These Bizarre Roadside Attractions and Surreal Pit Stops Are Pure Florida
Skunk apes and mermaids await.
Say what you want about Florida, but the Sunshine State fully embraces its reputation for weirdness. As such, a journey through the state turns up a fair share of roadside attractions that are sure to boggle the mind of even the most hardened Florida Man.
But lest you think it’s all gator farms, Florida also makes good on its promise to keep you on your toes. Along these roads, you’ll find mythical swamp beasts and haunted dolls, feral monkeys and fields of dinosaurs. But you’ll also find the unexpected in more wholesome forms, from hidden gardens of Eden to middle-of-nowhere bounties of tropical fruit. And also alligator farms, because Florida’s gonna do Florida. Here are a few of our favorite pit stops to hit.
To listen to Skunk Ape Research Headquarters founder Dave Shealy -- a towering man with glacial blue eyes -- talk about the sasquatch-like creature he’s sure roams the Everglades is to become convinced it might be real. He’s seen one, he swears! And his gift shop and wildlife attraction at the edge of the ‘Glades along the Tamiami Trail (US Highway 41) is full of all kinds of fascinating lore, grainy skunk ape photos, and, of course, skunk-ape koozies, ball caps, and t-shirts.
For verifiably real creatures, drop a few extra bucks to check out the reptile collection, which includes an enormous alligator and Goldie -- a reticulated python said to be among the largest in captivity who tips the scale at over 350 pounds and stretches 21 feet long.
Continuing west a mile along the Tamiami Trail brings you to a federally owned locale that’s equally curious. The Ochopee Post Office is hardly larger than the US flag billowing atop it and looks more like an outhouse than a mail-collection institution. Manned by just one staffer and in operation since 1953, it’s said to be the tiniest in the US, and once served as an irrigation pipe-storage shed for a tomato farm. Buy a pre-stamped postcard and send it to someone who’ll care you were there.
Key West is full of fascinating ghost stories, but none get the skin crawling quite like the life-sized stuffy named Robert. Now a resident at the East Martello Museum, legend has it that a young Key West boy was given the sailor doll by a family servant in the early 1900s. Cursed experiences ensued, and the doll was blamed for all sorts of island tragedy as it passed hands over the years. Today, Robert sits behind plexiglass in the museum, where some visitors say they’ve seen him change his expression and even giggle behind their backs. Word is he really, really doesn’t like his picture taken, either, and tends to send shutterbugs packing their own personal curses.
Robert is Here
And now for a completely different Robert: A tropical fruit stand on steroids. This icon near the entrance to Everglades National Park might not be a traditional roadside attraction. But what it lacks in oddity it makes up for in perhaps the best milkshakes on the planet. Oh, and you can pet ostriches.
Robert is Here opened back in 1959 when the owner, Robert Moehling, painted a sign letting passersby know he was there on the side of the road and selling whatever was in season. Today, the fruit stand is still run by the same family and has an incredible selection of tropical fruits that flourish in South Florida -- mangoes, papayas, avocados, and more. Blenders whir nonstop from behind a window where customers queue for milkshakes made with seasonal fruits that might include strawberries or mamey, which is native to Cuba.
Five miles north of Robert is Here, you’ll find a horticultural haven right off the roadside that feels like a lost Eden. Blooming orchids of all varieties -- some huge and others as tiny as bumble bees -- hang everywhere, and most are for sale. Right across from the shop, follow a private road lined with Bunyan trees and you’ll discover a path to a burbling waterfall fountain where koi swirl in a pool at the base. It’s truly a little piece of paradise in crowded South Florida that you’d never find unless you knew where to look.
Located 60 miles east of Tampa, legend has it that the spirits of a Calusa chief the massive bull alligator he sparred with can cause your car to to feel like it's driving uphill on Spook Hill. You are, however, rolling backwards. It’s one of those things you have to experience to even vaguely understand, and not everyone is convinced the illusion works, although some swear by it. Most days, you’ll see cars pulled over here near a sign emblazoned with what looks like Casper the friendly ghost, each waiting its turn to challenge Spook Hill. The free attraction is so much a part of the town’s lore that the local elementary’s school’s mascot is a ghost.
Off Interstate 4 between Orlando and Daytona, a town full of psychics and mediums awaits. Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, founded in the late 1800s, is home to about 100 people, and has been called “where Mayberry meets the Twilight Zone.” Beeline to the visitor’s center to browse new-age books, crystals, and dream catchers, or to book an appointment with an official certified medium in one of the cute gingerbread Victorian-style homes nearby. You can roll the dice, too, on one of the un-certified psychics working across the street at the Cassadaga Hotel which, naturally, is rumored to be haunted.
Many Florida state parks have springs. Only Weeki Wachee Springs has mermaids finning around those freshwater springs for your viewing pleasure. Live underwater shows featuring the sirens can be enjoyed from a 500-seat, subterranean theater that’s basically like a reverse aquarium. These live shows have been a much-loved Florida ritual since it started back in 1947, drawing everyone from Elvis to aquatic screen siren Esther Williams. And should the inspiration to get wet strike you, Weeki Wachee also has a water park. No fins required. Just don’t plan to see them right now: Weeki Wachee is currently closed for safety’s sake.
Right across from the Florida Cracker Riverside Resort in Homosassa, north of Tampa, there’s a tiny man-made island in the river that’s home to a wily band of spider monkeys. Monkey Island traces its origins to the mid 1900s, when a doctor allegedly brought the animals to Florida as part of work being done with the polio vaccine. While you can’t set foot on the island or otherwise harass the monkeys, you can catch their antics while kayaking by or snacking on a gator sausage pizza at the resort’s Monkey Bar, located within eyeshot across the water.
Florida’s got more wildlife parks of questionable ethical propriety than Joe Exotic’s got bite scars, but only Jungle Adventure has Swampy the Alligator. No, you can’t feed Swampy -- you’ll have to venture inside to watch gators chomp on meat in experiences that range from petting to a river cruise. But you can gaze in awe upon him, for he is the world’s longest fake gator, stretching 200 feet. And that’s somehow even more impressive than the interactive zoo that he’s luring you into.
Dinosaurs roamed the Earth some 200 million years ago, but it took them until 1998 to reach Florida, proving that the state holds tremendous clout among retirees. Featuring some 150 full-size dinosaur sculptures, Dinosaur World is like a roadside attraction gone super size, a place where kids can run among ancient alpha predators without worrying about being eaten. Curiously, there are three of these parks now, including one in Kentucky, another state where no dinosaur fossils have been found.