In years past half the fun of any road trip was in finding the odd places that sprouted up mushroom-like by the side of the road. They night be mom and pop stands specializing in some local delicacy and or they might be geared to something more specific like gators or dinosaurs.
Sometimes a single word or phrase — souvenirs, curios, orange blossom honey or towels by the pound — might lead you to turn off the road and have a look. And of course places like Gatorland, Gatorama or Gator Farm were always beckoning.
Some of these places have gone on to become famous tourist attractions even today like the Coral Castle or Monkey Jungle. They get included because they really haven’t changed that much. Others like Jimbo’s on Virginia Key have gone and we are poorer for it.
People on the road, especially the smaller roads, want to be intrigued. People by the side of the road need the money. Sounds like a marriage to me.
I recall one place with honey and towels and ice cream and wild animals up on US 301 in north central Florida. For miles signs proclaimed “Free admission — see panthers and gators.” And it was free but it did cost to get out. There’s a lot ingenuity out there, still.
Plenty of these great places are still around though their location is almost always in direct proportion to their distance from the major roads.
When you see one, pull into the parking area. Turn off the air and listen to the car tick and pop as the motor cools down. Walk over and get your ticket. We may be in line right in front of you.
Collier Museum brings history to life with Old Florida Festival
If you like your history alive and exciting don't miss the annual Old Florida Festival held in Naples on the grounds of the Collier Museum. The museum has been bringing in re-enactors to set up camp and depict 10,000 years of Florida history with living interactive fun.
From the Paleo-Indians to the boys heading for the front in WWII, the festival has plenty to please adults and kids as well. There are demonstrations, mock battles and painless learning about the Sunshine State over the centuries.
Read more about the Old Florida Festival.
Sunken Gardens — leave the street and step into the jungle in St. Pete
For close to 100 years visitors to St. Petersburg have been turning into the parking lot on busy 4th Street and walking through the entry into the four acres that make up Sunken Gardens.
Now run by the town, it was started by a plumber who loved to garden. It’s filled with 1000s of tropical plants and even flamingos.
Read more about the tropical oasis at Sunken Gardens.
Billie Swamp Safari — off the interstate and onto the reservation
Billie Swamp Safari is pretty far off the beaten path. It is part of the Seminole Reservation in the Everglades. There's a good sized Seminole Community nearby and the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum but Billie's is all about the swamp.
Jump in an airboat or swamp buggy for some up-close visitation with gators and wading birds or just stay on shore and have a look. There's a nice cafe and gift shop and places to picnic and see some other wildlife.
The museum has dioramas, changing history exhibits and raised wooden walkways through the scrub and swamp.
Read more about Billie Swamp Safari and Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.
There is an annual reenactment of a battle from the Second Seminole War each year called Shootout at Big Cypress with vendors and fun for the kids.
Read more about the Shootout at Big Cypress and the reenactors.
Coral Castle — love or obsession? You be the judge
Edward Leedskalnin was a reclusive man with a flair for showmanship. He spent much of his life building an impressive, some would say impossible, castle just off US 1 just south of Miami as a homage to the girl who done him wrong. He quarried, carved and set up a fantasy world made of huge blocks of coral all by hand. This unlikely montage of science and devotion is now on the National Register of Historic Places and thousands visit every year to see it.
His castle includes furniture, moons, miraculously balanced multi-ton gates and this tabletop depicting the state with Lake Okeechobee as a finger bowl or punch bowl.
Read more about Coral Castle.
Jimbo’s all original and now sadly, all gone
For almost 60 years Jimbo Luznar ran his end of the road place on Miami’s Virginia Key that was part bait shop, part purveyor of mighty fine smoked fish, part bocce court and part party waiting to happen. Movies got made there, TV producers came out looking for the real deal and found it from Flipper to Burn Notice. Bikers hung with hippies and vets, uptown folks mingled with fishermen and no one went away hungry, thirsty or unhappy. But, progress and regulations closed up Jimbo’s for good in 2012.
Read more about Jimbo's.
Gatorama — a big bite of fun
Did you ever imagine hiding out somewhere, like at a circus or on the midway or even Disneyworld to see what fabulous adventures you might have after closing time? Well, Gatorama is not that place. And though there is a nighttime adventure offered here, you want to be with your guide when you come face to face with a thousand pounds of small-minded, big toothed gator. Read More about Gatorama
The Redland — carving farms from the swamp
The Redland, an area in south Florida between Miami, the Keys and the Everglades, got its start in the late 1800s. It was literally carved out of the tropical vegetation by determined farmers and since then has been through periods of boom and bust. The Redland’s cohesive identity was nearly lost but in recent years a new batch of farmers and entrepreneurs has brought it busting back.
A loose affiliation of businesses, farms, restaurants and older attractions like Monkey Jungle and Coral Castle has come together under The Redland name. Visitors are invited to come see how life was in years gone by and how today has its own charms to offer. Read More about The Redland.
Soon to Come:
Soloman's Castle — Monkey Jungle — Marineland
© Copyright 2012: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison & Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.