Florida’s Immigrant Experiences Are Great Tourist Sights

Florida is one of the most diverse states in the nation and its history of immigration provides visitors and residents alike with many attractions that reflect this story.

I have spent many decades teaching in Tampa’s historic Ybor City, which may have an image of being the place where thousands of Cubans made the community the center of the American cigar industry.  In reality, Ybor City is “a paella of peoples” – many of the cigar factories were owned by Spaniards (Asturia in particular), the stores by Jews from New York, the cigar boxes and art work by Germans, and Italians (mainly Sicilian) who first came to Florida to be farmers but became business owners in Ybor City.

floridatraveler ybor immigrant statue

The Ybor City State Museum in Centennial Park, where a statue honoring Florida’s immigrants is located, is located in the old Ferlita Bakery and shows the history of the many peoples.  Next door are transplanted cigar workers’ houses which do a beautiful job of reflecting the daily lives of some many of Tampa’s ancestors.

floridatraveler ybor gasparilla parade

Ybor City Is Still Tampa’s Main Entertainment District

The park is surrounded by simple, but historic structures, one of them a sports museum in the childhood home of Spanish-American baseball Hall of Famer Al Ramon Lopez who managed the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox to league pennants.  A short walk away is Seventh Avenue with its Italian Club, Spanish Club and the Columbia Restaurant, the largest Spanish restaurant in the nation.

One of my favorite short trips from Tampa is to the Greek sponge docks of Tarpon Springs where Greek restaurants and pastry shops prevail.  Tarpon Springs was an early winter retreat of the Victorian rich when Greeks from New York brought in divers from the Aegean to launch the sponge industry.

floridatraveler sponge docks and restaurant hellas

The Sponge Docks of Tarpon Springs Attracts Hungry Crowds

A visit to St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the bayou with its museum, and the delightful downtown area with its antique shops should be part of a Tarpon Springs excursion.

Most Florida visitors know that Saint Augustine is a great symbol of Spanish Florida with its reconstructed and renovated St. George Historic District, the fort, and “oldest everythings.”

floridatraveler st aug minorcan group

St. Augustine’s Minorcans Celebrate A Long Florida History

Most people don’t know that when Florida obtained the city in 1819-21, most of the Spanish population fled to Cuba or Spain.  The oldest continuous population of the city and probably the oldest continuous European population in this nation are the Minorcans, who are Catholic but spoke both Spanish and Manorqui Catalan.  There are still many Minorcan festivals in the area and Minorcan food items dot the menus of many restaurants.

floridatravelers minorcans at st aug fort

Miami is Florida’s giant immigrant melting pot.  Most South Florida visitors rightfully want to visit Little Havana along Calle Ocho for its restaurants and shops and colorful art work.  I was a college student at the University of Miami when the first waves of Cubans poured into Miami, starting an immigration that made Miami the Southern gateway for people from Latin America and the Caribbean.

floridsatraveler -little-havana-miami-tour

Miami’s Little Havana Is A Colorful Visit

There are now tours of Little Haiti and dozens of annual cultural festivals that reflect Dade County’s unique diversity.

floridatraveler delrey beach MorikamiLake-and-House-30

Not Japan or Hawaii But Florida At Morikami

If you are visiting Southeast Florida you might want to visit the beautiful Morikami Museum outside Boca Raton.  It is a tribute to the Japanese farmers of the Yamato Colony that once populated the region.







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In Florida Santa Often Arrives By Boat

With a coast line of 1,350 miles (2,170 km) and over 940,000 boats of every conceivable size registered in the Sunshine State (#1 in USA), it is not to shocking to learn there seems to be as many Christmas boat parades as highway parades.

When I first came to Florida, I found this love affair between Santa and the water, a little strange for in my native Massachusetts Decembver water is not ideal for family boating.  Now, I still don’t boat but love to visit the best boat parades.

