I'd been casting about for a 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.
My husband had heard ads for this magical place as a little boy, but he never made it there. Weeki Wachee has remained one of his obscure objects of desire all these years. How could I not check it out?
And so, using Weeki Wachee as a must-see, I began looking for other attractions and places to visit along the way.
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, flashy 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.
We would have two days to be Florida tourists, the old-fashioned way.
My friend Lisa and I had been driving around some ugly commercial roadway in Kissimee, listening to the GPS drive us crazy rather than to the promised destination when Lisa sees, through a steamy, rain-soaked windshield, a swath of orange. No, wait, it is an orange. A giant orange. I look up and rise out of my seat with excitement.
It's Orange World!
Orange World dates only to 1973 -- not the golden age of tourism -- but 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, Orange World is a classic roadside attraction right from the parking lot. Towering mounds, pyramids and other geometric piles of beautiful, glowing oranges are displayed in alfresco stands alongside stacks of grapefruit and berries and bananas.
Inside, under the orange dome, is more fruit. 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.
Then we were on our way to Chalet Suzanne, a 26-room inn in Lake Wales. I wanted a place that was vintage Florida. And Chalet Suzanne was perfect: It has been in business since 1931, and is still run by the same family -- now in its fourth generation.
We arrived and 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 was a welcome amenity. Then she left.
The room 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.
We freshened up and headed for the dining room, where we had made reservations 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. I loved the broiled grapefruit half-appetizer -- once they removed the chicken liver that sat atop it. Otherwise, the food was decent but not remarkable. At $70 for a five-course prix fixe meal, we were underwhelmed.
I was not disappointed on the "quirky" front, however. The inn was started by Bertha and Carl Hinshaw, both from wealthy families.. But they lost everything during the Great Depression. Carl died of pneumonia, and Bertha was left alone with two small children. She decided to do what she was good at: cooking. Bertha began offering meals in her house, and then lodging.
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 look.
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 much cooler temperatures, we were able to lure only a few of the critters to poke their heads outand grab a bit of the Chalet's miniature potato rolls. The turtles love 'em.
>Bok Tower Gardens
You can't go in the tower at Bok Tower Gardens, 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 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 worked his way up to editor of the Ladies Home Journal and won a Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography. 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. There are concerts twice daily.
You can see a video of Weeki Wachee on YouTube. 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. 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.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 a tubing system used for breathing, while also performing stunts and ballet.
"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.
The first show of the day is "A Little Mermaid." The old sea-creature-falls-in-love-
with-the-human story. 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.
They make it look easy. They look like they belong in the water. Fairy tales come to life.
>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.
Then we are rushing to the airport, back in 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). 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.
*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.
*Dali Museum, St. Petersburg (thedali.org): $21, seniors $19, ages 13 to 18 and students over 18 with ID $15, children 6-12 $7.