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Nostalgic Florida Cover

Living Luxe / Summer 2020

By Kelly Merritt

Nostalgic Florida

Keeping the Sunshine State’s memory makers strong in heart and mind.

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Nostalgic Florida

Kisses of warm air and the promise of fun times, car trips along Florida highways and playing “I Spy” from the back of the family station wagon, Florida is the five senses state. Whether the journey was 15 minutes to a Golden Crescent beach or 15 hours from freezing temperatures, vintage painted billboards conjured adventures, oranges, gators and Goofy. With Disney and sugary-sand beaches on the brain, home seemed so far away anytime you were headed for a theme park or roadside attraction.

In 2020, the portrait of Florida’s once active tourism landscape looks very different. With the advent of COVID-19, the theme parks are shuttered. The restaurants are quiet. There are no glasses clinking, no sounds coming from the kitchens. Even as this issue goes to print, Living Luxe is acting on faith, going to print in the spirit that Florida’s attractions will soon welcome us back. And while sandy toes, swimsuits and beach breezes are tempting, nothing beats the roar of a roller coaster.

Before threats of pandemics and the solace of social distancing, Florida defined the golden era of coast-to-coast attractions. Until things return to normal or at least a whisper of that life, we are left to recollect the good old days and look toward good times ahead. Past and present, Florida is a memory maker with nostalgia as our guide.

Glass-bottom boat tours at Silver Springs.
Glass-bottom boat tours at Silver Springs remain among Florida’s most historic attractions.

It’s Yesterday Once More

Looking for Howard Johnson’s and other last bastions of vintage Florida

Roadside Transformations Tug at the Heartstrings of History Buffs

Florida’s historic attractions date back to 1878, when Hullam Jones and Phillip Morrell invented the glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs. Campy attractions scattered throughout the state still enthrall vintage enthusiasts — just spend an hour going down the rabbit hole of the Orange County Regional History Center’s lost attractions or the Lost Parks website pages. Though contemporary theme parks have become technical wonders, cherished relics remain.

Author and history buff Rick Kilby honed his appreciation for roadside signs, coinciding with Florida’s claim to nostalgic fame: the heyday of roadside attractions. Kilby grew up going to Six Gun Territory, a Western-themed attraction in Silver Springs, replete with street gun fights, chairlift rides, a train, an arcade and lone cowboys, before the monotony of blandness overtook so much of Florida’s modern roadsides. Along with fellow enthusiasts of the Society for Commercial Archeology, Kilby does his part to help save North America’s endangered, historic roadside icons, a good thing for Floridians who want to preserve as much of yesterday as possible.

“Everyone geeks out over places that came to life in those bygone eras and each one is a little time capsule started by people who wanted a piece of the attractions,” says Kilby, whose favorite place to conjure ages past is St. Augustine and its legendary waters — he has even written two books, Finding the Fountain of Youth and Florida’s Healing Waters, which trace the tale of the Fountain of Youth throughout Florida.

Speaking of, the Sunshine State has a number of natural springs still going strong. Kilby recommends the aforementioned Silver Springs where captains guide glass-bottom boats across placid waters. And at one of Florida’s original legendary nature-meets-entertainment venues, the shows at Weeki Wachee Springs feature costumed mermaids who swim in a naturally formed underwater cavern in the basin of a 100-foot-wide spring, competing with five-miles-per-hour currents.

Many old-school attractions have found new life as protected botanical gardens, lovingly restored by visionary residents who cared enough to preserve them. One of Kilby’s favorites is Bongoland, now named Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens, in Port Orange. The amusement park began as a pet project by a physician looking to cash in on Florida’s booming roadside business in the 1950s.

“Named for a baboon called Bongo, it had an Indian village, a little train and a collection of giant, concrete dinosaurs,” Kilby shares. “Though it closed in 1952, the dinosaurs remain.”

Another botanical wonder, Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg allows guests to stroll along with dozens of live pink flamingos among more than 50,000 tropical plants and flowers, thanks to hobby gardener George Turner, Sr., who purchased the property in 1911.

