November 23, 2014

Ahead of the Curve: The Lures of Old Florida

Where to find some of the classic attractions that make our Sunshine State seem so exotic.

 

“Only 500 more miles,” the billboards used to scream. Time was you couldn’t drive more than 20 miles along the highways heading into Florida without seeing advertisements for the classic attractions that made the state seem exotic to folks fleeing the Northern cold.

They promised the “World’s Biggest Gator!” “Real Live Mermaids” and “Alligator Wrestling.” Sadly, many of these classic attractions have been pushed under by Florida’s true state pastime—development.

Now most tourists are making beelines to Disney or Universal Studios, lest they miss a chance to explore the world of Harry Potter. Many of the old attractions have closed up shop.

But Southwest Florida has a few remnants of the kind of Old Florida attractions that captivated travelers, or at least helped them part with a few extra dollars, as they traversed the Sunshine State.

Shell Factory

2787 N. U.S. 41, North Fort Myers, 995-2141, shellfactory.com

Complete with a sign that proclaims it the “World’s Largest,” the Shell Factory has a bit of all the things that make Old Florida attractions great. Hermit crab races? Check. Petting zoo? Check. Bumper boats? Check. Plus, there’s a stuffed zebra, a dog park, a flea market, a year-round Christmas store, camel rides and giant dinosaur sculptures.

Oh yeah, and more shells, coral and calcified sea life than you can shake a stick at. You can easily lose an afternoon or a whole day wandering around this 76-year-old park.

 

Everglades Wonder Gardens

27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs, 992-2591, evergladeswondergardens.net

Formerly an animal rehabilitation center and zoo, the longtime Bonita landmark has a new life as a botanical garden/museum/art gallery with a few animals to keep it company. Set along the Imperial River, this shady park is a great place to explore the various flora of our area as well as a few exotic species that have called it home for three generations.

 

Smallest Post Office in the United States

Along U.S. 41 about three miles east of State Road 29 in Ochopee

This is more of a quick photo op than a place for exploration, but it is certainly an oddity not to be missed. What was once an outbuilding used for storing irrigation pipes for a nearby tomato farm, the tiny shed was converted to a post office in 1953 after a fire destroyed Ochopee’s previous post office and general store. It’s still fully functional and serving the population of the Miccosukee and Seminole Indian reservation nearby. Go get something postmarked, grab a picture and head on to Miami.

 

500,000: The annual number of people who visited the famed mermaid shows at Weeki Wachee Springs in the 1960s

 

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