See and Do It All at Floridaland!

By the 1960s, Florida was a tourist’s playground. Any family could find something to do, whether it was to hit the beach, catch a few roller coaster rides at the Miracle Strip, stroll through the lush scenery of Cypress Gardens, or take in the historic sights of Key West or St. Augustine. In Florida, you could do anything. But where could you do everything?

Performing dolphins (or porpises) at Floridaland (1967).

Performing dolphins (or porpoises) at Floridaland (1967).

Floridaland near Sarasota aspired to be that place. The park was located on fifty acres between U.S. Highway 41 and Sarasota Bay. It opened on Christmas Day in 1964, and offered ten distinct attractions for one admission price. From the moment visitors walked through the gates and received greetings from the talking macaws posted there, they had the freedom to explore and take in all kinds of entertainment.

One option was to travel back in time and visit the ghost town attraction, where pistol-packing sheriffs would periodically save the day from robbers and troublemakers. Watching the spectacle was tough work, of course, so the Golden Nugget Saloon was nearby to provide refreshments and a show.

Wild West show at Floridaland's Ghost Town (1960s).

Wild West show at Floridaland’s Ghost Town (1960s).

 

“Miss Kitty” performs in a stage show at the Gold Nugget Saloon at Floridaland (1960s).

Families more interested in modern action could choose to visit one of Floridaland’s many shows featuring trained porpoises. Handlers coaxed these animals into doing almost anything for a couple of fish. They jumped high into the air on cue, jumped through the proverbial hoops, and even donned costumes to delight their patrons. On one occasion, Floridaland officials organized the world’s first known “porpoise to porpoise” long distance call. Moby Dick, one of Floridaland’s porpoise performers, contacted his colleague Keiki at Sea Life Park in Hawaii on May 14, 1965 using a specially designed phone. The two chattered for more than five minutes before hanging up.

Porpoise jumps through a pair of hoops over a trainer's lap at Floridaland (1960s).

Porpoise jumps through a pair of hoops over a trainer’s lap at Floridaland (1960s).

Floridaland's sheriff had a little help from this porpoise, who donned a hat and gun in this stunt (1960s).

Floridaland’s sheriff had a little help from this porpoise, who donned a hat and gun in this stunt (1960s).

Other popular animal attractions included Billy Goat Mountain, Deer Park, and the “nursery.” These were especially popular with the youngsters, as they could feed many of the animals by hand and watch them perform up close and personal.

“Billy Goat Mountain” at Floridaland (1965).

Children bottle-feed Floridaland's youngest residents at the

Children bottle-feed Floridaland’s youngest residents at the “nursery” (1960s).

Floridaland enjoyed great success, enough to convince Holiday Inn to build a hotel near the resort only three years after it opened. There were challenges, however. The tanks containing the park’s trained porpoises drew their water from the surrounding bays, which made them vulnerable to contamination with insecticides and dangerous red tide algae. On at least one occasion, the performing animals had to be removed from their home by stretchers and temporarily placed in the swimming pool of the nearby Holiday Inn. Furthermore, the cost of running such an extensive set of attractions was high. Ultimately, this cost became unsustainable. The owners attempted to bump up gate receipts by adding more rides, gardens, and longer shows, but it was not enough. The park closed on July 2, 1971.

Floridaland's tour train (1965).

Floridaland’s tour train (1965).

Floridaland lasted less than a decade, but its attractions were still enjoyed by many, as today’s photos from the Florida Photographic Collection reveal. What were your favorite Florida tourist attractions to visit when you were growing up? Tell us about it by leaving us a comment below.

Also, if you happen to be in the Tallahassee area on Friday, October 17th, visit the State Archives’ slideshow exhibition entitled “The Golden Age of Florida’s Miracle Strip.” The cycling slideshow will feature over 150 historic images of Panama City Beach and its famed Miracle Strip tourist district from the 1930s through the 1970s. Melody May, a promotional model long associated with the Miracle Strip, will be present, and tourism historian Tim Hollis is scheduled to speak about the history of the tourism industry in the Panama City area. Parking and admission are free, and complementary refreshments with a Florida tourism theme will be provided. The event will last from 6-8pm, and will be located in the lobby of the R.A. Gray Building at 500 S. Bronough St. in Tallahassee. Contact the State Archives at 850-245-6719 with any questions.

 

Florida’s Juke Joints

In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, if you had plenty of money and a city’s worth of entertainment at your disposal, you might have chosen to spend your Friday evening at the movies, a night club, or a high-quality restaurant. If, however, you were in rural Florida and looking for something a little less formal and a heap less expensive, you were more likely to drive out to the local juke joint.

Example of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

Example of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

The name “juke joint” was given to the hundreds of dive bars similar to the one pictured above that once appeared all over the state during the early to mid-20th century. They were especially prevalent in rural areas, near sawmills, turpentine camps, and other places with lots of everyday folks who might want to relax a bit without having to get too dressed up to do it.

