In old Florida, Weeki Wachee and other early tourist attractions still kicking
A mermaid performs in the original mermaid show at Weeki Wachee in Florida. The attraction is one from the golden age of Florida tourism. (Jill Schensul/The Record/MCT / January 23, 2011)
This is what happens when 21st-century reporters go off in search of old-fashioned tourist attractions in central Florida.
We had just come from Port Canaveral, after a two-night cruise aboard the new Disney Dream, and perhaps this little road trip would be the yang to the Disney yin. The low-tech and homespun versus the futuristic and sophisticated.
But that wasn't how this trip came together. No, the reason we are heading west right now, back through the center of the state and not even stopping in Orlando on our way to the Gulf Coast, is to bag us some mermaids.
Back home, I'd been casting about for another Florida travel story to pursue. And when I asked my husband for ideas, he blurted, "Weeki Wachee!" without hesitation. Weeki Wachee was where the mermaids lived and performed, underwater, twice daily.
Paul had heard ads for this magical place as a little boy but never did make it there. Weeki Wachee has remained one of Paul's obscure objects of desire all these years. So how could I not check it out and at least provide vicarious closure for my mermaid-deprived husband?
And so, using WW as a must-see, I began looking for other attractions and places to visit along the way.
Turned out that the landscape I'd be going through included lakes and gardens and swamps, just the sort of natural attractions that brought tourists to Florida in the first place. It seems there was life — and tourism — in Florida way before Disney did Orlando in 1971. Starting in the late 19th century, tourism entrepreneurs began packaging nature — from springs to rivers to wildlife — as the first incarnation of theme parks.
When tourists started arriving in droves by the late 1920s, they often traveled along a few major routes, and flashier roadside attractions, accompanied by unique signs and come-ons, began flanking the highways. While some survive today, the majority of the homespun roadside attractions no longer exist.
But we found a few — not just Weeki Wachee, which dated to 1947, but the 1929 Bok "singing" tower and gardens in Lake Wales, which some say was the first real tourist attraction in Florida.
These and several other offbeat, interesting or just plain kitschy attractions happened to be either on our route or close enough for a detour.
We would have two days to be Florida tourists, the old-fashioned way.
Unfortunately, we were bringing the trappings of the digital age with us.
Which led to the curse-fest in the front seat of our rental car. I am cursing because I need to do all these modern mobile-journalism things, like blog and tweet about my trip, and I can't transmit so much as a chirp from my laptop. I think it's my cellphone's fault. I curse at it. And the laptop. And myself and the heavens. Oh, and Florida.
Lisa is cursing because we are relying on our GPS device to lead us to a cellphone store. But we've been driving around some ugly commercial roadway in Kissimee, listening to the stupid faux female smug annoying voice, turn here, stay straight, and the thing is lying or stupid or some relative of HAL. The GPS has chosen to drive us crazy rather than to the promised destination.
So that is the situation, all distraction and fuming, when Lisa sees, through the steamy, rain-soaked windshield, a swath of orange. No, wait, it's an orange. A giant orange. I look up, and rise out of my seat with excitement.
It's Orange World!
Orange World is, in fact, on the list of attractions. While it dates only to 1973 — not the golden age of tourism — 1973 is considered historic by some. The place is notable for having the largest representation of an orange in the world, even though it's sort of only half an orange.