Vacationing and Taking Trips In The Era of the Virus

Enjoying Florida in the New Normal

The rapid spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has had an enormous impact on the vacation plans and travel activities of Americans and people all over the globe.  With concerns about future outbreaks, the effectiveness of vaccines, and the reality that some virus strains can find ways to mutate, it is unlikely that people will quickly revert to their old habits.

I live in Florida, the only state that gets over 100 million visitors per year and is the home of the world’s greatest family entertainment complex of amusement parks and attractions.  Walt Disney World and Universal may be opening slowly but with so many restrictions and limitations one may wonder if a visit is essential.  And besides, visitors coming and going face the possibility of 14-day isolations.

As a person who writes about travel and history, I question what I recommend in selecting vacation and trip activities.  What skills and options should I include? As a college history professor for fifty years, I tend to look at what might be long term trends and changes in our society and culture.

Let me state then the approach I will take in more and more of what I write and why I will orient my present and future writing.  These may reflect some of the trends which I think may be more part of “the New Normal” in vacations and trips:

DRIVING TOURS and EXPERIENCES:  I have always been impressed how European cities provide maps, guidance, and options for all types of people. My mother-in-law had health issues and little money while raising five kids so on the weekends she would pack a picnic lunch, take a full-day trip in the old automobile, sight-see and only stop if something met her criteria, and dine in a park.

Kayaking and Snorkeling Provide Independent Social Distancing

I think many people will be leery about going to a restaurant or any attraction without observing the present options.  Indoor activities such as museums, galleries, and even sporting events will  be looked at in a different way than in 2019.  Safety will join cost and value when I write about any spot in Florida.

The OUTDOORS and ECO-TOURISM, I believe, will become more popular and more important as an option to visitors and residents.  A kayak or snorkel trip is a pretty safe choice for exercise and learning about your destination.  Soft adventures like boardwalk tours and zip lines allow for social distance control in a safer setting.

Florida has one of the most diverse and best State Park Systems and it has been underused by a large segment of our tourist population.  For every famous park destination, there are two or three park options that will be practically deserted on the weekdays.

INSIDER ADVICE in articles usually emphasizes the best food or the most popular attraction, but it should now include options and ideas that relate to health concerns.  Long before the virus I told people that instead of standing in a luncheon crowd to get into a Walt Disney Magic Kingdom restaurant, take the monorail to one of the hotels or the boat to Wilderness Lodge for the lakeside patio restaurant by the Villas.  Better meal, same price, and less crowded and rushed environment.

This summer I will inform you of several new e-books and PODs about Florida travel options, including the dates when these publications will be part of free downloads or reduced prices.

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New Things For Florida Tourists and Vacationeers To See In 2019

This is the time of the year when individuals around the nation make New Year’s Resolutions and also the time Florida Chamber of Commerces start promoting what new things are coming up in the New Year.

For Florida’s all-important tourist industry that means new attractions, new resorts, and even new cruise ships.  Actually the largest cruise ship, the Symphony of the Seas by Royal Caribbean, sailed into the Port of Miami in November.  The ship is (gads) five times larger than the Titanic.

In the theme park industry which heavily impacts the 100 million annual Florida visitors, here are some of the 2019 highlights to come:

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge (Disney Hollywood Studios) appears to open minus its ultra-fantastic resort hotel around November of 2019.   The Millennium Falcon ride will probably open sooner at Disneyland, but the Orlando site will include the entire Black Spire village on Batin complete with shops, a restaurant, bars, and performers.

floridatraveler STAR WARS HOTEL entrance way

The first floor of new Star Wars hotel won’t open until 2020

Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway (Disney Hollywood Studios) will open in late summer in the huge Chinese Theater complex.  This is the first interactive ride where riders will enter a wild film short featuring Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy.

Harry Potter Themed Roller Coaster (Universal Islands of Adventure) may be solidly located away from the other Potter attractions, but will feature the flying creatures of Wizarding World and be a “family” coaster.  A summer opening is hoped.

FLORIDATRAVELER -busch-gardens-new-roller-coasters

Tigris Roller Coaster (Busch Gardens) will fly this Spring next to Jungala, the tiger compound, and display a very scary l,800 foot layout with speeds of 60 mph.  Most terrifying will be the fact riders will fall backwards at one point.


Lego Movie World  (Legoland) is a new section with a giant play area relating to the Lego film.  There will also be two new rides: an interactive boat ride, the Quest for Chi, an a new adventure in Emmett’s Bricksburg.

Next to theme parks, most Florida towns advertise new resorts and large hotels:

 Last year Miami had a hotel boom with some twelve new resorts and complete makeovers, but more are on the way. Most interesting to be is the arrival in South Florida of Paligroup from Los Angeles.

FLORIDATRAVELER Palimous Miami Beach

The Palihouse Miami Beach

They are opening this Spring Palihouse Miami Beach, a 70-room boutique hotel on Indian Creek Drive, Miami Beach.  The Intracoastal resort is certainly going to be shabby chic eclectic.


A bedroom at Isla Bella is like staying on a ship

Perhaps more exciting will be the debut of the 24 acre Isla Bella Beach Resort on Knight Key in Marathon, almost next to the famous Seven Mile Bridge.  This is the first big resort in the Keys since the destruction of Hurricane Irma and this 199 room, 4 restaurant, 5 pool place will become an instant landmark in the Middle Keys.

In Orlando, Universal is opening two new resorts.  I thought since the theme park filled up its property, they couldn’t continue its hotel boom, but I was wrong.

FLORIDATRAVELER Universals-Endless-Summer-Resort-Surfside-Inn-

The Endless Resort

Universal’s Endless Resort is being built on the location of the old Wet and Wild park at International Drive and Universal Boulevard.  The first stage will have 750 guest rooms with 390 two-bedroom suites.  Additional sections are in the works.

