Friday, December 9, 2016

The Hidden Rides and Themed Attractions of...Florida

Florida has anything hidden? Yes, somehow, there are still bits and pieces of the amusement park universe largely uncovered beneath the array of super parks. If you want to read about historical Disney or Universal information, you'll have better luck reading someone else's material. The same can be said about the modern day SeaWorld properties and Fun Spot. God bless Fun Spot, but everyone has seen a "It's Huge!" commercial and made their mind up on going to ride White Lightning or not (you should because it is great).


I-Drive and Route 192 have both obtained infamy among visitors as large drags filled with traffic and poorly maintained tourist traps. All of it has been priced at exorbitant levels as a result of Disney and Universal's own race to and past the $100/park mark. Of these locales, Magical Midway is a rare exception of still having anything particularly notable with permanent rides. There's an early model S&S Space Shot (you can tell the difference vs. later models by the pneumatic tubing inside the structure) and Florida's only Funtime Starflyer. The Funtime Slingshot present here has a nearly perfect safety record, much unlike the older style reverse bungee attractions and their reliance on elastic bands.

To really understand Florida and the background of the tourism industry, it is really necessary though to leave the Orlando area and head elsewhere. The artesian springs of Florida have been attracting people for a century; several are relatively close to the Orlando area such as Blue Springs and Silver Springs. The latter was operated as a theme park attraction by Palace Amusements (the American wing of Parque Reunidos) until being released from their obligations in 2013. Still operating full bore though is a park north of Tampa: Weeki Wachee. While a small water park operates on site, most come to see the legendary mermaid show. A huge underwater window allows visitors to watch as the "mermaids" swim beneath the waters, aided by a constant stream of oxygen provided via a tube carried with them. Of the human centric shows in the state, it is this one, even more than La Nouba or Blue Man Group, which may be most technically impressive.


While there are a huge number of visitors to the parks, Florida itself is not really the center of the theme park industry. Sure, IAAPA has moved down there, and Universal Creative is centered there. Disney Imagineering is still based primarily in California along with most "themed attraction firms" not named after Jack Rouse. Most of the major ride firms are based outside the US, and those which are can often be found out west in states like Idaho (Rocky Mountain), Oregon (Miler), and Utah (S&S). The progenitor of the theme park industry though is the carnival industry, and there is no place in the world more associated with that industry than Gibtown. Look hard on Google Maps over Gibsonton, FL and you'll find more rides (defunct and operational) per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, virtually all of these are racked up for transport. Showmen tend to be collectors, and one can scarcely imagine what rarities are sitting in fields or under trees until someone can scratch together the money to do a full rehab and take some mystical piece of old steel back on the road.

(With all that carnie history and 5 fairs in the top 50 attended in the US, you might think the fairgrounds of Florida have some really great stuff. Well, for rides, just really the "Skyglider" skyride and giant slide at the State Fairgrounds in Tampa. Miami-Dade got rid of their skyride. Sorry!)

For the rest of us, there's the chance to visit the International Independent Showman's Museum and get hip to the history of the the american carnival. For something a little more permanent, there's also factory tours of the Sally Corporation facilities in Jacksonville, bookable just about any Monday-Friday. And while no tours or fun stuff is available to outsiders, Martin & Vleminckx has an office with a big ol' coaster painted on the side of it that those returning to Orlando from Legoland might run into along US-27.


While there are no shortage of large theme parks in the state, one other impressive asset the people of Florida have are zoos. There are over 23 AZA accredited/certified facilities in the state, plus plenty of legitimate non-accredited facilites, offering a wide array of different experiences.

-Central Florida has a fairly long narrow gauge train ride aboard a diesel engine along with some zip lines

-Palm Beach Zoo has a newer "Conservation Carousel" along with what appears to be an Italian made kiddie train (expressly not of interest to adults).

-Jacksonville Zoo also has a train and a carousel, but their train is significantly larger than most at these sorts of facilities

-Marineland of St. Augustine is among the first enclosures for Dolphins ever and has a wild backstory involving Leo Tolstoy's grandson. Today, it is owned and operated by the renowned Georgia Aquarium.

-Lion Country Safari once had sister locations at the two US KECO parks; Kings Island and Kings Dominion. Many years later, and this park that birthed the "drive thru safari" craze is still going strong. There are water slides, kiddie rides, and boat trips in addition to the safari itself, but that is undoubtedly the main draw.

-Naples Zoo also brings a boat tour, but this one passes a number of artificial islands which are home to primate "enclosures".

