The rented car with the Monkey Jungle bumper sticker banked off the expressway onto Route 1, south-southeast out of Miami, heading on a course charted directly for the Serpentarium. The car was never seen again. The last contact placed it somewhere near the Orchid Jungle checkpoint. And then, nothing. "It is just like it was swallowed up by exhaust fumes, vanished into fat air," said one tourist official. Yet another victim of (ta-daaa) The Tacky Triangle!!!
Well, as Wink Martindale used to say as he closed his inspirational record Deck of Cards, "I know, because that soldier was me." I know, because that rented car was mine. In the days that followed, from one tip of The Tacky Triangle to the others, my family and I visited:
The Serpentarium, Monkey Jungle, Parrot Jungle, the Coral Castle, Tiger's Air Boat Rides, Miccosukee Indian Village, the Waltzing Waters Aquarama, the Thomas Edison Winter Home, the Shell Factory, the National Police Hall of Fame, the good ship Bounty, Potter's Wax Museum, various glassblowers, Spook Hill, Cypress Gardens, the River Ranch rodeo, the Tower of Peace, the Citrus Tower, the Singing Tower, the Tupperware Museum of Dishes, the Museum of Sunken Treasure, the Fountain of Youth, Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, the Castillo de San Marcos, the Old Jail, The Oldest School House, the Museum of Toys and the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum.
I know, I know. You're saying, Why would anyone ever do a thing like that? And my answer to you, from the heart, is: Taste. Discernment.
The decisions were not made lightly, understand. When we took the trip last winter, we could have seen: the Orchid Jungle, Jungle Larry's African Safari, Lion Country Safari, Sarasota Jungle Gardens, the Gardens of Light, St. Petersburg Zoological Gardens, Busch Gardens, Masterpiece Gardens, Sunken Gardens, Everglades Wonder Gardens and Weeki Wachee Springs. Also: Ring-ling Museum, Circus World Showcase, Circus Hall of Fame, Marco Polo Park, Cars of Yesterday, Six Gun Territory, Tombstone Territory, Parrots Paradise, Flipper's Playground, Alligator Farm, Florida Reptile Land, Marineland, Treasureland, Fairyland, Sea World, Ocean World, Pirate's World and Jacksonville of the World Football League.
This is the first honest travel story ever written. It is about the real places that real people really go to. Most travel stories are not at all about where people travel to, but only about where travel writers can cadge the best trips to. Hence, the emphasis on the Taj Mahal, Rome, Italy, the Serengeti and whatnot, while genuine places like The Tacky Triangle go begging for exposure. I hope this is just the beginning, one small step for touristkind. In fact, what this country needs, travelwise, is its own version of the Michelin Guide.
The Michelin Guide is, of course, put out in France, where food is the thing. Chefs over there drown themselves in A-l Sauce if they drop in the Michelin ratings. Well, we are not a strong food country, unless you want to count the Colonel and his sort, but we have our own hang-up. We devour tourist attractions. Wherever we are going, we say, "What have they got there?" If St. Augustine's City of God was located, say, in the middle of Iowa, people would not go there unless there were mechanized angels at God's Gardens or God's Paradise or Godland or what-have-you. Unless something is a specific, authentic, by-admission-only Attraction, it does not exist for us.
Although this is the way of life for American tourism, we have no unbiased, comprehensive Michelin Guide-like authority to instruct us. We must depend on unsightly self-interest brochures to advise us which are the best tacky things to see and revel in.
Now understand, when I say tacky, that is not necessarily disparaging. There is tacky and there is tacky. If you go to an American tourist spot, you expect it to be tacky. What is the point of being a tourist attraction if you can't be tacky? You might as well get the environmentalists all involved and settle on just being a scenic overlook, right? The Pennsylvania Dutch country was once merely quaint. But recently it has been tackyized to the point of plastic, and I'm sure you'll find it an infinitely finer place to visit than before.
So you see, I'm not putting down Florida. On the contrary. Florida is not alone in tacky endeavors, merely exemplary. A great deal can be said for many parts of California. The strip between Dallas and Fort Worth is a real comer, too. And New Jersey cannot be sneezed at. The finest tacky symbol in America (this is your traditional tacky now, not your nouveau tacky) is the sea horse, and these positively abound at establishments along the Jersey shore. In this respect, New Jersey far surpasses Florida, which relies on alligators and dolphins. But town in and town out, no other place can boast the Attractions that the Sunshine State does.