In Vero Beach, McKee Jungle Gardens is now McKee Botanical Garden, an extraordinary Florida Landmark named for 1920s developers Arthur McKee and Waldo Sexton. The 18-acre tropical landscape is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Other notable nostalgic stops include Fort Lauderdale’s Mai-Kai Restaurant and Polynesian Show, which dates back to 1956 and remains famous for its hula dancers and flaming drinks. Potter’s Wax Museum in St. Augustine is housed in the country’s oldest pharmacy and contains wax replicas of famous actors, athletes, Roman centurions and past presidents. The Yearling Restaurant at Cross Creek, which offers rural Florida cuisine surrounded by granddaddy oak trees and taxidermy, also serves up a side of blues by legendary blues musician Willie “Real Deal” Green.

Costumed mermaids Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Costumed mermaids such as this have graced the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park mermaid shows for decades.

St. Augustine: A Destination Unto Itself

Today, St. Augustine is a far cry from what local Jane Norton, General Manager of the Serenata Beach Club, calls what was once a sleepy, drive-through destination.

“My husband’s uncle was part of a group who went out to promote St. Augustine as a historic destination back in the 1960s,” shares Norton. “The St. Augustine Chamber of Commerce sought to capture some of the tourism traffic headed to Orlando and farther south by restoring the historic district and further developing the city as a destination all to itself.”

Thanks to such vision, St. Augustine today welcomes some two million visitors a year, as its signature orange and green trolley cars tool about town from the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park to Ripley’s Believe it or Not! museum to its popular Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

No trip to the Sunshine State back in the 1960s was complete without a visit to Parrot Jungle (now Jungle Island). Photo courtesy of floridamemory.com

Howard Johnson’s and Coke Machines

Our own publisher recalls from her childhood the annual summer road trips typifying the ’60s and ’70s for many families — and the fun of spotting billboards of Florida oranges and alligator farms along the I-95 drive. The haul to visit Parrot Jungle (now Jungle Island) in Miami to see parrots riding bicycles across tiny tightropes was like winning the childhood vacation lottery — no matter how long it took to arrive.

“We’d stop at Howard Johnson’s restaurants along the way — that ubiquitous orange-roofed symbol of traveling America before McDonald’s took over,” says Pamela Anderson. “I can still recall sitting at its leather-cushioned counter stools, ordering hot dogs in their trademark grilled square-cut buns and finishing with peppermint ice cream in a tiny metal dessert bowl.”

Anderson remembers staying in motels lining Interstate 95, the type of two-story courtyard lodges surrounding the requisite swimming pool in the center.

“That was back when moms wore those over-the-top latex bathing caps covered with little plastic flowers — white and yellow daises all over the thing!” she recalls. “As kids, we couldn’t wait to jump in after a full day in the back seat of an unairconditioned car — only rivaled by the fun of finding the candy and Coke vending machines later at night.”

Finally, once arrived at Parrot Jungle, a young Anderson and her brother could barely carry the weight of three parrots on each scrawny arm, struggling to hold still for Polaroids. The reminiscing began as soon as they returned home to watch the gift shop promotional movie about the park. These were quintessential Nostalgic Florida memories in the making, from its golden age of tourism.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse still reign supreme at Walt Disney World, where dreams really do come true. Photo courtesy of Disney.

The Mighty Shall Rise

Florida’s famous theme parks, then and now

The Magic of Disney

Vice grips. Screams. Stomach-churning turns. Careening down rickety tracks. These were the hallmarks of the roller coasters of yesteryear. Rides may have gotten an upgrade to safer, more daring experiential coasters, but it’s the classics that keep us longing for a simpler time when smart phones weren’t even science fiction yet.

One name rises above all others when it comes to theme parks: Walt Disney World Resort. For Disney purists, the Mad Tea Party, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean (which became the basis for the film series), Country Bear Jamboree, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad will always be engrained in childhood nostalgia. And who can forget those shaky doom buggies in Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride? To its credit, the company has preserved many of its earlier attractions, like the audio-animatronics show Carousel of Progress, which depicts innovation throughout the turn of the past century. “It’s a Small World” is in itself a global and historical artifact, created for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, supervised by Walt Disney himself in support of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It was one of the opening day attractions at Walt Disney World Resort in 1971, paired with the iconic theme song by songwriting brothers Richard and Robert Sherman of Mary Poppins fame.

