Northbound on A1A With A Broken Heart & A Bad CV
by Dave Mitchell
There is an unnerving synchroncity to my beginning this, the first Unknown Florida column, on the day after the closing of Marineland. Dozens of tourist attractions have bitten the dust since Uncle Walt moved the heart of Florida tourism to I-4 and US 192, but this is the most significant death. Marineland was a pioneer attraction, the first and best of the seaside dolphin showcases, its behind-the-scenes research and rescue work putting it in a different class from the dozens of dolphinariums that once blistered both coasts of the peninsula.
I haven’t been out to Marineland since I was in college. The last time I even went by there was about five years ago, when I passed by on the way to visit St. Augustine and another now-deceased attraction, the Museum of Tragedy in American History. The Museum closed this past spring upon the death of its owner, a gentleman who displayed in a two-story wood house his collection of the detritus of accident, assassination and high weirdness. Kennedy assassination artifacts were the main show: Lee Harvey Oswald’s Dallas hotel furniture, his death ambulance, a limo JFK once rode in. A glass case displayed the old Life magazines with the Zapruder photos, and the living room was a clumsy recreation of the Texas Book Depository, with a Ken-like department store mannequin brandishing a Kalishnikov.
One walked past stinky mummies and whistles salvaged from train wrecks into the back yard, where the rest of the primo tragedy souvenirs sat rusting in the salt air. Yes, flanking a corroded Spanish-era jail cage were the death cars of Bonnie and Clyde and of Jayne Mansfield. While there has been some controversy over the authenticity of the Mansfield car, I was convinced, and still treasure the photo taken of me with my shirt pulled over my head in tasteless homage to the blonde bombshell. The Bonnie and Clyde car was authentic – an authentic prop from the Warren Beatty flick. In the corner of the yard a fiberglas cow looked on, a solemn nonsequitur to the classic tourist trap ambience.
It says a lot about the Tragedy in American History museum that it was not listed in any St. Augustine tourist guides, though you could find the neighboring Old Jail and Fountain of Youth. (We did make a side trip to the Fountain that afternoon – a shot at eternal youth was well worth the modest admission price). St. Augustine is a classic refuge of pre-Disney Florida Tourism – places of historic and natural interest surrounded by less-reputable entrepreneurs. Tourism still attracts the fast-buck operator (as a trip up US 192 in Kissimmee will attest), but you’ve got to admire the guy who says to himself, hey, I could make some serious lucre if I open up a museum to display my collection of cypress knees that look like celebrities. That takes much more personal belief and committment than opening another damn gator farm.
In future columns, dear reader, I hope to share with you my own discoveries along the backroads and superhighways of Florida. Roadside zoos and museums that border on folk art, cool small town stores and shops, rustic old ballparks, and out-of-the-way state and county parks. Stuff that you can check out in a day and that won’t cost you a ton. Where the locals go to get away from the out-of-state plates. I’ll wax nostalgic over the tourist traps of my youth: Florida Wonderland, Rain Forest, Six Gun Territory, Boardwalk and Baseball, Marco Polo Park, the UFO Museum. We’ll check out some of the remaining “old school” attractions like Weeki Wachee, Silver Springs and the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing. Citrus Tower. The “Bardin Booger”. Giant roadside statuary. The guy who’s buiding a pirate ship out of discarded printing plates.
I‘ll drive. You bring the Diet Coke.
(When on the Internet, be sure to visit Roadside America: www.roadsideamerica.com )