Lisa is cursing at the Tom Tom on the dashboard. I am cursing at my dysfunctional laptop and/or cellphone. It is raining and cold. Our windows are fogged. Probably with the steam from our ears.
This is what happens when 21st-century reporters go off in search of old-fashioned tourist attractions in central Florida.
We had just come from Port Canaveral, after a two-night cruise aboard the new Disney Dream, and perhaps this little road trip would be the yang to the Disney yin. The low-tech and homespun versus the futuristic and sophisticated.
But that wasn't how this trip came together. No, the reason we are heading west right now, back through the center of the state and not even stopping in Orlando on our way to the Gulf Coast, is to bag us some mermaids.
Back home, I'd been casting about for another Florida travel story to pursue. And when I asked my husband for ideas, he blurted, "Weeki Wachee!" without hesitation. Weeki Wachee was where the mermaids lived and performed, underwater, twice daily.
Paul had heard ads for this magical place as a little boy but never did make it there. Weeki Wachee has remained one of Paul's obscure objects of desire all these years. So how could I not check it out and at least provide vicarious closure for my mermaid-deprived husband?
And so, using WW as a must-see, I began looking for other attractions and places to visit along the way.
Turned out that the 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 — not just Weeki Wachee, which dated to 1947, but 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 the 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. I think it's my cellphone's fault. I curse at it. And the laptop. And myself and the heavens. Oh, and Florida.
Lisa is cursing because we are relying on our GPS device to lead us to a cellphone store. But we've been driving around some ugly commercial roadway in Kissimee, listening to the stupid faux female smug annoying voice, turn here, stay straight, and the thing is lying or stupid or some relative of HAL. 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-soaked windshield, a swath of orange. No, wait, it's an orange. A giant orange. I look up, and rise out of my seat with excitement.
It's Orange World!
Orange World is, in fact, on the list of attractions. While it 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.
Anyway, be glad I stopped. 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. And gaggles of pink flamingos — plush toys, lawn ornaments, refrigerator magnets. And gators — hand puppets, plastic models, real alligator heads with eyes and lots of teeth. And mostly, T-shirts, orange T-shirts, extolling the joys of citrus. Everything 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 couldn't fix my wireless setup, and in fact made fun of my retro laptop. They were all admiration, however, when we mentioned that we were on our way to Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales. These two young men 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 same family — now in its fourth generation.
After hearing all this high praise — not to mention 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 as I: 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 trifle 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.
Speaking of smells. We freshened up and headed for the dining room, where we'd made reservations in advance for what I'd read was an award-winning experience.
Here again, we were slightly baffled. The ambience was a mix of gourmet and brauhaus. Windows gave out onto the lake out back, but it was nighttime, and 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 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 put your eyes.
Other unusual aspects to the Chalet: The Soup Cannery, begun by Bertha's son, Carl Jr., a pilot and budding chef. The cannery allowed the Chalet to develop its own line of soups. An airstrip allows private pilots to stop by for lunch. Among the guests who arrived this way were some of the astronauts from Cape Canaveral. One of them, James Irwin, was a fan of the Hinshaws' soup and had the idea to bring it along into space with the guys. Carl figured out how to have it freeze-dried and then up it went, aboard Apollo 15, 16 and the Apollo-Soyuz flight. The "moon soup," a vegetable concoction, is served every day.
One more feature of note: The lake behind the Chalet is apparently teeming with turtles. In nice weather, we were told, there are so many that they form veritable turtle piles on the shoreline. With the freezing temperatures, we were able to lure only a few of the critters to poke their heads out and grab a bit of the Chalet's miniature potato rolls. The turtles love 'em.
The Chalet is off scenic Route 17, which we can take toward our next stop, Bok Tower Gardens. On the way, we turn off to defy gravity at Spook Hill. A large sign on North Wales Drive, near the elementary school, explains that "Many years ago an Indian village on Lake Wales was plagued by raids of a huge gator. The Chief, a great warrior, killed the gator in a battle that created a small lake. The chief was buried on the north side. Pioneer mail riders first discovered their horses laboring downhill, thus naming it 'Spook Hill.' When the road was paved, cars coasted up hill. Is this the gator seeking revenge, or the chief still trying to protect his land?"
The instructions told us to drive to a certain point, put the car in neutral and watch as we rolled backward — uphill.
We rolled backward. It was all downhill to me.
We tried it a second time. Same result.
—Bok Tower Gardens
I wasn't wild to go to Bok Tower Gardens. I mean, you can't even go in 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 half-hearted 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 a won Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography. Bok was a champion of social causes as well as an environmental activist and also 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 an arid 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 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 rock 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. A fountain with a huge pole holding up a statue of 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 times 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 sea 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 come by. They do, everything from small schools of silver 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 blocking in the scene. On occasion, manatees have come by.
The second show is the one that explains the hard work behind the mermaid magic. How every movement — up, down or staying in place — requires taking in or breathing out air. It takes a year to create a good mermaid, they explain. Then they take to the water — cold water — for up to an hour, twice a day.
They make it look easy. They look like they belong in the water. Fairy tales come to life.
I walk to the back of the theater to take an overview photo and notice two little blond girls and their mom, arms all around each other, eyes wide and riveted to the show before them. You can tell they're related. 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. Pete, 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 back rest, 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. We are off to the airport, rushing back into the futuristic present day.
IF YOU GO:
—Orange World, Kissimmee (orangeworld192.com): It's at 5395 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (U.S. Highway 192). You can't miss it.
—Chalet Suzanne, Lake Wales (chaletsuzanne.com): The 26 rooms range from $169 to $229 a night. Also available: RV sites with hookups. Packages available.
—Bok Tower Gardens, Lake Wales (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.
—Spook Hill, Lake Wales: A sign marks the starting point for the gravity-defying experience; it's near the Spook Hill Elementary School on North Wales Drive, about a quarter-mile south of Highway 17. Signs from the highway will direct you.
—Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Weeki Wachee (weekiwachee.com): Park admission is $13, children 6-12 $5, which includes the mermaid shows and boat ride. Other activities at the park include diving, kayaking and canoeing, and Buccaneer Bay Water Park, all requiring extra fees. Check the website for more information.
—Dali Museum, St. Petersburg (thedali.org): $21, seniors $19, ages 13 to 18 and students over 18 with ID $15, children 6-12 $7.