Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Wonderous glimpse into the past

For a short time it looked like it looked like my visit to Everglades Wonder Gardens might not happen, but a window opened up and I squeezed in a quick trip to this wonderful vintage roadside attraction last Saturday. It had been high on my list to visit because the future of the 75 year-old institution is uncertain, as the owners are exploring selling their property. Located on Old US 41 in downtown Bonita Spring's quaint little downtown, the property could be the cornerstone to that area's redevelopment. But for now, it is still a vintage time capsule, very much a portal to the past where roadside curiosities lured travelers off the road, well before theme parks were invented. And that is the charm of the place, it has personality and is an expression of one family's vision, not a team of Imagineers. Having visited Disney's Animal Kingdom just weeks previous, the contrast between the two parks was jarring, symbols of the changes in the last 70 years of tourism in Florida.

Brothers Bill and Lester Piper moved to Florida in the early 1930s and purchased the riverfront property that the Gardens sit on today. The siblings collected reptiles from the nearby Everglades and started a small roadside zoo on the Tamiami Trial in 1936. In the 1940s they added Florida Panthers to their growing collection of animals, which was supplemented (and still is today) by injured animals needing rehabilitation from all over SW Florida. The two most famous animals in their collection were Tom, a large Black Bear who starred in The Yearling, and Big Joe, a 15 ft. long North American Crocodile (he is still on display today in a glass case thanks to taxidermy.) Also worth noting is that at least one Florida Panther from Everglades Wonder Gardens was re-introduced into the wild by the National Park Service to help revitalize the ever diminishing numbers of Florida's native big cat. For a more extensive history on the Gardens, I recommend this website.

Tom, the Florida Black Bear, played Old Slewfoot in the filming of The Yearling in 1946. Here he is with EWG co-owner Bill Piper.
State Archives of Florida

It's hard to miss the gardens today, as beautifully painted signs bookend the property on Old 41. One enters the attraction through a tin-roof style cabin with a big covered porch out front. Doubling as the gift shop, a wide variety of taxidermy treasures are sprinkled amidst t-shirts and standard tourist baubles. After paying admission, one starts the tour of the Gardens in the fabulous museum, which is full of a wide array of preserved animals. A collection of old Florida memorabilia, animal bones, and bizarre relics, the museum is wonderful and macabre, in a Ripley's sort of way.

Tours are offered continuously, so a guide takes you from the museum to the tour where ever it is in the Gardens; however you are free to leave the tour and explore on your own at anytime. I liked this tradition of conveying information about the plants and animals vocally, versus having text panels throughout the park. While it was by no means crowded, a dedicated band followed our guide, hanging on his every word and closely examining each animal. The difference between the environments the animals live in here and the ones I recently witnessed at Animal Kingdom, is expressed very well in a hand a painted sign outside the entrance:
"We have early 1930's animal housing which enables a guest to get up close and personal to each exhibit." The sign continues "These enclosures are nestled among one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world. We feature predominantly animal wildlife, but we do have other species from Asia, Africa and South America. Visitors through the our Gardens are taken on a tour by experienced guides at no extra charge. During this tour enjoy the alligator feedings and otter shows which are a part of every tour."

The question is, does a 75 year-old roadside attraction still have a place in 21st century Florida? In a state that changes as quickly as Florida does, it is amazing that it has been able to survive as long as it has. On the day that I visited, I could easily imagine being a visitor in the early days of the Tamiami Trail, and getting a glimpse into Florida's roadside past was quite a treat.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Discovering downtown Bonita Springs

Mile after mile of new development, cookie cutter commercial and residential properties, and every retail establishment known to man, left me road-weary and pessimistic as we drove up the Tamiami Trail from Naples to Bonita Springs. A wedding was the reason for the excursion to SW Florida and a two and half hour break between the service and the reception gave me the opportunity to get out of the suffocating newness that is Naples. After checking in at the chain motel my wife and I were staying in, I headed towards Everglades Wonder Garden (future post) on Old US 41 and discovered downtown Bonita Springs. I knew I had escaped the homogeneity of the new Tamiami Trail when I saw a giant red A-frame looming ahead, a former Diary Queen turned Mexican restaurant. A left turn down old 41 and I found other bits of Bonita Spring's roadside past as well. I was intrigued enough to come back the next morning and take some more photographs. As downtowns go, it was really more of a loose scattering of roadside buildings than a concentration of cohesive architecture. But it was sublimely quiet with just a nip of coolness in the air, and it was a wonderful escape from the sensory overload of modern SW Florida.

Some quick notes about Bonita Springs from this website:
• The town traces its origins to government surveyors who camped near a spring the Native American residents believed had healing powers
• Named Survey, the area developed into a hunting and fishing destination in the early 20th century
• Developers changed the name to Bonita Springs in 1912
• Legendary developer Barron Collier, at one time the single largest landholder in the entire United States, extended his railroad to reach Bonita Springs and later ushered in even more growth with the creation of the Tamiami Trail from Tampa to Miami

The former Bonita Springs Hotel is still there, but closed behind a chain link fence

I'm guessing that this is Survey Creek, since the Survey Cafe was nearby...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hotel Marion in the Kingdom of the Sun

The back edge of a cold front was moving though Ocala, sucking away all the humidity from the air and leaving bright blues skies and stretched out clouds. As I approached the Hotel Marion, I was mostly focused on what was above the building. Fortunately I found more photos in the Wikimdeia Commons by Ebyabe showing more of this great old building. This blog shows some great ephemera from the hotel in its prime.

