restricted access Sunshine Paradise: A History of Florida Tourism by Tracy J. Revels (review)
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Sunshine Paradise: A History of Florida Tourism. By Tracy J. Revels. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. 2011.

This well-researched, tightly organized and highly readable account of the interaction between the Florida tourist industry and the tourists it attracted offers insights into the evolution of social, economic and environmental attitudes of residents and visitors alike. From the early days when wealthy tourists (the only kind, mostly) came for long periods to hunt, fish, golf, and get healthy and warm with their own kind, through the changes brought by the automobile, right up to today and the impact of Walt Disney World, the author charts a course that not only tells the reader what happened, but links the “what” to how and why. It is an entertaining romp through Florida history.

Florida has always been for sale—not just as property but as a place where a visitor can find whatever their heart desires. Early it was sold to the sick, who came to be restored to health in its warm climate and clear springs. Then it was sold to the sportsman who shot and fished (and later golfed and sailed) wherever there was something to shoot, something to catch, a fairway and green, and a lake or lagoon. Its climate and tropical setting made it particularly attractive to the well-to-do who could “winter” in cities like St. Augustine, Tampa, and Miami. Promoters early understood what it took to attract these people—railroads to bring them down and luxury hotels to house them—and the interaction between government and developers began.

Identifying and attracting people of a certain class and circumstance resulted in Florida first becoming the playground for Northeastern elites, but the advent of the automobile brought in “Tin Can” tourists of more moderate means and more plebeian tastes. For these folks Florida tourist promoters created “attractions” which included “natural” displays (from snakes to Seminoles) to unnatural entertainment like Goofy-Golf with its concrete sculptures and TV-show-inspired theme parks.

This new class of tourists did not come to rest and relax over the winter. With short vacations that were now part of an employment package (another national change that the author chronicles) they came to be entertained by more than the sandy beach or a glass-bottomed boat in a crystal clear spring. With their baby boomer children they sought out family entertainment and Florida gave them what they wanted. At times the book’s accounting of all the different ways Florida amused middle class Americans gets a little tedious, but it makes the point—if the tourist wanted it, promoters would do their best to provide it. [End Page 176]

The ultimate example of this, of course, was Disney World, born of Walt Disney’s desire to build a model town and transformed into a great amusement park because the heirs to Disney’s dream knew amusement was where the money was. Blending faux-history (real history does not sell well in Florida) with nostalgia and thrilling rides, Disney World’s creators took familiar themes and a secure, well-run operation, and transformed the way Florida was packaged and sold.

The transformation is still going on as Florida’s tourist industry seeks to identify and attract the next group of tourists in this evolving market. To succeed, Florida has to reinvent itself over and over again. The problem, of course, is how do you reinvent without losing what you are? That will be Florida’s dilemma for years to come.

Harvey H. Jackson III
Jacksonville State University