Southern Cultures 7.2 (2001) 112-114
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Roadside Paradise. By Ken Breslauer. Retro Florida, Incorporated, 2000. 96 pp. Paper $21.95
Roadside Paradise examines "mom-and-pop" type attractions that sprang up along highways in Florida during a "Golden Age," which Ken Breslauer dates from the opening in 1929 of Bok Tower, a carillon outside of Haines City, to the birth in 1971 of Disney World. As the automobile displaced the steamship and railroad after World War I as the preferred mode of touring, us 1 (The Dixie Highway), us 27 (The Orange Blossom Trail), and us 41 (The Tamiami Trail) funneled visitors down the Florida peninsula. Even during the Great Depression and World War II people scraped together money to visit Florida. An estimated 2.6 million tourists came in 1939. Travel required all sorts of support services ranging from gas stations, through restaurants, to lodging, and tourism quickly became Florida's number one industry, accounting for $790 million by 1948.
It is no surprise that indigenous roadside attractions also arose to entertain [End Page 112] and relieve visitors of their money. To be considered a roadside attraction, Breslauer insists that the establishment had to have these characteristics: (1) construction for commercial purposes; (2) positioning along a major state route; (3) admission charges; (4) ownership and operation privately for profit; (5) a focus on natural resources; and (6) use of highly tailored advertisements trumpeting exotic features. Breslauer, whose full time occupation is track historian and publicist for Sebring International Raceway, estimates that 120-130 roadside attractions were founded during the Golden Age. These businesses were of various sorts--botanical, aquatic, zoological, historic, or novelty in orientation.
Several Florida attractions were on the cutting edge of the theme park business long before that term was used to designate such a venue. Marineland, which opened in 1938 outside of the oldest U.S. city, St. Augustine, combined an aquarium, marine show, and research wing. Many of the gardens and zoos were at the forefront of what is today called ecotourism, protecting and propagating rare birds, reptiles, animals, plants, and habitats. Some attractions, like McKee Jungle Gardens in Vero Beach, proved useful to the government as training grounds for troops preparing to fight in the South Pacific during World War II, and others, like the Florida Reptile Institute, served mankind by conducting applied medical and pharmacological research.
Several forces conspired, however, to spell the demise of roadside entertainment. Cities grew up around attractions, disrupting traffic and parking patterns, and making the land valuable, taxes high, and insurance rates prohibitive. The construction of federal highways and state turnpikes, with predetermined stops and route services, bypassed communities and cut off parks. The oil embargo of the 1970s put a crimp in automobile leisure travel. Some parks, like Busch Gardens, which opened in Tampa in 1959, raised the standard for what was expected of gardens, zoos, and rides. Animal diseases and pests, however, forced quarantines of exhibits, and disputes with animal rights activists took their toll. But it was the birth of Disney World and technological wizardry that drove the final and fatal nail into the coffin. "People no longer want to feel like Thoreau," the grandson of the founder of McKee Jungle Gardens said in 1976 as he closed the doors to an amusement that had been in business for fifty years. "They don't want to walk the Appalachian Trail, they want to ride it."
To survive, natural attractions either had to find a niche or be inventive. Lion Country Safari outside of West Palm Beach catered to a drive-through consumer culture (popularized by fast food) by routing automobiles through an African animal habitat. Miami's Monkey Jungle reversed the traditional exhibit format by placing humans inside of protective walkways while primates ran free. Despite the innovations, the shift to air travel, tight vacation schedules, self-contained parks, and capital intensive technological amusement spelled the demise of most roadside attractions. Of course, some just died natural deaths. For instance, a lot [End Page 113] of ostrich farms went extinct when Florida failed to become...