It will be interesting to see how Universal will operate a transportation system on major highways outside their property.

Have a happy holiday and a Merry Christmas.

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READY OR NOT: Saint Petersburg’s New Downtown Pier Is Open

After years of complete civil war in downtown Saint Petersburg and $92 million dollars of cost, downtown Saint Petersburg’s Pier has finally opened.  As expected, the pier will continue to get mixed reviews for decades since the old pier (actually #3 in history) was the place for thousands of memories.

The shark modern design and condensed space will shock people used to the towering inverted pyramid.  There is no aquarium or Columbia Restaurant.  The clustered carnival atmosphere of gift shops and commercial promotion has been replaced with a clean, almost museum-like atmosphere.  This will draw divided feelings from people who remember the old Pier.

The only people I found without an opinion were the pelicans.  They did seem confused where to find a food handout.

Instead of a long asphalt runway with adjacent parking lots, people will find a unified park-like setting complete with a statue finally informing people that commercial aviation began here when a by-plane delivering some meat and St. Petersburg’s daring mayor landed from Tampa. The plane flew so low and so slow that trolling for fish could have been an added activity.

As a historian, I am glad that the integrated design should benefit the St. Petersburg History Museum that stands at the start of the pier. The layout is more park over water than tourist district.

Some of the immediate concerns is that while the new parking lots do not resemble the ugly mass that used to exist, I think in the middle of the winter tourist season there is not going to be sufficient parking.  Most visitors do not realize the location of the town’s efficient downtown bus service to parking lots and garages.

When my family came over from Tampa, a visit to the pier mainly meant a stop at the Columbia Spanish restaurant and a lot of camera photographs.  That restaurant is gone and the upscale restaurant on the fourth floor, called TEAK, is rather expensive for a menu loaded with standard dishes.  The lobster invested Surf and Turf burger was the big winner although the restaurant was designed more to maximize great views than win fussy eaters..

The ground floor DRIFTWOOD CAFÉ resembles a “grab and go” spot at a resort hotel.  If you want a ten-inch pizza and a cold drink to sit at the pier than this place fits that spot.

I thought the SPA BEACH BISTRO, despite a neat location by the splash pool, was the least impressive dining experience.  More pizza and comfort food at vacation prices.

PIER TEAKI on the roof is the sunset romance spot for couples, who expect the fancy drinks pay for the view of downtown Saint Petersburg.  It will be very popular and crowded at night for the active crowd. More than my Tampa, St. Pete’s downtown has more scenic rooftop food stops.

DOC FORD’S RUM BAR and GRILL is a waterside spot not in the Pier Point and Floridians will recognize it is named after the popular character created by local writer Randy Wayne White.  It is one of those seafood, funky places that serves a semi-Caribbean seafood menu, has a glorious bar, and looks like they bought every nautical item that Jimmy Buffett couldn’t locate.

And, guess what?  It works when the seafood is good and the atmosphere feels like you are in a vacation at least within driving distance of a white sand beach.

The Pier Point is very attractive at night, but it appears like a long walk for seniors.  That is in part that it isn’t as gigantic as the old pier and the amount of landscaping in the pier park is great in daytime but darkens in the evening.

It will certainly become the most photographed spot in downtown Saint Petersburg. (Sorry – Dali Museum)

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The Florida Keys Are Not Just Scuba – Try Snorkel

A lot of people over the years have told me that the Florida Keys may be a wonderful place to boat and fishing and scuba dive, but there are no places to snorkel.  They do not realize that many scuba-diving boats also include snorkel dive spots.

In fact, if some of your family members are good at scuba while others are not interested in learning scuba, there are places in the Florida Keys where you can combine both and many boating firms offer dual scuba/snorkel trips. 

Here are some of my choices for snorkeling at some top spots:

Carysford/South Carysfort Reef –   4.6 nautical miles off Key Largo )GPS N 25-12-20 W 80-13-56) is a 4-25-foot deep double-ledged spur abd groove reef at the foot of a 113-foot 1848 lighthouse.  Locals call the area “the fish farm” for its abundance of tropicals, grunt fish, and pork fish.

John Pennekamp Copral Reef State Park – off Key Largo at MM 1002.5 features many sites including the famous Christ of the Abyss (GPS N 25-06-91/ W 89-18-20).  Off the beach is a good training spot for beginners and low tide offers more inshore locations.

Molasses Reef – off Tavarier in the Upper Keys has a wide series of reefs with the shallowest at Lighted Marker 10.  Snorkel around Sand Island.  This spot requires some veteran snorkelers since there are giant moral eels and a wide range of drop-offs.

Founders Park Islamorada – off MM 86.5 at 86500 Ocean Highway, is a decent snorkeling area just outside the rope area of this community beach.  It is rarely packed with divers and a great stop for small kids..

Conch Reef – some four nautical miles south of Tavenier Key at GPS N 24-56-55/ W 80-28-43 is a large snorkeling area with the three buoys north of Marker 12 the best for visibility.

Alligator Reef – located off Islamorada at GPS N 24-51-07/ W 80-37-21 has depths ranging from 8 to 50 feet and lots of fish.  Resist the temptation to swim right next to the 136-foot lighthouse since it’s a favorite for schools of barracuda.  You won’t find any gators – the spot is named for the USS Alligator schooner which sank in 1822.

Indian Key State Historic Site –  On the bayside off Islamorada is the site of a major Indian massacre in the Seminole Wars.  Rent a canoe at MM 77.5, visit the site via the boat ramp, and cruise the backside of the island where fish teem in five foot water.

Bahia Honda State Park – The best area is on the Atlantic side at the south end of the Park and there are dive flags.  The park facilities and beach are better than the snorkeling sites but the area is safe and well-managed and a good beach set-up for families..

