As a child I enviously watched friends come back from the Magic Kingdom with ubiquitous mouse ear hats. I suffered through endless tales about the glories of Epcot Center over baloney sandwiches and boxed milk at the lunch table.
Consumed with jealously, I pretended not to care about their Disney trips and tried to change the subject to Sue Ellen Ewing’s drinking problem on “Dallas.” Unfortunately, none of the 12-year-olds in math class wanted to hear about the wine bottle Sue Ellen hurled across the mauve carpet .
My sister and I grumbled that we were the only kids in town who hadn’t gone to Walt Disney World. My parents told us to shut up and finish our Hamburger Helper. This went on for years until, finally, we wore them down with our whining and they relented.
It was just before I began junior high school. We packed the car and started the drive from central Massachusetts to Orlando. At this point I should mention that my father is notoriously cheap. On the endless drive we stayed in hotels that I would generously describe as flea bags. We trod carefully across shag carpets matted with sand to sleep in bed linens with the texture of micro-grit sandpaper. Our fancy dinners were at truck stop Stuckey’s restaurants.
True to his parsimonious ways, our sub-basic car sported vinyl seats and no air conditioning. My lethargic sister and I spent most of the drive stuck to the seats suffering from heat stroke and bickering with whatever energy we could muster in the oppressive humidity.
But I soldiered through it because at last I would be able told hold my head up high and tell my classmates that I saw Disney World.
It all started going horribly wrong soon after we arrived. Once we were able to tear our skin off the vinyl seats, it became clear that my father had no intention of splurging at Disney. Ticket prices were too high, he moaned. The food was over-priced. What should have been a full week of thrilling rides and mouse-shaped ice cream treats was crammed into three days. His tightfisted solution was to drag us to the Florida roadside attractions of yesteryear. These are parks where the flamingos seemed to be covered in mites and the Ferris wheel bolts were loose and rusty. At each stop my mother kept telling me to stop rolling my eyes or they’d get stuck that way.
Looking back on it, I’m glad for the experience. Not for the luxurious transportation but for the opportunity to see classic Florida attractions before they shuttered. I have a vague recollection of standing in line for an hour to ride Space Mountain, but I have a more vivid memory of watching the water-skiing show and seeing the frilly Southern belles in frosting-colored hoop dresses at Cypress Gardens, which closed in 2009.
I’m not the only one who has come to appreciate these quirky attractions in adulthood. There are books and websites devoted to the old Florida experience.
“When you come back from a trip, nobody wants to hear about Disney World, but they love to hear about the barbed wire museum, or the mermaid spring,” said Doug Kirby, an author of the Roadside America travel books, the blog Roadside America, and a Roadside America app that helps users locate these quirky retro relics.
Some of the vintage attractions are still open and swarming with parrots, flamingos, and alligators. I say this in a loving way, because these old timey parks are competing with Harry Potter, “Frozen,” and other pop culture giants that kids consume like Skittles. Show me a kid who would rather see a parrot than a Harry Potter ride, and I’ll show you a kid raised by wolves.
Given all of this, how on earth does a place like Monkey Jungle exist in the same universe as Disney in 2015?
“Well, that one is a miracle,” Kirby said. “If you were traveling to them in the 1950s and 1960s, they were brand new, or novel. If you went through Florida, those were the big places to see. I think they’ve survived because of nostalgia. Also, they’re just so different from everything else.”
My tween-age self may have dreamed of Disney, but the adult me wanted to see the remaining old Florida parks before they are razed to make way for strip malls and become extinct like Circus World or Tiki Gardens.
“Tourist attractions have a way of springing up on the Florida roadside like wildflowers — or litter: Bright, shiny, and full of hope to begin with, only to wither and die when they just can’t quite sustain the magic,” writes Robert Brown on his website Lost Parks. The site documents dozens and dozens of closed roadside attractions.
Just as my father did years before, I sat down with a map and started planning a road trip to see old Florida, although I splurged and rented a car with air conditioning.
