Sunday, May 31, 2009

Weeki Wachee

Just back from a quick trip over to Florida's kitchiest vintage attraction, the beloved Weeki Wachee. Here's some of my favorite photos from the amazing mermaid show.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Plunderin' a Gift Shop

It's one thing to buy vintage ephemera on Ebay or at an antique store. But for me it's a bigger thrill to find retro artifacts in gift shop because that means the inventory has been sitting around for years. And years. And it must be so bad no one else would buy it. Such a gift shop exists at the President Hall of Fame. In addition to having ephemera from recent political campaigns (Fred Thompson for President pins, John Kerry bobblehead pins) there is a strange mix of souvenirs from Washington DC and vintage toys. But there is also stuff that has been there forever, like vintage postcards and decals.

This postcard is from the "Happiest Place in the World", which is also probably the most politically correct place in the world. It dates back to time before all the rides were sanitized; the caption on back reads "After looting and plundering a captured city, fun loving pirates hold an auction... pirate style. And everything goes to the highest bidder, from five bawdy wenches to two skinny goats."

This packet of snapshots and postcard book are from Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota, an attraction that was around from 1956 to 1980 according to Roadside Paradise. The memorabilia was relocated to Peru, Indiana. According to the author Ken Breslauer, the building was demolished in 1998 after years of dwindling attendance.

Friday, May 29, 2009

New stuff at the PHOF

My first visit to the Presidents' Hall of Fame in Clermont was just a couple months ago so I was surprised to see a couple new displays in my recent return. With every admission you receive an annual pass, so I was eager to visit again for free.

The first new addition to the collection was this "Bush in a Fortune Teller Booth" display. While the PHOF seems to be fairly bipartisan, this piece portrays a fairly creepy G.W. Bush with shifty "X-files" eyes that move from left to right. I was tempted to put a dollar in to see if a fortune would appear but refrained because I wanted all my cash for the wonderful gift shop, where they still have items that appear to be twenty years old.

The second recent addition was the wax Obama figure. On my first trip out they only had a cardboard figure of our current president. This new Barack, by far the most realistic of all the wax figures, is the only one that moves. His head turns from left to right and back.

The miniature White House, which supposedly is the main feature of the attraction, is still not on display. But that means you can see the bizarre Christmas decorations year round!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Now and then: Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens' Dick Pope, Sr. was a legendary promoter who helped create the behemoth that is the Florida tourism machine. Photography was his greatest tool and he created indelible images that stuck in the mind of visitors of the Sunshine State. I was intrigued to see how some of these mythic scenes of the past compared with today's Cypress Gardens.

A solitary Southern belle, sits in a shady spot against the colorful backdrop of giant topiaries.

Belles frolic throughout the park, their colorful dresses surpassed only by the bright flowers.

Tourists crowd the bridge to look for alligators in the muddy canal.

Electric boats cruise the scenic waterway, while tourists snap pictures of photogenic Southern Belles throughout the park.

The namesake Cypress trees frame Lake Eloise, their wooden knees looking like sentinels from another world.

The gardens extended out to the Cypress trees incorporating them into the lush landscaping.

By the end of May, azaleas and camellias are long gone. While there is great color provided by the many well maintained flowers, my eye is drawn to the exotics not frequently seen in Florida gardens.

Brilliant color bombarded the visitor in every direction. Folks from the frigid north would be overwhelmed by this lush tropical paradise.

The romanticized images of the past are not an accurate representation of what the visitor encounters in today's Cypress Gardens. Enough remains, however, to get a taste of what it was like back in its heyday. All it takes is a little imagination. I suggest going when the weather is cooler, as there is little shade throughout parts of the garden.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Still Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens is the granddaddy of all Florida attractions and it only re-opened a couple of months ago after the state stepped in to buy it. The former owner who had been successful with a theme park in Valdosta couldn't make it work in Winter Haven and the state used Florida Forever funds to take it over.

The owner of the park on my last visit was Anheuser Busch, so it had been some time since I had visited Dick Pope's establishment on Lake Eloise. The roller coasters and thrill rides that the pervious owner featured are still there and the first thing I saw as we turned off Cypress Gardens Boulevard was the Starliner wooden roller coaster from Panama City. I hope the vintage structure finds a new home where it can be appreciated.

