Roadside attractions have been in Florida for decades

Gatorland theme park and wildlife preserve in Florida, located along South Orange Blossom Trail south of Orlando.
Posted at 8:40 AM, Jul 09, 2022

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tourists have been coming to Florida for a long time, going back at least as far as Ponce de Leon looking for the Fountain of Youth.

But the Sunshine State didn’t really become a tourist destination until the years immediately after the Civil War, said Steven Noll, a professor in the history department at the University of Florida.

People were drawn to Florida in those days by cheap land and to see the state’s natural wonders, often from the deck of a steamship. Palatka was a major tourist center, since that’s about as far south as the big steamships could reach before travelers would switch to smaller craft to explore the undeveloped wilderness.

“In the time period after the Civil War, Florida’s tourist attractions were its rivers,” Noll said.

The development of railroads opened up other areas of the state to visitors but things really took off with the advent of the automobile.

“First of all, when the railroad comes, things change,” Noll said. “When the car comes, it opens up Florida to a whole new cohort of people.”

And what did those visitors find when they headed down the new Dixie Highway all the way to Florida? They found the folks who settled in Florida when the land was cheap and were now anxious to separate the travelers from their dollars.

There were big attractions like Silver Springs, where glass-bottomed boats were the big draw, and Cypress Gardens, with its water-ski shows and Southern belles. But to get there, visitors first had to drive by hundreds of “Mom and Pop” hotels and tourist attractions that lined the state’s major north-south roads.

“Anything could be turned into a roadside attraction, like a barn or a shack,” said James “Zach” Zacharias, senior curator of education and history at the Museum of Arts & Sciences in Daytona Beach. “It was usually based on natural attractions, like alligators and snakes.”

Even the Seminole tribe became tourist trappers, setting up alligator-wrestling shows that must have been something for a family visiting from Philadelphia or Cleveland.

Zacharias said the proprietors of the roadside attractions weren’t necessarily interested in authenticity.

“They get a spark for an idea and they create a roadside attraction,” Zacharias said. “They were really wacky, they were whimsical.”

There was an attraction based on moonshine stills on A1A south of St. Augustine. Zacharias said someone set up about a hundred old stills in the woods and charged people to walk through.

Bongoland was built on a former plantation in Port Orange. It combined a Seminole village with life-sized concrete dinosaurs and a baboon named Bongo.

Port Orange was also home to the Atomic Tunnel, a rambling stucco building originally built to grow orchids. In the ’50s, it became the Atomic Tunnel, marketed as a fallout shelter. That wasn’t real practical – it was above ground and had 724 porthole-shaped windows – but it was popular with Cold War-era tourists, Zacharias said.

Not all tourists were welcome, of course. Paradise Park was opened in the late 1940s for those who wanted to visit nearby Silver Springs but couldn’t because they were Black.

“The Green Book certainly mentions that,” said Noll, referring to the guidebook published for Black travelers.

Two factors played large roles in killing off the Mom and Pop roadside attractions. One was the arrival of the interstate system, which drew the bulk of the traffic from the state’s main north-south roads.

“A lot of the smaller places don’t survive that,” Noll said.

The other big factor was Disney. The opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 certainly increased the number of people coming to Florida for vacation, Noll said, but most of them don’t take time to visit other parts of the state.

“Many of these places thought they could catch on, that people would go three days to Disney and the next day to Cypress Gardens,” Noll said. “That doesn’t happen. Disney is pretty much a self-contained place.”

Many of the old attractions simply closed when the stream of tourists dried up. Others took on new form. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm became a zoo specializing in toothy reptiles. Many of the old springs, including Weeki Wachee and Silver Springs, are now state parks. Everglades Wonders Gardens in Bonita Springs is now a bird refuge. Cypress Gardens became a theme park and now operates as Legoland, which still has its iconic Florida-shaped swimming pool, even if it’s now surrounded by Lego characters instead of Southern belles. The seaside theater built for “Cross and Sword” historic re-enactment is now the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, a concert venue.