Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel

Henry Flagler opened the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach on February 11, 1894 with only 17 guests. The paint was fresh, and the electric lighting was so new it was advertised as a unique amenity. Flagler had built this palace as a winter playground for America’s richest travelers, planting it right off the main line of his Florida East Coast Railway. If they so chose, his guests could conduct their private railway cars right up to the hotel’s entrance.

Royal Poinciana Hotel - Palm Beach (circa 1900).

Royal Poinciana Hotel – Palm Beach (circa 1900).

The 17 original guests must have had a good time, because Flagler expanded the hotel almost immediately after it was opened, increasing its capacity to 1,000 guests. The size of the structure was immense; the Royal Poinciana had over 3 miles of hallways. With the telephone still a rare luxury, hotel employees were obliged to carry messages between guest rooms and the front desk by bicycle. At one point the hotel was reputed to be the largest wooden structure in the world.

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Flagler spared little if any expense entertaining his wealthy patrons. Guests could play golf, swim in the pool, or listen to the orchestra, which played every day in the hotel pavilion. Guides took those inclined to fish out into the Atlantic, sometimes bringing in dozens of mackerel in a single day’s catch.

Just in case some of the guests found all of this luxury a bit monotonous, the hotel staff occasionally planned special events. In one instance, pictured below, a parade of decorated boats was floated past the hotel for the amusement of its patrons.

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

To keep the sights, sounds, and smells of Palm Beach as clean as possible, the designers limited the presence of the railroad and automobiles. Also, hotel staff rarely used horses, mules, or other animals to transport supplies or people. The primary modes of transportation on Palm Beach for guests were bicycles and “wheelchairs,” pedi-cabs in our own parlance.

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A “wheelchair” or pedi-cab carrying guests in the vicinity of the Royal Poinciana Hotel (circa 1900).

Running such a complex operation as the Royal Poinciana Hotel naturally required a large and varied labor force. By the time the hotel was up and running Flagler had hired over a thousand workers. He built quarters for them across Lake Worth from the hotel in what is now called West Palm Beach. The employees used rowboats to get to and from work for each shift.

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

The Royal Poinciana commanded the high-end hospitality market in Palm Beach for a number of years, but even such a sprawling wilderness of luxury as this had its weaknesses. In 1925, the nearby Breakers Hotel burned and was rebuilt. Since it was newer and offered updated amenities, it drew many guests away from the Royal Poinciana. Furthermore, the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 badly damaged the north wing of the hotel, shifting part of it off its foundation. The arrival of the Great Depression in 1929 was the final blow. The Royal Poinciana Hotel closed in 1934, and was torn down within a year.

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

The Royal Poinciana Hotel is just one of Florida’s many historic hotels that have come and gone over the years. For more photos of the Royal Poinciana and other palatial buildings, search the Florida Photographic Collection.

 

 

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.

 

Welcome to Florida!

Florida was one of the first states to create highway welcome centers, which have now become almost standard across the nation. The establishment of the Dixie Highway routed travelers as far north as Michigan into the state of Florida via a little town called Yulee. Leaders of the growing Florida tourism industry saw this as an excellent opportunity to educate out-of-towners on the many sites and attractions the state had to offer.

Ribbon cutting at opening of hospitality house in Yulee, FL (1949).

Florida’s First Lady, Mrs. Fuller Warren cuts the ribbon at hospitality house opening ceremony – Yulee, Florida (November 4, 1949).

Florida’s first “hospitality house” opened in Yulee in the fall of 1949 on the Georgia-Florida line. Seven more centers followed to greet visitors arriving via US1/301 in Hilliard, US41 near Jennings, US231 near Campbellton, US90 in Pensacola, a marine center in Fernandina Beach, US27 in Havana, and US19 near Monticello.

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

People in front of welcome sign- Havana, Florida (1962).

Unidentified ladies and a man in front of the welcome sign – Havana, Florida (1962).

