Does your idea of "paradise" involve mermaids, treasure, dolphins friends, really strong and fruity rum-laced cocktails, and Hulk Hogan? If so, then welcome to Florida! The state's warm weather and sandy shores have made the state into one of the most popular vacation destinations. In fact, I'd venture to say that the touristy kitsch, originally meant to lure in those from out of town, is pretty much the defining culture of the state. The tourist attractions, which feel reminiscent of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, have become the "real" Florida. There really is no lack of offbeat and quirky kitsch to amuse during a trip to the Sunshine State. Here's a guide to our favorite quirky and offbeat tourist attractions that bring the retro fun in Florida!
Weeki Wachee Springs is the best place in Florida to see real, live mermaids. Ok, maybe they're only "technically" real, but they're mermaids nonetheless. A former US Navy man fixed up the deep, clear natural spring at Weeki Wachee, adding an 18-seat theater, and then trained pretty girls to perform underwater shows while breathing through hidden air tubes. By the 1950s, Weeki Wachee was a hot tourist destination, mostly for the mermaids, but an orchid garden, jungle cruise, and more were added. The heyday of Weeki Wachee was the 1960s, with elaborate shows and standing-room-only crowds. Of course, they still feature mermaid shows today, and hundreds of girls come from all over to go to mermaid camp and to audition to be a mermaid in the shows. Weeki Wachee was even incorporated as a town (the mayor is a former mermaid, of course), with a water park, Mermaid Villa gift shop, and more.
Florida comes by its kitsch honestly. Back in the day, everything was a lot cheesier compared to what we think of as normal today. In fact, I sincerely believe that the things we think of as cool today will be considered lame in the future. It's hard to imagine a world where "The Sopranos" is seen as cheesy, but I believe it's coming. Anyways, "Flipper" was a 1963 movie about a boy who saves a dolphin, which he names Flipper, and the fact that the kid's dad, a fisherman, disapproves of his friendship with Flipper, because dolphins eat fish. It was later turned into a TV show, which was a spiritual, beachy successor to "Lassie". Flipper in the film was played by Mitzi, an incredibly talented trained bottlenose dolphin. Mitzi died in the 1970s at the age of 14, and was buried at the Dolphin Research Center, formerly Santini's Porpoise School, where she was trained. You can see her grave, and maybe even meet the offspring of two of the other stunt-dolphins from the movie.
What started off as the La Chalupa research lab, an underwater habitat used to explore the continental shelf off the coast of Puerto Rico, has now become the Jules Undersea Lodge, which I would like to nominate for the most Florida accommodation option in the whole state. I mean, staying underwater... does it get any crazier than that?
Getting into the Jules Undersea Lodge requires a scuba dive 21 feet down through a lagoon. While the dive through the Emerald Lagoon mangrove habitat is an easy one, you should be scuba certified before you go (don’t worry if you’re not- they’ll assist with that!)
Once you dive to the underwater structure, guests go up through the “moon pool” area and into the wet room, where they shower and dry off before entering the living areas. There are 2 bedrooms and a common room, which serves as the galley, dining and entertainment areas. The fridge is well stocked (although having underwater pizza delivery is an option), air conditioning is available, TVs with DVDs (may we suggest The Little Mermaid?), phones, and intercoms. Most importantly, each room has a 42-inch portal window into the lagoon (observe angelfish, parrotfish, barracuda, anemones, sponges, oysters and more!)
Probably the main attraction at this Florida paradise is the Polynesian Islander Revue, a show that features authentic music, costumes, and dances from the South Pacific at the turn of the century. And what tiki bar would be complete without dinner and a drink? They have a dinner menu featuring Polynesian delicacies, and they sort their drinks menu by booziness; so if you really need a vacation, you know to skip the drink that comes in a fresh pineapple and to go right for the "Barrel o' Rum". The whole place oozes retro tiki vibes, so kick back and enjoy.
The Bubble Room is another over-the-top spot for dining in Florida. Decked out in a combo of vintage toys from the 1920s-40s, pastel colors, Christmas items, and photos of old-school celebs, its less tropical kitsch and more generally wacky. Classic cafe fare, with everything on the menu sporting silly names, along with drinks and dessert, make this a great choice for anyone... if you don't find yourself too distracted by the kitsch to order and eat!