While we are on the subject of alligators and dolphins, if tourist Attractions were like the stock market, my advice to Florida would be to get out of alligators and dolphins. (Dolphins and porpoises are the same things, as far as I'm concerned; you, too—admit it.) Sell. There is a glut. Dolphins perform in Maine malls now, as well as in movies and on television. And if they're so darn smart, why do they always perform the exact same act? Midway through the last dolphin show we saw, my daughter Alexandra said, "Oh, here comes the hoop bit." I realized then it was time to knock off dolphins.
Alligators, even alligators wrestling Seminole Indians, are another old-hat theatrical property. We're jaded. Besides, the scare value of alligators has diminished with the animal goings-on on television. There must be about 53 wildlife animal shows on TV each week. Kids may see 50,000 people murdered on television by the time they are old enough to read, but surely they see even more beasts being done in. The law of the jungle prevails every night at 7:30 in our house. What is an alligator wrestling a Seminole Indian, when in the preceding days kids have seen leopards ripping the guts out of wildebeests, polar bears gobbling up fish, snakes and birds eating one another, tarantulas doing their mischief.
I have always been keen on monkeys, but these little primates are also in for hard times. We started our Tacky Tour in Miami, so one of the first attractions we visited was the Monkey Jungle, whose yellow bumper stickers adorn most rented automobiles in Florida. (If you put a bumper sticker on your car, you are tacky. If you park at an Attraction and come back and find that someone has put a bumper sticker on without your permission, that's normal.)
Everything considered, the Monkey Jungle is a pretty nice Attraction. It has a grand collection of tacky souvenirs and postcards. Alas, it does not offer for sale the tackiest thing in the world—a shiny black throw pillow inscribed with a Day-Glo map. Despite the classic tackyism of pillow-maps, they are, increasingly, an endangered species; on The Tacky Tour, I found them only in the gift shoppe of the Bounty. The Michelin Guide uses stars to rank establishments. When I bring out my tacky guide, I am going to award little pillow-maps for quality. Four pillow-maps is supreme. I give the Monkey Jungle two pillow-maps.
But, as I was saying, monkeys are up against it now. My kids are six and three, my wife and I somewhat older. We liked the monkeys much more than the kids did. They didn't even work up much enthusiasm for Peanut, who wore a Dolphin helmet and rode a bicycle. A monkey on a bicycle? What kind of big deal is this? On television the children have seen monkeys torn limb from limb by lions; they've seen monkeys cross the entire African veldt in a half hour, minus the dog-food commercials; they've seen monkeys jump across raging rivers, outwit warthogs and eagles; they've seen monkeys copulate at a quarter to eight in the privacy of the family room. So why get excited about a monkey riding a bicycle? The man said, "Please applaud for Peanut, folks, it's the only reward he receives," which made me feel sad, because that is almost exactly what M.C.s used to say about strippers.
You can see an animal Attraction every day wherever you are in The Tacky Triangle, but after the Monkey Jungle we laid off the animals. There is no sense going to Florida and seeing pale facsimiles of TV shows.
Almost as big as animals in The Tacky Triangle are wax museums and glass-blowing. You are familiar with wax museums, which go back at least as far as the heyday of Vincent Price. We visited the one in St. Pete, where, as in all wax museums, the wax people looked almost like real people and also almost like wax. If I ever open a wax museum, I am going to advertise: "Waxlike!"
Glassblowing seems to hypnotize people in Florida, which leads me to think that instead of putting on just another animal show, a TV network should schedule glassblowing at 7:30. There is a great demand for it.
Also in ascendancy in The Tacky Triangle are towers and museums (other than wax). The Tower of Peace in Lake Placid and the Citrus Tower in Clermont are tall and thin as towers should be, and sure enough, as advertised, you can see a far piece from these structures. That's about it with towers. The Tower of Peace gives away orange juice, and at the Citrus Tower you can watch glass-blowing for free. Neither has a revolving restaurant on top, which is the prime selling point of towers these days. Worse, the Singing Tower in Lake Wales is just a carillon, and you can't even climb to the top, never mind eat a meal there. My son Christian was flabbergasted. "You mean you just look at it?" he asked, stupefied.
