Attractions that highlight Florida’s quirky side
04/05/2014 12:00 AM
04/07/2014 8:51 AM
As a state where tourism is big business, it’s not surprising that Florida offers a lot of attractions. Some are natural, like the climate, the beaches, the Everglades. Some are man-made — the theme parks, the hotels, the golf courses.
But also among Florida’s attractions are some that are very unusual, even odd. Most are man-made, someone’s quirky creation, and most are worth a look if you happen to be traveling the area — and a visit to any of these spots will make for good retelling.• Whimzeyland, Safety Harbor: As you would expect from its name, this is a place full of whimsy. Over the years, artists Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda have turned their home into a colorful, fairy-tale-like site with such recycled materials as pieces of mirrors, bottles, tiles, glass and — of all things — painted bowling balls.
“We’ve been artists our whole lives,” Ramquist explained, saying they were often inspired by trips they took. “We travel a lot.”
Their home and studio, called WhimzeyLand, are a riot of colors and unusual artistic creations. There are, for example, two bottle trees, each sprouting almost 100 blue bottles. Strings of beads hang down and colorful wooden triangles outline roof eaves. Also on view is a “WhimZoo“ of sculptured animals. Not all of the artistic works are by Ramquist and Kiaralinda; other artists have made contributions to their home.
The most striking exhibits are of the decorated bowling balls. “We have almost 1,000 of them now,” Ramquist said. In fact, the home is also known as the Bowling Ball House, to which about 120 other artists have contributed decorated balls.
The two don’t charge admission to their home — “People just wander around” the property, Ramquist said — but visitors can enter only when the duo are home.
Currently, Ramquist and Kiaralina and a crew of volunters are building a nonprofit art center out of recycled materials. Ramquist expects the center to open this fall.
Details: 1206 Third St., Safety Harbor; 727-725-4018, www.kiaralinda.com.• Solomon’s Castle, Ona: You wouldn’t expect to find a structure like this in a swamp — or indeed anywhere at all. But that’s where Solomon’s Castle stands in DeSoto County, 12 miles from Ona, a town east of Bradenton. Built by sculptor Howard Solomon, it’s not really a castle, but a structure made out of odd materials, among them car parts, tin cans and other scrap metal. Shiny metal plates used in newspaper printing cover the exterior of the three-story, 12,000-square-foot structure that Solomon started building as his home back in 1972.
“I’ve built things all my life,” said Solomon, who retired at age 37 and now has four generations of his family living on his property. “I have 300 of my sculptures in the house.” They can be seen on the 35-minute tour of the living quarters offered to visitors.
Solomon says he didn’t intend for his home to become a big tourist attraction, but now it has a restaurant housed in the replica of a Spanish galleon that he built. The main part seats 250 people, and an adjacent lighthouse he built seats another 55. His daughter, who runs the restaurant and lives on the property, has turned her home into a bed-and-breakfast. “It looks like chocolate on the outside,” he said.
Solomon, who owns some old cars, plans to open an antique car museum on his property. His criteria: “They all will have to be older than me.” That means the cars will be from the years 1915 to 1935, he said.
Details: 4533 Solomon Rd., Ona; 863-494-6077, www.solomonscastle.org. High season is January to Easter; the castle closes in July and reopens in October. Admission: Adults $10, children $4.• Spook Hill, Lake Wales: Space isn’t the only place where man can defy gravity. Folks in Lake Wales say anyone can do it in their city at Spook Hill. All you have to do is drive to the base of the hill, put your car into neutral and watch it roll uphill. It’s an optical illusion, of course, and what appears to human eyes to be uphill is really downhill. Still, it’s a disturbing sensation.
Details: North Wales Drive, Lake Wales (marker on east side of North Wales BS Fifth Street, a quarter mile south of Highway 17 and Burns Avenue); www.spookhill.info/index.htm.• Hollow Earth, Estero: Once upon a time, there were people who believed the earth was a hollow sphere and that mankind was living inside it. The sky? It was the inside of earth’s dome. Gravity was nonsense; they believed centrifugal force held them to the ground.
That was the theory of Cyrus Teed, who also was convinced he was the Messiah. Teed came to the southwest Florida town of Estero in the 1890s to founded a sect based on his beliefs, which he called Koreshan Unity. Koreshanity reached its peak from 1900 to 1910, when the settlement numbered several hundred people and had 40 buildings. But the movement never caught on, especially after Teed died in 1908 and didn’t rise from the dead as his followers had expected.