Interior of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

Interior of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

The origin of the term “juke” is somewhat in dispute, but in Stetson Kennedy’s Palmetto Country, he explains that African-Americans first developed these establishments, since they were barred from saloons and other entertainment venues operated by whites. After Prohibition ended in 1933, however, juke joints for whites began to appear as well.

This juke joint was operated out of the home of a Tallahassee resident (photo April 4, 1959).

This juke joint was operated out of the home of a Tallahassee resident (photo April 4, 1959).

As newspaper accounts and former patrons often explain, juke joints were distinguished by their relaxed, laissez-faire atmosphere. Here, once away from downtown and out from under the all-seeing gaze of the public eye, both men and women could let their hair down a bit and enjoy a few drinks, loud music, and the sort of lowbrow entertainment that might have sent their mothers into a fainting spell.

Two couples enjoy themselves at a juke joint near Belle Glade (January 1939).

Two couples enjoy themselves at a juke joint near Belle Glade (January 1939).

Depending on the place and time, the music came either from a jukebox or a live performance, and there was usually someplace to dance. The kind of music played depended on the source and the crowd. If the joint had a jukebox, the crowd might select anything from Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” to Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” – whatever was popular at the time. If live music was available, blues, country, or jazz might be the order of the day. Blues music was particularly popular in juke joints operated for and by African-Americans, featuring songs with titles like “Mistreatin-Mama,” “Rattlesnake Daddy,” and Drinkin My Blues Away.” A number of Florida’s blues and folk personalities, such as Marie Buggs and “Washboard” Bill Cooke, got their start playing in juke joints.

William

William “Washboard Bill” Cooke with cymbals and his signature washboard. During Cooke’s early childhood, his mother operated a juke joint, where the young Cooke was first exposed to music and dance (photo 1993).

Blues musician Marie Buggs performs at the 1985 Folk Heritage Awards.

Blues musician Marie Buggs performs at the 1985 Folk Heritage Awards.

The names of these watering holes reflected their no-frills character. Most were simply named for their owners, such as Benny’s Place near Brooksville, and Baker Bryan’s, just south of the Florida-Georgia border on U.S. 1 near Hilliard. Others were named more creatively, or at least nicknamed creatively, as was the case with the Bucket of Blood at Jug Island in Taylor County, and the Mystery Ship near Sarasota. The signs that hung in some of these establishments were as colorful as the names. Most were designed to ward off some of the bad behavior that often occurred, including fighting, swearing, and stretching credit just a little too far. Below is a list Stetson Kennedy typed in the 1930s of some of the juke joint signs he encountered while traveling the state as a folklorist for the Florida Federal Writers’ Project.

A page from Stetson Kennedy's notes on juke joints. This and a variety of other resources relating to the Florida Federal Writers' Program are available in Series 1585 (Stetson Kennedy Folklife Collection) at the State Archives of Florida.

A page from Stetson Kennedy’s notes on juke joints. This and a variety of other resources relating to the Florida Federal Writers’ Program are available in Series 1585 (Stetson Kennedy Folklife Collection) at the State Archives of Florida.

While weary laborers and the younger crowd in general found juke joints to be a convenient form of relaxation, parents, teachers, the clergy, and law enforcement often considered them a nuisance at best and an ominous threat to the morals of the community at worst. The correspondence of Florida’s governors contains numerous examples of telegrams, letters, and resolutions calling for some kind of action to counteract the bad influence of these establishments on youth and workers. Local and state law enforcement officials did raid and shut down juke joints from time to time, usually on the suspicion of prostitution or selling liquor illegally.

A telegram to Governor Guller Warren from concerned citizen John Richardson (December 1951).

A telegram to Governor Fuller Warren from concerned citizen John Richardson (December 1951).

Despite the trouble associated with juke joints, the concept was popular, and at one time even attracted the attention of Hollywood. In 1942, Warner Brothers released “Juke Girl,” featuring Ann Sheridan as a Florida juke joint hostess, along with Alan Hale, Richard Whorf, and Ronald Reagan. Yes, that Ronald Reagan.

Times have changed, and most of the juke joints of old have changed considerably or shut down entirely. This is not to say, of course, that cutting loose and having a good time ever went out of style. But “juking” the way it once was done in the seedier but livelier places of Florida back in those days is fast becoming the stuff of history.

Do you have photographs of a Florida juke joint? Were you ever a participant in the festivities? Tell us about it by leaving a comment!

Ghost Hotel: The Unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota

Many people think of the Florida Land Boom and the bust that followed in the 1920s as something that happened mostly on the Atlantic coast. Tales of land being sold “by the gallon” on the edges of the Everglades or lots changing hands three times in a single day tend to be associated with Miami or Palm Beach more often than they are with Tampa or Fort Myers.  The story of the unfinished John Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Sarasota’s Longboat Key is a reminder that the Florida land bubble had a much wider reach.