The most nostalgic Disney rides and attractions are in the original Magic Kingdom Park, which features Fantasyland, Frontierland and Tomorrowland. Also, memorable Main Street, U.S.A. is two blocks of charming turn-of-the-century architectural replicas stretching from the train station to Cinderella Castle. (Although what Walt Disney World classifies as Main Street attractions may seem tame compared to those of the rest of the park.) Its unique shops, horse-drawn carriages, convincing architectural details, and even the smell of fresh-baked cookies wafting through the air all make Main Street an attraction unto itself. Who among us hasn’t savored a vanilla malted milk at the Plaza Ice Cream Parlor or longingly pressed their faces (and mouse ears) against the glass pastry case at the Main Street Confectionery?

The evolution of thrill rides at Disney are felt most strongly in immersive experiences like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Here, parkgoers can imagine themselves in the Black Spire Outpost fielding First Order villains with the Resistance, as droids and galactic friends await the Millennium Falcon to whisk everyone to safety.

Here’s a lesson in the passage of time: Epcot is approaching its 40th anniversary and is undergoing a massive update in preparation for that milestone. For those of us who raced to Orlando when that big silver pointy ball made its debut four decades ago, it was the most modern earthbound object anyone had seen at that time.

For some, Disney will always carry a special meaning far beyond the rides. Travel writer Kerry Kijewski visited Disney as a teenager through Wish Kids to a unique nonprofit resort called “Give Kids the World Village” after receiving a kidney transplant. That Disney nostalgia stayed with her all of her life. Now, her kinfolk is passing the Disney tradition onto new children arriving in the family.

“Time in the sunshine meant the world, which made the village’s name as true as anything,” Kijewski says. “All children should get to see a Disney park at least once, and I cherish those memories.”

But it isn’t just Disney that holds a special place in people’s memories. Fans and thrill-seekers often return again and again for all of Florida’s theme parks long into adulthood.

“My third time visiting the state, I was grown, and we wanted to see the new Universal Orldnao theme park dedicated to the Harry Potter books I’d fallen in love with in my twenties — later in life compared to most readers,” Kijewski shares. “It was a new kind of magic compared to that of Disney but just as special.”

Hippogriff Ride Universal Studios
A ride on Flight of the Hippogriff takes guests through the pumpkin patch and past Hagrid's hut. Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort.

The Roar of Roller Coasters

Universal Orlando Resort may have some of the most dazzling theme park experiences anywhere in the world, but parkgoers remember with fondness some of Universal’s earliest experiences. It opened in June of 1990, just in time for guests to “ride the movies,” as was the tagline back then.

Many have since closed to make room for newer attractions. Back to the Future: The Ride was retired in 2007 to provide space for The Simpsons Ride, while Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue ceased operations in favor of Fast & Furious – Supercharged. The beast that scared everyone out of the water for years, Jaws, swam away and was replaced by The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. These are all examples of technology and imagination without limits. Most recently, Universal launched Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Islands of Adventure, part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. During this ride, ticketholders ascend through a forest filled with more a thousand actual trees among super-realistic animated creatures from the Harry Potter books and films, including Rubeus Hagrid, naturally. Universal’s Islands of Adventure also includes Marvel Super Hero Island, and in a continuation of parks within parks, coming soon is a fourth theme park, Universal’s Epic Universe that celebrates the journey to faraway lands.

The rise of the “story coaster” — where rides are entirely experiential — was unavoidable, as Universal so perfectly capitalized on the marriage of films and rides.

The era of the mighty roller coaster lives on, though, morphed from the charm of older, death-defying wooden rides to the brightly colored twisters of jam-packed theme parks. One major throwback (think Coney Island) remains in the White Lightning wooden coaster at Fun Spot America in Orlando.

Sadly, most of the older coasters we all remember with some semblance of terror and delight are retired. The infamous Gwazi, a bone-chilling wooden roller coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, rattled its last sea of riders in 2015. Hold tight to that steady stomach though — the new Iron Gwazi is coming for you soon as North America’s tallest, fastest, steepest hybrid coaster.

Seaworld Florida
In a brilliant display of man meets animal, SeaWorld Orlando educates and enthralls.

Natural Nostalgia

Florida’s unforgotten landscape and animals

Beyond the theme parks and colorful beach umbrellas, the Sunshine State is also a destination for lovers of Mother Nature, where its nostalgia lives on in the wilder side of flora and fauna. Many folks find their favorite Florida memories tucked within the mangrove trees of the Ten Thousand Islands, or the River of Grass that flows south of Lake Okeechobee and terminates in Everglades National Park, or in the peaceful manatees, reclusive panthers, native reptile species and marine life that populate our fair state.