Although these original facilities have since come and gone, they created a long-standing tradition for offering complimentary orange juice, maps, attraction information, and assistance for tourists with travel inquiries. They also featured picnic and restroom facilities (and anyone who has been on a road trip understands the sanctity and relief of a well placed “restroom” sign).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Today there are five Official Florida Welcome Centers operated by Visit Florida. They are located on Interstate 10 in Pensacola, US231 near Campbellton, the State Capitol in Tallahassee, Interstate 75 in Live Oak, and Interstate 95 near Jacksonville. Personnel now undergo training to receive a national Information Specialist certification to better serve visitors. Otherwise, not much has changed in the way of good ole’ friendly service you can expect at any one of these stations.

The I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Interior of the I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Since the first welcome center opened in 1949, the State of Florida has estimated that 90 million visitors have been received, and more than 200 million maps have been distributed. Now that’s a lot of free orange juice!

Florida welcome sign - Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

Florida welcome sign – Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

If you’re traveling through the Sunshine State this summer, be sure to stop at an Official Florida Welcome Center. If you’re stuck at home for the moment, you can still enjoy a bit of Florida by searching for your favorite Sunshine State destinations in the Florida Photographic Collection.

 

Please Pass the Rattlesnake

The diamondback rattlesnake doesn’t exactly enjoy the best reputation among Florida’s wildlife. Generations of Floridians and visitors have been warned of the potentially deadly consequences of its bite, and as a result this venomous reptile is seldom a welcome sight when spotted.

A diamondback rattlesnake in Cedar Key, Florida (2001).

A diamondback rattlesnake in Cedar Key, Florida (2001).

That being said, rattlesnakes have also been a subject of great curiosity, when viewed from a safe distance at least. Eager entrepreneurs have tried in a number of ways to tap into this cautious enthusiasm over the years, including reptile shows, theme parks, reptile-skin gifts and clothing, and even by offering reptile meat as a food item.

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, who founded the Floridian Products Corporation (circa 1930s).

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, who founded the Floridian Products Corporation (circa 1930s).

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, Florida was one such businessman who made a living selling rattlesnakes in any way he could. Around 1930, he was helping his two young sons skin a rattlesnake they had just killed when the idea suddenly struck him to try cooking the meat to see what it would taste like. End found the meat tender and the flavor good, and he began experimenting with it to see how it could best be prepared as a marketable product.

An advertisement for the Floridian Products Corporation, showing a list of prices for its various products (1933).

An advertisement for the Floridian Products Corporation, showing a list of its various products (1933).

The result was the Floridian Products Corporation, Rattlesnake Division. End began selling every part of the snake that might capture the whimsy of a customer, from the skin to the rattles, the fangs, oil made from snake fat, and even live snakes themselves. Among the most popular products was End’s “Genuine Diamondback Rattlesnake with Supreme Sauce,” a canned portion of rattlesnake meat prepared with a sauce of meat stock, mushrooms, and heavy cream. Advertisements recommended serving the meat in pastry shells or on thin slices of toast as an appetizer for cocktails. End and his associates promoted the meat as a delicacy, and encouraged customers to “be the first in your neighborhood to give a rattlesnake dinner.”

A can of George End's famous rattlesnake in supreme sauce (circa 1930s).

A can of George End’s famous rattlesnake in supreme sauce (circa 1930s).

End’s bid for greatness as Florida’s main purveyor of rattlesnake products was successful. He first set up a factory for processing the rattlesnakes in Arcadia, not far from Florida’s Gulf Coast near Port Charlotte and Sarasota. The surrounding territory was largely undeveloped and full of scrub palmetto and other heavy growth, which made it ideal hunting grounds for the snake hunters who captured rattlesnakes to bring to End for processing. Later, as business picked up, End moved his main operation to Tampa, where he established his own “Rattlesnake Cannery and Emporium” in a two-story building at the corner of Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard. In addition to processing the snakes, he also put on shows for visitors, who gasped in amazement as he and his associates handled the live rattlers and “milked” them to obtain the venom for medical purposes. End even managed to obtain permission to operate a post office at the site, naturally called “Rattlesnake.” Tourists were only too happy to send mail from this location, since it bore the unique “Rattlesnake, Fla.” postmark.

The original headquarters of the Floridian Products Corporation in Arcadia. Pictured out front are representatives of Elks Magazine, who were on their annual goodwill tour around the United States (circa 1933).

The original headquarters of the Floridian Products Corporation in Arcadia. Pictured out front are representatives of Elks Magazine, who were on their annual goodwill tour around the United States (circa 1933).