There are so many boat parades that there is a wonderful website FLORIDA BY WATER.com that gives you a statewide look at Santa’s waterside arrivals.  Even this list might not include all the boat parades and I am certain some yachtsman take their decorated craft to a few dockside parties.

FLORIDATRAVELER boat parade intro

The Start of a Boat Parade Is A Traffic Jam

If you combined all these colorful boats, it would resemble a reenactment of the landings at Normandy.  In Florida Santa ranks a title of Admiral of the Seas.

Here are some of these can’t miss boat parades if you are in these area on these dates:

On December 9th Florida’s largest and most amazing boat parade fills the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale at the Seminole Hard Rock Winterfest Boat Parade.  From massive yachts to paddleboats to family craft the two hour parade is topped off by Santa’s Showboat.


Big City Boat Parades Like Fort Lauderdale Are Amazing

On Florida’s other coast that night the wide Manatee River will fill with lighted boats in the Manatee Holiday Boat Parade, starting at the Bradenton Yacht Club.  The downtown riverwalk and the Green Bridge Pier would be ideal viewing spots.

Up Tampa Bay is the 31st Annual Illuminated Boat Parade in downtown St. Petersburg where there is lots of food, drink, and entertainment.


Yes, It Is A Cocoa Beach Boat Parade

Two hundred miles to the northwest along Panama City’s Andrews Bay is the 30th Annual Boat Parade of Lights sailing from the St. Andrew Bay Yacht Club to the St. Andrews Marina.


A Family Boat In Destin: Now An Annual Tradition

On December 10th the oldest-running Holiday Boat Show – the 55th Annual Pompano Beach Holiday Parade – floats down the where three towns get a view.

Miami’s big boat show is the 20th Annual Miami Outboard Holiday Parade on December 16th where big crowds pack Bayfront Park to see the boats, fireworks, food vendors, and entertainment.

FLORIDATRAVELER St_-Pete-Beach-Boat-Parade

Chasing Santa

That same night up the coast is the 32nd Annual Palm Coast Yacht Club Parade starting at the Cimmaron Basin and sailing along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Not all boat parades are celebrated before Christmas.  On December 30th Jacksonville has a Jacksonville Light Parade on the St. Johns River by the downtown waterfront, complete with a massive fireworks show.

SEE you at the parade!

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Christmas At The Florida Parks: What’s New and Best

The end of Thanksgiving means that Florida’s major theme parks are featuring Christmas decorations and special events, many regular annual attractions that bring huge crowds.  So what’s new and what is outstanding this year?

Walt Disney WorldThe Christmas crowds – shoppers and viewers and diners – have gotten so thick (like a love bug attack), my wife and I go to the parks in early December and avoid some of the most popular annual events.  WDW does the best with using natural vegetation and plants and the many hotels (at least the luxury ones) seem to compete for visual effects.

floridatraveler EPCOT GERMAN storyteller christmas

German Storyteller At Epcot

If you are staying at WDW for a few days, a monorail trip to all the big hotels on Seven Seas Lake is a great way to get in the mood even if you avoid shopping.  We love the gigantic ginger bread house at the Grand Floridian and the Victorian charm of a Christmas of times past, while the Polynesian Inn has gorgeous tropical holiday gardens.

One Christmas must-see on our list for years was the Osmond Christmas Lights on the New York set at Disney Hollywood Studios.  There was something about having hot cocoa while fake snow floated down on you and thousands of lights twinkled above you, especially if you’re a transplanted Yankee from Massachusetts living for years in Central Florida.   With the huge Star Wars-Toy Story project going underway all that is gone.

floridatraveler HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS christmas

The Tower of Terror Becomes A Pile of Gifts

If you have a multi-park pass, there is a good reason now to visit Hollywood Studios this winter.  Many of the lights and the snow has been moved to Sunset Boulevard and the Tower of Terror has become the largest Christmas movie screen in Florida.  The billboards go alive and there are Jingle Bell fireworks.

