This is the second of a 2-part series
The early drive from “up north” down to the Sunshine state was as much an adventure as a journey; primitive cars traversing primitive roads, with few of the conveniences we take for granted today.
President Eisenhower changed all that with his Federal Highway System, and to further encourage highway travel, popular singer Dinah Shore, with her sponsor Chevrolet, belted out her theme song, “See the USA in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call.”
Many answered the call by taking their two-week vacations to Florida, and Sarasota siphoned its share with some must-see tourist attractions as families in their chariot of choice, the station wagon came down for the sun, surf, sand.
Off of a narrow two-lane Fruitville Road, Texas Jim Mitchell’s Reptile Farm and Zoo opened in 1935. Before settling in Sarasota, Texas Jim had toured as a Hopi Indian with a Wild West show.
He and his wife Mae reportedly started the venture with $14. The attraction expanded each year, and by the late ‘50s, its five acres were filled with alligators, crocodiles, snakes, monkeys and numerous exotic animals.
Texas Jim was a colorful character who never drifted far from his roots. When dry weather prevailed, he would don his Native American costume and do a rain dance around the War Memorial at Five Points.
A story made the rounds that at the Gator Bar, Texas Jim threw a bag full of snakes on the dance floor. Presumably, he had already milked the venom from them, but in any case, the tempo surely must have picked up markedly.
The longest continually operated tourist attraction in Sarasota, still drawing crowds today opened on New Year’s Eve, 1939, as The Sarasota Jungle (better known as Sarasota Jungle Gardens today).
The popular attraction was developed by David B. Lindsay, publisher of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Pearson Conrad, and H.R. Taylor.
According to the Herald, the attraction opened earlier than planned because of public demand. Many locals wanted it opened before their northern guests returned home.
Thousands of plants from the world over were added to the wealth of flowers and fauna already on the 10-acre property.
The Herald reported, “Hundreds of visitors thronged as the Sarasota Jungle luxuriant garden spot on Indian Beach Road and Myrtle Avenue yesterday to view Sarasota’s newest attraction.”
Some of the red brick pathways were taken from Sarasota’s first all-brick high school.
One of the first go-to attractions, the Lido Casino, truly a spectacular sight on Lido Beach, was always a big draw. As blindingly bright as the surrounding sand; this was Sarasota’s glorious beach oasis, a symbol of what life in a resort community was all about.
The Sarasota Herald tabbed it, “This splendid structure … is the most beautiful beach casino on the west coast and perhaps in the whole state … it challenges the admiration of everyone who sees it. This will mark a historic forward step in [Sarasota’s] development.”
There was so much to do: Swim in the AAU-sized pool (an adjacent round wading pool served toddlers), dine and dance in the Casa Marina Room, grab a burger and Coke in the grill, enjoy a cocktail at the Castaways Bar, attend parties, card games and political rallies in the ballroom or just sit on the second-floor terrace near the sea horses and watch the passersby. It became a favorite for high school proms.
Despite promises to make it better than ever before, in February of 1969, to the shock of many, it was razed.
The replacement is an embarrassment by comparison. (As of this writing, the men’s lavatory has three toilets, one door has been tied shut (thankfully), the middle is usually a mess, and the third does not even have a top on the water closet. Of the three urinals, one is covered in a black plastic bag. All in all reminiscent of a jail facility, which is to say, pathetic).
One of the oddest proposals for a tourist attraction, which never materialized was to be known as Midget City. You can almost hear the kids in the backseat of the family station wagon, “Daddy, are we there yet? Hmmm? Are we? Are we?”
To have been located off U.S. 41, three miles south of the Sarasota city limits. The kids could probably hear members of the Lullaby League singing, “We wish to welcome you to Munchkinland.”
Midget City was to be inhabited totally by little people, who would run their fire department and police department and elect their mayor. Their chamber of commerce, too, would be composed of little people.
The idea was the brainchild of writer Mrs. Neal Chapline Swalm. Nate Eagle, “Midget Impresario,” was to run the operation. Swalm noted Eagle’s bona fides for such an operation: [He] has successfully operated enterprises such as this on a smaller scale, consisting as much as a quarter of a million dollars to construct.
Swalm bragged that of the four hundred known little people in the United States, “Mr. Eagle has worked with over 50% of them, knows them well, and is considered by them to be their champion in whom they have implicit trust.” She insisted that he would have no trouble employing as many little people as it would take to run Midget City on a year-round basis.
It is lost to history why the plan never materialized, but on your next drive south on Bee Ridge Road, look to the west. Among the myriad car lots and restaurants and strip centers, there could have been a place called Midget City filled with little people, and you could say to your children, “Well, here we are.”
Sarasota’s relationship with the circus was underscored when the Circus Hall of Fame opened on Jan. 8, 1955. The building and grounds showcased a vast collection of circus memorabilia and offered live circus acts. It was billed as a Shrine to Stars. Its centerpiece was the 10-ton Two Hemispheres Band Wagon, built-in 1896 for Phineas T. Barnum. It was said to have been found abandoned at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, where Colonel B.J. Palmer restored it and gave it to the Hall of Fame.
On Christmas Day, 1964 another theme park, Philip C. Smashey’s Floridaland (“Everything Under the Sun”), opened in Osprey behind the Holiday Inn built in conjunction with it. The attraction featured for the purchase of a single ticket, sights including an animal farm, a Western Town with a shoot ’em up show, the Golden Nugget Saloon with Cancan girls, a dolphin show, an Indian Village and a paddlewheel riverboat ride on Little Sarasota Bay.
In what was probably a first, and hopefully a last, a dolphin named Moby Dick called Keiki, another performing dolphin at a theme park in Hawaii over a specially designed phone. They reportedly “spoke” for approximately 5 minutes. The gist of their conversation remains unknown.
Another attraction of truly gigantic proportions was Sunshine Springs and Gardens, a project of successful developers Charles and Leonard Tanner.
Primarily a water park, the performers were called Aquabelles and Aquaboys. Also featured was a water-skiing elephant, a water-skiing Santa at Christmas time, and for excitement, speed boats careened in “daredevil fashion.”
Located on 2,000 acres off Proctor Road east of today’s I-75, the park reportedly cost $4,000,000 in 1955 dollars and required the removal of nearly 2,000,000 cubic yards of soil.
It was to compete with Cypress Gardens and offered a water stage 900 feet long and 100 feet high. It was also filled with beautifully colored flowers and tropical vegetation.
Sunshine Springs and Gardens lasted only 5 years, but coupled with our other tourist attractions — The Ringling Bros. Winter Headquarters, Horn’s Cars of Yesterday, The Glass Blowers, The Players Theatre, allowed us the tag line “Florida’s City of Attractions.”