Looe Key off Ramrod Key – offers a very popular snorkeling area with water from 5 to 40-foot depths around GPS N 24-33-19/ W 81-24-77.

Cottrell Key – eight miles west of Key West at GPS N 25-26-20/ W 81-55-58 in just 3 to 15 feet of water and lots of mooring buoys is the best site adjacent to Key West.

#mcbobleonard   Some of this content will be part of an e-book I am producing that is an almanac for adventure travel and extreme sports in Florida.  Continue to watch this website for free offers and more information.

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Florida has 670 miles of beaches located on two major bodies of water: the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.  Yet, if you want to avoid being wall-to-wall with other people or hate beach noise, it may seem there is no place to go.

Part of the problem is the local Chamber of Commerces obviously promote more those public beaches surrounded by restaurants, hotels, and shops, while just listing beaches often only utilized by residents.   The big problem with a lot of websites noting lesser used beautiful beaches is they have limited parking, few if any facilities, and long walks to the sands.  Officially, all of Florida’s coastline to the high-water mark is public beach, but beach access and parking eliminates miles and miles of beach.

So here is my choices listed in the mode of the popular food books: “Eat This – Don’t Eat That.”

Atlantic Ocean Southward:

Instead of Jacksonville Beach – consider Atlantic Beach to the North and if you really like a full-day excursion, I love Amelia Island’s Main Beach Park.  Both of these beaches have long, wide beaches where you can avoid crowds.  Look at Google Maps, and you will see Amelia has many Beach Access points.

Atlantic Beach Is More Laid Back

Instead of the madhouse that is Daytona Beach – consider going north to Ormond Beach’s Andy Romano Beachfront Park. It is somewhat “Daytona Beach Light” with lesser crowds, but recreation facilities and food options. 

Or how about a drive northward to an Old Florida style beachside town like Flagler Beach, complete with a pier, tremendous surfers, and low-cost food and recreation options.

Flagler Beach is a trip into Old Florida beachside

Instead of moderately packed New Smyrna Beach – consider a southward drive into vast Canaveral National Seashore.  There are many parking spots, but stop spot at the Ranger place and besides paying the fees, get maps for there are great hiking and nature spots that people often miss.   Playalinda Beach is great but sometimes people forget their bathing suits.

Instead of Cocoa Beach with its huge Orlando visitations – consider driving south to Vero Beach, which has several beachside parks, decent food and recreation areas and even a Disney Beach Resort, which will probably soon open.  Sebastian Inlet State Park is a great choice although it lacks facilities.

Instead of tiny city of Palm Beach – consider the low key dunes of Delray Beach with its Atlantic Dunes Park and its Gulfstream ParkThese are strictly recreational beaches, but the town beach is a nice option.   With Juno Beach and wonderful John D. MacArthur State Park, Palm Beach County has some less packed spots.

Delray Beach makes a nice vacation trip.

Instead of Fort Lauderdale Beach or Hollywood – consider these places although on the weekends in summer, some get somewhat crowded: the southern tip of the main beach is residential and away from the action, my laid-back Fort Lauderdale by the Sea (smaller condos and resorts), Deerfield Beach, and Pompano Beach.

Instead of South Beach Miami Beach and Crandon Park – consider Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, just a mile from the Crandon crowds.  Look up North Shore Open Space Park and if you don’t mind a bayside beach, consider Oleta River State Park.

Cape Florida is minutes from overcrowded Crandon Park.

Instead of the Key West Beaches – consider the fact that the Florida Keys is more for diving and fishing than beaching. Hidden Fort Zack Taylor State Park is your best bet.  Calusa Beach on Big Pine Island and shallow Anne’s Beach in Islamorada also get my picks.

Annes Beach is a hidden gem in the Florida Keys.

Gulf Beaches Southward

Instead of Pensacola Beach – consider going west to Perdido Key toward Fort Clinch where there is the same beach but without the restaurants and hotels.

Instead of Panama City Beach, the center of summer action – consider less commercial, more low-key Miramar Beach, South Walton, or Santa Rosa Beach. St. George Island and St. Joseph Peninsula State Park are wonderful, but are limited in places to stay.

Anna Maria Island does not have a wall of giant condos.

Instead of Clearwater Beach and Saint Petersburg Beach – consider Caladesi Island and Pass-A-Grille Beach.  I will confess you must take a ferry to get out to the island and Pass-A-Grille has limited parking so go early and park away from restaurants/shops.

Instead of Bradenton Beach and Lido Beach and Siesta Key Beach – consider the north end of Anna Maria Island and Venice Beach, particularly Casparsen Beach.

If you really want a walk on an empty beach, go to Stump Pass, Englewood Beach.  I used to live there.

Instead of Fort Myers Beach – consider Lovers Key State Park with its winding layout of coves and spots and also look at Bonita Beach.

Tigertail Beach on Marco Island is a giant “tigertail”.

Instead of not-that-crowded Naples Beach – consider Tigertail Beach on Marco Island.

There will be some more New Florida Vacation Guides in this Series.

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One of the greatest business challenges to adjust to “the New Normal” in the entire nation is the problems that Walt Disney World and Universal Studios will have to transition toward opening the parks and resorts in July in various stages.   It is particularly painful to the folks at WDW for 2021 is the 50th Anniversary of the Mouse empire in Florida.

Already, the news of the changes, some temporary and some that may become permanent, are getting more than a little flack from some of the park’s regular and long-time customers.   People fear change.  Many people find it difficult to adjust, particularly if they involve serious family issues.