Epcot has its International Festival of the Holidays and I wish more people would stop at each pavilion and listen to the wonderful storytellers.  The Candlelight Processional is a spectacular show, but there is not enough seating and most of it will be taken by getting reserved seats by spending $70 per person on a pre-festival meal.  Even a lunch will cost that price.  And you will still have to stand in the reserved line for seating.

FLORIDATRAVELER epcot candlelight-processional-choir

The Epcot Candlelight Attracts Monstrous Crowds

The music and lighting at the Magic Kingdom is wonderful, but I am not going to get tossed out at 6 pm and pay another ticket to see Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.  And here is a tip you may not want to hear: the televised Christmas parade is not filmed live but in stages and the parade area of the filming is stocked with seats filled with cast members and their families.  After-all, you can’t have a person in the crowd with a Harry Potter shirt.

Floridatraveler MAGIC KINGDOM christmas parade

Music, Song, and Snow Fill The Air

Universal Studios:   Universal has a new Christmas parade which is longer, filled with Macy’s type balloons, and more character-oriented than past years.  In recent years the parks have discovered that computerized light shows can be spectacular without the costs.  The lighting show at the Harry Potter Castle-Hogwarts is amazing, even topping the lighting show at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

FLORIDATRAVELER Universal hogswart castle

A Place For Wizards at Universal

Universal does not have a lot of charges, but to fully see Harry Potter, you need to have a two park ticket.  Diagon Alley is delightfully British holiday with a spiritual aire captured no where else.

FLORIDATRAVELER Busch-Gardens-Christmas-Town-Ice-Skaters

Busch Gardens and Sea World Have Ice Shows

Busch Gardens and Sea World:  Floridians with annual passes find trips to these parks at Christmas a great bargain for you can buy tickets for family visiting for the holidays at half-price.   Note: Both parks have a schedule on their web sites for some programs are only offered on the weekends until the week before Christmas.

FLORIDATRAVELER tampa Christmas-Town-

Both parks have a delightful Christmas on ice show, animal or creature acts, and for the kids a up-front live show with the characters from Sesame Street starring Elmo.   At Sea World, the lake is filled with floating well-light plastic Christmas trees.

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It’s Not Your Dad’s Kennedy Space Center Anymore

If you haven’t been to the Kennedy Space Center in recent years, you will shocked to see how the educational-entertainment complex has “rocketed” into the twentieth-first century in terms of tourist attractions.


The VAB is the most amazing building in Florida.

There incredible buildings, including the incredible 525-foot high Vehicle Assembly Building (1965) which housed just one tenant – the 465 foot Apollo/Saturn V moon rockets, are still part of the attractions.  And the assembly of tall rockets that were part of the space program is still on display as well as some of the footage of famous space flights.

But there is a clear orientation to “interactive experiences” for visitors.  About the only new non-interactive exhibits are ones that will leave tourists with an emotional reaction.   The Fallen Heroes Hall contains personal objects relating to the fourteen astronauts that lost their lives in the Challenger and Columbia missions.

FLORIDATRAVELER fallen heroes best shot

A Certain Teacher-Astronaut Was In My Mothers Dancing School in Mass.

Another exhibit that is totally emotional is the massive Shuttle Atlantis (retired 2011) with its doors open and its robotic arms extended in greetings.  Then you discover there is a high-tech multimedia hands-on simulation showing you the highlights of the space shuttle.

Two older exhibits seem more anticipatory to visitors, particularly small children. The Apollo Treasures Gallery leads to the “Touch the Moon” and everyone wants to touch an object that traveled 238,000 miles to Florida.   The Astronaut Encounter Theater is where you can ask a real astronaut anything you want about space exploration – a big boost to your kid’s science fair project.

FLORIDATRAVELER Children_Operating_Landing_Simulator

Kids Operate NASA Better Than Us Oldsters

You might think you took the wrong turn on I-95 and entered Disney’s Epcot when visitors strap into the eight minute Shuttle Launch Experience.  The ride is  more family friendly in my opinion than the place fifty miles to the west.

