Florida Before Disney – it’s Worth a Trip!


Long before Walt Disney had his scouts buy up land around Orlando, Florida was a destination for millions of people seeking a warm place to spend the winters.

by Jan Goldsmith via WikiMedia Commons

Early vacationers were very wealthy. Many built vacation homes and invested in the area, building hotels, resorts, and railroads. After the railroads were finished in the late 1800s, more vacationers were able to visit the coastal areas, but the hotels and resorts were still very expensive.

In 1915, the Dixie Highway was completed, linking Montreal to Miami, making it possible for thousands of visitors who traveled by automobile to come as well. And many of them pulled travel trailers behind them, soon being known as Tin Can Tourists.

by Ebyabe via WikiMedia Commons

When I was a child, my grandmother lived in Florida, in the sleepy little town of Inverness. Although it was (and still is) the county seat of Citrus County, except for the Courthouse on the Square, you’d never have known it was of any importance at all.

Maybe that was part of the attraction for me. It was so different from Atlanta, even in the 1950s. You could walk to “town,” although I don’t remember much of what was there – I’m guessing there had to be a grocery store of some sort, and probably a drugstore, maybe a dress shop, and certainly a dry cleaners.

The house itself was originally built in the typical Cracker style, raised on crumbling brick pillars, with a big screened porch across the front. But at some time, it was poorly divided in half, creating a duplex with a rental unit on one side. There was no central heat – fireplaces took the chill off when necessary, and sometimes a gas heater or two were used if it was really cold. I loved it…

by Jamie Sanford via WikiMedia Commons

But the thing I remember most, besides the old oaks loaded with Spanish moss, is the “grove” of orange and grapefruit trees behind my grandmother’s house. I could climb the trees and sit there for hours, weaving my own stories about life in this magical place where you didn’t have to get into a car and drive wherever you wanted to go. 

As I think back to those times, I also remember the roadside attractions as we traveled down Highway 41. Little service stations with alligators and tropical birds on display, and souvenirs of every description.

When the interstates bypassed most of those small communities, the mom-and-pop attractions were bypassed as well, causing them (perhaps mercifully for the animals) to close. But years later, a few of the original attractions still exist. All have been through numerous ownership changes and many thrive in newly configured arenas.

by Leonard J. DeFrancisci via WikiMedia Commons

Weeki Wachee, opened in 1947, and Silver Springs, whose glass-bottomed boats began running in the 1870s, are two that I remember.

For months after I saw my first mermaid show at Weeki Wachee, I practiced swimming like a mermaid, floating effortlessly through the water, my long hair swirling around me.

I couldn’t do it, of course, and my hair was usually short, anyway. But it was fun to pretend.

And the mermaids are a hardy group who personally saved this attraction!

Now also part of a state park, Silver Springs has expanded to include other attractions as well as the original glass-bottomed boats that I loved. It’s still a great way to spend an afternoon – watching fish swimming around below and hearing about the movies that were filmed in the area.

by Pietro via WikiMedia Commons

And lovely Cypress Gardens, home of Esther Williams movies and water ski tournaments, operated from 1936 to 2009 through several ownership changes.

In 2011, Legoland Florida opened on the grounds of the old Cypress Gardens theme park, preserving the original botanical gardens as a part of the new park. The new Legoland Hotel, adjacent to Lake Eloise and the Legoland Theme Park, is scheduled for opening this summer.

There are other attractions that have held on – Gatorland  and Marineland and Parrot Jungle (now Jungle Island) among them. They’ve had to fight and change and grow from their origins in order to survive against the Mouse. But if you get a chance, stop in to some of these remnants of Florida Before Disney. They’ll bring a smile to your face!

Next: Visit St. Augustine, America's Oldest City

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