Of Aquamaids and Giant Sponges

Visitors are encouraged to feed the flamingos at Sarasota Jungle Gardens, which opened in 1940.
Visitors are encouraged to feed the flamingos at Sarasota Jungle Gardens, which opened in 1940. (Sarasota Jungle Gardens)
By Susan Harb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 14, 2007

The mermaid dived straight down, and she didn't stop until she reached 117 feet below the water's surface.

Once there, she tossed aside her air hose and miraculously held her breath for the entire 12-story ascent. In a grave voice, the announcer asked audience members to hold their breaths along with her as a clock on a monitor ticked away the seconds.

I made it to 18; my nephew to 25; the mermaid, 2 minutes 45 seconds.

The fewer than 20 people watching the show at Florida's Weeki Wachee Springs applauded with enthusiasm and relief. But with attendance numbers like those, it's impossible for the 60-year-old attraction to breathe easy.

It's not alone. More than 150 Florida roadside attractions have closed since the heyday of the 1950s and '60s. Victims of interstates that bypassed the two-lane amusements, changing tastes in entertainment and stricter government regulations, many of Florida's mom-and-pop sites are on the endangered list.

"Nature was once enough," said Gary R. Mormino, professor of Florida studies at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. "Fifty years ago people were bewitched by what they saw. The old attractions had some gewgaws -- alligators wrestling or a parrot show -- but the real attraction was Florida's natural beauty."

Today, attractions have to have a hook, Mormino said. "Cinderella's Castle, Shamu or a bigger roller coaster." Mega-resorts in the '70s -- Disney World, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens -- took a huge toll, but attendance was already dwindling, Mormino said.

Historians use the term "vanishing Florida."

The situation has worsened since Sept. 11, 2001, said Luanne Brannen, a spokeswoman for Sarasota Jungle Gardens. After the terrorist attacks, would-be travelers opted to stay home, causing even the venerable Cypress Gardens to briefly close its doors. Some Old Florida attractions are banking on the current interest in nostalgia to keep their doors open; others, such as Cypress Gardens, have added water parks and concert stages.

The fact that my family moved to central Florida from the Midwest in the '50s makes the decline of Old Florida attractions particularly poignant for me. These showplaces were my back yard, visiting them a ritual every time a cousin or a great-aunt showed up at our door.

But are they still showplaces? Or do they deserve to vanish? I recently made a visit back to find out.

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