Retro Florida Attractions

As a kid I remember traveling down US 19 in Florida and seeing endless billboards for all the Florida attractions. This was after Disney World opened, so many of the other Florida tourist attractions were already suffering. I admit, I was more into Disney World than any of the other places in Florida, but today I regret that I didn't get to see more of the other, older attractions. Many of them are gone today.

 

I was fascinated with all of the strip motels along U.S. 19. They usually had Florida-esque names that involved the word "Orange", "Sunshine", "Palm", etc. Many of them were built in the 40's and 50's and desperately needed new paint jobs by the time I got to see them, but I so badly wanted to stay in one. I remember one motel with a non-Florida-esque name called "The Bambi Motel" which had big garden statues of deer (and maybe some other animals) in front. As a child, that one interested me the most because I loved lawn ornaments of animals. The strip motels often had any or all of the following: gigantic, tilted colorful umbrellas made of metal, a couple of round chairs by each door where people could sit and watch the cars go by on the road, a shuffleboard game, a sign stating that the motel is Air Conditioned and has COLOR TV (the letters in the word COLOR were usually in different colors), a rectangular pool, metal folding patio chairs around the pool (the kind that have the woven strips that eventually rot over time that people replaced in the 90's with white resin chairs), tiki huts, and a carport where one would drive under to park while they paid for their room and got the key that was probably hanging from a big plastic keychain that had the room number on it.

 

I haven't driven all the way down U.S. 19 for quite some time, so I don't know what the roadside motels look like in the small towns anymore. I hope they're still there! I can tell you that Lake George in New York is chock full of old motels! If you want a vacation spot that still looks a lot like the 50's, there's a vacation destination for you! Atlantic City still has tons of the original 50's motels too.

 

Back to Florida... This year Cypress Gardens closed in April. When I heard the news I felt very sad that such a huge piece of Florida's history was gone and I never got to see it. It opened in 1936 and remained open for nearly 70 years. It started off as a place to show off 200 acres of beautiful plants and it eventually grew to have water ski shows, boat shows, light shows, and more. I do wonder what will happen to that place. Is anyone caring for it now? Are there any plans to open it again some day? It would be sad to see it as an overgrown park with empty, cracking parking lots.

 

I lived in Florida for part of my childhood and I did get to go to a place called Circus World that was near Disney World. We used to pass it on the way to Disney World and I was always curious about the other place that nobody talked about. I remember seeing clowns and playing games, but it seemed more to me like a small fair compared to Disney World. Perhaps if I had seen it BEFORE ever going to Disney World, it would have seemed amazing, but compared to Disney World, it seemed... empty. I felt sorry to hear that it closed though in 1987. I felt sorry for the clowns who couldn't compete with Mickey Mouse. It reopened as "Boardwalk & Baseball" for a few years after that and that closed in 1990. I don't know what is there now.

 

I remember going to "Tiki Gardens" with my grandmother as a kid. I felt like she had taken me to Hawaii. There were big Tikis and tropical birds everywhere and the place looked like a Polynesian paradise. I got a Hawaiian doll there. Of course, after that I was obsessed with the hula and wanted a grass skirt of my own. I finally got one. I recently found out that Tiki Gardens is gone too. All the Tikis and all the hut buildings are gone. I heard that a parking lot now takes up some of it's space.

 

If you want to see a retro attraction in Florida that is still there, try going to Weekiwachi. There you can see a mermaid show. Women wearing mermaid costumes swim underwater and put on a show that you can see through glass in an underwater theatre. They put on a long show and they are able to do so because they get air from tubes. In the theatre you hear the music that they swim to and you even hear their voices. Of course, they are lip syncing to their voices underwater, but as a little girl I was amazed at how we could HEAR them while they were underwater. Of course, after that I wanted to be a mermaid for a while.

 

Also, for more Florida retro fun you can check out the gift shops and sponge docks in Tarpon Springs, Florida. The last time I went to those shops a few years ago they had some of the same merchandise I saw as a kid. You can still tour the free Spongeorama museum that also looks exactly the same as it did when I was a kid. I will always love that place. The best Greek salad on the planet can be found at Pappa's restaurant by the sponge docks in Tarpon Springs. The place is too updated to be considered retro, but I just had to mention them so you don't miss out on that salad if you go.

 

If there's any place near you that has retro or kitsch appeal, I suggest you visit the place as soon as possible because it may just be your last chance. Drive-in movies, old diners, strip motels, giant old neon and flashing signs, old tourist attractions, etc. are all sites that we just don't see as much as we used to. If you have any photos of local retro sites and attractions, please feel free to email photos of them to us. We'd love to post them here for everyone to enjoy! 

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