By Gary McKechnie

Long before there were super-sized theme parks, Florida attractions were based largely on the state’s exotic natural beauty, wildlife, and crystal clear springs.

While not every classic attraction had staying power (Cypress Gardens, The Atomic Tunnel, and Six Gun Territory among them), several have made their way into the 21st Century by reminding guests that sometimes simple pleasures are the best.

Here are 10 old Florida attractions that were part of Florida’s past, made it to the present and, hopefully, we’ll enjoy well into the future.

first of the old Florida attractions

~ A Florida Memory

1. Silver Springs (1888)

(352) 261-5840

Back in the 1880s, a fellow named Hullam Jones put a pane of glass in the bottom of a rowboat and charged passengers five cents apiece to ferry them above the clear waters of Silver Springs.

Florida had its first tourist attraction.

In 2013, Silver Springs became a state park that retained the essence of this old Florida attraction. To this day, guests can still board the famous glass-bottom boats at the Silver Springs Nature Theme Park and observe the crystal-clear world below before sailing downriver and into the surrounding woodlands.

With other activities such as a museum, historic village, equestrian trails, and wildlife, it’s only natural to want to stay a little longer. You can do that, too, with a campground and cabins that provide a perfect opportunity to experience Florida’s original theme park.

Bok Tower

~ Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

2. Bok Tower (1929)

Lake Wales
(863) 676-1408

Recalling his grandmother’s admonition to “Make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it,” Dutch immigrant Edward Bok and his wife, Mary Louise, used part of their fortune (some from his role as editor of the Ladies Home Journal) to create one of the most serene and peaceful places in Florida.

Set high atop 298-foot Iron Mountain in Lake Wales, Bok Tower is a 205-foot Gothic Revival and Art Deco masterpiece of pink Etowah marble, gray Creole marble, and coquina stone. Each afternoon from the “Singing Tower” the sound of the 60-bell carillon rings out, its music drifting over the hillside and flowing through the lush 250-acre botanical gardens.

Come here and stroll paths lined by live oaks, sabal palms, magnolias, and thousands of flowers, search for more than 100 bird species, or visit during a special orchestral performance and you’ll find more reasons to fall in love with this oasis of calm. Even better, you’ll see how the world became more beautiful because Edward Bok lived in it.

Old Florida attractions - Monkey Jungle

~ A Florida Memory

3. Monkey Jungle (1933)

(305) 235-1611

Although the tagline “Where humans are caged and monkeys run wild” may seem a bit grating by today’s standards, in the advertising standards of the 1930s it was a clever way to let tourists know they were in for a unique experience at Monkey Jungle.

When you walk through the 30-acre zoological park, the novelty is walking through a fenced tunnel. On the opposite side of the fence are approximately 300 primates bouncing between branches, shinnying up ropes and trees, and often looking to you for a handout of food.

Among the experiences within the protected habitat are shows and sometimes even closer encounters at the Wild Monkey Swimming Pool, the Cameroon Gorilla Forest, the Amazonian Rain Forest, Wings of Love, and Hangin’ with the Orangs.

old florida attraction Jungle Island

~ A Florida Memory

4. Jungle Island (1936 - formerly Parrot Jungle)

Watson Island, Miami
(305) 400-7000

By 1936, Miami was finding its identity. In addition to the sun and sand of South Beach, entrepreneurs started to recognize the city’s appeal was also in the untouched swamps and woods that bordered the city.

That’s what prompted Franz and Louise Scherr to lease 22 acres of land (at $25 per year) to create an attraction where tourists could walk along a nature trail lined by native plants and see colorful birds flying free.

For nearly 70 years Parrot Jungle was a part of Miami’s Pinecrest community until the village purchased the land to use as a municipal park. But Parrot Jungle wasn’t finished. Instead, it was moved to Watson Island (between downtown and South Beach off the MacArthur Causeway), renamed Parrot Jungle Island and, in 2007, simply Jungle Island.

What the Scherrs began those many years ago is still the basis for this zoological attraction. Guests still see colorful parrots and macaws (some of which perform in bird shows) as well as Miami’s iconic pink flamingoes along with snakes, vultures, condors, alligators, kangaroos, tigers, and orangutans. There are even overnight slumber parties and animal interactions – all within sight of cosmopolitan Miami.


~ A Florida Memory

5. Weeki Wachee Springs (1947)

Weeki Wachee
(352) 592-5656

If the phrase ‘Florida kitsch’ came with a visual, it would likely be Weeki Wachee, the Old Florida attraction that gained international attention thanks to underwater shows starring honest-to-goodness mermaids.

Weeki Wachee didn’t start out as a place where mermaids frolicked. It began as a way for a stunt swimmer named Newt Perry to demonstrate air hose breathing techniques. When this proved to be popular, a 400-seat theater with a wall of underwater windows allowed guests to watch shows that, naturally, came to include mermaids. The attraction became so popular that Don Knotts, Esther Williams, and Elvis Presley stopped by for a visit – although not at the same time.

In 2008, the 538-acre attraction became part of Weeki Wachee State Park that continues to provide the support it needs to delight new generations of visitors. Families can fill the day at neighboring Buccaneer Bay water park, but purists most love visiting the original attraction where mermaids are still swimming, animal shows still entertain and educate, and guests escape the pressures of life by canoeing, kayaking, and taking river boat cruises on the Weeki Wachee River.

