I have such wonderful memories traveling to Florida as a child, back in the 1970's. Growing up in rural New Jersey (yes, there really is such a thing), big things seemed to be happening in Florida during the 60's and 70's and everyone in Jersey wanted to go there. I-95 was completed so the drive from NJ to FL was a new luxury, the road wide open to paradise just 993 miles away. Walt Disney World had recently opened in 1971, and I vividly remember my first visit there on a family vacation in 1973, and to several more authentic attractions of old Florida.
Imagine your parents telling you that you're going to Disney World, modeled after the show you watched religiously every Sunday night at 7:30 before your bedtime? It's hard to describe the anticipation my sisters and I had, like we were climbing into the magic itself! The Magic Kingdom had just opened outside of Orlando and like much of Florida in the early 70's, everything around it was the middle of a swamp.
We arrived in Daytona, Florida after a few days of driving and an overnight in our rental home at Eleanor Village. The next day we piled back into the station wagon and drove, for hours, with nothing in sight but scrub pines and palm trees. Not the tall, beautiful palm trees - the short, squatty ones. An hour later, we saw a small sign for Walt Disney World off the highway. Turn right here, it read. And from out of the scrub and swamp emerged the Emerald City. Strangely out of place. Shiny and new. Main Street, along with four original 'lands' made up the entire Park: Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, and Frontierland. And then there was my favorite part, The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse! The cost of an adult admission was $3.50, so I imagine the entry cost for our family of six was less than $20. Times have certainly changed.
The elevated monorail took us all around and when it approached the edges of the Park to where the construction pits and equipment still lay, I could see what the real landscape of Orlando looked like underneath. The hinterlands beyond. Barren wasteland. Or so I thought.
A few days later, we ventured out to the west coast of Florida, stopping to visit Silver Springs, a beautiful spring and State Park famous for their glass bottom boats. From Daytona, the drive seemed to take forever. We finally hit the coast and headed south toward Cypress Gardens, passing dozens of ramshackle alligator attractions along the way. LIVE GATORS AHEAD! It was all too compelling, and I begged my parents to stop at every one!
Now it was starting to make sense. This felt more like Florida to my ten year old brain, even if it was my first trip here. This landscape looked as if it had been here forever, and seemed a more natural fit with the place. Cypress Gardens was lush and swampy, and bright and colorful - part southern-charmed botanical garden, part alligator roadside stand, with a few amusement rides thrown in. There were double-decker water skiers, and southern belles in hoop skirts and hats like brightly colored crayons lazing like peacocks on the lawn in the bright hot sun. Reptile naturalists held demonstrations with some of those gators and snakes I'd been looking for along the road, and you could even pet them. And I did.
I couldn't take my eyes off the snakes and was half paying attention to what the guide was saying when my Dad nudged me and said "Go ahead! Go on up!". Huh? What? Before I knew it, I was on my feet facing the reptile guy who'd asked for 'a volunteer' as he held out a long black snake before me. Like a prize ribbon, he gently draped it around my neck and showed me where to grab on to each end. I turned around to see my Dad with a huge grin on his face, snapping a pic with my camera, a proud moment for us both. I think that first trip started my love of Florida, with its swampy feel. I don't completely understand it since I hate spiders, and I absolutely cannot stomach scorpions. But the rest is quite fascinating to me.
That same trip was my first experience at one of Florida's most beautiful natural resources - its crystal clear springs. My Uncle Freddie and Aunt Myrtis, an eccentric pair who lived in a trailer in Sanford, had a boat bigger than their home, and off we went one day to Blue Springs State Park. I think we all had visions of remote beaches and picnic tables, but when we arrived and docked at the Springs, we could hardly believe our eyes. The water was crystal clear and the most beautiful blue I'd ever seen. We swam for hours in the cool blue water, lost in our hidden little paradise. I never wanted to leave.
Looking back as an adult, it was these early memories I have of Florida that caused me to love it enough to move here later in my life. Getting to experience the 'old Florida' as a child instilled a love of the rawness of what Florida used to be, and some places thankfully still are. And because so many people don't remember these wonderful parts of Florida (can you imagine what it was like 100 or more years ago!) I only want to see more, and help protect it, while it's still here.
To that kid in me with the long black snake around her neck, it feels like home.