There's a shopping plaza in the central Florida town of Lakeland that's celebrating its 60th birthday this November, and it doesn't look a day over the Eisenhower administration. The Southgate Shopping Center on South Florida Avenue was the brainchild of George Jenkins, founder of the Publix grocery store chain. He figured a plaza with many stores would attract more customers than just a free-standing supermarket, a rather "no duh" idea by today's standards, but revolutionary at the time. The beauty of this location is the fact that that the stupendous parabolic arch with its mid-century modern lettering and style hasn't been updated to something more current and, in most cases of older places being "modernized," made bland. Say what you will about Southgate, bland it ain't. Director Tim Burton thought as much, and he chose the Southgate as a location for his 1990 movie "Edward Scissorhands." It's where Edward, played by Johnny Depp, has his hair salon.
Bravo to the Publix grocery store chain for keeping the retro vibe alive in Lakeland. It's Fat city, the place to make the scene Daddy-O, and we dig it the most.
This handsome, bearded, open-shirted, big-wrenched hunk greets you in Dade City, Florida
While just down the road apiece is his Big Mechanic Complete Automotive brother in Zephyrhills, along with his delightful sidekick:
There's a chain of auto repair shops in the greater Tampa Bay, Florida area that has the good taste to use repurposed muffler men as their roadside ambassadors. Big Mechanic Complete Automotive and Mufflers is a franchise of 20 shops in the area. A Mr. Steve Torregiante operates eight of these locations including the two Auto Air & Brake City, Inc. locations seen here (we've already blogged about another one of Steve's muffler man-laden shops in Tampa here). After acquiring his shops in the 2000s, Steve thought it's be a great idea to use unemployed muffler men to grab the attention of passing motorists. "When I first learned they were initially designed for muffler shops, I
thought, Wow I have to have one," Steve said. "But I wouldn't really get out of a car
and have my picture taken with them like some people do, but hey, it
works for me." His first was acquired in nearby Ocala, just up the road. The next three came from more far-flung locations: East Texas, Missouri and Georgia. Steve is still on the lookout for a few more good men, but they don't pop up for sale very often. According to his website:
Since then (the fourth one), no others have been found for sale. About 20 of them are in
California & Steve says if he has to go that far to get one, he
will. Because of Florida's possibility for hurricanes, each of them have
been heavily reinforced with steel structures lining the inside of the
statues & can be easily taken down and/or moved in the event of a
Another delight of Steve's Zephyrhills shop is the little character with the big grin made out of muffler and tailpipe parts looking over ever-so-casually at his bigger counterpart. Bravo to the modern-day mechanical Michelangelo who created this wonderful bit of whimsy.
It takes real commitment (some would say in an institution) to haul a muffler man across the country and make him hurricane-proof. Steve, you're our kind of guy. We'll never get "exhausted" of your muffler man mojo, so put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Blowing Rocks Preserve is a beautiful natural wonder on Jupiter Island along Florida's Atlantic coast. There, you'll see craggy Anastasia limestone along the shore, giving the area a bit of a Maine coast feel. As if to remind you that you're still in the Sunshine State, an outcropping resembling an alligator, Florida's unofficial ambassador, juts out into the crashing foam. We love this place, and that's no crock.
We've been doing most of our roadtripping around Florida these past few years and there's no shortage of eccentric roadside attractions in the sunshine state. Take, for example, the tiny town of Lorida. Lorida, Florida. Florida without the F. Now, that's just funny. This little berg with a population of 1,696 rests in the south central part of the state along Route 98, about 43 miles northwest of Lake Okeechobee. It's a bucolic farming and fish camp community with beautiful Lake Istokpoga right nearby. According to this guy's blog, it got its name from its postmistress Mary Stokes back in 1937, after several names (Can I get a whoop whoop for Sunnyland? No?) didn't work out. Apparently she liked the Spanish origin of the name Florida so much she corrupted it a little and the name stuck.
Places with names like this make roadtrips fun. WTF, notwithstanding.
A recent roadtrip to the pretty little south central Florida town of Lake Placid yielded us a two-fer: an abandoned, decaying roadside sign and business, and a wonder of nature. On top of the pineapple-shaped sign in front of a decommissioned citrus stand along busy Route 27 sits a large osprey nest with a rather angry mother protecting her young. At first we didn't notice the nest and thought this was just a cool, abandoned place, so beautifully melancholy Old Florida, but after getting out to walk around and get a closer look, a lot of loud squawking was heard. It was then we noticed a large hawk-like bird right in the top. The closer we got, the more distressed she acted until she flew off and began circling and crying. This was something I hadn't seen before, I thought to myself, and for a minute I wondered if I should be heading to a phone booth for protection, like Tippi Hedren in "The Birds". We would have lingered longer to get more pictures but moved on after a minute because the poor bird really did seem distressed. To stay any longer would have seemed, well, hawkward.
It was with great sadness that we learned of the passing of one of our favorite eccentric roadside attractions. The Airstream Ranch of Dover, Florida consisted of eight different sized Airstream trailers (seven and a half, actually, to commemorate Airstream's 75th anniversary) partially buried and angled as an homage to the Cadillac Ranch of Amarillo, Texas. It was assembled by the Bates R-V dealership in 2007. The dealership was sold four years ago and the ranch was torn down a few days ago to make way for expansions to the new owners' dealership and to make space for an Airstream museum. While we're happy with the idea of an Airstream musem --who wouldn't be? -- we're a bit verklempt they had to take down such a funky one-of-a-kind work of art to do it. This just serves as a reminder to visit these wonderful wacky places while they're still standing because they may not be there the next time to you look for them. In other words, carpe 'stream.
