It turned out that the central Florida 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 survivors of those earlier times - not just Weeki Wachee, which dates to 1947, but also 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 a 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. My friend Lisa is cursing because we are relying on our GPS device to lead us to a cellphone store. 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-streaked windshield, a swath of orange. No, wait, it actually is an orange. A giant orange. It's Orange World!
While Orange World 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.
Orange World is a classic roadside attraction right from the parking lot. Towering mounds, pyramids, and other geometric piles of beautiful glowing-orange oranges are displayed in alfresco stands alongside stacks of grapefruit and berries and bananas.
Inside, under the orange dome, is more fruit, of course. And souvenirs - a vast expanse of retail tchotchkes and vacation-only clothing and accessories. Everything is so red-side-of-the-spectrum, so bright under the orange dome and fluorescent lights, that I thought I might have a seizure.
The tech guys at the cellphone store were all admiration when we mentioned that we were on our way to Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales. They echoed what I'd read about the inn: It was the top of the line in the area.
That wasn't my reason for choosing the 26-room inn. I wanted a place that was vintage Florida. And Chalet Suzanne was perfect: It's been in business since 1931, and is still run by the Hinshaw family - now in its fourth generation.
After hearing this high praise - and noting the high prices for rooms and for dining - our expectations were, well, high. The innkeeper led us down the bricked walkway to our room, Bluegate.
Standing on the front patio, she opened the door onto the big room, with two beds in semi-separate areas. She showed us the step-down shower, highlighting the European tiles that lined it top to bottom. She also showed us the carafe of schnapps, which, after a day of technical problems, was a welcome amenity. Then she left.
Lisa and I stood there. She was perhaps thinking the same thing I was: You go first.
The room - you sort of needed to say something about it. But I wasn't sure what. It was . . . slightly bizarre. It was also $189 a night. It was . . . muggy. A bit threadbare. The shower looked like an upright, tiled coffin. Lisa pointed to a noxious-looking stain on one armchair. It was kind of like sleeping at grandma's house, minus the mothball smells - but minus the chicken soup smells, too.
We freshened up and headed for the dining room, where we'd made reservations for what I had read was an award-winning experience.
Again, we were slightly baffled. The ambience was a mix of gourmet and brauhaus. Windows overlooked the lake out back, but it was nighttime, so the view was just of dark. I loved the broiled grapefruit-half appetizer - once they removed the chicken-liver thingy that sat atop it. Otherwise, the food was decent but not remarkable, and at $70 each for a five-course prix-fixe meal, we were underwhelmed.
I was not disappointed on the quirky front, however, especially the architecture. The inn was started by Bertha and Carl Hinshaw, both from wealthy families. The two hoped to turn the place into a well-heeled community/golf enclave. But they lost everything during the Great Depression. Then Carl died of pneumonia, and Bertha was left alone with two small children. She decided, since she had to remain home with the kids, that she would do what she was very good at: cooking. Bertha began offering meals in her house, and then lodging as well. Her business soon grew, especially after traveling salesman/reviewer Duncan Hines (yes, that Duncan Hines) stopped by and gave her a rave review.
Bertha was well-traveled and educated, and wound up creating a sort of Tyrolean village, with a mix of Austrian, Italian, French, Spanish, and Oriental architecture and decor. Tiles that she bought around the world are embedded in the stucco, over doorways and in bathrooms. There's something interesting wherever you look.
Bok Tower Gardens
I wasn't wild to go to Bok Tower Gardens. I mean, you can't even go into the tower. But since it was called a "Singing Tower," and also was just a soup can's toss from the Chalet and guests get two free tickets to go to the place, we figured, why not? Especially since it has been cited as the first attraction in the golden era of tourism.
The halfhearted attitude vanished almost as soon as we got out of the car. The place has a definite aura, an atmosphere of serenity that comes from the beauty of its gardens and ponds, of course, and also from the spirit in which it was created.
Edward William Bok was born in the Netherlands but apparently had a good-enough grasp of the English language to work his way up to editor of the Ladies' Home Journal and won a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography. Bok, a longtime resident of Philadelphia, was a champion of social causes as well as an environmental activist and had a great influence on American architecture. He was a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the century and promoted the young Frank Lloyd Wright Jr. in his magazine.