I understand this for in 2021 WDW may celebrate a 50th anniversary but my wife Barbara Ann and I will also be celebrating a 50th anniversary.  One of the first trips we took as a married couple was to Walt Disney World and to the Contemporary Resort.  Back then the California Grill was a Top of the World restaurant and nightclub. We payed $4.50 for admission and ride tickets and spent out “E” tickets on Haunted Mansion and the Jungle Cruise.

Crowd Events May Be Delayed For Months

Let’s look at some of the areas where the first rule changes are causing a crisis mode for some Florida travelers:

Booking restaurants and other matters will NO LONGER be done up to 180 days for park hotel guests. The new rule will be just 60 days.

This rule change doesn’t bother me probably because: (1) I live 60 minutes away from WDW; (2) Even semi-retired (sic), I can’t make 6-month reservation plans.

This policy change does level the playing field and will upset mainly those who have the money and ability to make long distance plans.  I have never been turned down from 90% of the top restaurants at WDW if I have 60 days.  WARNING: until WDW restaurants and hotels can operate at 100% capacity, there will be fierce competition for the most popular places. It should be noted that ”Very popular” does not necessarily mean the place is worthy of its status.

Social Distancing Will Be A Major Issue

The Disney Dining Plans are gone for 2020.  They may not come back.

People who had reservations with the Disney Dining Plans were offered package discounts of 35% but a lot of people are more than angry about that.

Most people on the Disney Dining Plans “lost money”, meaning the plan cost them more money than the food they actually purchased – about $27 per adult on a three-day counter service type plan and about $40 on a three day counter-table service plan.  Only the deluxe plan which was selling for $150+ per day saved money.

The only good reason for the Dining Plans is you arrive at WDW with most of your food expenses prepaid.   WHAT CAN YOU DO NOW?  Start buying discounted Disney gift cards

At Sam’s, Target Red Card, BJ’s Wholesale etc.  Only accept places where you get a 4-5% discount on the price.  You can use Disney gift cards for food, gifts, and everything else. Use them to have a prepaid vacation.

San Angel Inn: Overcrowded Seating & Dark Rooms Will Change

INSIDER’S FACT: Just about everyone in the WDW food business hated the Disney Dining Plan including thousands of visitors who felt they had to select the most expensive items on the menu to get their money’s worth.  I know a family that forced their 10-year old kid (treated as an adult at WDW) to order a giant Surf and Turf plate at a two-credit restaurant.

INSIDER’S FACT:  Chefs at WDW owned restaurants are under budget and profit pressures. Popular but costly items have been eliminated from menus.  Lsss expensive vegetables have been added to dishes.   I have gone fishing a few times in my life and I have NEVER caught a “sustainable fish” – what do they look like?

Fastpass+ strategies will be drastically shaped by WDW rule changes and may gradually change in a new manner, but most visitors planning ahead will be in the dark until the last minute.

When will all of WDW’s 70.000 “family members” return?

FASTPASS+ do help some people plan their visit to the parks, but its main purpose was to spread people out quickly in the parks, get people eating food all over the park, and improve data collection about customer preferences and trends.  

Due to the virus such popular Fastpass+ attractions as meeting the characters will not open as the parks open.  This could be a killer to some families with small kids since most popular rides have height restrictions.   The problem with character meetings is clear: people stand in various lines and kids want to hug Ariel and Elsa.  At least Mickey and Donald have built-in masks.

How will WDW Deal With Young People From Around the Globe?

IF YOU THINK THESE ARE THE MAIN ISSUES … think of all the others.  The World or International section of Epcot is manned with young people from all-around the world, including the People’s Republic of China.  Will we have people “substituting” for the REAL thing?

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Millions of tourists roll along I-4 between Daytona Beach and Orlando, but few of them turn off at DeLand unless they have real business there.  It is too bad for DeLand is not a typical Central Florida community.

DeLand is actually the capital of Volusia, not Daytona Beach, and it is home to Florida’s oldest private college Stetson University.  The blend of 3,000 students from all corners of the globe and county politics adds a lot of culture and art to the town.

While the fastest route off I-4 into downtown DeLand is exit FL 44 West, coming from Tampa, I prefer to exit I-4 at US27 north.  It makes me realize that DeLand is close to the east bank of the St. Johns River, minutes from Blue Springs State Park, Hontoon State Park, and DeLeon Springs. Boating and kayaking are minutes from DeLand.

Coming from the south also shows off the diversity of interesting antique shops, restaurants, and general stores that fill Woodland Boulevard.  When I had an online store selling Old Florida, DeLand was always a fun spot to shop.

The structure at 109 West Indiana (1875) is the oldest commercial building in Deland.  Next door at 105 West Indiana is the Old Curiosity Shop, so named for a gift shop was housed here since its 1925 construction. 

There are two landmark buildings you have to notice. The 1929 Volusia County Courthouse is an impressive sight with its Corinthian columns of Georgian pink marble covered by a copper dome. Deland has been the county seat since 1888 despite the rise of huge Daytona Beach and coastal towns.

The 1922 ATHENS THEATER designed by Floridian Murray S. King was saved from the wrecking ball by wise locals who knew the old vaudeville house was an architectural asset to the local arts scene.

Continue north from downtown DeLand after some shopping and food for there is more to see.    At 137 West Michigan Avenue, just north of downtown, is the HENRY S. DELAND HOUSE MUSEUM (1886), a tribute to the town’s developer and promoter..

The building is ironically not the former home of the founding father of the city. DeLand sold the land to Arthur George Hamlin, the first attorney in the town. In 1893 Hamlin sold the house to JOHN B. STETSON, the hat manufacturer and benefactor to Stetson University.  Stetson used the building to house faculty until it was finally bought by Dr. Charles Farris, a professor of Greek.

The museum also honors LUE GIM GONG, often called the Luther Burbank of Citrus. Gong developed many varieties of oranges and grapefruit which helped Florida become a great fruit exporter.  He was a friend to DeLand and Stetson.