Classic Florida.

One of the few Old Florida attractions still owned by the founding family, Gatorland continues to attract visitors who visit the 110-acre “Alligator Capital of the World” to see hundreds of alligators and crocodiles, ride a miniature railroad, speed down a zip line, and take in reptile shows, an aviary, petting zoo, gator wrestling, and the ever-popular Gator Jumparoo Show.

One of the few Old Florida attractions still owned by the founding family, Gatorland continues to attract visitors who visit the 110-acre “Alligator Capital of the World” to see hundreds of alligators and crocodiles, ride a miniature railroad, speed down a zip line, and take in reptile shows, an aviary, petting zoo, gator wrestling, and the ever-popular Gator Jumparoo Show.

- A Florida Memory

6. Gatorland (1949)

(800) 393-5297

When Owen Godwin opened Gatorland on the outskirts of Orlando in 1949, he knew that alligators and snakes would thrill tourists. They still do. One of the few Old Florida attractions still owned by the founding family, Gatorland continues to attract visitors who visit the 110-acre “Alligator Capital of the World” to see hundreds of alligators and crocodiles, ride a miniature railroad, speed down a zip line, and take in reptile shows, an aviary, petting zoo, and the ever-popular Gator Jumparoo Show.

One of the most thrilling experiences happens after dark during Gator Night Shine. After a Show & Tell featuring some creepy creatures (including spiders, snakes, and scorpions), a wildlife expert will lead you across a boardwalk through the nearly pitch-black breeding marsh where white egrets speckle the branches.

Still thrilling after all these years.

Dolphin jumping

-~ A Florida Memory

7. Gulfarium (1955)

(850) 243-9046

With the Gulf of Mexico just a few yards away, Florida’s oldest continuously operating marine park enjoys the perfect location for guests to learn more about the world’s waters and its inhabitants. Taking pride in its past, the Gulfarium notes that it was the first marine park to perform underwater shows with SCUBA gear and the first to successfully raise a stranded baby bottlenose dolphin on a synthetic milk formula developed here (and still used today).

More than 60 years later, the park continues to focus on sea-life-themed shows and exhibits including performances by trained porpoises and sea lions. Other members of their menagerie include otters, penguins, stingrays, alligators, harbor seals, and sharks, with special programs including Animal Adventures, Sunset Camp, and the VIP Trainer program that can get you even closer to some interesting wildlife.

While it may not have the flash of more modern parks, Gulfarium’s simplicity is part of its charm.


~ A Florida Memory

8. Miami Seaquarium (1955)

(305) 361-5705

The 1950s must have been great in Miami as the city became a haven for jet-setters, and a place where post-modern design was changing the skyline. Over on Virginia Key in Biscayne Bay, the futuristic Golden Aquadome marked the arrival of the Miami Seaquarium.

At the time, this was the world’s largest marine life attraction – and possibly the most popular. Not only was it one of Florida’s few themed attractions, in the 1960s the park got a big boost by being one of the prime shooting locations for the hit TV show ‘Flipper’.

Fast forward to today and you’ll find the park still celebrates bottlenose dolphins as well as sharks, sea turtles, penguins, dolphins, seals, orcas, manatees and thousands of colorful reef fishes that inhabit a 750,000-gallon saltwater aquarium. In addition to shows, the park has become a popular spot for wildlife experiences including the Seal Swim, Sea Trek Reef Encounter, Dolphin Encounter, and the Trainer for a Day program.

Citrus Tower

~ A Florida Memory

9. Citrus Tower (1956)

(352) 394-4061

When the iconic Citrus Tower opened on the outskirts of Orlando, it was to showcase and celebrate Central Florida’s sprawling citrus industry, seen in rolling hills of endless groves speckled with freshwater lakes.

Back in the day, a half-million tourists a year stopped by as they drove between Silver Springs and Cypress Gardens via U.S. 27. More than a half-century later, though, most of those groves are gone, victims of back-to-back freezes and rampant development. Instead of groves, asphalt rooftops, strip malls, and box stores now dominate the view from the top of the 226-foot-tall tower.

Although the views from Florida’s highest observation point may not be awe-inspiring, if you visit you’ll still see a towering example of Old Florida history.

Lion Country

10. Lion Country Safari (1967)

(561) 793-1084

The world’s first “drive-through zoo” opened as an attraction where you could (and still can) cruise through 640 acres of South Florida plains and see tapirs, llamas, storks, kudus, impalas, white rhinos, gemsboks, water buffalo, lions, wildebeests, chimpanzees, and giraffes -- an ark-load of animals.

It’s really a simple concept, the vision of five South African businessmen who believed that South Florida was a perfect place to give animals room to roam and people a chance to see them.

When you go, you’ll pay admission to spend a few hours driving down dirt roads watching animals be themselves. Even motorcyclists and owners of convertibles can participate since a zebra-striped Lion Country Safari vehicle can be rented for the round trip.

Mornings are good time to visit (before the animals seek shade) and when it rains the showers get the animals up and around. After your tour, an amusement park, full-service restaurant, wet play area, petting zoo, and a KOA campground are right here.