cove where larger sharks circle in a Pavlovian way. It's feeding time. As a shark lifts from the water to grab a piece of meat, it's clear this no place to take a dip.
That's a Tyrannosaurus rex peeking through the tree tops just off Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando, inviting you to stop and tour an ancient past. He's one of 150 life-size prehistoric creatures at Dinosaur World in Plant City.
Bone up on your prehistoric species as you stroll the park and read the identifying signs. You can also dig for fossils in a paleontological setting, and tour the hands-on dinosaur museum.
New Additions Old Traditions
They're not older than Disney, but their themes go back to nearly the beginning of time. You don't have to be a religious scholar to enjoy The Holy Land Experience in Orlando.
Upon entering, the park immerses you in Palestine of the New Testament era. Robed vendors sell from carts and pillars look like Jerusalem limestone. If you're hungry for something more theatrical, there are musical shows.
Wish Upon a Star
Peculiar things happen when you combine 11 million pounds of Florida coral and a man's abundance of free time. The Coral Castle in Homestead, built over 28 years by one, five-foot-tall, 100-pound man, still stands as a testament to determination.
Get inspiration for your home renovation by touring this mysterious house furnished with stone rocking chairs, a sun couch, a table in the shape of the state of Florida, a solar bath, a nine-ton gate, sundial and Polaris telescope.
Latvian immigrant stonemason Ed Leedskalnin moved stones as heavy as 28 tons in the cloak of night to create his castle. Leedskalnin moved the mammoth stones without mechanical equipment.
The castle is now on the National Register of Historic Places. Forty-five-minute tours are offered year 'round. Well worth the time, even you don't plan on building your own monument.
No trip through Florida is complete without a 'gator sighting. Alligator shows are synonymous with Old Florida fun, and thankfully, a few of the best ones still exist.
Stop at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park and see some of the world's oldest species in the nation's oldest city, including rare albino 'gators and Maximo, a 15'3" saltwater crocodile.
The giant 'gator head entrance alone is worth a photo stop at Gatorland in Orlando.
In Palmdale, the family-owned-and-operated Gatorama is vintage Florida with snake skins on the walls and some of the largest 'gators and crocodiles outside its backdoor.
View 'gators via airboat at the Everglades Alligator Farm in Homestead. An actual alligator farm on the outskirts of Everglades National Park.
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