 The focal point of the town is STETSON UNIVERSITY, founded in 1883 on a 175-acre historic campus north of downtown. Besides offering bachelor and masters degrees in a variety of fields, the 3,000 student university has Law Schools in St. Petersburg and Tampa.  The campus is one of the most beautiful in Florida and since it is historic and compact, it is delightful to park and wander the campus.

A next door landmark is the JOHN STETSON MANSION (1886), designed by George T. Pearson in the Gothic Tudor cottage form. The tiny schoolhouse built to educate his kids stands in the back of the 8500 square foot house.  Stetson provided the money and influence to attract students and scholars to this tiny Florida town and turn it into a cultural area.

.#deland #florida #vacation #stetson

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Most Floridians and certainly most visitors to Florida do not know that on the Plaza Level in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Tallahassee is the FLORIDA ARTISTS HALL OF FAME.

Commissioned in 1986 by the Florida Legislature to recognize artists, both living or deceased, who have contributed to the cultural history of the Sunshine State.  Framed images of each year’s inductees hang in a special area of the Hall of Fame Wall and each inductee receives a bronze sculpture based upon La Florida created by St. Augustine artist Enzo Torcoletti.on the wall.

While there are too many musicians (let alone artists) to include in this blog,, I would like to note my favorite musical Floridians in the Artists Hall of Fame.  This is not in any order on purpose so you can go to the website of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame and make your own nominees.


Although born in a hospital on the Georgia side of the border, Ray Charles Robinson grew up in Greenville (where you can visit the rebuilt house and statue), but going blind at age 7, he enrolled in the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in Saint Augustine, where he learned to sing and play the piano, organ, clarinet, trumpet, and saxophone.   During the summer, he entertained his family in Frenchtown, Tallahassee.  Upon graduation, he played in Orlando before coming to live with relatives in Belmont Heights (Tampa) and playing in the Central Avenue clubs.  He even played piano for a white group called the Florida Playboys and started wearing shades.

floridatraveler statue of raycharles

The clubs are no longer in existence and the owners of the Tampa house don’t want a historic marker in front of their residence.  Charles’ first three recordings were made in Tampa before he left for bigger markets.  Many believe his first No. 1 hit “I Got a Woman” was the start of soul music as a recognizable genre.  Of course, we Floridians do not listen that much to “Georgia on My Mind.”   Charles won a dozen Grammy Awards.

floridatraveler ray charles boyhood house


Jimmy Buffett is so identified with the Florida Keys that my daughter’s high school even did a halftime show of nothing but Buffett songs. Like so many Floridians (including me), Buffett came to Florida from elsewhere.  In his case, from Mississippi, from a Mobile trio called the Upstairs Alliance, from two failed albums, and a failed marriage.  Visiting his pal Miamian Jerry Jeff “Mr. Bojangles” Walker, Buffett went to Key West and fell in love.  Maybe it was in his blood since his dad was a sea captain.  In 1977 Buffet release “Margaritaville” in his Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes.   I recall on my first trip to Key West, I had to visit his first restaurant.  Wherever Buffet goes his fight for the preservation of Florida manatees and the Florida reefs will give him high Florida visibility.

floridatraveler first margaritaville cafe


One in four Floridians was born in another land and one of them is Gloria Fajarda, born in Cuba in 1957.  In 1978 she married Emilio Estefan and started a band called Miami Sound Machine. I don’t recall any Latin music on the big charts in the 1980s. The Banana Boat Song does not count.  In 1985 came an album called Primitive Love, with three Top Ten hits.  Kids in Iowa knew the lyrics to “Conga.”   Latin music outsells other categories today and Miami is identified as a Latin music center.   Films, restaurants, children’s books – Gloria Esteban is all over the creative markets.   I took a boat cruise around the islands of Biscayne Bay and more people recognized the home of Gloria Esteban than the home of Al Capone!   It became too popular so she had to move out.

floridatraveler gloria esteban house


This shows my lack of prejudice as an FSU alumnus, I should not promote a native of Gainesville, Florida, and an all-time Florida Gator fan.  But Tom Petty has been a rock icon in Florida since he formed The Heartbreakers back in the 1970s. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has sold over 60 million albums and remains on radio lists despite his death in 2017.   One of the ironic stories of Tom Petty is that as a young teen he took guitar lessons from another Gainesville local: Don Felder, who became the lead guitarist for the Eagles.   Felder of Florida wrote the lyrics to a hit called “Hotel California.”  Felder is also in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

floridatraveler tom petty


I have always been fond of Mel Tillis.  Perhaps because he comes from a small farming village of Dover outside of Tampa.  Perhaps because my brother is a professor of Speech Pathology for Tillis developed a terrible stutter due to childhood malaria.  Yet Tillis did not stutter when he sang a song and it became his career after the military.   He was, however, so bashful about his singing, he became a songwriter producing hits for other singers like Brenda Lee, Webb Pierce, and Ray Price. Guess who wrote Kenny Rogers’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”?

floridatraveler MEL TILLIS

 In 1958 Tillis finally decided to sing his own tunes and he decided he could both write and sing.  In the 1970’s he had a song in the Top Ten Country every year and sometimes more than one hit.  He made over 70 albums.   There are people in Central Florida who only know Tillis for his charity work, particularly with disadvantaged youth.

DID YOU KNOW?   Billboard Magazine selected the Rolling Stone’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as the top rock hit of the twentieth century.  It was written after midnight in a Clearwater hotel when band members couldn’t get to sleep.