End’s success stemmed in part from the novelty and allure of his product, but his skills as a promoter were none too shabby. In addition to his “Rattlesnake” post office and attractive stop-over for tourists, he also at times took to the road to promote his products. Anyone who partook of a rattlesnake meal was furthermore entitled to membership in one of End’s reptile-related “clubs,” and would receive a membership card with their order. No doubt many a tourist left Florida proudly credentialed as a member of the “Reptile Science League,” the “Ancient Epicurean Order of Rattling Reptile Revelers,” or the “Subtle Society of Snake Snackers.”

A membership card for George K. End's "Rattling Reptile Revelers," obtainable with the purchase of a can of End's rattlesnake with supreme sauce. This card was found in the collection of longtime Florida folklorist Stetson Kennedy at the State Archives of Florida (circa 1933).

A membership card for George K. End’s “Rattling Reptile Revelers,” obtainable with the purchase of a can of End’s rattlesnake with supreme sauce. This card was found in the collection of longtime Florida folklorist Stetson Kennedy at the State Archives of Florida (circa 1933).

As the shadow of World War II emerged on the horizon at the start of the 1940s, George End was threatened with the loss of his most vital helpers in the rattlesnake industry, the young men of soldiering age who went out and actually caught the snakes. Unfazed, he reputedly claimed that Rattlesnake, Florida would “go on to bigger things and better things, in spite of hell, Hitler, and high water.”

He was almost right. On July 27, 1944, End was working with a six-foot rattler that had just arrived at his headquarters when the snake struck at his right hand between his thumb and forefinger. For all the time George End had spent working with deadly rattlesnakes, he had never in his life been snakebitten before, but once was enough. He administered anti-venom to himself, but it was ineffective. He died in a matter of hours.

The Rattlesnake, Fla. post office and the emporium at Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard closed down eventually, and End’s rattlesnake empire began to fade into memory. Mrs. End sold the cannery equipment along with its patents and formulas to herpetologist Ross Allen, whose Reptile Institute at Silver Springs, Florida served as both a tourist attraction and a site for anti-venom research.

Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake for its venom, which could then be used to create anti-venom and conduct research (circa 1940s).

Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake for its venom, which could then be used to create anti-venom and conduct research (circa 1940s).

George End’s rattlesnake attraction was one of a multitude of Florida tourist spots whose peculiar nature and humble origins make them treasures of the history of the Sunshine State. What kinds of tourist attractions do you remember from Florida’s past? Did any of them have to do with snakes or other reptiles? Post a comment below and share your story!

In a State of Kitschiness: Jungle Land and Alvin’s Island

The early Miracle Strip along Panama City Beach was, and is, traditionally known for its outlandish attractions designed to entertain visitors to the Florida Gulf Coast. One such attraction was Jungle Land. Originally begun as housing for a roadside zoo attraction in the mid-1960s, the oversized artificial volcano reflected the whimsical architecture of reinforced stucco and concrete that was beginning to dot the coast.

Jungle Land Attraction in Panama City (1966).

Jungle Land Attraction in Panama City (1966).

Owner Val Valentine hired young women dressed (more or less) in full “Jungle Jane” gear to serve as tour guides leading visitors on a “dangerous” (again, more or less) tour through a winding cave to the center of the structure. Along the way, people could peek through holes in the cavern’s walls to get a glimpse of the “lava” bubbling at the core. Valentine also had the volcano fully stocked with smoke pots to emit smoke and flame from the opening which could be seen from quite a distance. Wild animals were kept at the center of Jungle Land and were trained by his “cave girls” to put on various performances for the tourists.

Women with Parrots at Jungle Land (1969).

Women with Parrots at Jungle Land (1969).

Although Jungle Land has since disappeared as a roadside attraction in Panama City, you can still experience the original, volcano-like structure which now houses Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain store. Venturing inside is a lot like walking into a colorful stalactite wonderland lined with plush dolphins and wholesale puka shell wind chimes. Nestled further into the center of the building (below the floor with the bathing suit cover-ups), you can find live alligators. Sometimes a trainer is on hand to give customers a chance to meet and greet these native reptiles.

Model Melody May posing in front of volcano at the Jungle Land attraction in Panama City (1966).