The huge parking lot was perhaps 20% full on this Memorial Day, and veterans received free admission. Instead of entering through the now quiet rides, the entrance is now located by a complex of shopping and dining facilities that are closed, aside from a solitary table selling AAA memberships.

Next we walked through the area with the enormous topiaries I remember so well from my last visit. They appear to be in great condition and are extremely impactful spread across a sloping field leading down to the lake.

We hustled through in order to catch the first ski show of the day. There were two stadiums but only one was open for the show that they claim is the longest running performance in the world today (Pope started ski shows for GIs after WWII.) The show is scaled down but still entertaining and I'll post video in a future blog.

The gardens themselves are the other main feature of today's park and for the most part, they are in pretty good shape. The plants are well cared for and both tropical exotics and native plants are spread around winding paths over the hillside. The long view up to the gazebo, seen in so many images with Southern belles strewn along the hill, is lush and colorful although we only saw one Southern belle who never left her bench in a shaded area. Also missing was the iconic Florida pool and the electric boatride through a canal which is now silted over.

Overall it seemed like something more was missing from Cypress Gardens. It felt like an attraction not running on all cylinders yet. There are remnants of its former glory in plain sight, but unlike vintage attractions such as Bok Tower or Homossasa Springs, it hasn't found the right blend of paying homage to its colorful past and being relevant to today's audience. I really hope they find it, because the one thing that is clear, is that it is a real treasure, still.

Vintage images from the State Archives of Florida

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Higher and higher...

Hurricane season officially starts next month, but we have already surpassed the record rain totals for May in Central Florida by over an inch. Last year our biggest rain event was Tropical Storm Faye which flooded houses around the St. Johns River. I had to drive to the Sanford Airport shortly after the storm passed and was amazed to see just the tops of giant palm trees poking above the water as I crossed Lake Jesup.

We went weeks and weeks with out any rain this Spring so I moved a lawn chair down to the beach that is created from low water. It's wonderfully private and the wading birds seem to tolerate me as I had a Tri-color Heron fished just feet away from me. I though nothing of leaving the chair by the water as it started raining on Sunday. When the rain stopped enough to snap this picture on Friday, the chair was far enough under water to make it interesting for me to find a way to remove it!

The current hurricane cycle that seemed to announce itself with the three hurricanes that pounded us in 2004, (Charlie, Gene and Francis), should make for an interesting summer should the water levels continue to rise. Historically floods are not new to Florida, but the population has never been so dense and there has never been so much property at risk before. With the state economy based on growth and tourism, a summer of flooding and storms could be devastating to the Sunshine State.

Images from the State Archives of Florida

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sanlando Springs

Sanlando Springs, located north of Orlando in Longwood FL, was one of Central Florida's favorite swimming holes for many years. It also featured a hotel, swimming pool and beautifully landscaped gardens and was major attraction between 1950 and 1970. Today Sanlando Springs is locked inside a gated community known as "The Springs", accessible only to residents who own homes inside the development.

According to a history posted on The Springs' website, a developer named Frank Hoosier dammed the spring to create the swimming areas in 1926. After the Great Depression the springs changed hands and Moses Overstreet developed it into a major "Tropical Park." A new owner, JE Robinson, added the diving platform and slide in 1950.

The brochure reads, " Ever swim in water that was a constant 72 degrees the year 'round? Delightfully cool in summer and deliciously warm in winter? Mother nature generously endowed Sanlando Springs wit this generous characteristic. You'll have to try it yourself to believe it." On the inside it continues; "What is your pleasure, Sir or Madam? (and Junior and Sis too!) Swimming? Picnicking? Boating? Perhaps just loafing? Maybe a quiet jungle cruise? Or maybe just lying on the warm, white sands and watching the pretty girls as they stroll by? We've got 'em all, including a superb restaurant, gift shop, snack bar, and cottages."

The Springs website ends the history with this statement: "To the disappointment of many but to the good fortune of those lucky enough to have lived or will live in The Springs Community, Sanlando Tropical Park was acquired and privatized by Mr. Earl Downs in 1970. Mr. Downs transformed The Park into what has become known as simply “The Springs”."

Photographs from the State Archives of Florida
Brochure from Orlando Remembered