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FLORIDA TOURISM // Key West or Key Less?

Harry Powell snickers at the very thought of duplicating his hometown.

"It will be a poor imitation at best," says Powell. "It's the people who make Key West, you know."

Powell is a former Key West commissioner and environmentalist. He's also the guy who was imprisoned for strapping a homemade bomb to his back and vowing to blow himself up to prevent a military housing project from replacing a park.

Just another day in Key West, the town that respects all things unconventional.

By Memorial Day, a replica of Powell's town will be unveiled in Florida's showcase for all things commercial, Orlando.

This town, Land of the Copycat, already has its theme-park versions of Hollywood Boulevard, a lodge in the U.S. Northwest, a Caribbean reef, the Great Wall of China Why not one more?

A folder of press releases decorated with shells, postcards and coconuts, in purples and oranges, trumpets the coming of Orlando's latest project, Key West at Sea World. The attraction "seeks to showcase all the wild excitement, island beauty and funky, tropical charm" of Key West.

This theme-park version will include its own Duval Street, conch fritters and a band hired to strum what are described as Jimmy Buffett-ish tunes. It's the perfect way to give the family from Topeka a sanitized glimpse of a classic Florida town, theme park officials say.

But some Conchs, as the island's natives call themselves, question whether any place, especially milquetoast Central Florida, can pull this off. Or why it would want to.

"It'll probably fool some people," said Powell, who served 10 months in prison for the bomb standoff and is now working again, in a Key West bookstore. "But if they would be fooled by that, we probably don't want them to come here."

The island already is overburdened with construction, growth and tourism, he said. "We should let Orlando have our overflow," he said.

Margaritaville Lite?

Golf carts whisk workers into 5 fenced-off acres where Key West at Sea World is rising from the mud.

Fiberglass-reinforced concrete molded to resemble coral is being attached to wire frames to create a cove for bottlenose dolphins. A machine will make waves. A distressed-look pier leads out to what will be a sea turtle exhibit. A lagoon is being built so visitors can touch and feed stingrays.

A few steps away will run Duval Street, Sea World's version of Key West's main drag of open-air bars, art galleries and souvenir shops.

Performers will be paid to act like the eclectic folks who wander Key West: street mimes, unicyclists, wire walkers, musicians, entertainers playing shell games and people wandering with macaws on their shoulders. Officials even plan to hold sunset celebrations, similar to Key West's famous nightly gatherings in Mallory Square.

Officials from Sea World conducted two research trips to Key West to study the culture before they started the multimillion-dollar project.

This Key West will be a "cleansed version" with theme-park touches, says Art Freeman, entertainment vice president for Sea World, which, like Tampa Bay's Busch Gardens and Adventure Island, is a theme park owned by Anheuser-Busch. Key West at Sea World will have characters not found even in Key West's diverse mix _ such as Arthur Sea Turtle and Dolly Dolphin. And there won't be any rum in the frozen fruit drinks.

Isn't it odd to re-create a town in a spot that's just 374 miles away from the original?

"It's unusual," acknowledges Sea World spokesman Nick Gollattscheck.

But he says: "This is not a duplication and this is not a replication. What we can do is give a small taste of what it's like. By coming here and getting a taste, they'll want to go to the Keys."

In fact, Sea World officials have agreed to distribute brochures for the real Key West at a kiosk inside their own Key West. They may even offer sweepstakes for a trip to the real city. Last year, 4.9-million people visited Sea World. Two-million went to Key West.

So, Sea World says, the attraction will help the economies of both Key West and Orlando.

Orlando's image, by the way, is not too bland, too suburban, too Middle America, to conjure up Key West's reputation for hipness, the folks at Sea World say.

"Have you been downtown lately?" Gollattscheck asked. "Orlando is really in some respects getting away from that image. I think you would be surprised."

End of the road

Orlando can try, says Carolee McReynolds of Key West, but it will never be able to copy her town.

"They don't have the characters," she said. "Key West is full of people who dropped out of society and said, the heck with it. We have characters who just came to the end of the road."

Closer to Cuba than Orlando, Key West is full of contrasts and proud of its crazy mix. There are environmentalists, tourists, bums, artists, fishermen, drunks, writers, rich people, poor people, shell-sellers, storytellers. Famed author Ernest Hemingway, playwright Tennessee Williams and musician Jimmy Buffett all have lived there. Others have achieved a more local brand of fame.

"There's something in the air here," says Captain Tony Tarracino, a former mayor, retired barkeep, and notorious flirt at age 79. "Maybe it's all the grass we smoked."

"Hopefully, it'll turn out great," Captain Tony says of Orlando's plan. "Personally, I don't think you can ever match the original."

Peter Anderson is more optimistic.

"It'll give people a feeling for Key West, educate people about the environment and I think attract more people to our island. It's my understanding that they will offer information about the Conch Republic, too."

Anderson is secretary-general of the Conch Republic, a half-serious symbol of Key West's defiant, independent spirit.

The republic was formed more than a decade ago, when U.S. border officials set up a roadblock on U.S. 1 to check for drugs and illegal aliens. In protest, the city's mayor seceded from the union, said he was declaring war, then gave up and called for foreign aid.

Daisy's Restaurant

People have been trying to export the spirit of the Keys for years.

"We have the laid-back style," says Eric Vanderwolf, general manager of Pinellas County's Key West Grill, where margaritas, conch fritters and Hawaiian shirts are mainstays.

In Clearwater, a group holds sunset celebrations at Pier 60, complete with street entertainers and crafts people. The model is Key West's Mallory Square. "I think we have an even nicer location," says the group's vice president, Gerry Husgen.

Sloppy Joe's, the Key West pub made famous by Ernest Hemingway, has franchised. It's now turning up in places like Atlanta, Honolulu, Irvine, Calif., Virginia Beach, Va., Myrtle Beach, S.C., and, yes, Orlando.

And when the people at Alamo Rent A Car tried to capture the feel of the Florida Keys in a national radio promotion, they did too well. Their folksy description of the giant plates of shrimp at Daisy's Restaurant at mile marker 33 brought tourists flocking.

Trouble was, the ad was all spirit. There is no restaurant at mile marker 33. No Daisy's anywhere. In the confusion, Alamo had to drop the promotion and record a new one, about a real place, the Green Turtle.

That, says Key West's Captain Tony, is the point.

"You can't imitate anything _ and if you do, eventually they want to come here. If something is attractive, then people want to see the real thing."

Still, someone will always try to create his own version of reality.

Even Captain Tony, an original, can't avoid it.

In June, he says he plans to help out with a restaurant debut. Captain Tony's Bar and Grill, a Key West-theme eatery, will open in Detroit.

_ Times researchers Kitty Bennett and John Martin contributed to this report.

AT A GLANCE

Key West at Sea World

Opening:

By Memorial Day.

Cost:

Sea World officials say only that it's in the millions.

Animals:

The 5-acre permanent exhibit will feature animal habitats for two-dozen Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, 200 stingrays including newborns and endangered sea turtles.

Food available:

Pineapple and conch fritters, funnel cakes, fruit smoothies, beer.

Plants on display:

Palm trees, hibiscus and bougainvillea.

Building design:

Victorian and Caribbean-style buildings with gables, shutters and porches to match the eclectic mix of building styles in Key West.

Interactive elements:

"Dial-A-Dolphin" will play 15-second facts about dolphins and their environments from a phone booth on Duval Street. A surfing video will compare humans to dolphins. A nearby refrigerator will reveal a sample dolphin diet _ items such as fish, squids and shrimp.

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