#florida  #music   #buffett    #petty






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Florida is slowly opening up and Florida’s beaches, the longest in the United States will play a major role in the economic recovery of Florida’s largest industry – tourism.  I thought it would be appropriate therefore to take a visit to the oldest modern beach resort on Florida’s Gulf Coast.  For those who want to hit the beach and the neat little shops and fine seafood restaurants, you can use this article.  If you still want to stay in an automobile, you are cruise the streets from the tip of the Pinellas Peninsula northward toward the Don Cesar Resort.

floridatraveler passagrille entrance sign

               PASS-A-GRILLE BEACH, the Southernmost of Pinellas County’s barrier beaches, is now the lower part of Saint Petersburg Beach.  Yet the village was the first beach community on the Gulf of Mexico to develop as a weekend residential spot for successful Tampa and St. Petersburg residents. Home to fishermen, farming homesteaders, and lumbermen like Zephaniah Phillips as early as the 1880s, the island didn’t develop until Roy S. Hanna and Tampa cigar magnate Selwyn Morey started to develop lots for houses and hotels.  Without a bridge until the 1900s, they invested in passenger boats taking visitors from the railroad towns of Tampa and Saint Petersburg to the beach.

floridatraveler passagrille hotel 1900s

James H. Forquer, manager of St. Petersburg’s Detroit Hotel, set up a floating hotel for excursionists and in 1898 George Henri Lizotte, a French travel agent for Thomas Cook Company, opened a huge, first permanent hotel. In summer, with the Northern tourists gone, the beach began to attract vacationers from all over Florida.

Although the town has merged with St. Petersburg Beach since 1957, Pass-A-Grille maintains its own arty and bohemian lifestyle, in part, because the village is but one block wide and 31 blocks long.  There are no giant condos and huge 200-room resorts in Pass-A-Grille.  By the 1920s humble cottages were built by people like Babe Ruth, who wanted to avoid the crowds.  Prices are high for little houses with no front or back yards for the beach is your play area.

WHERE TO START: The island is ideal for walkers if you PARK AT THE SOUTH END OF GULF WAY by the beach. DRIVERS would appreciate the weekdays when you can loop around the narrow roads.   BEWARE: although there is paid parking along the entire beach, parking fills up and there are no garages.

floridatraveler passagrille postcard1

DRIVE EAST ON FIRST AVENUE toward Pass-A-Grille Channel to see the end of Pinellas County’s 26 miles of oceanfront. Only 103 First Avenue, a two-story frame with an old metal stove chimney is an early house. (1) LANDS END is a cottage colony at the very tip of Pass-A-Grille with a view toward the mouth of Tampa Bay.   Here are some driving tour tips, but you can easily walk up to the downtown area and the history museum.

TURN LEFT (north) ON GULF and PASS SECOND AVENUE. On your left are four early 1920’s cottages: (2) 200 Pass-A-Grillea fine 2 1/2- story frame structure with a large front porch.

TURN LEFT ON THIRD AVENUE. All the cottages on your left are old, including the (3) DR. EDMUND MELVILE HOUSE (1906), 104 Third Avenue, a two story that was moved from the Point to make way for apartments. At 110 Third Avenue was the (4) THOMAS WATSON COTTAGE SITE, the cute winter home of Thomas Watson, co-inventor of the telephone.

floridatraveler passagrille poster girl


On your left is the historic family-owned (5) HOTEL CASTLE (1906) one of the older beach establishments and an unusual style of a beach colony. On your right is the (6) FIRST SCHOOLHOUSE (1912), 105 Fourth Avenue, a one room school, now a residence. Across the street lived William Staub, editor of the St. Petersburg Times (111 Fourth).  (7) HAROLD McPHERSON HOUSE (1903), 308 Pass-A-Grille, once an old fish camp, now a large frame house.


The next four houses on your left are fine older homes. The first one is the (8) WALDRON HOUSE (1910), 400 Pass-A-Grille, with a wonderful stone fence and cement yard.

TURN LEFT ON FIFTH AVENUE where old cottages line both sides. The first house on your left is the (9) CAPTAIN RANDON MILES HOUSE (1920), 102 Fifth Avenue, one of the island’s oldest, complete with fluted chimney. The last house on the left is the modernized (11) JAMES SIMMONS HOUSE (1911), 108 Fifth Avenue, a big waterfront owned by the New York Congressman. A huge condo blocks the water view today.

TURN RIGHT ON GULF and right on SIXTH AVENUE. This entire block is mostly 1920’s cottages. The last house on the left stands where Zephaniah Phillips built his sawmill in 1884.


The 600 block once had some old houses like the (11) AMELIA WILLIAMS HOUSE (l9l9), 612 Pass-A-Grille. At 608 Pass-A-Grille was the (12) ZEPHANIAH PHILLIPS HOUSE (1886), once probably the oldest home on the island. Giant three story condos mark this area today. On your right is 1917 (13) V. K. OUTLANDS HOUSE (1917), home of a noted poet, batter known locally as the “Cat Woman.” Here and at 702 Pass-A-Grille were located the Old Spanish Fishing Ranchos in the 1880s.

At 102 Seventh Avenue is the (14) GEORGE GRANGER HOUSE (1925), one of the oldest waterfront cottages in Pinellas.

floridatraveler the hurricane

TURN RIGHT ON GULF WAY and RIGHT ON EIGHTH AVENUE, downtown Pass-A- Grille. The two-story buildings with their open or enclosed second-floor porches give downtown a frontier look except at 111 Eighth, a delightfully tiny pink storefront advertising “a little room for ART.” A block away is the towering HURRICANE RESTAURANT, where people drive for miles for a grouper sandwich and a sunset view from the rooftop bar.