Model Melody May posing in front of volcano at the Jungle Land attraction in Panama City (1966).

The area may have lost an icon of kitsch when Jungle Land shut its doors for good in the early 1980s, but Alvin’s Island has rather historic roots in the area as well. Alvin Walsingham, founder of the Alvin’s Island chain, sought to cater to the booming tourist and souvenir business that was coming to define Panama City’s Miracle Strip. In 1981, he purchased the defunct Jungle Land volcano and opened a branch of his chain as the Magic Mountain store.

Alvin's Island Ad (circa 1980s). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Alvin’s Island Ad (circa 1980s). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Walsingham built onto to the volcano, ensuring that the new additions matched the existing rock-like structure. The store has since cut back on allowing the volcano to erupt, but has also tried to maintain the original pseudo-Polynesian and tropical theme that Valentine had envisioned. Today there are several Alvin’s Island locations in the Florida panhandle, including in Destin and Fort Walton Beach. The crown jewel, of course, is still the Magic Mountain Store!

Alvin's Island Magic Mountain Store (2013). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain Store (2013). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

See our photo exhibit entitled Roadside Attractions in Florida for more images of sites like Alvin’s Island.

When Disney Came to Florida

Walt Disney World, the epicenter of the Disney entertainment empire and a vacation destination for millions of visitors each year, has been a thriving part of Florida tourism since 1971. But how did it get here? Walt Disney had already been operating Disneyland in Anaheim, California with great success since 1955. Practically every major city in the United States and many others around the world had invited Disney to bring his creativity to their vicinity, but for years Walt had appeared content to stick to one location and use Disneyland as the laboratory for his ideas. Yet by the late 1960s he had selected a swampy patch of ground just outside Orlando and Kissimmee to build what would become one of the world’s most popular places to visit.

A view of Cinderella's Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney's Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

A view of Cinderella’s Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney’s Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

In reality, Walt Disney had been eying possible locations for another theme park since the late 1950s. While Disneyland had been a resounding hit so far, the East Coast crowd had not taken to visiting as often as Disney and his team hoped they would. The solution, they believed, was to build a park in the east. Several potential projects were sketched out, including one in New Jersey, one in St. Louis, and even one in the Palm Beach area. Each of these possibilities fell through for various reasons, but over time Walt Disney’s attention settled on Florida as the most promising place for a new Disney attraction. Early in 1963, Disney gathered up a small team of trusted associates and sent them to Florida to locate between five and ten thousand acres of land for the new park. The project was kept secret at this stage, because Disney believed if word got loose that he was in the market for land in Central Florida, speculation would raise land prices sky-high. Consequently, the Florida project was referred to among the Disney inner circle as “Project X” or “Project Future.”

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park's opening (1967).

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park’s opening (1967).

Disney himself assisted in selecting the land near Orlando and Kissimmee. Locating the new park at the center of the state rather than on the coast eliminated some of the risk of damage from hurricanes, as well as the direct competition from the beaches themselves for visitors’ time. “We’ll create our own water,” he reportedly said. Once he had decided on the Orlando location, Disney worked with local representatives to buy up parcels of land using a series of nine “front” companies with names like the Latin-American Development & Management Corporation and the Reedy Creek Ranch, Inc. By the middle of 1965, Disney had purchased over 27,000 acres for just over five million dollars.

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company's new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney's brother (circa 1965).

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company’s new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s brother (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965). Roy Disney is second from left.

As the planning continued, it became increasingly difficult to keep the project a secret. By the autumn of 1965, the press had called out Disney’s land purchases, and Walt and his associates decided to go public with their plans. Governor Haydon Burns confirmed the Disney rumors as early as October 24th, but his office worked with the folks at Disney to plan a formal press conference for November 15th at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando to make the official announcement. Dubbed “Disney Day” by the Florida Development Commission and various state officials, Governor Burns called it “the most significant day in the history of Florida.” Burns’ staff sent scores of invitations to media outlets, chambers of commerce, and local officials from around the state to dramatize the occasion. Walt Disney and his brother Roy sat on either side of Governor Burns as he explained to the many reporters and cameras how much the new attraction would mean to Florida. He predicted a fifty percent increase in tourism, as well as new tax revenue that would bring prosperity to the entire region.