The two most significant ride sets at a nonprofit zoo can be found in Miami and Tampa. Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa has guided "safari tram" tours, carousel, and several kiddie rides. A log flume called "Gator Falls" opened at the park in 2008, but has disappeared from their website and appears to have been closed for some time. Zoo Miami will be opening a new section called "Mission Everglades" featuring a family flume attraction with airboat themed vehicles. Logos on the vehicles suggest a name of "Lostman's River Ride," and will be constructed by Whitewater Rides using tech developed by O.D. Hopkins (similar then to rides at Columbus Zoo and Fort Wayne Children's Zoo).


Almost as wild as the animals of Florida's many zoological parks are the swap meets. "Swap Meet Culture" is sometimes even referred to in rap and reggae music from the South Florida region, and they're so substantial that they often act as larger presences in communities than merely a place to buy junk. The less developed Kidstar Amusement Park at Port Charlotte's Sun Flea Market has few rides, but does have lazer tag, a large play structure, and go karts to go with an aging arcade. True enthusiasts of all things weird should make it a mission to get to the Swap Shop and Drive In Theater in Fort Lauderdale Florida, as there really is nothing quite like it in our great nation. Outside, almost anything you'd want from produce to knockoff electronics is available for procurement in a vast and undulating (seriously!) combination of lot spaces and tented storage spaces turned store fronts. Inside the large permanent building is a thing of wonderment. Not just cheap junk, but also a massive arcade (once center ring for the Hanneford Circus!) and food court (primarily selling food of Caribbean origin) and most incredible of all, a huge car museum showing off the Ferrari-intensive collection of the Swap Shop's octogenarian owner. But wait- there's more.

Back outside, closer to the street, lies Uncle Bernie's Amusement/Theme Park. A collection of used carnival rides in barely operable condition, it more or less resembles the small family entertainment centers that can be found throughout Central and South America near, what else? - shopping malls. RCDB lists both the gravity driven and powered coaster here, but there's a log flume and a Sartori Techno Jump (possibly previously owned by Playworld Amusements? if you know, hit the comments section!).


As hard as it is to believe, Southeastern Florida's only permanent and publicly open amusement park is Uncle Bernie's. Perhaps because of all the attractions up north, there just hasn't been much action down south. The Dania Beach Hurricane, a renowned wood coaster from the Coasterworks/Martin & Vleminckx boys mentioned before is in the midst of being removed, along with the large FEC (Boomers Dania) that it was attached to. There was also a strange duck that operated for over 60 years. The City of Miami Police Benevolent Association maintained a nonprofit amusement park beginning in at least 1943, but it eventually succumbed to maintenance costs and was sold off/razed in the early 2010s with little fanfare. Southwestern Florida is little better, with only the opening of Zoomers in Fort Myers to even mention. That project took nearly a decade to be developed before finally opening in 2012, and looks nothing like you'd expect an 8 year development cycle to appear like.


The last great wave of amusement park closures hit Red State America extra hard: Six Flags Astroworld & New Orleans, Pavilion, Ghost Town In The Sky, Branson USA, Opryland, and Bell's are all gone, and it hurts even more thinking that the majority were cash flow positive. Joining the list of parks that were too big a success to stay in business was Miracle Strip Amusement Park, located on Front Beach Park in Panama City. Can you blame the owners for taking a sweetheart deal from real estate developers that wound up taking a bath later? Maybe you can't. But like with Myrtle Beach Pavilion, the space where the park once occupied is still an empty void, drawing no one and looking an overgrown mess instead of being a profitable and important anchor for the community. When people talk about the perfection of the market, this is what they actually mean: People borrowing money (your money!) from banks in seemingly outrageous ponzi-esque schemes, losing it, destroying communities, and the banks having the gall to demand you pay them extra in federal loans for their poor business acumen. The developers and bank managers/executives are richer, but everyone else sure as hell isn't.

An attempt by the collective responsible for Boardwalk Amusements in Daytona managed to not succeed at bringing back Miracle Strip in Panama City, and now both of those parks were put up at auction this past IAAPA. As time has gone on since the closure, many of the more unique attractions in the area have gone by the wayside. Cobra Amusement Park has, at various points in times, featured such weirdo attractions as the S&S Snowshot launched drag racing ride (atop snowmobiles) and later an electric go-kart drag racing attraction with speeds over 60 MPH. There's still a unique looking Goofy Golf location, and Race City PCB is now home to the only adult coaster in the area. Can it be that it was all so much better then? I regret to inform you: yes.

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