Even at SeaWorld Orlando, which doubles as a massive theme park, the focus is on all things aquatic. A lesser known fact is that the SeaWorld Rescue Team has given second chances to more than 36,000 animals, with the goal being to rehabilitate and return them to the wild. The best way for people to support this effort is to visit SeaWorld and learn about the animals which can no longer return home to the sea. There are plenty of attractions, rides and shows, but the animal adventures are what make the memories stick. No trip to SeaWorld would be complete without a throwback to Journey to Atlantis, the classic water ride.

And let’s not forget Miami’s iconic Jungle Island (formerly known as Parrot Jungle, as noted on pX). Going strong for more than 80 years, it houses rare twin orangutans and hundreds of birds, including the world’s only trained non-flight bird, the cassowary. Plus, guests get to pet and feed the Jungle Island sloths, so what more could you really ask for?

In surprising irony, one of the finest remaining old-school attractions, that also doubles as an excellent place to watch nesting birds, is Orlando’s campy-fabulous Gatorland. Because of the alligators, there are few predators. This is where to photograph wading fowl guarding their eggs — while standing safely on the boardwalk. Also worth noting: Gatorland still proudly displays that giant set of gator jaws out front.

Wild Florida Drive-thru Safari Park in Kenansville is devoted to fun, conservation and education. As newish-old attractions go, 10 years ago, Wild Florida endeavored to preserve private property in the hope of giving people the opportunity to remember what it was like to be “lost in the middle of nowhere” in the Headwaters of the Everglades. This Central Florida destination offers airboat tours, a gator park and other adventures, but the big draw here is the two-mile drive-thru safari that invites close encounters with giraffes, wild boars and more.

The Sunshine State still teems with history and memorabilia, thoughtfully preserved by those who wanted others to remember them. While much of it has fallen to time, if you Beyond the theme parks and colorful beach umbrellas, the Sunshine State is also a destination for lovers of Mother Nature, where its nostalgia lives on in the wilder side of flora and fauna. Many folks find their favorite Florida memories tucked within the mangrove trees of the Ten Thousand Islands, or the River of Grass that flows south of Lake Okeechobee and terminates in Everglades National Park, or in the peaceful manatees, reclusive panthers, native reptile species and marine life that populate our fair state.

Even at SeaWorld Orlando, which doubles as a massive theme park, the focus is on all things aquatic. A lesser known fact is that the SeaWorld Rescue Team has given second chances to more than 36,000 animals, with the goal being to rehabilitate and return them to the wild. The best way for people to support this effort is to visit SeaWorld and learn about the animals which can no longer return home to the sea. There are plenty of attractions, rides and shows, but the animal adventures are what make the memories stick. No trip to SeaWorld would be complete without a throwback to Journey to Atlantis, the classic water ride.

And let’s not forget Miami’s iconic Jungle Island (formerly known as Parrot Jungle, as noted on pX). Going strong for more than 80 years, it houses rare twin orangutans and hundreds of birds, including the world’s only trained non-flight bird, the cassowary. Plus, guests get to pet and feed the Jungle Island sloths, so what more could you really ask for?

In surprising irony, one of the finest remaining old-school attractions, that also doubles as an excellent place to watch nesting birds, is Orlando’s campy-fabulous Gatorland. Because of the alligators, there are few predators. This is where to photograph wading fowl guarding their eggs — while standing safely on the boardwalk. Also worth noting: Gatorland still proudly displays that giant set of gator jaws out front.

Wild Florida Drive-thru Safari Park in Kenansville is devoted to fun, conservation and education. As newish-old attractions go, 10 years ago, Wild Florida endeavored to preserve private property in the hope of giving people the opportunity to remember what it was like to be “lost in the middle of nowhere” in the Headwaters of the Everglades. This Central Florida destination offers airboat tours, a gator park and other adventures, but the big draw here is the two-mile drive-thru safari that invites close encounters with giraffes, wild boars and more.

The Sunshine State still teems with history and memorabilia, thoughtfully preserved by those who wanted others to remember them. While much of it has fallen to time, if you look closely, you’ll find that Florida’s nostalgic past is never very far away.