Bok decided to create "a spot of beauty second to none in the country" on a piece of land he bought at the top of Iron Mountain - at 298 feet, the highest point in the area. He hired Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York City's Central Park, to do the landscaping. And then he added sound - with the building of a carillon, like the ones he remembered from his native Netherlands. His "Singing Tower" was designed as the focal point of the gardens. The place opened in 1929, with the hope that it would "reach out in its beauty to the people, and fill their souls with the quiet, the repose, the influence of the beautiful." Bok died a year later and is buried at the base of the tower.
The carillon at Bok Tower Gardens consists of 60 bells ranging in weight from 16 pounds to nearly 12 tons. The 205-foot-tall marble and stone tower is beautifully carved in an art deco motif. The interior is not open to the public. But there are concerts twice daily.
On YouTube, you can see a video of Weeki Wachee. And except for the sepia tone, it looks much the same out front, where a fountain is topped with a statue depicting two "mermaids." But on this Sunday morning, we are alone walking into Weeki Wachee. A smiling woman takes our ticket; I pause at the sign: "Welcome to the Real Florida," and enter.
Weeki Wachee began in 1947, the brainchild of Newton Perry, a champion swimmer and double for movie Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller. It was a time when promoters were creating all sorts of tourist attractions around water - from glass-bottom boats to the purported Fountain of Youth. Perry created an Underwater Theater by erecting a glass wall on one side of a natural spring - Weeki Wachee; tourists could sit and watch the wildlife swim by.
Then he added mermaids: Perry trained women to stay underwater for long periods of time, with the help of an underwater tubing system used for breathing, while also performing stunts and ballet. By the 1950s, the City of Mermaids was a hot attraction. A school of 35 mermaids performed eight shows daily.
"Back in the 1950s and '60s, there used to be lines like you see now at Disney," marketing manager John Athanason says. "The mermaids were like superstars. But then all the big resorts started moving in."
Weeki Wachee faded a bit. But in the end, its survival was boosted when the springs and environs became a state park. Today park rangers conduct wilderness boat rides and animal demonstrations, included with the price of admission.
We hurry into the mermaid theater, past the rusting sign announcing Newton Perry's Mermaid Theater, the showtimes not posted anymore.
The first show of the day is "A Little Mermaid," the old sea-creature-falls-in-love-with-the-human-non-swimmer story. I don't feel the chemistry, but I am in love with the creatures - the real ones - who swim by. Later, on our boat ride, the guide explains that the stage is just part of the springs, not a tank or any special holding area. So any wildlife in the springs can swim past, from schools of small, silvery fish to rather large, moss-covered turtles. The latter seem to especially love the bubbles emitted by the mermaids, hovering by their shoulders like they have their own roles in the scene. On occasion, manatees come by.
I walk to the back of the theater to take an overview photo and notice two little blond girls and their mother, arms all around one another, eyes wide and riveted to the show before them. They are all dazzled in the same exact way except for the older girl, whose big red hair bow gives her a bit of an edge.
No time to Dali
We have a plane to catch in Tampa-St. Petersburg, but I'm hoping to catch a glimpse of the new and expanded Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. Just seeing the outside of the building, with its mirrored glass bulges oozing through the outer walls, its patio bench with the Dali-esque clock hung across its sagging backrest, makes it worth the stop. Inside it's jammed. We give up the idea of seeing art, instead taking a spin around the gift shop and a glance at the car with the rainstorm inside. There's a huge bug hanging from the ceiling.
I decide I'd rather this not be my final image of the trip. I much prefer the little girl with the red bow.
Orange World, Kissimmee
5395 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (U.S. Highway 192). www.orangeworld192.com
The 26 rooms range from $169 to $229 a night. RV sites with hookups available. www.chaletsuzanne.com
Bok Tower Gardens,
(boktowergardens.org): Admission is $10; children 5-12 $3. Combination ticket, which includes the historic Pinewood Estate, is $16, children $8. Carillon concerts at 1 and 3 p.m. daily. Brief music selections when the clock strikes every half hour. Blue Palmetto Cafe offers fresh, reasonably priced sandwiches, salads, etc.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Weeki Wachee
Park admission - $13 for adults, $5 for children - includes the mermaid shows and boat ride. Other activities include diving, kayaking and canoeing, and Buccaneer Bay Water Park, all requiring extra fees. www.weekiwachee.com
Admission is $21; seniors $19; ages 13 to 18 and students over 18 with ID, $15; children 6-12, $7. www.thedali.org