Courtesy of A24

How to Fight a Shark, and Other Advice When Visiting Florida

A new travel guide by cult darlings A24 delves deep into the weird and wonderful state.

There’s a scene near the beginning of the 2017 film The Florida Project where the three young protagonists tool around Kissimmee’s Route 192 tourist strip on a mission to score free ice cream. Behind them, kitschy scenery floats by: a gigantic wizard head attached to a gift shop, a store shaped like half an oversized orange. “I love the lid of the orange,” says one kid. “That’s called a peel,” says another. Finally, they arrive at their destination: the ice-cream shop, fiberglass molded into a stubby vanilla ice-cream cone.

They’re fleeting moments, a tribute to both the hazy obliviousness of childhood and the patchwork technicolor weirdness that makes up their Disney-adjacent world. In the movie, Central Florida is mere background scenery, but a new, hefty guide by cult film studio A24—Florida! A Hyper-local Guide to the Flora, Fauna, and Fantasy of the Most Far-out State in America—provides all the context.

Courtesy of A24

In those pages, you’ll find that the gigantic wizard head belongs to the Magic Castle Gift Shop, which, despite its outward appearance, is apparently a pretty ordinary shiller of tourism goods (though you can buy a preserved alligator head for $12.99). You’ll also learn that the Twistee-Treat ice cream shop from the film is an iconic state chain with only a few remaining locations—and not all of them currently purvey frozen desserts.

And though the gigantic half-orange of Eli’s Orange World doesn’t make it into the book, the Citrus Tower of Clermont, built in 1956, does. There, you can still get a coffee with orange cream at the ground floor coffee shop. It represents a time when oranges were the region’s main economic driver, back before Walt Disney razed a majority of the 80,000 miles of orange groves to make way for the happiest place on earth.

Courtesy of A24

Search for “Florida on our site and an eclectic bunch of results come up—the shipwrecks and mangroves of Biscayne National Park, the best places to spot sea turtle nesting, the psychics and spiritualists that make up the town of Cassadaga, and the next big thing in Miami competitions: professional pillow fighting. The marriage of the state’s natural wonders and let’s say… iconoclastic characters are best put in the introduction to A24’s book by Tyler Gillespie, author of The Thing about Florida: Exploring a Misunderstood State, and Florida Man: Poems. He describes skinny dipping at Clearwater Beach and encountering flashes of bioluminescence in the water. “This must be magic,” he thinks. “Or maybe it’s toxic.”

In addition to The Florida Project, some of A24’s most notable films make use of the state’s splendor—Spring Breakers, Zola, and Moonlight (the Pasco County nudists from Zola let it all hang out in their very own spread). But a few movie mentions are all you’ll see of the studio in the guide. Rather, they’ve handed the reins to the folks that live and breathe the Sunshine State in an almost 600-page tome of a love letter.

Courtesy of A24

Essays by authors like Jeff VanderMeer, and Tim Gilmore of dive into daily life, from appreciating wildlife refuges to taking circus classes to attending monster truck rallies. The Three D’s of Jacksonville are also spotlighted: writers Dawnie Walton, Dantiel W. Moniz, and Deesha Philyaw, whose works illustrating the trials of Black characters in North Florida were published within months of each other to great acclaim, forever tying them together.

The professional mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park headline a section, complete with directions on how to experience the mermaid life as an ordinary landlubber (just in time for the new Little Mermaid movie). The Space Coast chapter shows prime locations for tailgating liftoffs at the Kennedy Space Center, and staple Florida supermarket chain Publix is given its due (along with its own ode, by Orlando podcaster and writer Nick D'Alessandro). The state’s wacky mascots also make an appearance (apparently not everyone was too keen on renaming the Jacksonville Suns baseball team the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp).

Courtesy of A24

There are events (Tampa’s Gasparilla Parade of Pirates), inclusive roller skating clubs (Gay Commie Skate Crew in St. Petersburg), a map to sunken treasure, and if you want history? Oh, boy, there’s history, including a focus on those preserving cultural legacies like Miami journalist Nadege Green of @blackmiamidade.

And lest you think they’re keeping the secrets to themselves, all newcomers are invited, with instructional pages on partaking in local festivities. Want to enter the annual Interstate Mullet Toss at Flora-Bama? A chart on page 28 spells it out: Arrive early, pick out your dead, wet fish, kiss your mullet (as per tradition), and fling.

Courtesy of A24

Culinary wonders feature both backstories and recipes. Try a Honeydripper, straight out of Jacksonville, or, naturally, a Key Lime Pie—which comes with its own controversy. Learn what it’s like to worm grunt, and why earthworms from the panhandle forest are the best. There’s even an annual Worm Gruntin’ Festival to add to your calendar.

You can find your best angle at Devil’s Den prehistoric spring or roll a cigar and perfect the art of the Cuban sandwich in Tampa’s Ybor City. And though you hopefully won’t ever have to fight a shark, if you happen to find yourself in that situation, there’s instructions for that, too. Mainly punch it, and hope for the best.

Courtesy of A24

“My version of Florida always starts at the beach because it’s where I first fell in love with the state’s nature and saw its magic,” says Gillespie in the intro. “ But it also lives in the souvenir shops that sell alligator heads as gifts.” Florida has been the butt of some (deserved) ridicule, to the point where the Florida Man trope has taken on a life of its own. But by putting the book in the hands of those who love–and thrive–with its quirks, it makes us want to, as well.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She's been kissing all the fish in preparation for next year's mullet toss.