As a historian I have a great appreciation of the story and evolution of Florida tourist attractions. Since I was a small child, my family’s annual visits to the Sunshine State brought memories of experiences at Florida attractions – some still operating, some revised (such as some of Cypress Gardens was incorporated into Legoland), and some closed forever.
You might not agree with all my comments but here is a look at some of the Florida attractions of the past and my feelings about them. Do I miss their simplicity and naturalness or am I just thankful they closed down?
Miss Them or Were They Embarrassing (they suck)?
The Circus Hall of Fame – Sarasota
When we flew into Tampa International years ago, seeing The Circus Hall of Fame on US41 north of the Ringling Complex was a sign we were really in Southwest Florida. You might wonder why I listed this attraction since a Ringling Circus collection is now located inside the wonderful Ringling complex.
With no Ringling Circus This Attraction Would Mean More Today
The fact is this attraction closed in 1979 and most of that collection is now part of the International Circus Hall of Fame in Peru, Indiana. But most importantly the old attraction had something not seen in the new museum – it had a performance tent where kids could see live circus acts up close. I recall shaking hands with clowns and animal trainers. Choice: I miss this attraction.
Floridaland – Venice (Osprey)
Since my father was a newspaper editor twenty miles to the South, I was there on opening day in 1964. This was the theme park that tried to do everything that they thought Florida visitors wanted to see, but without the budget and originality to merit return traffic. My mother even trained the high school can-can girls. There was a Western ghost town with shootouts (copying an Ocala attraction also now gone) and dolphins that didn’t pass muster at Sea World.
If This Map Looks Like A Mess of Nothingness, You Are Right
A trackless train (a tram) took you around gardens of unnaturally planted tropical trees. There was a second rate water-ski show. When Walt Disney World was announced, it was clear even to local people Floridaland was doomed. Choice: it sucked as an attraction that felt artificial and commercial.
The Black Hills Passion Play – Lake Wales
In 1953 Josef Meier brought his South Dakota summer spectacular, panoramic stage show to US27. If you had good seats it was an amazing show, particularly at night, with its dozens and dozens of volunteer town-folk recreating Biblical history.
School and church groups bussed in hundreds of people from miles around. The problem was it was very costly and time consuming to produce such a nightly winter attraction competing for tourist dollars. Clearly, you only went once a year to see this event. It closed in 1998 and in 2004 Hurricane Charlie leveled the facility. Choice: I miss it for it was a live entertainment not duplicated even by Disney.
Fake African Attractions – all over
The Florida tourist industry has always had people who tried to associate tropical Florida with Africa. Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens and West Palm Beach’s Animal Kingdom show that it can be done – if the emphasis is on showing real African animals being animals. Disney brings in real people from Africa to perform music and cultural events.
What’s next? Get some Kangaroos and have Australia-USA?
Attractions like Africa-USA in Boca Raton and Clyde Beatty’s Jungleland in North Miami were around when my family vacationed. They featured African villages were obvious props and basketball players were dressed up as Zulus. The animals were in poor zoo-like surroundings. One park had tigers in Africa! Choice: They suck for they insult both tourists and Africa.
Splendid China – Kissimmee
Built just minutes from the West Entrance to Walt Disney World in 1997, the 76 acre Splendid China had an amazing recreation of famous buildings of China. Photographers loved using their telephotos to make amazingly realistic views of China.
The Last Days of Splendid China: Giant Americans
The attraction was from the start a big mistake. Americans love interactive places and looking at Chinese structures for two hours is a very limited market when you have Disney and Universal as competitors. The attraction was politically incorrect for it had buildings in Tibet, which China invaded and seized.
The Florida sun barbecued the buildings and on some days you come make an entire fake movie with Chinese sets without having a tourist accidentally enter your shot. Choice: I miss it but I know it was the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Atomic Tunnel – Daytona Beach
The worst attraction I saw as a kid was The Atomic Tunnel off US1 in touristy Daytona Beach. Inside an ill-fated 1950’s bomb shelter, one W. R. Johnson planted tropical gardens, purchased the usual parrots and toucans, and got some small mice to “dance” to loud music and some piranhas to bite pieces of bloody meat.
Cute Ads Did Not Tell the True Tale of Happy – Or Is It Tail?
Most of us tourists got sucked to the site by half-off coupons distributed across Northeast Florida and delightful billboards advertising the star of the attraction – Happy the Walking Fish.
Happy was not happy. Happy was a small walking catfish, something Northerners probably found incredibly exotic. To get Happy to walk along a blue ramp, however, it required the “trainer” to stick a pencil up the fish’s ass every six inches. This was disgusting and scary to kids. Choice: It sucked that this attraction lasted more than one year.
The Worst Attraction in Florida History
I never visited this site not only because it was closed before my arrival. I would not want to see it. In the 1930’s Brooksville turpentine camp owner Pearce Lewis was forced to sell his business. In perhaps a thought of complete ignorance and lack of sensitivity he came up with an idea to keep his camp and get employment for his workers, almost all African-Americans.
There is Even Tourist Cars In This Postcard
He would turn his place into an antebellum plantation and unlike real historic Southern places, have the local African-Americans act like they were slaves. They would do the farming activities they normally did, of course, but also give hayrides around the fields and operate the Plantation Kitchen so Northerners could enjoy real antebellum cooking.
Lewis Plantation closed before the modern civil rights era. Photographs do reveal Northern visitors did stop to eat and buy “pine perfume” and even stay in rundown cabins where turpentiners actually lived. Choice: Even if there was an attempt to show rural life in the 1880’s it would suck for its bad taste.
If you are a longtime Florida resident, snowbird, or tourist I bet you can think of other long-gone Florida attractions. You probably miss some and others you are glad they are not around today.
What old attractions would you add to this list and do you remember them foldly or not?