FROM EXOTIC CREATURES TO TREES WITH KNEES: FLORIDA’S ORIGINAL ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS


By Robert Sanchez


Tourism in Florida can be divided into two distinct periods: “BCE” (Before Corporate Entries) and “AD” (After Disney). The AD period has had a much bigger impact on the state, but in many ways the quirky BCE era’s heyday (1945-71) was a lot more colorful, so that will be the focus of this piece.

Granted, Florida has been luring curious visitors ever since Ponce de Leon and other explorers first waded ashore more than half a millennium ago. They often went home with tales of the state’s natural wonders ranging from exotic creatures to trees with knees.

It was a pattern of tale-telling that endured as the modern era’s explorers – tourists – began to arrive in increasing numbers. As a result, tourism – along with agriculture and construction – soon became one of the three main pillars of Florida’s economy.

Unfortunately, the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929 affected all three of Florida’s economic mainstays. Population growth slowed, causing a near-halt in new construction. Commodity prices plummeted, bringing many farmers to the brink of bankruptcy.

Worst of all for Florida, tourism hit a dry spell because few ordinary Americans had the wherewithal for leisure or travel as the economy continued to sputter for more than a decade, from the Wall Street crash of October of 1929 until December of 1941, the eve of U.S. involvement in World War II.

Tourism’s 12-year-long dry spell during the Great Depression turned into a four-year-long drought during World War II as gasoline rationing and other economic disruptions stifled non-essential travel. During the war, however, Florida did play host to tens of thousands of involuntary visitors – military trainees – whose recollections of their stay would figure in tourism’s postwar revival.

Many of those military trainees were housed in Miami Beach hotels more accustomed to hosting the seasonal tourists whom the native “Florida crackers” – perhaps slow to recognize tourism’s economic benefits or quick to recall the outcome of the Civil War – often delighted in disdainfully dubbing “snowbirds” and “damn Yankees.”

When World War II ended with Japan’s surrender in 1945, there was a tremendous pent-up demand for travel – and for new cars to replace the aging prewar models. Detroit quickly retooled from producing tanks and planes to cranking out family sedans and station wagons to meet the demands of a new demographic phenomenon, the Baby Boom.

Florida was a favored destination for many of the vacationing veterans who had undergone their military training in the Sunshine State. They and others in the newly emerging middle class were eager to pack the spouse and kids in a car and hit the road.

During these family travels to Florida, the questions emanating from the kids in the back seat – “Are we there yet?” “When do we eat?” “When can I go to the bathroom?” – were augmented by questions from the parents up front: “After the beach and the visit to grandma’s, what else is there to do?”

Entrepreneurs soon answered the question. In addition to the mom-and-pop motor courts that were the progenitors of today’s motels, Florida’s roadsides after World War II soon featured a slew of attractions ranging from educational exhibits of the state’s unique flora and fauna to shameless tourist traps intent on relieving the visitors of their money.

One of the first attractions to open actually predated World War II. Built with an infusion of money from the wealthy family of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Marineland opened in 1938 on an oceanfront site just south of St. Augustine. Although the war years were slow, annual attendance boomed in the 1950s as Floridians and visitors alike gawked at marine species, including dolphins performing tricks.

Marineland’s success was not lost on tourism promoters in Southeast Florida. In 1955, the Seaquarium opened on Virginia Key, just across a narrow channel from Key Biscayne. The attraction achieved the peak of its fame as the home base of the “Flipper” TV series in the 1960s. It is also the home of Lolita, a killer whale whose continued captivity has been questioned by animal rights activists.

Both of Florida’s original marine attractions were somewhat upstaged in 1973 by SeaWorld, a massive Orlando theme park operated by an entertainment subsidiary of brewing giant Anheuser-Busch. SeaWorld’s attendance dwarfed that of the earlier marine-themed attractions.

By then Anheuser-Busch already had theme park experience. To promote its brews and capitalize on Florida’s postwar tourism boom, the beer company had opened Busch Gardens in Tampa in 1959, a dozen years before Disney World opened its gates in 1971. In addition to its menagerie of exotic animals from all parts of the world, Busch Gardens also featured roller coasters, other carnival-style rides, and even a beer-tasting area.

Yet Busch Gardens was not Florida’s first theme park. That honor arguably goes to Cypress Gardens, which Dick Pope Sr. opened in in 1936. It was an audacious undertaking during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, but it survived some lean years and thrived during some boom years after World War II.

Featuring a botanical garden and water-ski shows, the park was one of the first to draw hordes of tourists. As the years passed, however, this Florida-themed park,  whose Winter Haven location was a bit off the beaten track, struggled to compete with large corporate-owned theme parks located in and around Orlando.

The end came in 2009, when Cypress Gardens finally closed despite resuscitation attempts, changes in ownership, and desperation measures such as the addition of roller coasters and other rides seemingly at odds with the initial serenity of the gardens and the lakes at the time of the park’s founding.

Florida’s natural attractions were also a draw for tourists. The state has 27 first magnitude springs – springs that disgorge more than 100 cubic feet of water per second. That’s more than any other state, and – with an assist from promoters – several became popular with visitors.

Just south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs, now a state park, still features tours during which guests aboard glass-bottom boats can peer into the crystal clear waters while ogling at fish, manatees, and alligators while also listening to a guide’s accounts of movies filmed there.

Near Ocala, Silver Springs, now a state park, also also offers glass-bottom boat tours and tales of the movies made there – a cinematic history underscored by the treetop presence of monkeys that escaped the filmmakers and took up residence in surrounding forest.

In Hernando County, Weeki Wachee Springs – also a state park – found yet another way to augment Mother Nature’s offering: a mermaid show featuring young women performing a kind of watery ballet while costumed in fish tails.

The fact that all three of these springs-centered attractions, which began under private ownership, are now part of Florida’s award-winning system of state parks is a testament to the degree to which most tourists now flock to the corporate theme parks.

Nowadays, many of the Floridians and out-of-state visitors who traversed the state prior to the arrival of the big theme parks remain nostalgic about some of the quirky roadside attractions – and none was quirkier than the Cypress Knee Museum.

Started in the 1930s by Tom Gaskins, a self-described “Florida Cracker” and unreconstructed southerner, the roadside attraction was located in an out-of-the-way spot on U.S. 27, about an hour east of Fort Myers and near the headwaters of Fisheating Creek. The “museum” featured the cypress tree outgrowths that protrude above the water in the shallow swamps where cypress trees thrive.

Gaskins used patented methods – including one that even involved licking them – to alter the so-called cypress knees into shapes that could be recognized as the visage of a famous person or else a fanciful image such as “a lady hippo wearing a Carmen Miranda hat.”

The Cypress Knee Museum survived its founder’s death in 1998 but closed two years later and subsequently fell into disrepair as vandals and thieves left their mark. The state of Florida acquired the property with a view to razing most of the structures and restoring the natural habitat. Interested locals in Glades County have intervened, hoping to salvage some of what was lost.

Like the Cypress Knee Museum, many other roadside attractions from the pre-theme-park era have either closed and/or else have come into public ownership, sometimes with significant differences from their original attraction.

The originals live on, however, not only in the nostalgic memories of those who visited them when they were at their peak of popularity after World War II, but also in a remarkable collection of digitized photos curated by Florida Memory from the state archives.

As a result, anyone yearning to visit Florida’s bygone roadside attractions can find them featured in vivid images at www.Floridamemory.com – and you don’t even have to pack the kids in the family car or pay a small fortune at the gate.

Image Credits: Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida, RetroLand U.S.A./Flickr