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

 

Watch a clip from the press conference below, or click here to view the full conference video.

At the press conference, Walt Disney spoke only in broad generalities about what he intended to do at the new park. Considering how much secrecy had surrounded the land purchases, some might have easily believed he was purposely concealing his plans. In reality, his vague description owed mostly to the fact that very little had been definitely decided at that point about what Walt Disney World would actually look like. Walt hadn’t even set foot on the property yet; he would do that for the first time the next morning.

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist's concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist’s concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

After the announcement, however, the project moved swiftly. Disney “Imagineers” and other designers began sketching out the various parts of the new Florida resort, while contractors began preparing the actual site. The complexity of the new undertaking required a great deal of cooperation between the Disney corporation and governments at the state and local level. On May 12, 1967, Governor Claude Kirk signed into law new legislation creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District and two municipalities within it, Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (later renamed Lake Buena Vista). Situating the Disney property within these new entities enabled the company to develop the resort with a greater measure of independence regarding taxation and land use restrictions.

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 with two hotels and the Magic Kingdom theme park. Over the years new attractions emerged, including EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and a wide variety of hotels and other amenities. Walt Disney, the man whose dream gave shape to the project, sadly did not live to see his masterpiece completed. Disney passed away in December of 1966, well before the park opened. As Walt himself once explained, however, the world of Disney entertainment was much bigger than Disney the man or his ambitions. “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing,” he once said, “that it was all started by a mouse.”

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

What are your favorite memories from visiting Walt Disney World? Were you around to see the opening? Tell us about your experiences by leaving a comment below!

 

The “Swami of the Swamp”: Dick Pope and Florida’s Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s earliest and most famous themed attractions, has been capturing the imaginations of visitors for over seventy years. Originally opened by visionary promoter Dick Pope and his wife Julie in the mid-1930s, the gardens featured acres of blooming flowers, trees, and shrubbery, along with aquatic stunt shows and boat tours.

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

Although the beauty of the gardens alone makes them a Florida treasure, the story of how Cypress Gardens came to be is an equally valuable part of the rich history of Florida tourism. The land was little more than a swamp when founder Dick Pope acquired it, but Pope’s cunning business mind combined with a little luck to make the whole production come off beautifully. As Pope once told author Norman Vincent Peale, his motto was to “think big about everything.”

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The “Swami of the Swamp” himself, Dick Pope, Sr (1966).

The idea to build a botanical garden for tourists came to Pope during a rough patch in his life. In the 1910s and 1920s, he and his brother Malcolm had been heavily involved in aquatic stunts and boat racing, as well as developing promotions for outboard motor companies like Johnson Motors. As the Great Depression took hold, however, demand for his services dropped, and Pope found himself looking for other projects. He was riding with his wife Julie in their car one day when a magazine article caught his eye. A man in Charleston, South Carolina had built up an impressive set of gardens on his estate, and had had success getting tourists to pay a small admission charge to visit. Dick Pope decided he could do something similar in Winter Haven, Florida, where he had spent much of his childhood and teenage years.

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

Pope quickly bought up several acres of land and a shuttered boat club on Lake Eloise and began preparing them for service as a botanical garden. The labor necessary to achieve this was extensive, of course, but Pope had a few ideas up his sleeve. He approached the local commission charged with managing the canals connecting Lake Eloise with the neighboring bodies of water, and convinced its board to invest $2,800 in his project, which he called “a community park.” He also incorporated the new attraction as a non-profit organization so he could apply for funding from the Works Progress Administration to construct it. After touring the area in a boat with Dick Pope explaining his plans, representatives from the WPA signed off on the project, and soon Dick Pope had a group of federal relief workers busy clearing brush, improving canals, and laying out walkways to serve the new gardens.

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

It wasn’t long before local and federal officials realized that this was much more a private venture than a community park, and the WPA and the local canal commission withdrew their support. Pope was jokingly labeled the “Swami of the Swamp” and the “Maharaja of Muck” for his manipulative handiwork, but he remained determined to open Cypress Gardens. He reorganized the business and began the planting process with the help of gardener Vernon Rutter of Tennessee. Julie Pope was heavily involved as well, as her husband admitted that he “didn’t know an azalea from a carrot” in those early days. Pope also enlisted the assistance of photographer Robert Dahlgren to ensure that the gardens were laid out in such a way that no matter which direction a camera was pointed, the photograph it captured would be appealing.

