The arrival of Walt Disney World in 1971 and the interstate road system pretty much put an end to the golden era of Florida roadside tourist attractions, when the state’s main north-sound roadways were lined with mom-and-pop gator wrestling stands, concrete dinosaurs and Wild West shootouts. But not all of them have been driven into the history books. There are still a handful of attractions that have been around for decades, and a few interesting new ones pop up every now and then. We asked USA Today Network reporters from around the state to pick out attractions that are still worth a visit, even if you’re not a tourist.
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Sarasota Jungle Gardens
3701 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota; 941-355-5305; sarasotajunglegardens.com
A gorgeous getaway located just off U.S. 41 and only a few miles north of downtown, Sarasota Jungle Gardens is where children of all ages go to hand-feed free-roaming pink flamingos, get their picture taken while petting an alligator, and explore tropical trails spread across 10 acres in a classic Old Florida setting.
Other fun things to do include holding a parrot, watching ring-tailed lemurs at play, and feeding a giant tortoise. A Sarasota landmark dating back to 1939, Jungle Gardens is 90 percent outdoors with the popular animal shows held throughout the day in a covered, open-air amphitheater. – Wade Tatangelo, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
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Everglades Wonder Gardens
27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs; 239-992-2591, wondergardens.com
Nestled along the Imperial River, the Everglades Wonder Gardens for years has lured nature lovers and those fascinated with Florida creatures. The attraction opened in 1936 as the Everglades Reptile Garden, and is the oldest roadside attraction in Southwest Florida. It sits along Old 41 Road, part of the original Tamiami (Tampa-to-Miami) trail that has fascinated curiosity seekers ever since. It was a prime destination for those traveling south along the Trail (which eventually became the wider, and easier-to-travel U.S. 41). They came to see the gators and flamingos, along with snakes, otters and other animals. And in 2017 the botanical garden and refuge for more than 300 rescued, rehabilitated and non-releasable birds and reptiles received a historical designation by the Bonita Springs Historic Preservation Board. – Dave Osborn, Naples Daily News/Fort Myers News-Press
Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing
13700 SW 16th Ave, Ocala; 352-245-8661, garlits.com
“Big Daddy” Don Garlits was the man in the sport of drag racing in the 1970s, becoming the first driver to 170 mph, 180 mph, 240 mph, 250 mph and 270 mph in a quarter-mile. One of his Swamp Rat dragsters is in the Smithsonian, but a bunch of his other cars are on display at this museum, just off I-75. There are more than 120 cars — including many made famous by drivers other than Garlits — on display in two buildings, one dedicated to dragsters and the other to antique vehicles. Big Daddy himself, who turned 90 this year, still shows up to lead tours for an extra fee. The museum is also home to the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. — Tom Szaroleta, Florida Times-Union
Tallahassee Automobile Museum
6800 Mahan Drive, Tallahassee; 850-942-0137, tacm.com
If you are ever in the capital city and have some time to kill, this is the place to do it. The Tallahassee Automobile Museum does, in fact, have an impressive collection of automobiles, more than 150 of them, including several Batmobiles, some sweet muscle cars and a few oddities that make you wonder what the designer was thinking that day.
But the cars are just the start. The place has huge collections of Steinway pianos, fishing lures, pocket knives, adding machines, watches, cash registers, fans, dolls. boat motors and other stuff most of us would never think of collecting in the first place. Every inch of the huge building just off I-10 is so crammed with shelves and displays that the experience can be a little overwhelming. — Tom Szaroleta, Florida Times-Union
Marineland Dolphin Adventure
9600 Oceanshore Blvd., St. Augustine; 407-563-4701, marineland.net
Marineland has been drawing visitors to dolphin shows since 1938, when it opened as Marine Studios. By the 1950s, it was known as Marineland of Florida and was pulling in up to half a million visitors every year. Nellie, an Atlantic bottlenose born at Marineland in 1953, became one of the most famous dolphins on the planet. In 2006, it was renovated and reopened as Marineland’s Dolphin Conservation Center, with a focus more on conservation than entertainment. Today, it is known as Marineland Dolphin Adventure and still offers daily shark feeding and dolphin training presentations, but the biggest draws are the swim-with-dolphins packages, which allow visitors to get in the water and interact with Marineland’s most famous residents. — Tom Szaroleta, Florida Times-Union
14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando; 407-855-5496, gatorland.com
Gatorland has been a fixture on Orange Blossom Trail near Kissimmee since 1949. Though guests no longer walk through the giant blue-and-white gator jaw entrance, built in 1962 by the son of Gatorland’s founder, to enter the park, it’s still around for photo ops.
Once inside, it’s a bit of a bit of sensory overload: Look at that monster! How big do you think that guy is? It’s coming our way!
Well-fed gators slice lazy paths across the surface of murky water viewed from a boardwalk. This is just the tip of the gatorberg.
Gatorland was one of Florida’s first big attractions, and now includes an expansive wildlife habitat with gators, crocodiles, snakes, birds and other critters.
Paths through the park take guests past gators stretching 14 feet and longer; young gators by the dozen, napping in a pile on a covered dock; and eerie white albino and leucistic gators, hanging out in the shade, looking like prehistoric ghosts.
Gatorland also offers ziplines over the gator pits, a Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure and various gator shows. — Suzy Fleming Leonard, FLORIDA TODAY
More about this attraction:Gatorland adventure let us play tourists in our own back yard
Lion Country Safari
2003 Lion Country Safari Road, Loxahatchee; 561-793-1084, lioncountrysafari.com
Providing an up-close look at exotic animals since 1967, and believed to be the first cage-less zoo in the United States, Lion Country Safari has been named the fifth best safari park in the country in USA Today’s “10 Best” Readers’ Choice 2022 poll.
A panel of zoo and travel experts along with several 10 Best editors came up with the initial top 20 list. The final 10 were chosen by popular vote.
In addition to allowing guests to drive through the park as the likes of zebras, giraffes, rhinos and — yes, lions — roam just a few feet away, the park also participates in many conservation and breeding programs (called Species Survival Plans) for threatened species, including rhinoceros, zebra, oryx, siamangs, and more.
Lion Country visitors have an opportunity to feed the giraffes from a platform that puts you closer to eye level with these gentle giants. The park also offers a kids area with a tiny train ride, carousel, a flying elephant ride and a splash pad water sprayground. — Eddie Ritz, Palm Beach Post
2701 de Soto Boulevard, Coral Gables; 305-460-5306, coralgables.com/venetianpool
This beautiful, unique and very large pool is well worth a visit. Called the Venetian pool or Venetian Casino, it’s the only public pool listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Johnny Weissmuller (as Tarzan) swam there in the 1930s, and Esther Williams backstroked through the pool for the 1944 film “Bathing Beauty.”
Aquifer-fed, the pool was carved out of a coral rock quarry in 1924 and has two waterfalls and a grotto. It also features loggias, porticos, palm trees, and a signature bridge.
Owned by the city, the pool holds 820,000 gallons of water that are drained and refilled daily in the spring and summer months. It’s smart to get advance tickets online at www.playgables.com, as they turn people away once the pool reaches capacity. — Tracy Allerton, Palm Beach Post