A minister we drank bourbon with in Jacksonville informed us, with disgust, that the clergy in St. Augustine had decided that a good way to advance the Word would be to construct a majestic Tower of Love. It is in the planning stages. The view of this particular cleric was that when it becomes necessary to build towers to promulgate love and Christianity, both institutions are in trouble. Towers without revolving restaurants are lackluster Attractions, and I would be hard pressed to give any of them more than a single pillow-map.
I can, however, proudly award three pillow-maps to Coral Castle, located 25 miles south of Miami. The children will have no interest whatsoever in Coral Castle, as mine didn't, and my wife and I found it boring and unappetizing and rather ugly. But you should not miss anything so tacky as Coral Castle.
It was built by a nutty fellow with a long last name—the guides refer to him as Ed, as if he had just gone over to Burger Chef and would be right back. Ed has been dead lo these many years, which is not surprising, since he constructed the whole dreadful place himself, toting huge rocks around. Possibly, Ed believed he was a forklift. He built a coral sundial and a large table shaped like Florida, a nine-ton swinging gate, a Feast of Love Table and, as the brochures say, "other thrilling wonders."
The icky part of the saga is that Ed built this monstrosity in honor of a lady back in Latvia who had jilted him. It is easy to see why she did: Ed was nutty as a fruitcake. Would you want your sister to marry a forklift?
The best part of the story is that as heartbroken as Ed was, as distressed, as pained, as upset, as distraught, he was clever enough to construct his secret love palace right there on Highway 1. Ed was crazy like a fox. Just think how much better Gettysburg would be doing now if Lee and Meade had been smart enough to have fought right off Exit 9 of the New Jersey Turnpike.
Another recommendation for Coral Castle is its brochures, which are done in one color, a sort of dirty pink, and drenched in hyperbole: "The Coral Castle of Florida encompasses all the beauty, mystery and romance associated with the ancient wonders of the world.... Considered to be the greatest creative achievement by one individual in the history of America." Wow! That is brochure writing of the first water. Most brochures in The Tacky Triangle are slick, sterile items, and all of them hedge their bet by trading off and mentioning a bunch of other Attractions. Very dreary and very corporate.
(There isn't a four-pillow-map brochure in the whole Tacky Triangle. For that you have to go to South Carolina, where there is a motel named South of the Border—so called because it is just below the North Carolina line. South of the Border, which calls itself, fondly, SOB, has forgotten more about tacky than most establishments will ever know. The SOB brochure is a classic in its field. It is written entirely in Mexican dialect, to wit, or rather, to witless: "Ees onlee wan South of The Border, amigos, where Pedro has put eet all together to make ze mos' exciting vacation stop between Maine and Florida! Ees leetle Mexico on 100 acres weeth 300 beautiful rooms, shops, 3 sweemeeng pools..." Stop eet queeck, stop eet!)
Museums have more room to move around in than do towers and monuments. Now that animals are passé, you are going to see more and more tacky museums, halls of fame and walls of fame. Surely, that is how come we have the National Police Hall of Fame in North Port Charlotte: 1½ pillow-maps. Admission entitles visitors to a flag de-cal, membership in the Dick Tracy Crimestoppers Club and the opportunity to inspect a haphazard collection of law enforcement paraphernalia. There is a guillotine, an electric chair ("used in many states for the execution of condemned prisoners") and the very first handcuffs used in the territory of Alaska. Also prominently displayed is a license plate from the 1935 Shriners parade in Washington. No explanation is offered for its enshrinement, and I did not inquire for fear of being slapped in those Alaskan handcuffs and called "an alleged perpetrator." Finally, for no apparent reason except titillation, a significant part of the museum focuses on President Kennedy's assassination.
In this respect, the National Police Hall of Fame imitates most wax museums and my favorite-named exposition—the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum. Tragedy is located in St. Augustine and features, besides the obligatory J.F.K. assassination material, the Wreck of The Old 97, plus some World War II newspapers.
Being the oldest city in America, St. Augustine comes down heavily on the oldest this-and-that and on museums in general. It lacks only the Oldest Museum. Its most ballyhooed is Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, about which Christian said, "There's not much there I didn't believe." Half a pillow-map.