DOWNTOWN is one long block of funky shops dating as far back as the 1920s. At 107 Eighth Avenue was the (16JOSEPH MERRY BAIT SHOP (l911). The fancy building at 106 Eighth Avenue is the 1913 (17) J. J. DUFFY GROCERY, started by the first Mayor and major developer of this area. The huge second-floor balcony and the many flags remind me of a consulate in some foreign country. Several shops are housed at the (18) CAPTAIN KEN MERRY BUILDING (1936), 105 Eighth Avenue, once the Kay Metz store. At 102 Eighth Avenue was the (19) JAMES MASON HOUSE (1923), one of the earliest hotels and now an apartment building.

floridatraveler 06-eigth-st-shops

Continue North of Pass-a-grille way to Ninth Avenue.

On your right is the Pass-A-Grille Park. On your left at 808 Pass-A-Grille is the (20) JUDGE L. S. SCHWERDTFEBER HOUSE (JEWETT VILLA) (1908), a big house with three dormers and a cute, little white fence. The Seaside Grille Pavilion across Gulf Way along the public beach continues a tradition started in 1905 by Charles S. Page who opened a beachside snack bar.

One can not miss the (21) PASS-A-GRILLE COMMUNITY CHURCH (1911), 115 Tenth Avenue, now a history museum for the Pinellas islands. Stop by and visit the exhibits if the building is open. (22) 105 Tenth Avenue once housed the 1913 Women’s Club.

At 103 Tenth Avenue is the (23) E. C. KITTRIGHT HOUSE (1903), one of the island’s oldest and moved from downtown. At the end of the block is 1906 (24) ALPHONSE THAYER HOUSE1000 Pass-A-Grille. The art gallery on the backside was the studio of noted artist Ralph McKey.

This shop is just ten-foot-wide. 

floridatraveler passagrille the little art blg

TURN LEFT ON PASS-A-GRILLE past the 1910 Mac Granger House at 1002 Pass-A-Grille, and TURN LEFT ON ELEVENTH AVENUE. At 109 Eleventh Avenue is the delightful (24) CHARLES BEINERT COTTAGE, (1921), better known as the “Staten Island Cottage.”

This ends of the original Pass-A-Grille district. At 113 Twelfth Street is the house with the wonderful porch, the (25) VASHTI BARLETTE COTTAGE (1918) and at 1202 Pass-A-Grille Way is the three-story (26) HAROLD McPHERSON HOUSE.

OTHER SPOTS: 1805 Pass-A-Grille Way – the 1928 waterfront house of movie actress Norma Talmadge; 2201 Pass-A-Grille Way – the 1948 Women’s Club. 1307 Gulf Way – the 1922 Sea Spray Motel, popular in Florida Land Boom with actor Lionel Barrymore has been replaced by a very expensive 2017 beach mansion.




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Small Town Series: This article is part of one of the series that this website will feature as Florida slowly unwraps from the effects of the virus. This article features small towns most visitors to Florida might not normally put on their travel lists.

FLORIDATRAVELER seaside-banner

It’s been over two decades since Jim Carrey escaped from the TV-studio bubble in The Truman Show (1998) and many people now don’t realize that the town on the scenic ocean was not a movie set, but a real Florida village. While its main shops are presently closed due to the virus, they will soon reopen.

Businessman Robert Davis took the eight beachfront acres in Seagrove Beach off US98 that his granddad Alabama store owner J. S. Smolian purchased in 1946 and bought more acreage.  Davis loved his youth there and wanted to resurrect his fond memories.


But Davis’ idea for a unified village with over 200 wood frame cottages was not typical in 1980, for Davis loved New Urbanist architecture and recruited Luxembourg urban designer Leon Krier to make his idea a reality.  They then hired Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Syberk to establish a Southern vernacular design that fit the rural location.

I once owned a condo in downtown Celebration so I realize while some people will love a town without front lawns and perfectly designed walking paths, others will find the conformity or uniformity scary.  It is this division of feeling that made Seaside the ideal spot for The Truman Show about a man born into an artificial glass-domed town where everyone and everything was a daily television set.

FLORIDATRAVELER seaside-odessa pavilion

Seaside is a real town with real people.  You will be thrilled or maybe chilled when you visit.   The location in Florida’s Panhandle means that Seaside would be unlikely to attract industry. In fact, most residents need to drive down the highway for most of their shopping, despite the quaint downtown surrounding the VILLAGE GREEN, site of the Post Office just off FL30A. Seaside fills up in winter with Northern renters and in summer with Southern beach-goers so that the small all-year population truly does know each other.

FLORIDATRAVELER great southern cafe

Davis warned his critics that Seaside was “an idealized vision of a town” and that it was going to remain “a holiday town.” Still, you might think you are in the movie The Truman Show when you see that despite amazing architecture the white fences and common lettering system gives the village a conforming feel despite houses showing Victorian, New Classical, and other designs..

 TOURING SEASIDE can be done on foot since the original village contains just eighty compressed acres, but if you want to drive most of the residential streets using the map, it is best to park at the Village Green or the COTTAGE RENTAL AGENCY and visit the interesting shops, the Playhouse, the Great Southern Cafe (good food), and the Seaside Chapel.

FLORIDATRAVELER seaside-chapel

Most people will next want to walk over FL30A to the many beach pavilions, the most photographed features of Seaside, and in keeping with protecting the sand dunes and sea grapes. Each of these walkways is delightful – the wave-shaped Natchez Street Pavilion, the stick shack Odessa Street Pavilion, the latticework East Ruskin Street Pavilion, and the key Tupelo Street Pavilion.

WARNINGIt is nice to eat beachside, but the food at the beach didn’t match the cafes at the Village Green.

TUPELO STREET was the first Seaside street and it features some of the most notable cottages, including the GIANT’S ROOST AND TOWER at 109 Tupelo, where renters can get a bird’s eye-view of all the village, and the one-story per floor LEON KRIER COTTAGE, at 115 Rupelo. Krier came from Europe so maybe he wanted a townhouse. Notice all the narrow footpaths that connect each street. Walkers can get around faster than people in automobiles.