The cupola of the unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel is shown here (1959).

The cupola of the unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel is shown here (1959).

By the 1920s, Sarasota had become a major center of resort development on the Gulf Coast of Florida. New railroads, paved roads, and automobiles made it easier than ever for visitors to reach the southern tip of the peninsula from anywhere in the United States, and promoters beckoned them southward with promises of luxurious vacations, greater health, and easy living.  For investors, they promised unrivaled profits.

Bird's-eye view of a new tree-lined road heading toward the beach at Venice in Sarasota County. During the heady years of the Florida land boom, new developments popped up all along the Gulf Coast (1926).

Bird’s-eye view of a new tree-lined road heading toward the beach at Venice in Sarasota County. During the heady years of the Florida land boom, new developments popped up all along the Gulf Coast (1926).

John Ringling, who along with his brothers had made a fortune in the traveling circus industry, became a resident of Sarasota in 1912, and very soon he became closely involved with developing the resort city and the barrier islands just offshore. Along with developer Owen Burns, Ringling ventured into the hotel business, buying up the southern tip of Longboat Key with plans to erect a hotel to become part of the Ritz-Carlton franchise.

John Ringling is pictured in the center of this poster advertising the family's circus business (1897).

John Ringling is pictured in the center of this poster advertising the family’s circus business (1897).

Construction began in 1926 with great interest from locals and Florida enthusiasts farther north, but trouble was in the offing from the start. The feverish boom in land speculation and development that had fueled South Florida for years was beginning to wane. Sarasota continued as a resort city, but a large new hotel such as Burns and Ringling’s Ritz-Carlton proved too tall an order to fulfill. Construction stalled on the project, and the arrival of the Great Depression signaled its final doom. Ringling promised to finish it, but was never able to do so. Following a dispute with his business partner Burns, he settled for purchasing Burns’ lavish El Vernona Hotel in Sarasota and renaming it the John Ringling Hotel.

The El Vernona Hotel before it became the John Ringling Hotel following a dispute between John Ringling and his business partner Owen Burns (circa 1925).

The El Vernona Hotel before it became the John Ringling Hotel following a dispute between John Ringling and his business partner Owen Burns (circa 1925).

A postcard view of the John Ringling Hotel (circa 1953).

A postcard view of the John Ringling Hotel (circa 1953).

Meanwhile, the imposing skeleton of the hotel at the tip of Longboat Key continued to deteriorate under the hot Sarasota sun. Before long, trees and shrubs began reclaiming the site of the building, while bats and owls made their homes in its unfinished rooms. Vandals and curious trespassers prowled around the property at night, and at least one person died after falling from one of the upper floors.

An aerial view of the unfinished Ritz-Carlton Hotel at the southern end of Longboat Key (1952).

An aerial view of the unfinished Ritz-Carlton Hotel at the southern end of Longboat Key (1952).

The unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel fades slowly into the landscape (1959).

The unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel fades slowly into the landscape (1959).

The property eventually entered the holdings of the Arvida Corporation, which began making plans for building the Longboat Key Club that exists there today. Having no use for the crumbling hotel building, the company decided to tear it down in 1964. Joseph Steinmetz, a world-renowned commercial photographer whose work documented a wide variety of scenes from American life at all social levels, captured several shots of the hotel as it was being destroyed.

The unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel falls victim to the wrecking ball after years of neglect (1964).

The unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel falls victim to the wrecking ball after years of neglect (1964).

Clouds of dust fill the air as the cupola of the unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel collapses during demolition (1964).

Clouds of dust fill the air as the cupola of the unfinished Ringling Ritz-Carlton Hotel collapses during demolition (1964).

The legacy of John Ringling remains strong in Sarasota, which features the John Ringling Causeway linking Lido Key with the mainland, as well as the imposing John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

A view of the gardens and courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota (1961).

A view of the gardens and courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota (1961).

Sarasota as seen by Joseph Janney Steinmetz

Enjoy some of our favorite photographs of Sarasota from the Joseph Janney Steinmetz Collection.

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (1955)

John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (1955)

Candy Tilton Ulrich at Sarasota Jungle Gardens (November 13, 1948)

Candy Tilton Ulrich at Sarasota Jungle Gardens (November 13, 1948)

Sarasota Beach (1970s)

Sarasota Beach (1970s)

Ca’d’Zan, the Ringling Mansion (ca. 1945)

Ca’d’Zan, the Ringling Mansion (ca. 1945)

Asolo Theater (1961)

Asolo Theater (1961)

At the beach (ca. 1945)

At the beach (ca. 1945)

Flying Wallendas founder Karl Wallenda (ca. 1960s)

Flying Wallendas founder Karl Wallenda (ca. 1960s)