Northern Florida, like the southern part, is also thick with menageries, while in the middle, on both coasts, pirates are big. Tampa is top-heavy with pirates. I don't want to be unkind, but I was not impressed with the level of pirates in The Tacky Triangle. They seemed entirely too cutesy-poo, much like dolphins. From Tampa to the Museum of Sunken Treasure on Cape Canaveral, which is easy to locate as it is across the street from the City of Jerusalem Museum, the only pirates that unnerved my children were the mechanical ones at Disney World. That's a fine how-do-you-do.
You have noticed, no doubt, that I have not mentioned Disney World until now. Naturally, not wanting to be sacrilegious, we went to Disney World. But Disney World, for us, was like a busman's holiday. I wanted the family to see the Duck Follies at Masterpiece Gardens in Lake Wales, a town that also has a mosaic of da Vinci's Last Supper, boasting 300,000 pieces of 10,000 colors. Regrettably, the children were not primed this particular day for Duck Follies. So I said, "Listen, if you aren't good at the Duck Follies, I won't take you to Disney World." You find out very quickly that once kids have to go to Attractions they weary of them quickly. Another day, another dollar.
If I were going to open a tacky Attraction in Florida, it would be a simulated motel. Kids like tacky motels near the tacky Attractions more than the Attractions themselves. Go to any motel near Disney World and after a full day of Fantasyland, Frontierland, Magic Castle, the works, you will find kids riding up and down on elevators, pushing buttons, messing around with the ice machines, jumping on beds, locking one another out, throwing things in the pool and so forth. Having a whale of a time. This is because at Disney World everybody says you are here to have a good time, but at the motel everybody says you are here to behave. So there is the challenge. Instead of another museum or tower, gardens or hall of fame, I am going to build a simulated motel. Around it I will build real motels—Holiday Inn, Ramada, Howard Johnson's, Best Western and so forth. And the whole complex will be called Motelworld.
Another thing The Tacky Triangle is lacking these days is gift shoppes. At a number of places in the state, such-and-such is touted as the largest gift shoppe in the world (likewise, many places advertised the largest alligator farm in the world), but the selections on display are not up to the tackiness of years past. The postcard situation is outrageous. The only postcard in the whole state that I can, in good conscience, award even two pillow-maps to is from the Fountain of Youth; it is of 1955 vintage and shows a lady toasting you with a tiny paper cup. I give the Fountain of Youth itself a high rating—2½ pillow-maps. The Fountain, which has a dubious affiliation with Se√±or Ponce de Leon, is not a fountain but a well. Visitors sip from those tiny paper cups reminiscent of Amtrak. There is also an Indian burial ground, although it lacks buried Indians ever since one particularly testy hurricane.
Finally, there is the Historical Space Globe, which lights up, showing the voyages of exploration. I went out of my mind over this. Here comes Columbus on the heavy line, Vasco da Gama on the broken line, Sir Francis Drake dots and dashes. All lit up on the huge globe. One thing I never understood about learning American history is why half of everything you're taught before Pearl Harbor concerns the idiotic explorers, bumping around, stumbling into things, especially when we know that they were only looking for the Northwest Passage. It would make more sense to have school kids in America come down and see the Historical Space Globe for a few minutes, get the explorers out of their system, and then spend their time studying people who actually did things, who didn't just chance upon things.
Back to the gift shoppes. This may be damning with faint praise since the species is in an awful slump (can we ever top Stuckey's old advertisement of pecans and free water; free water?), but the top gift shoppe in The Tacky Triangle must be the Shell Factory. It is located on U.S. 41, alias the Tamiami Trail.
The Tamiami Trail is a bonanza. It offers linear archeology. Archeologists traditionally dig down, discerning the age of something by the level at which it lies. On the Tamiami Trail and similar classic Florida boulevards, a traveler can pinpoint age by other methods. A shopping center featuring a pancake cafe is obviously quite new. In my family, we speak of "pancake modern."
Going back a bit, we come to mobile estates or planned communities, or signs that boast "Appearing Nitely in the Lounge These edifices date from the early-to-mid-1960s. And then the Thunderbirds, another distinct archeological layer. Throughout The Tacky Triangle, one finds hundreds of establishments named Thunderbird, most of which, it is my understanding, were built and named in the same week of March 1957. I would never dare enter an establishment named Thunderbird because I fear that Connie Francis surrounded by five boys in boat-neck shirts would not be there.