I started in Key West, drove north up the east coast, crossed central Florida at Orlando, and then headed down the west coast. This meant missing key locations, such as St. Augustine.
Even with my practical planning, I was far too overambitious and missed many of the places I wanted to visit because they were far apart and most closed at 5 p.m. In an oft-repeated scene, I raced to parks only to find them shuttered for the night. I would then drown my sorrows in roast beef and cheddar sandwiches at Arby’s.
Gentrification is just starting to rear its well-groomed head down here, but Key West is still filled with oddball charm. You can’t get more old Florida than the roosters that strut about the streets as if they own them. I started my Florida tour at the Fort East Martello Museum. The place sounds tame enough, and it’s an interesting hodgepodge of art and artifacts, albeit slightly rundown. But I was there for one reason only: to see Robert the Haunted Doll , the inspiration for the demonic ginger-headed Chucky from the 1988 horror film “Child’s Play.” Robert dates to 1906, and wherever he goes, trouble follows. He is creepy, but the only trouble that followed me after seeing him was a cranky rooster.
It’s not exactly a roadside attraction, but the Hemingway Home & Museum is eccentric enough to pull me in every time I’m in Key West. It’s an 1851 Spanish Colonial where Ernest Hemingway lived in the 1930s. You learn all about his achievements, impact, and turbulent life. But you also learn that the future Nobel Prize winner was a proto-crazy cat lady. Evidence of that still exists with the 52 cats who live at the Hemingway House. The day I visited, people appeared to be going along with the tours simply for an opportunity to play with the cats. The six-toed cats (at least some of them have six toes) are said to be descendants of Hemingway’s cat Snow White. While the visitors were interested in the cats, the cats seemed more interested in sitting in the shade and ignoring their admirers.
Driving north, I spotted something that I hadn’t seen in any book — the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center. This is not exactly an old Florida roadside attraction, but it had key components, such as a gift shop, tropical birds, and an odd collection of somewhat run-down buildings. It’s named after a Massachusetts couple that preserved the land and lived in a very chic midcentury home on 63 acres of forest. That chic home has seen better days, as have some of the birds who live here.
There was a bird hospital and cages where birds recovered from injuries. As I walked, I spotted a one-legged owl that was perhaps the cutest thing I had ever seen. I felt so bad for him that I started stuffing dollar bills into the donation box.
By the time I reached Islamorada, the Theater of the Sea (opened in 1946) was closed for the day. But I stopped to visit Big Betsy, the giant lobster statue, and then the History of Diving Museum, which offers an exhaustive, 4,000-year overview of man’s dreams of sea exploration. I was particularly fascinated with the extraordinarily creepy diving suits from the 18th and 19th centuries, suits even more frightening than Robert the Haunted Doll.
As my drive took me closer to Miami, the number of roadside attractions grew. At Monkey Jungle, I stood in the ticket line behind a couple who told me that they visited this primate paradise 55 years ago — for their honeymoon. I smiled kindly, imagining what kind of couple opts to be surrounded by monkeys for their honeymoon. Monkey Jungle is a bit like “Planet of the Apes” come to life. Humans walk through cages, surrounded by monkeys who watch every move they make. It was an unsettling experience, sort of like sharing a bed with Robert the Haunted Doll.
I watched a show starring a 46-year-old gorilla who did tricks on command. Each time the gorilla turned its back to the audience, a toddler yelled, “Mommy, that gorilla has poop on its butt.” There was an awkward silence that followed. I’m not sure if it was matted fur, or if the gorilla was not yet trained to use Cottonelle wipes. Perhaps that should be its next trick.