FLORIDATRAVELER seaside-nesbitt cottage

Another interesting street is RUSKIN STREET with the wildly skeletal ROGER’S LIGHTHOUSE located at 110 Ruskin, the work of Victoria Casasco. Three doors down is Walther Chatham’s futuristic Cracker dogtrot style cottage with two peaked roofs. SEASIDE AVENUE is the village’s widest esplanade with many two-story houses that serve as large family rentals. At 204 Seaside is the large two-story clapboard double porch vernacular with widow’s walk built by founder Robert Davis

Floridatraveler seaside chapel


For people who are still looking for “motion picture shots,” you will notice that the town grocery was used as a meeting spot in the film, and Truman’s home is located at 31 Natchez Street.  The bubble may be gone, but the uniqueness of Seaside is still there.

#seaside  #Trumanshow  #movies  #florida


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My Favorite Weirdest Attractions in Florida

With the virus limiting travel and tourism in Florida, I am writing articles oriented toward the entire state summarizing some past content and painting a wide picture.  As a history teacher, it irritates me how much of the History Channel and even the Travel Channel is dedicated to UFOs, ghosts, and Big Foot.

But I must admit that people are greatly fascinated by these topics so I am featuring “my favorite weirdest attractions” in Florida.  They have to be for real and they have to have value as a location to visit.

CORAL CASTLE (Homestead)

Coral Castle has confused and fascinated engineers and scientists from around the world for decades.  The site, just off US1, is a gigantic limestone structure constructed by one 120-pound, heart-broken Latvian immigrant without the help of machinery or other people.

floridatraveler CORAL CASTLE

Giant one-ton doors rotate at the touch of a finger.  The huge picnic table is shaped like Florida.  An observatory that must weight three tons pints directly to various stars as an observatory.  Even more amazing, Edward Leedskalnin (1887-1951) secretly moved the entire site when threatened by road construction.  All he ever told people is that he learned the use of levers from the Egyptians.

CASSADEGA (Volusia County)

A few miles off the Lake Helen exit on I-4 is a small, unincorporated village known to some travelers as “the Psychic Capital of the World.”  It is not a sideshow operation, but the center of the Southern Spiritualist Association.  The meeting hall, the church, and most of the Victorian houses belong to spiritualists who believe you can talk to the dead and learn about life.

floridatraveler CASSADEGA HOTEL

The village started way back in 1875 by New Yorker George P. Colby, who believed that a Florida winter site would be important to his fellow spiritualists.  There is a hotel, often in winter housing believers from around the globe. Walking around the compact community is an experience even if you don’t want to meet a medium.


Most people will find a scenic Florida state park with campgrounds and canoe/kayak rentals on a river not to be the likely site for an unusual Utopian community.  In the 1870’s Cyrus Teed, known as “Koresh” to his followers, came to isolated Estero to start a colony known as Koreshan Unity.  Some eleven historic buildings remain from a settlement that contained miles of roadways lined with bamboo trees.

FLORIDATRAVELER Koreshan_SHS_planetary_court02

The village produced electricity in a region which had none. The most fascinating structure is the large meetinghouse where Koresh taught his followers that we live inside the world.  In winter there is actually a small restaurant serving food from the Koreshan Unity bakery cookbook.


Some people would get upset if I didn’t include this Florida icon of a museum on US 41 in the Upper Everglades, dedicated to Florida’s version of Big Foot.  The exhibits and evidence might not convince you of the creature, but you’ll like the friendly and informative staff.


Not far away, if you look on the south side of the highway, you’ll see the Ochopee Post Office, the smallest in the United States.

floridatraveler SMALLEST POST OFFICE


It may be appropriate for a state like Florida surrounded by oceans that the most visited celebrity grave is that of a dolphin.  Located at MM 59 on the Gulf side of US1’s island hopping trip to Key West is the Dolphin Research Center.  Obviously closed as an attraction at the present time, the center is more concerned with living mammals than dead ones.



But on the property, complete with a statue, is Flipper (1964-1972), star of the 1960’s television show and movie.  Flipper was really Mitzi and she got the featured part for she could do for things than her standbys.


I know what you are thinking.  This is one of the Ancient City’s typical tourist traps with lots of weird and ugly exhibits, much of which has nothing to do with Florida.  So I am going to tell you what the Ripley people don’t tell you in full detail.

The building was constructed in 1887 as Warden Castle, the winter home of Bill Warden, John D. Rockefeller’s financier.  It was vacant during the Depression until 1941 when Ocala hotel man Norton Baskin turned it into a luxury hotel.  He designed the penthouse into an apartment for his wife famed author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.  Baskin thought her relationship to the hotel would help promote the place.

floridatraveler RIPLEY MUSEUM

Rawlings hated the place for she wanted privacy and half the town could tell if she was staying there. She took her Pulitzer Prize money and bought a nice beach house at Crescent Beach.  She really got pissed off when her hubby put a mutual female friend in the penthouse when she was away and town folk felt Baskin was having an affair.

floridatraveler MARGORIE RAWLINGS

Baskin promised his wife never again to put someone in the penthouse, but on April 23, 1944, with her husband serving in the military, Rawlings violated her own ruling by letting a friend stay in the penthouse.  With Rawlings at Crescent Beach, a fire started on the third floor of the hotel and two women were killed, one of them her friend trapped in the penthouse bathroom.

Today Ripley has a “Finding Mr. X Tour” for the second woman who died was not fully identified and a strange man in Room 13 took off after the fire.  Workers at the museum complain about seeing a female ghost and if that is so, it is probably the woman in the penthouse.  Or maybe it is the ghost of Rawlings cursed by her decision.

#florida  #weird   #attractions











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