The Shell Factory is of earlier vintage, done in Early Airplane Hangar from the pre-I Love Lucy era of American tackyism. But let us not tarry. I am, as you can see, saving the best for last: three pillow-maps—no, make that 3½—for the Waltzing Waters of Cape Coral.
Here you get not only a dolphin show, but also Aqua Follies, which is water-skiing in sort of a big tub, and at last, the pi√®ce de résistance, that "fairyland of sights and sound," the Waltzing Waters themselves. They are fountains of colored water that go up and down in time to show tunes and love songs. The night we were there one of the songs that the waters waltzed to was More, which made it perfect. More, as you know, is the national anthem of Muzak and piano bars. To witness water dancing to More strikes me as the epitome of tourism.
As good as the Waltzing Waters are, for total effect nothing matches Cypress Gardens. People rave at what Disney wrought, and properly so, but the mistake is to suggest that his two places are American. Not so, not at all. They are mechanical and nonsectarian, belonging to the world at large. The uncomfortable feeling I get at Disneyland or Disney World is that people are not acting like themselves. They are acting like the stylized puppet people in Small World.
Cypress Gardens, though, is American to the core. If you could show a foreigner only one of each thing in America—one natural splendor, one historical site, one downtown, one national park—Cypress Gardens is what I would choose as the one American amusement, over a baseball game or a football game, over a state fair, over Disney World.
Cypress Gardens is incredibly original, yet basic and unchanging, like the Harlem Globetrotters or Lawrence Welk. That is why it works. One feels a certain purity at Cypress Gardens. At places like the Disneys or Williamsburg, as much as you may enjoy them, there is a natural tendency to marvel at how it was done. That is a distracting kind of curiosity, like kissing with your eyes open, which takes away from the pleasure. There is no such problem at Cypress Gardens. It is just gardens and water-skiing. Disney World requires something new—a haunted house, Space Mountain—at each turn of the season. Something new at Cypress Gardens would constitute tampering.
You come to it down narrow country roads, wandering past orange groves, and all of a sudden it looms, pristine and pastoral, the fairyland America. On the hotel marquee at the entrance, the message reads MUSIC OF THE '40s. Of course. It hits me. People are always saying that the big bands will be back. Maybe yes, maybe no, but it never occurred to me that the big bands had not disappeared, that all this time they have been waiting to come back from somewhere. Of course. All this time they have been at Cypress Gardens.
Parking is efficient and, on admission, your hand is stamped, just like at the racetrack. The shopping promenade is classic: a Florida fruit shop, caricatures, pastel portraits, signs to be made, monograms to go on anything, postcards. Glassblowing. There is a throne where you can pose for pictures so you can look like a king and a queen.
For the show, the stands with cantilevered roofs fill quickly, and people often sit on the ground, on borrowed cushions. Just before the show begins, music is played, tunes like No Business Like Show Business, More and Everything's Coming Up Roses. Soon the Aqua-maids will be here.
But first. The announcer achieves new heights of tackiness by reading the dismal reports of freezing weather in cities up north. The places with the most inclement weather get the best responses. I only wish I had been at Cypress Gardens on the day there had been a cattle-killing blizzard somewhere; I'm sure that would have brought the house down.
But Cypress has a warm spot in its heart for its frozen northern neighbors. Every day, the P.A. salutes a different state. This particular day Michigan was honored. For those in the crowd who might not be too sure, Michigan was identified as "the home of the NBA Pistons, the baseball Tigers and the automobile industry." In that order. You're only as good as your last assembly line, baby. The people cheered for frozen Michigan.
When the time came for the Aqua-maids to climb on the boy skiers' shoulders, to make the famous pyramid and zip around, carrying flags, the announcer said that this was still the favorite at Cypress. More postcards are sold of the pyramid than of any other scene.
People say to me, "Have you seen the Taj Mahal, have you seen the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey?" I say to them, "Have you seen the Aquamaids' pyramid at Cypress Gardens?" I have, and I give it four pillow-maps.
On the way back to the motel we saw Spook Hill and the Singing Tower.