Some stats:
• Built 1927
• Added to the Historic Register 1980
• 100 rooms
• Rates for a single room were $2 a night, year round

The Hotel Marion strikes me as the quintessential 1920s Florida boom hotel; similar to others in Gainesville (Seagle Building), Lake Wales (Dixie Walesbilt) and Lakeland (Terrace Hotel). They are beautiful relics of a distant age of prosperity; some have entered the 21st century gracefully and others are slowly decaying. I'd say the Hotel Marion is doing fairly well for grand old lady approaching the end of her first century of existence.

Historical artifacts in the lobby

Images below by Ebyabe

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Lesser is more

At the Animal Kingdom last weekend I encountered the Lesser Flamingo; the red-eyed, black beaked cousins of the colorful birds that have come to symbolize the state of Florida. While the American (Caribbean) Flamingo can be seen in theme parks and roadside attractions throughout the state, this was my first experience with the Lesser Flamingos who are native to Africa. There are six varieties of flamingos, three are native to Africa and three are native to South and Central America. The Lesser Flamingo habitat ranges from southwestern Africa to India and as far north as Spain.

The more familiar American or Caribbean Flamingo at Silver Springs

The color of flamingos vary from a light pink to a dark reddish salmon color due to their diet which is high in Beta Carotene. The Lessers we saw at the Disney park were more pale in coloration than their Caribbean counterparts we saw at Silver Springs a month earlier, but their eerie red eyes and odd behaviors made them just as striking. Although I don't remember seeing this variety before, says Lessers are the most common of all flamingos and the type that you are most likely to see in captivity. Despite their impressive numbers the population of the Lesser Flamingo is decreasing as floods, droughts and pollution are taking a toll on the ability these incredible birds have to survive in the wild.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The 21st century Florida bird show

The tropical bird show has long been a staple of Florida tourism. Parrot Jungle, Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Sunken Gardens, Busch Gardens, and even Weeki Wachee all had bird shows. The image of the bicycling parrot is right up there with mermaids and flamingos as icons of Florida's tourist past. At places like Sarasota Jungle Gardens, the show goes on much as it has for decades, with colorful South American birds doing contrived human-like tricks for their handlers. A vintage brochure for Parrot Jungle asks:

Parrot Jungle opened south of Miami in 1936 and is still in operation today as Jungle Island, relocated on an island between Miami and Miami Beach.

Sunken Gardens offered a bird show as well, but now that the City of St. Petersburg owns the venerable old attraction, the colorful Macaws and Parrots are relegated to cages.

Today the animal shows at both SeaWorld and Universal Studios focus on animal behavior and training and both feature bird performers. But the 21st century equivalent of the traditional Florida bird show has to be the Flights of Wonder Show at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Created by Disney's famed imagineers, the show is clever, funny and educational. "Instead of showcasing 'tricks,' they instead focus on only natural behaviors," according to "Beta Mike" who was formerly manager of attractions at the Asia section of Animal Kingdom. The message is heavy on conservation and the character of parrots is revealed to be "temperamental and (parrots) outlive their humans."

The show begins with an a trainer on an elaborate stage designed to look like a Silk Road Caravan Stage. She is joined on stage by "Guano Jane" a Disney comedian who jokes about wishing to see a parrot ride a bike. According to Beta Mike, the reference is a "tongue-in-cheek reference to the old Parrot Jungle shows," but the intention is to "shred every inkling people might have that they are about to see one of those old shows." The banter between the trainer and the Guano Jane is amusing, but the birds steal the show. We saw the following birds perform: Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, American Bald Eagle, Augur Buzzard, Gray-Crowned Crane, Harris Hawk, Macaw, Yellow-napped Amazon Parrot, Barred Owl and Spectacle Owl.

The birds for the most part played along, except for a Barred Owl which refused to cooperate. Birds swooped just inches away from the delighted audience's heads and one well-trained tropical bird actually snatched a dollar bill right out of a visitor's hand and then returned it. Guano Jane quipped "that's the first time any one's ever gotten their money back at a theme park."

The show closed with the entrance of a gorgeous Bald Eagle. Former Weeki Wachee mermaid Bonnie Georgiadis who later ran the bird show at Weeki Wachee, said during Lu Vicker's talk at the Floridiana Festival "...nothing compares the feeling of releasing a Bald Eagle into the wild," comparing her underwater swimming career to her bird show career. Seeing a bald eagle this close, it is easy to understand why.

As a lover of old attractions, I admit I enjoy the dated vintage shows like the one at Sarasota Jungle Gardens. But I also appreciate how the creative resources and attention-to-detail of Disney have updated a great old Sunshine State classic.

Black and white images from the State Archives of Florida