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Cypress Gardens officially opened on January 24, 1935. Pope pulled every string in his arsenal of connections to get photographs of the gardens placed in newspapers and magazines across the country. He even managed to get the new attraction featured in several films, which added to the publicity. He invited beauty queens, movie stars, aquatic stunt performers – anyone who might draw attention to Cypress Gardens. Over time, the gardens would host a wide array of distinguished guests, including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, President John F. Kennedy, and King Hussein of Jordan. Even the Shah of Iran came once to water-ski on the lake. Asked about the honor of hosting the Shah, Pope quipped, “There’s no business like Shah business.”

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

Cypress Gardens remained successful in the coming years, although changes in tourism and demographics began taking their toll by the early 1970s. Gas prices and shortages, the arrival of larger parks like Walt Disney World, and the tendency of families to make shorter, more location-specific trips cut into the attraction’s market share. Dick Pope and his son, Dick Pope, Jr., tried to adjust to meet the challenge, but found it impossible to catch up. The attraction changed hands several times before finally closing in 2009. The gardens themselves have been preserved as part of a new attraction called Legoland.

Dick Pope passed away in 1988, but his contributions to Florida tourism are honored in several lasting tributes. The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Tourism Studies is named for him, and in 2014 Cypress Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens? Tell us about your experiences by commenting on our post. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of your favorite Florida tourist attractions.

The Lewis Plantation

With summer on the way and the school year coming to a close for many districts, Floridians can expect an uptick in the number of tourists coming into the state to enjoy its many natural and man-made attractions. Over the years, Florida has been home to a wide variety of tourist attractions, some beautiful, some exotic, and some that would be quite shocking if they were around today.

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The Lewis Plantation, a tourist stop just south of Brooksville on U.S. 41 in Hernando County, falls squarely into the last category. After operating for a number of years merely as one of Florida’s many turpentine distilleries, its owner, Pearce Lewis, hit upon a scheme in the 1930s to tap into the booming tourist industry. After making a few adjustments to the buildings and adding a few vintage objects, Lewis rebranded the distillery as an “authentic” antebellum plantation, and invited visitors to come see what life had been like in the South before slavery was abolished. So far, this may not sound too different from most other historic plantation sites and museums, but with the Lewis Plantation there was a twist. Because Lewis already had dozens of workers, mostly African-American, operating the turpentine distillery on the site, he decided to incorporate them into the tourist attraction, so that his employees doubled as reenactors of antebellum slavery.

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

For a nominal fee (fifteen cents in the early days) visitors to the Lewis Plantation could take a tour of the grounds in a mule-drawn wagon. Along the way, they could see the actual homes where the African-American employees lived, which were mostly without electricity or running water. Newspaper accounts of the tour commented cheerily on the quaintness of these scenes, noting how closely they resembled what life must have looked like in the slave quarters of the South’s antebellum plantations. Although it was something of an anachronism, the tour usually included a trip to the distillery, where the people who lived in these ramshackle houses carried out the tedious process of extracting turpentine from the sap of nearby stands of pine trees.

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Along the way, the tour guide would often stop and have one of the African-American employees tell a story to the visitors. “Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery in 1860 just before the outbreak of the Civil War, was one of the more popular storytellers, and was at one time featured in the popular Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column. The entertainment also sometimes included singing from some of the employees, some of whom were organized into a “harmony quartet.”

“Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery just before the Civil War, at the Lewis Plantation (circa 1940s).

The Lewis Plantation had other amenities, including overnight lodging and a restaurant called “The Plantation Kitchen.” Blanche, an African-American woman who did the cooking during most of the attraction’s lifetime, was described in advertisements as being the “personality” of the kitchen, dressed as a typical antebellum African-American “mammy.” In the souvenir shop nearby, visitors could purchase tradition plantation handicrafts, as well as “pine perfume” and miniature barrels of rosin, a by-product of the turpentine distillation process.

“The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant of the Lewis Plantation (circa 1930s).