FLORIDATRAVELER shuttle launch experience

Soon To Leave Florida For Space

You can sign up (far in advance) for one of the Astronaut Training Experiences (ATX) which include some real NASA apparatus, but general visitors will find there are lots of interactivity for visitors at Life On Mars, a simulation where you operate a manned rover on the surface of Mars and collect samples.  I like the fact there are no traffic lights on the Red Planet.

FLORIDATRAVELER Life on Mars Erisa-Hines-and-Curiosity

Mars is obviously on the minds and dreams of the NASA people for at Mission Control, tourists work in a team to launch an SLS rocket with an Orion Capsule which will dock at a Mars Transit station.

You can finish your trip at NASA Now and see all the scale models of future spaceship which Floridians hope will one day launch from the Cape to Mars and beyond.







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Florida Keys Open For Business With Some Repairs Ongoing

No area was hit harder by Hurricane Irma than the Lower Florida Keys as the Category 4-5 storm ripped across the low-lying Keys between Marathon and Key West.    Potential visitors around the world saw on news reports waves of sea water float knee deep on the major commercial roads of Key West.  TV reporters stood outside the remains of trailer camps and boat marinas.

While early reports stated 25% of the homes in the Keys were destroyed and 65% sustained damage (which could be minor), by mid-October nearly all the major island resorts had reopened and newer houses, many on higher elevations and concrete buildings did a good job.  The most obvious impact to visitors driving to the Keys is a heavy loss of vegetation and damage to coastal properties such a docks and marinas and waterfront older wooden structures.

floridatraveler IRMA Key West wreck

Despite a Lot of Pics Like This the Keys are Not Puerto Rico or Virgins

Since clearing US1 was first priority many side streets and certainly unoccupied rural roadways still have debris.  All 42 bridges of the Overseas Highway passed the safety test and just two 300-yard strips of highway had to be replaced on the main road.

FLORIDATRAVELER KEYS key largo marriott

Big Resorts Like Key Largo Marriott Reopened Quickly

Luxury resorts and urban hotels suffered little or no serious hurricane damage and have opened, offering a lot of post-Irma prices that go to the end of the year.  The one resort we saw that wasn’t fully operational was the wonderful Hawk’s Cay Resort which sits on a small island with causeway.  The big marina was still undergoing repairs, but the other facilities are fully operating.

People may be wondering about the islands tourist attractions – both natural and man-made.  John Pennekamp State Park is operating its glass-bottom boats and other tours, but with the waterfront destruction, there are no scuba and marina facilities.  Bahia Honda State Park is open only for day visitors.  People will need to go online for the reopening of the dolphin shows in the Keys.  The highway signs are still standing, but there are trees to be cleared and buildings to repair.

floridatraveler IRMA Capt.-Tony's-Saloon-

Key West Landmarks Clean Up and Go

Key West visitors will not notice much damage to the Hemingway House or Sloppy Joe’s or Captain Tony’s Saloon.  The latter two places like a lot of Key West’s commercial structures gets flooded by storms almost every year today and have to go into a thorough cleaning.  I must admit the smell of alcohol is so strong that I would not notice the salt water intrusion into Key West bars and nightclubs.  In thirty years some of Key West’s streets might look like Venetian canals and the regulars will still arrive.

The one literary landmark that was destroyed was poet and children writer Shel Silverstein’s 1901 cottage at 618 William Street took a direct hit from a huige ficus tree and was leveled to the ground.

Waterfront and small island landmarks like Islamorada’s Robbies and The Moorings (once home for Netflix’s Bloodline TV show) were still undergoing restoration since their marina’s took a direct hit.  Key Largo’s Alabama Jack’s, which always looked like a collapsing crab shack, was still operating.

floridatraveler irma desaltination Stock Island RO

Stock Island & Marathon Desalination Plants Show Future

Sad to say, the famous wooden 1829 Bat Tower on Sugarloaf Key fell down and reconstruction is probably doubtful since not even the bats wanted to stay there.

