Homebase Orlando: “Old Florida” Charms for New Florida Visitors
I have a cousin who grew up about an hour and a half from Yellowstone National Park. Despite the distance between us- me in Orlando and him in Idaho, we visited him a good bit. I loved going to Yellowstone- watching the bison, elk, deer and bear (and once a badger), and of course, the geysers. By the time my cousins and I were teenagers, however, his enthusiasm had faded. Standard teen angst combined with Yellowstone-familiarity meant that our outings became chores for him and I could see that waiting for Old faithful to erupt was like waiting for a mediocre rerun to replay (except without central heating or air).
I got to thinking about it and decided that I didn’t want to fall into the same trap: my state’s treasures passing unappreciated because of my familiarity. As such, I committed myself to a tour of the classic “Old Florida” parks, exhibits and roadside attraction treasures dotting the The Sunshine State’s byways, intent on seeing them with the starry-eyed freshness of a tourist. I took the “Old” modifier seriously too, visiting only sites with authentic, finely-aged pedigree (and not a talking-mouse themed park among them). Here they are with a from-Orlando drive-time estimate.
Spook Hill – Lake Wales. Age of Founding/Discovery Unknown; Distance from Orlando- 50 miles, Drive Time- About an hour
I had to start with Spook Hill in Lake Wales because it introduced me to something both precious to me and in short supply- a bona fide mystery. You park at the bottom of Spook Hill, put on your flashers, put your vehicle in neutral and freak out a tiny bit at your car rolls uphill! I’d heard that it was less spooky than it had been, but you could have fooled me. Whether it’s pulling powers are provided by magnets, phases of the moon, an alligator-wrestling spirit, or an optical illusion (the theory favored by buzz-kill scientists), it’s great fun.
The Bok “Singing” Tower and Garden– Lake Wales, 1929; Distance from Orlando- 50 miles, Drive Time- About an Hour
Built by Dutch immigrant, Edward Bok, on the site of his and his wife’s bird sanctuary, the tower sings with the aid of a 60-bell carillion choir that does indeed sing in a beautiful, gothic sort of way. The surrounding gardens are almost as impressive as the tower and its voice. Still a site to behold.
First White Man Dies in America Marker – Punta Gorda, Florida, Age of Placement Unknown; Distance from Orlando- 133 miles, Drive Time- About 2 Hours 45 Minutes (by US-17)
This is less of an attraction than a historical marker detailing the death of an unnamed Spanish white man killed by the arrows of Caloosa Indians. I include it because it seems so antiquated and bizarre I had to chuckle upon reading it. Apparently, the sign’s planter didn’t buy the whole “Vikings got here hundreds of years before the Spanish” thing.
Theater of the Sea – Islamorada, 1946; Distance from Orlando- 308 miles, Drive Time- Around 5 Hours 10 Minutes
This animal park and sanctuary stood out particularly because it offered me the opportunity to swim and interact with dolphins- an amazing experience and one I’ve always sought out. The dolphins are incredible creatures with an almost eerily knowing intelligence in their eyes and what seems like a perpetual smile on their face. Well worth the price. The rest of the park teams with exotic fauna as well, even though I couldn’t bring myself to swim with the sea lions.
The Coral Castle – Miami, Built 1923-1951; Distance from Orlando- 240 miles, Drive Time- Around 4 Hours
Edward Leedskalnin was a slight man whose ambition was as impressive as his personality and dedication. Leedskalnin built a literally unbelievable castle and an impressive number of sculptures over a period of almost 30 years. His labor of love involved the carving of over 1,100 tons of coral rock under the cover of darkness with methods that remain unknown to this day! How he managed this incredible feat died with Leedskalnin but what I consider the most impressive of the attractions I encountered remains as a testament to his incredible will. Another great mystery and a must see.
Gatorland – Orlando, 1949; Distance from Orlando- Where in Town do You Live? Drive Time- Depends on Traffic
Gatorland is the absolutely quintessential “Old Florida” attraction, the place that comes to mind and, awesomely, it’s in Orlando! Watching the alligator wrestling is obviously a must-do but honestly, the greatest rush on my journey was the nighttime zip-lining. It’s seriously worth it. Flying along at 30 mph, 65 feet over a sea of darkness and the creepy, glowing, following red eyes of alligators and crocodiles in the hundreds was no question one of my journey’s highlights. Give it a shot.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park – Weeki Wachee, 1947; Distance from Orlando- 80 miles, Drive Time- 1 Hour 45 minutes
Obviously I had to close with Weeki Watchi. Where else are you going to watch mermaids perform incredible feats of acrobatic and athletic skill, swimming in up (or down) to 45 feet of cold spring water fed by the deepest freshwater cave system in the United States? That’s not a rhetorical question; the answer is: nowhere. While the mermaid show was a blast, I found myself more impressed by the athletic prowess of the stunt-swimmer actors and actresses and the fact that such a strange, unique, fun and perfectly Florida place existed.