One of the strangest of the old Florida attractions I visited was the Coral Castle Museum. The fable behind the castle, which opened in 1940, is that it was built by a petite fellow named Ed Leedskalnin after his true love dumped him. Alien conspiracy lovers dissect the story as if it’s a frog in sophomore biology class because the 5-foot-tall Leedskalnin moved 1,100 tons of coral rock by himself to build this homage to lost love. They suspect he had intergalactic assistance. I don’t buy into the conspiracy theory because lost love makes people do strange things. I don’t understand why this story of unrequited love hasn’t been made into an Oscar-worthy biopic starring a shirtless, sweaty Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Leedskalnin pushing 1,100 tons of coral.
Because this was a road trip of old Florida attractions, I also wanted to stay in some old Florida hotels. South Beach is dripping with glamourous and chic Art Deco hotels. But I opted for a room at the Majestic, a place that no big name designer has dared to touch. I seldom fear places I stay, but my room had no real windows, there was no hot water, and I kept hearing voices in the night. This was the last retro hotel I visited. At first light I moved quickly and headed out.
After my night of terror in Miami, I felt that I deserved a trip to my favorite place in Florida. The Mai Kai in Ft. Lauderdal is the granddaddy of Polynesian throw-back dining experiences. This place blows the grass skirt off the Kowloon, or any other competitor. There are still shows with Polynesian dancers and flame twirlers. The rum drinks are stronger than Joe Manganiello’s shoulders, and there is even an outdoor tiki garden. You’ll feel like you’ve landed in an episode of “Mad Men.” A note to all you lovebirds out there: The Mai Kai is available for weddings, coconut bra bridesmaid dresses not included.
Just west of Ft. Lauderdale is Flamingo Gardens, a 60-acre bird sanctuary in Davie. I always appreciate when people take care of wildlife and forests, but I’ll confess that Flamingo Gardens was sadder than a Sam Smith song. There were more peacocks than people the afternoon I visited. Christmas ornaments, still up after the holidays, were fallen and broken. There were plenty of flamingos here, but they looked as if they were ready to pack their bags, put on their sunglasses, and head to an all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean. I was ready to join them, and forged onward.
So many retro roadside attractions, so little time. I wildly underestimated drive times and after a night in Palm Beach, barely made it to Orlando to visit Gatorland before it closed for the night. I realized that I needed to start dropping parks from my itinerary if I was going to make it through the state, and I very sadly drove by the Tupperware Museum to reach Gatorland. I needed to hit Gatorland simply because it’s the only park in Florida where you can both admire and eat alligators. Pearl’s Cafe sells gator bites (tastes like chicken). I’d like to see Walt Disney World try that. The park seemed much fancier than I recalled from my youth. It was updated with a zip line that takes you directly over the alligators. It also had the requisite flamingos and tropical birds. By this point in the trip I was sick of flamingos and I was hiding from parrots. I’ll confess that I was surprised that Gatorland was still around. Do people still have any interest in watching gator wrestling in 2015? But Gatorland knows its strengths, and its brochure mentions that there are no huge lines. Take that Disney World!
THE WEST COAST
I was in the home stretch of my roadtrip and driving furiously to make up for lost time. I was cursing myself for spending so much time talking to the one-legged owl at Crane Point. Especially when I needed to hit another classic Florida attraction: Weeki Wachee Springs. I could only imagine how thrilling it must have been to watch the attraction when it opened in 1946. Mermaids were frolicing around in a giant aquarium while a crowd of tykes was entranced by the story of “The Little Mermaid.” The adolescent in me started an eye roll. I wasn’t sure how many more of these old-time attractions I could take, and I still had an entire coastline to cover. It was here that I made a critical decision. I dropped Spongeorama in Tarpon Springs from my list. I didn’t make the decision lightly. I was passing up the world’s largest selection of natural sponges, plus an actual sponge museum. This was a place I visited as a child. When my father heard the sponge museum was free, we were loaded into his furnace of a car and promptly brought there for an afternoon of wholesome sponge entertainment.