The last four members of the cult deeded the property to the state of Florida in 1961. It is now Koreshan State Park, and visitors can see the six buildings that survive as well as a few of the cult’s strange artifacts, including a model of the “rectilineator,” an apparatus the Koreshans used to “prove” the earth was concave.
Details: Koreshan State Park, 3800 Corkscrew Rd., Estero; 239-992-0311; www.floridastateparks.org/koreshan. Admission: $5 per vehicle; guided tours: $2 adults, $1 per child.• Bat Tower, Sugarloaf Key: Then and now, mosquitoes can be a problem in the Florida Keys — particularly marsh mosquitoes, which are big, black and hungry. So back in 1929, a Keys fishing camp owner named Richter Perky dreamed up a way to get rid of the pesky insects: Bats, he figured, would eat them. He built a 30-foot tower on Sugarloaf Key as a home for bats. and stocked it with special bait, said to be a mixture of bat guano with ground-up female bat sex organs. Then he imported bats.
But the bats never cottoned to Perky’s bat tower or to his smelly bat bait. They simply flew off. The bat tower survives as a monument to one man’s batty vision.
Details: Bat Tower Road at Mile Marker 17, bayside, Lower Sugarloaf Key; www.floridakeys.com/lowerkeys/attractions.htm. Admission: Free.• Coral Castle, Homestead: After the 16-year-old girl he fell in love with spurned him, a 5-foot-tall Latvian immigrant named Edward Leedskalnin spent 20 years creating a garden of massive coral blocks in the hope that his beloved would return to him. The blocks, each weighing six to 30 tons, were placed in unusual configurations, some atop each other, and some were carved in odd shapes such as a crescent moon.
In an age when power tools and cranes were not available, Leedskainin excavated, carved and stacked all these odd rock structures without help. To this day, no one knows how the Latvian, who weighed only 100 pounds, did it. Today his garden is an oft-visited tourist attraction.
Details: 28655 S. Dixie Hwy., Homestead; 305-248-6345, www.coralcastle.com. Admission: Adults $15; kids (7-12) $7.• Skunk Ape Headquarters, Ochopee: What’s a skunk ape? It’s a big, smelly hairy humanoid that lives in the Big Cypress National Preserve, according to Dave Shealy, who runs the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee. Though most scientists believe the skunk ape, like Bigfoot, is just another myth, Shealy says he not only has seen the creatures, but also has photographed and videotaped it. He displays a plaster cast of a skunk ape footprint at his Headquarters, which also sells a DVD of his photos along with Skunk Ape T-shirts and other mementos.
Shealy estimates seven to nine skunk apes live in the swamp, each of them 6 to 7 feet tall and weighing 350 to 400 pounds. “They do not move at night,” he said. “They go up in trees.”
Some 6,000 to 8,000 visitors annually drop in at the Headquarters to learn more about the skunk ape, Shealy says. He also has a small zoo and a campground there, and the building that houses his Headquarters also serves as his campground office.
Details: 40904 Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), Ochopee; 239-695-2275, www.skunkape.info. Admission: $5 per person, children 5 and under free.• Smallest post office in the U.S., Ochopee: Not far from the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters on the edge of the Everglades is this tiny post office, housed in a 7-by-8-foot, one-time shed. Despite its size, “We can do any services other post offices do,” said Shannon Mitchell, the officer in charge of the facility.
The post office is a tourist attraction as well, and Mitchell says she gets perhaps up to 70 visitors a day, including some busloads. The post office is open 8 to 10 a.m. and noon to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 to 11 a.m. Saturdays.
Details: 38000 Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41), Ochopee; 239-695-4131.• Monument of States, Kissimmee: In the early days of World War II, Dr. Charles Bressler-Pettis wanted a physical symbol of American unity, so he wrote letters to every governor asking them to send rocks from their state. In 1943 he built a 50-foot-tall monument in Lakefront Park stacked with brightly colored concrete slabs, each one with a state rock imbedded in it.
In addition to the state rocks, Pettis added rocks he and his wife had collected. Rocks kept coming even after Pettis died. Today the surrounding walkways display rocks from 21 countries, large corporations, and from Alaska and Hawaii, which weren’t yet states when the monument was built.
Details: Lakefront Park, 300 E. Monument Ave., Kissimmee; 407-847-2821. Free.
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