Blink and you'll miss the old attractions of Florida, disappearing fast

Published February 28 2017

I know I wasn't the only one bummed out last month by the news that Florida's version of Stonehenge, the Airstream Ranch, was being torn down.

Now the only cool stuff left to look at when you're stuck in a massive traffic jam on Interstate 4 are Dinosaur World and the Mickey Mouse power pole. Oh, and whatever crazy thing is happening in the car next to you — drivers shaving, flossing, loading their guns; you know, the usual.

The Airstream Ranch, a line of shiny silver travel trailers buried nose down in the dirt like the famed Cadillac Ranch out west, was one of those classically kitschy Florida attractions.

"It was a whimsical thing for me to do at the time," recalled Frank Bates, who built it in 2007.

Now, Matt Strollo of RV Superstores, which owns the property, says it's time to replace the Airstream Ranch with a 17,000-square-foot Airstream dealership. The dealership's footprint, says Strollo, made saving the display impossible.

He thinks we should all be happy about this. Anyone who's upset "should turn the frowns upside down and be excited about what's going to come just on the horizon," Strollo told my colleague Tony Marrero. "A brand-new dealership for people to enjoy instead of just taking pictures as passers-by of broken-down Airstreams."

Oh, yes, an RV dealership on I-4, where there are already about a dozen. That's a lovely new tourist attraction. Make sure you get an E-Z Pass before the lines get too long!

Back before Walt Disney showed up, Florida was chock-full of nutty attractions like the Airstream Ranch. Those of us who grew up here remember the delightful old tourist traps, like the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum and the Atomic Tunnel. We had the House of Mystery near Haines City, the Snell Peacock Farm in Clearwater and, of course, the St. Petersburg Alligator Farm.

Florida was cosplay central back then. You could visit jungle gardens with employees dressed as Tarzan and Jane, pirate coves where the staff all said, "Arrrrr!" and Western towns with regular Main Street shootouts — anything to drag in the tourists and get them to open their wallets.

A few of the old classics are still around, like the Monkey Jungle in Miami and Everglades Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. Some became state parks, such as Weeki Wachee Springs, which makes Florida the only state where the list of government jobs includes "mermaid."

With the price of Disney tickets skyrocketing, maybe we'll get some of the old ones back soon.

All these tourist attractions are here, by the way, because of a writer named Harriet Beecher Stowe. You may recall that her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin helped touch off the Civil War. After that was over, she moved to a home on the St. Johns River and fell in love with Florida.

Stowe wrote stories for Northern newspapers urging people to visit, and sure enough, they did. She basically invented the Florida tourism industry. Her home became one of our first tourist attractions. She'd stand on her porch and wave at the boats full of gawkers as they floated past (no doubt with their turn signals blinking for miles).

What Stowe set in motion has forever altered the state she loved so much. People began pouring in, and they haven't stopped. That human tsunami has been the justification for rapid and unsettling alterations in the Florida landscape, some good, some not so.

My friend Claire was telling me the other day about how different the state seems from the one she grew up in in the '50s and '60s: "I remember … when we'd see wild hogs and black bears, and the islands had vast stretches of pure, empty sand. You could scoop up live coquinas by the handful, and sand dollars, and the water table was so healthy, you could dig a hole for a tomato plant, and water would bubble up, and we'd see flocks — huge flocks — of roseate spoonbills."

This is the burden of being a longtime Floridian: You remember the way things used to be and what was lost. You remember the fun times you had before all the changes came. The blessing of Florida, though, is that we get to see these odd and unusual things before they're gone, buried in the ground like the Airstream Ranch. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go turn off my blinker.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected]. Follow @CraigTimes.