ST. PETERSBURG AND TAMPA
I spent my first night on the west coast on Anna Maria Island in Bradenton. I had never heard of it before I started researching my roadtrip, but it sounded too good to pass up. There’s a beautiful beach and a nearby street filled with small shops. I didn’t see a single Panera Bread or Best Buy. I was there on a Friday night and it was surprisingly peaceful. I imagined that this is the kind of town a family might have stayed in if they were taking a roadtrip 50 years ago and listening to Petula Clark on the radio. I regretfully departed, but with my roadtrip soon ending, I needed to keep going.
St. Petersburg may be experiencing a renaissance, but it still has a roadside attraction that belies its hip craft breweries and art galleries. Sunken Gardens opened to the public in 1935 and was once one of the state’s most popular attractions. At one point it boasted a Christian wax museum, a fudge kitchen, and it claimed to have the world’s largest gift shop. In the 1990s, a developer wanted to buy the land to create a nudist resort. Given that colorful history, and the vintage signage, I was expecting Sunken Gardens to be wonderfully tacky and over-the-top. Instead, it’s a peaceful garden that is home to 50,000 tropical plants and flowers. Unfortunately I didn’t see a single Christian wax figure or nudist.
Driving to nearby St. Pete Beach, I couldn’t ignore the mammoth stone tiki face that looked out regally from the otherwise decrepit Polynesian Putter mini golf course. I imagined it was once a destination with glowing tiki torches, water features, and families holding golf clubs with hands sticky from soft serve ice cream. On the afternoon I visited, I had the course to myself. I’m guessing many of its tiki touches were vandalized or removed over the years. It was oddly decorated with garden statues of rabbits. Are rabbits Polynesian?
I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into when I drove to Biff Burger in St. Petersburg for dinner. There were nearly 1,000 Biff Burgers around the country in the 1960s. Now there are only two — and only one uses the name Biff Burger. The mighty chain crumbled in the 1970s. In St. Petersburg the sign was the same as it was 50 years ago — except it no longer read “15 Cent Burgers.” The burgers were still “roto broiled” and the dining room looked like it was straight out of 1968. But the parking lot was filled with bikers. I was the only clean shaven, non-leather-wearing diner that evening. I hoped no one had seen me get out of my citrus lemon Chevy Spark.
One kindly biker explained to me that Wednesdays and Saturdays are bike nights at Biff. We hit it off over talk of Monkey Jungle and he even let me sit on his motorcycle. The burgers were delicious. The party kept going, but I was feeling out of place, like Pee Wee Herman at a tanning salon, so I called it a night.
It had been nearly a week since I launched my time travel roadtrip when I arrived in Sarasota. I headed to Jungle Gardens — not to be confused with Monkey Jungle, Jungle Island, Flamingo Gardens, or Sunken Gardens — ready to come face to face with the creatures I had avoided my entire trip: Parrots.
Go ahead and laugh, but I’m terrified of parrots. They say “Hello” in a voice that I would expect to hear from Robert the Haunted Doll. They swivel their heads and stare with empty eyes as if they know what you’re thinking. Fine, one of them nipped at me when I was a teenager, so I guess that’s why I’m afraid.
When I was in Miami, I had avoided Jungle Island because it was once called Parrot Jungle, but it was time for the silliness to end. I would soldier through Jungle Gardens and its many parrots and realize that these birds were not hatching a plan to take over the world. I arrived just in time for the 1 p.m. jungle bird show and clung to my seat as if I were going to a horror movie. For the first 10 minutes I suspected that at any moment the birds would attack. But there were no melees or murders. Just birds riding skate boards and unicycles.
At the end of the show, the bird handler gave people the opportunity to touch or hold the birds. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I put money into the donation jar (I made sure the birds were watching me do it), and I petted one of the parrots. I survived, and I’m happy to report I typed this story with 10 fingers.
By the end of my week on the road I never wanted to see another shell-covered jewelry box or flamingo again. But my adventure was a history lesson. This is how we once vacationed. Families walked around faux jungles, looked at wax figures in sunken gardens, ate alligator bites, stayed at hotels with no hot water, and, yes, they even petted parrots without fear.