Here's what we said in our original post from 2010:
Field of 'Streams: Dover, Florida's Airstream Ranch
Amarillo, Texas has the Cadillac Ranch. Alliance, Nebraska has Carhenge.
And the pleasant central Florida hamlet of Dover has the Airstream
Ranch, seven and a half shiny Airstream trailers of different size and
vintage upended and partially buried nose-first in a field along
Interstate 4, about a half-hour east of Tampa. The brainchild of Frank
and Dorothy Bates, proprietors of the Bates R-V dealership
(who bill themselves as the largest Airstream dealership in the United
States), it was installed on their property on 2007 in honor of
Airstream's 75th anniversary (hence the seven and a half). But like all
great eccentric roadside attractions, it wasn't without controversy.
Seems some of the neighbors hated it and Hillsborough County officials
fined the Bateses $100 a day until it was taken down. The Bateses
appealed and last February a three-judge panel ruled in their favor and
they got to keep their ranch. The Bateses' argument was that it was an
artistic expression, not an advertisement, and, while the judges avoided
answering whether or not it was art, they did conclude that it wasn't
advertising and it wasn't junk, so there it stands. And it's going to
get even better: "Now we're going to light it at night," says Mr. Bates.
Bravo to the Bateses for their eccentric artistic vision. If you build
it, they will come.
We've been a bit under the weather and off the road for the past few months, but we could not let the day go by without wishing a very happy 60th birthday to a true eccentric roadside attraction wonder, the Mai-Kai Polynesian restaurant of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They'll be celebrating with book-signings by authors of Mai-Kai and tiki culture books Sven Kirsten and Tim Glazner, an extended happy hour featuring three "lost cocktails" revived from the Mai-Kai's original 1956 menu, a new tiki statue in their outside garden, and a new Polynesian dinner show. Here's what we had to say when we visited back in 2014:
Even though we've traveled thousands of miles across the USA, we've
never made it to Hawaii. And if we never do, we think we've found a
worthy surrogate -- the Mai-Kai Polynesian Restaurant of
Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Dating back to 1956, it's been Dole-ing out
(as in the pineapple) powerfully intoxicating exotic drinks from ceramic
coconuts, tiki heads and rum barrels to go along with the (mostly)
Chinese food and thick steaks on the menu and the South Pacific native
dancers' floor show. Originally located in an empty field along a
then-two lane stretch of Route 1, it's lush acreage is now surrounded by
the hustle and trafficy bustle of outer Fort Lauderdale sprawl, and its
old-timey oasis-like feel is quite refreshing. Easter Island-like
sculptures mingle among the flaming torches, lush palms and waterfalls
of the Mai-Kai's grounds with a thatched tiki roof on their A-frame and
retro neon sign thrown in for good measure, hearkening back to the
glorious post-World War II era when America was gaga for all things
South Seas. They've expanded many times over the years but the fun,
1960s retro vibe (when tiki was at its "peak-i") has not been lost. You
can dine outdoors, or go for a Zombie, Mai-Tai or Sidewinder's Fang
served by pretty bikini-topped, sarong-bottomed waitresses at the
Molokai Lounge. But for the full Mai-Kai experience, you must take in
the Polynesian Islander Revue, the longest running Polynesian dance show
in the continental U.S. Pretty girls shaking their hips in grass
skirts? Got 'em. Beefy guys in warrior paint walking on fire? Got 'em. A
rockin' hula band with Hawaiian drums and ukuleles? Got 'em! And all
for only $12 a head more than your meal. For devoted fans of tiki, this
place is mecca. For everyone else, we say "Be there. Aloha."
And as an unrelated side-note, we haven't posted anything on this blog in over three months but we had over 27,000 page views last month. That's more than we ever got when we were posting regularly. Go figure!
Route 41 is the old highway that runs east and west along the very most southern part of Florida. It's also known as the Tamiami Trail (that name being a Desilu-type smashup of Tampa and Miami) and runs right through the Everglades. A good deal of this land is owned and run by Native Americans and the Miccosukee tribe has a large development that includes dining, gaming, nightlife, entertainment and other resort-like whatnot. They also have the Miccosukee Indian Village, that features a museum, airboat rides and an old-time Florida tourist staple throwback, alligator demonstrations. We're glad to see them using the word "demonstrations" and not "wrestling" because we're not huge fans of poking at animals mercilessly until they snap at you. We also understand, though, that Native Americans get shafted a lot of the time and need to make a living, so we're happy their website says "no harm or pain is inflicted on the alligators during The Alligator Encounter," an event where visitors are taught "how to respectfully touch and mount a Florida alligator." This is good to know -- if I was going to be touched and mounted by a tourist, I'd want it to be done with respect. The statue depicts a young, husky tribesman with his hand under a frisky-looking alligator's chin, and not in a "coochy-coochy-coo" sort of way. The signature reads that of Chris Dixon of Chris Dixon Studios and 2009. The statue can be seen as you whiz down Route 41 at 60 mph and does cause a double take because of its size and folk-art style, a reaction we get when we see other huge roadside giants. Nice for us eccentric roadside attraction fans that such a recent work of promotion was done in such a retro sort of way. See you later, alligator!
This blog is devoted to old fashioned American roadside attractions... the wonderfully big, bizarre, crazy, wacky, quirky, weird, funny, unique and mundane sites you see travelling cross-country by car in the USA, where getting there really is all the fun!