Blanche, the cook at

Blanche, the cook at “The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant located at the Lewis Plantation. Blanche is standing outside the main building that housed the restaurant and gift shop (circa 1940s).

Although the Lewis Plantation did very well for a number of years, its days were numbered as the tides of history continued to shift. The labor-intensive process of extracting turpentine from pine sap gave way to other methods, and the idea of reenacting slavery as a tourist attraction was increasingly disturbing to Floridians and visitors alike. By the 1960s, the Lewis Plantation had faded away. Some of the buildings still remain at the old site, although they are overgrown with weeds. Only a handful of postcards, placards, and photographs remain to remind us of the vibrant if somewhat unusual institution that once operated there.

Did you ever visit the Lewis Plantation? How about another “unusual” roadside tourist attraction in Florida? If so, we want to hear about it. Leave a comment, or email us your story.

 

 

Greetings from Florida!

Happy National Tourism Day! Whether you just want to lay out on the beach, see Mickey and Minnie, or take a walk through the past, Florida is the perfect vacation destination.

When you’re here, make sure to tell your loved ones how much fun you’re having, and show off a little by sending a postcard! We’ve chosen some of our favorites from the Postcard Collection! Do you have a favorite?

Florida - the sunshine state

Florida – the Sunshine State

 

When the Yankees come to Florida

When the Yankees come to Florida

 

Bathing beauties on the beach in Florida

Bathing beauties on the beach in Florida

 

Greetings from Florida

The Box of Oranges I Promised you from the Sunshine State, Florida

 

 

Enjoying "The Pause that Refreshes" underwater at Silver Springs.

Enjoying “The Pause that Refreshes” underwater at Silver Springs

 

Tropical beauty in McKee Jungle Gardens

Tropical beauty in McKee Jungle Gardens

 

Where humans are caged and monkeys run wild

Where humans are caged and monkeys run wild

 

 

 

 

Blue Crabbing… in the Ocala National Forest?

Nestled in between lakes Kerr and George in Marion County near Ocala is a somewhat unusual attraction called Salt Springs. The name says it all: in this picturesque pool of roughly 190 by 130 feet, four vents in the limestone floor emit spring crystal clear water with a slight salinity owing to the presence of sodium, magnesium, and potassium salts in the underground passages below.

View of salt Springs in Marion County, Florida (1941)

View of salt Springs in Marion County, Florida (1941)

The saltiness of the water has not deterred many visitors, as Salt Springs has long been one of the foremost attractions of the Ocala National Forest. The water discharged from the springs travels about four miles down a broad run into the northwest corner of Lake George, providing excellent opportunities for boating and fishing, which locals and visitors alike have long enjoyed.

Boys in a small boat near the vents at Salt Springs (1941).

Boys in a small boat near the vents at Salt Springs (1941).

Youth canoeing near Salt Springs (circa 1970).

Youth canoeing near Salt Springs (circa 1970).

Unlike most Florida springs, however, Salt Springs is home to another fun activity – crabbing. The salinity of the water allows blue crab to live in this aquatic habitat, despite it being over an hour’s drive from either coast. As a consequence, many people have enjoyed visiting the springs as much for gathering this favorite Florida delicacy as for the swimming. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, famed Florida author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling, was a frequent visitor to the springs to collect the main ingredient for Crab a la Newburg, one of her favorite recipes.

Women sitting above a crab storage bin at Salt springs (circa 1960s).

Women sitting above a crab storage bin at Salt springs (circa 1960s).

 

A couple showing off their blue crab catch at Salt Springs (circa 1960s).

A couple showing off their blue crab catch at Salt Springs (circa 1960s).

The connection between Rawlings and Salt Springs goes even farther, as several buildings near Salt Springs were used by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios during the filming of The Yearling.

Barn near Salt Springs used in the production of the film adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling (circa 1940).

Barn near Salt Springs used in the production of the film adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling (circa 1940).

House and gasoline pump on property near Salt Springs used in the production of the film adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling (1940).

House and gasoline pump on property near Salt Springs used in the production of the film adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling (1940).

 

Florida Memory has a wealth of resources relating to Florida’s renowned natural springs.  Type the name of your favorite Florida spring into the search box above to learn more.   We also have a number of photographs depicting the life and work of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.