Key Deer

I’m sure people are worried about the unique wildlife on the Florida Keys.  The Keys Deer Refuge is closed to visitors as are all state refuges in the Keys.  The key deer are being feed and helped by park rangers as a restoration of essential vegetation and protection takes place.   And an inventory in Key West shows that Hemingway’s infamous cat population found shelter during Irma.   The Conchs have a history of being survivors…. even the animals.


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The Shortcut Road: Jacksonville to Ocala: US301

My family started coming to Florida from New England during the Christmas holiday in the late 1950’s – before the Interstate Highway system was completed.  Our “short-cut route” to get from the East Coast of Florida to the West Coast was taking US 301 from the Jacksonville area to Ocala.

The road back then was not the divided four-lane highway it is today.  And it also had one of AAA’s most notorious and infamous locations – the largest and most active speed trap in the United States.  Still my father cut across on US301 with me reading the AAA map as if the car was a B52 bomber trying to avoid flak over Nazi Germany.  We never got a ticket, but my father’s hair started to fall out the next day.

“Look out – on the next curve you have to go from 60 mph to 20 mph in fifty yards and there is usually a police car hiding behind the large billboards.”  The billboards got such negative reviews from Florida visitors, eventually the advertisers pulled out.

BANNER daytona beach in 1960s

Dad never wanted to go down the East Coast in the 1960’s

            In 2007 the hamlet of Lawrey (population 700) wrote 9,000 traffic violations on their tiny strip of the highway. That world has now changed in 2014 when a corruption scandal gave the State of Florida the moxie to disband the Waldo Police force and place the road under the control of the Alachua County Sheriff.  Later that year the town of Hampton was dis-incorporated.

The big town of this section of US301 is Starke and if it is lunch time instead of visiting all the national fast food joints along the route, you should turn west or east of Call Street for some real home cooking from the locals.  I suggest the Call Street Café (111 West Call) or Tony and Al’s Deli (200 East Call).

floridatraveler Starke CALL ST CAFE

Call Street Cafe Is Certainly Small Town Florida

One of the reason for all the food places is the nearby Camp Blanding, the primary military reservation and training base for the Florida Army National Guard, the non-flying units of the Florida Air National Guard, and all the Army ROTC units in Florida, Georgia and Puerto Rico.  On the 30,000 acre facility, East on FL16 is the Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park, filled with military hardware and the history of the Camp which opened in 1940.


  As a historian, I have to promote the fact you can go in the “rural, backdoor” to Florida’s most beloved literary attraction – the country home of author Marjorie Kennan Rawlings.   Her Cross Creek residence looks as it was when she wrote The Yearling and Cross Creek.  With its barn, livestock, lake, and gardens, it is a nice place for a picnic or a lawn for the kids to burn some calories.

floridatraveler US301 sleeping porch old car

On hot nights Rawlings slept on the porch near her old car.

Another landmark not far off US301 if you check the GPS or road map is one of Central Florida’s oldest towns – Micanopy.   There is nothing new here which is why the place was chosen for the film Doc Hollywood.  The gift shops are antiques and the restaurant is rural casual at its best.

Floridatraveler US301 Micanopy

Only Thing Not Old In Micanopy Are The Automobiles

US301 misses Gainesville with its masses of university students, but if it is the weekend, you will catch a lot of traffic going to the Waldo Flea Market.  One of the largest rural flea markets in Florida, there is a lot of grocery items as well as Floridana stuff that I find fun to see.   South of Alachua County is Marion County, often neglected by tourists despite the fact that the famous Silver Springs, the largest artesian spring in the world and Florida’s oldest tourist attraction (1878) is now operating as a State Park.  It is less commercial and crowded but the wonderful glass-bottom boats are still cruising the Silver River.

floridatraveler US301 silversps

I-75 is just ten miles west of US301 as both head southward toward Tampa so pick one to get back on the Interstate dragstrip.



