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VISITING FLORIDA'S ROADSIDE GHOSTS
VISITING FLORIDA'S ROADSIDE GHOSTS

Long before the interstate highway system and a giant mouse conquered the Sunshine State, Florida was an endless land of opportunity for anyone owning a piece of roadside property with a marketing idea.  Following World War II, the country was eager to hit the road and discover new lands.  And Florida was a land of gator wrestling, parrots riding miniature bicycles, and Old West towns.  Thus was born the concept of the Florida roadside tourist attraction.   It's where folks from the north came to view monkeys, watch dolphins jump through fiery hoops,  and even witness mermaids dancing underwater.  For years, it was a lucrative business and billboards dotted the landscape encouraging visitors to view  Florida  through a glass bottomed boat or jungle cruise.

 Along the way, some attractions veered out of control with strange ideas such as Dog Land, Pirates World, Atomic Tunnel, and a working turpentine still and slave plantation..  Some were successful, many shortlived.  But all were an integral part of the economic development and eventual victims of the Florida tourist industry. .Unfortunately, I was born at a time when most of the early roadside attractions were disappearing.  What was once guaranteed traffic from all roads leading to the south, was now a matter of location.  And if you were'nt located near the Florida Turnplike or  Interstates 75 and 95, your future was fading fast.  And by the time Mickey and his friends rolled into Central Florida in the early 1970s, those who remained were about to be abandoned as well.  Oddly enough, the mouse who saved the Florida tourist industry destroyed the foundation upon which is was laid. 

homofish2  homofish

  The giant sheepshead fish that stood atop the entrance to Homosassa Springs now resides in the gift shop.

I'm old enough to have remembered many of the survivors...Sunken Gardens, Silver Springs, Marineland, Weeki Wachee, and Gatorland.  And who amongst us hasn't had to sit through a Cypress Gardens ski show?  But the earlier pioneers of the Florida tourist industry are nothing but ghosts these days.  Anyone can view some photos or purchase some postcards on eBay, but we made the effort to visit these ghosts in the 21st century to see if anything remained.  Obviously if you have ever lived in Florida or visited for an extended period of time, you know that the passing of time and humidity--as well as unholy vegetation growth--is not kind to abandoned structures and real estate.  So tracking down the archeological ruins from 50 years past is no guarantee  And yet, we went forth to discover

In 1959, a pair of businessmen came to Chiefland, Florida with an idea.  One had been a successful dog breeder in his native Kentucky, and thought the idea of a roadside attraction in Florida featuring all breeds of dogs would be profitable.  One of the state's first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises was added to the complex and Dog Land was born.  Oddly enough, it was a popular stop for those heading down US 19-98 to Tampa and all points south.  Each dog had its own house in what was built to resemble a dog hotel.  Visitors could simply walk around and look at dogs.  And there was a gift shop, filled mostly with dog toys and schlocky Florida shell craft souvenirs.  And so it went for nearly 15 years.  Dogs, fried chicken, souvenirs.  Mom and Dad could be in and out and back on the road in 30-45 minutes.  Dog Land closed in 1974, but the attraction lives on today in fiction.  Will Shetterly, the son of the founder who grew up inside Dog Land, penned a novel "Dogland" which is set in a similar roadside attraction.

doglandpc

 

Our search for what remained of Dog Land in the 21st century required some local investigation and a visit to the local chow and chat.  We had a general idea of where Dog Land was located, but without the familiar KFC and gift shop buildings--which were long gone--we were flying blind.  And that's when we paid a visit to the local folks.  Fortunately, it was around breakfast time and the sausage biscuits and gravy were flowing at the local diner.  No one inside was under the age of 70, so I knew we'd hit on a gold mine of information.  Less than five minutes later, we received and confirmed the exact location, which was less than one mile from where we were standing.  I purchased a few coffees for those who provided info, and we were on our way.

dogland    dogland2

What was once Dog Land is now a golf cart repair shop.  But a few of the dog pens can be easily identified despite the fact they were now used for storage  And there was even a watch dog residing inside, completely unaware of the significance and irony of his surroundings.  The large parking area remains from the front of the new buildings up to the road, but there is little evidence to support the claim that this was once an  historic piece of property now lost forever.

doglandplate  doglandpennant

 

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