Gatorland bills itself as the "real" Florida, an alternative to Disney, by embracing the state's scariest but most fascinating residents: alligators. I highly doubt that your trip to Disney would give you the chance to wrestle a real, live gator or to incite a feeding frenzy with a few hot dogs-- the night tour is especially chilling; imagine just seeing hundreds of glowing eyes peering up at you from the swamp. You can watch as professionals handle and feed the toothy critters, and it's one of the few places that will let you get up close and personal with an alligator.
Once you've experienced rookie gator wrestling (which is a can't miss photo op) and the Gator Chow show where you can feed the creatures, then you might feel brave enough to take on the Screamin' Gator Zipline. You'll be seven stories up, above the trees, soaring over the park... which means that when you look down, you'll see lots and lots of gators looking back up at you-- be especially careful going over the alligator breeding marsh, home to 130 of the park's stars. Once you've worked up a sweat getting a little too close to the gators, you can grab a snack (they actually sell smoked gator) or cool off with a stroll through the swamp and take a dip in the Gator Gully Splash Park. All throughout the park, you'll find gator-themed kitsch and hilarity... especially at the entrance, which takes you into the jaws of a giant alligator.
Spongeorama's Sponge Factory isn't actually a factory at all... just one giant attraction dedicated to the town of Tarpon Springs's history with natural sea sponge harvesting. Built in 1968, the crazy museum looks like some kind of deep-sea research vessel, and the fact that it has barely changed since it opened lends a bizarre retro-futuristic feel to the building. Nautical portholes and airlocks fill the hallways, and a fleet of boats for the Spongeorama tours await passengers on the nearby docks. The tour begins with an unintentionally hilarious video presented in the Cinematic Theatre of Spongeorama. The vintage, 50s-era film is filled with rough-looking sailors in search of the elusive sea sponge. The 15-minute presentation takes viewers through the entire process involved in finding, harvesting, and selling the sponge. It's actually kind of fascinating, on a few levels. Once the film ends, the audience exits through the "air lock" into the Sponge Diving Free Museum, a small museum that showcases the history of Tarpon Springs and its reliance on the sponge industry through some super creepy mannequins, including one diorama that shows a dead sponge diver surrounded by his colleagues. It's... weird. And something you absolutely need to see. Grab a gyro at a nearby eatery, too; this place has a strong Greek population, and they make some tasty food.
Hulk Hogan, of WWF fame, is a pretty flashy individual... but all of the best wrestlers are. Hulk, alias Terry Bollea, is a sometimes resident of Tampa, and has two attractions in Florida, one in Clearwater and one in Orlando. They're named "Hogan's Beach Shop", but they're more pro wrestling gear/Hulk Hogan memorabilia joints... although they have plenty of Florida-style beach gear as well. Also, the Hulk Hogan statue outside is the perfect photo op... BROTHERRRRR.
We've talked about mermaids, wrestlers, gators, and sponges... all things you think about when you think of Florida. But there's one more thing we can't ignore... pirates, mateys! Pirate cruises are common across the state, but Destin's Buccaneer Pirate Cruise is a treasure. A buried treasure. It's a family-friendly adventure, perfect for scallywags-in-training. As the ship sets sail in search of treasure, you and the rest of the crew will be trained in sailing, sword fighting, water gun battles, dancing, story telling, and more. And, of course, treasure is guaranteed, as are hot dogs, snacks, beer, and wine. Arrr!
One of the most famous examples of Florida kitsch is the Southernmost Point Buoy at the edge of Key West, denoting the point that is the furthest South in the entire US... it's only 90 miles to Cuba from the tip of Florida! Cincinnati and Columbus are further apart than Key West and Cuba. There's often a long line of tourists here, waiting to snap a shot with the concrete buoy that was put in place in 1983... but what a lot of people don't know is that this isn't technically the southernmost point. It's actually about 10 miles north of the real spot, which is on Ballast Key, and is US Navy property. Civilians are strictly prohibited from the actual point, so the buoy was put up. Also, the whole "90 miles" thing isn't totally accurate either... it's actually 94 miles to Cuba from the closest point. So, at the end of the day, this wildly popular attraction is basically devoid of any meaning... other than the fact that it's still the most photographed thing in all of Key West. This is Florida kitsch to a T... but don't let its cheesy uselessness deter you from taking a picture here! You kind of have to when you visit; it's just one of those things.