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Halloween Special: Florida’s Most Haunted House Awaits

As a historian I sit quietly while scores of television shows and movies and books describe flying saucers and uprisings from demons and zombies and witches and of course the Great Yeti hanging out at Disney Animal Kingdom when he isn’t roaming Big Cypress Swamp.  But even I can experience the unexplainable and that is probably why I will always accept an invitation to ghost tours and big castles said to be haunted.

Since the age of a city seems to have an impact on the number of ghostly palaces and events, it is not shocking that America’s oldest continuous city – Saint Augustine – has more ghost excursions and landmarks than any other Florida city.  Almost every old building and bed and breakfast has its story with the St. Francis Inn being my choice of creepy accommodations.

floridatraveler BOO may_stringer_house_

But I have to concede that my weirdest experience came in the May-Springer House, better known to some as the Hernando County Heritage Museum.  Rising out of a small rise in the town filled with hills and history (Brooksville), the big house at 601 Museum Court, is used on ghost tours and as a Halloween house, but it is at least in the daytime a wonderful archive of the turbulent community history from the Civil War to the Cold War.  Over 10,000 artifacts are organized and placed in various themed rooms.

The original four room square house was constructed in 1855 by builder John L. May for his wife Marena and their two daughters Matilda and Annie.  May died of tuberculous before the Civil War started, but Marena stayed in the house and eventually wed local Confederate hero Frank Saxon.  In 1869 Marena died while giving birth of a daughter Jessie May.  She died of unknown causes at age three and it is this small child that is the explanation for this article.

floridatraveler BOO May-Stringer_House

As a Museum It Is Open Only In The Day Light

It is also a little gruesome to discover that John May, Marena, the infant son of Frank and Marena, and Jessie are all buried in the back of the property. Saxon sold the house to Dr. Sheldon Stringer who added ten rooms not just for his wife and three kids, but also to add a doctor’s office and turn the attic into a sanatorium for victims of smallpox and yellow fever.  No one has records of how many people died on the property, but the downstairs room has an operating table and some ugly equipment, while the attic is a dark and dank unfinished place, not exactly where you want to be a patient. A man shot during the turmoil of Reconstruction died on the front porch before he could ring the doctor’s bell.

After many owners and a slow decline the “mansion” was obtained in 1980 by The Hernando Historical Museum Association, who began a slow process of trying to restore and preserve the structure, while accepting unique historical artifacts, including Civil War weapons and flags.  The group has recorded since then dozens of strange events – not just sounds and shadows in the night, but ancient equipment starting up.  A local police officer told me the house is an enormous pain in the neck.  All the activity, of course, attracted a lot of ghost hunting TV people, but not a lot of financial contributions.

The last time my wife, my sister-in-law, and I toured the House, our guide was a high school student volunteer doing just her third tour. When we got to the bedroom which was Jessie May’s room where one may wonder if she died there, I noticed some activities that escaped explanation. There is a small closet behind the creepy crib with the Victorian doll said to be owned by the three year old.  I must admit that the doll makes Chucky look like an angel.


Photo Taken By Florida Ghost Team: The Baby Doll

 With the guide looking the other way, I watched the closet door open two inches as if someone was hiding there.  I took a step toward the crib and the closet door closed to within one-half inch.  I looked for loose, old floor boards, but the wood planks went in the wrong direction.  As the group went to the far side of the bedroom to examine some items on a tall bureau, the closet door returned to the two-inch mode.  As we piled into the hallway to visit the third floor attic, the closet door closed.

But I didn’t really leave the room; I stayed at the doorway and watched the closet door open again ever so slightly.  I quickly went to the door, opened it to see only an empty closet.  I saw no wires or electronic devices.  When I mentioned this to the oldest volunteer, she said that at least a few times a month visitors mention that experience.

What my wife noticed was the ceiling paint was pealing and the wallpaper didn’t match.  I had to write a large check so Jessie Mae’s bedroom can be restored.  I just hope that Jessie Mae doesn’t track me down in Tampa to thank me.


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