by Lee Foster
Central Florida–an imaginary line running from St. Petersburg through Orlando to the Kennedy Space Center–excites visitor interest partly because it has been a land of visionaries.
St. Petersburg was among the first Florida cities to envision tourism as the state’s main industry. Aymer Vinoy Laughner opened his Vinoy Park Hotel in 1925. The railroad swells and land boomers who patronized his place and its imitators helped turn Florida tourism cities into cities of tourism gold. Cities of gold had been a dream of Floridians for some time, starting with the Spanish explorer, Hernando De Soto, in the 16th century.
Walt Disney chose Orlando for his vision of an Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, EPCOT for short. If Disney had lived longer, it is possible that his dream of a fully-functioning future city would have been realized here. After his death, the legacy evolved into a beguiling theme park where nations lived in harmony and new technology made tomorrow an ever-more-interesting day.
From the Kennedy Space Center, an Atlantic coastal area now appropriately called The Space Coast, astronautic visionaries sent the first man to the moon. Extra-terrestrial achievements continue to be launched from here, one of mankind’s most important windows to space exploration.
The visionaries of Florida have also been developing an area of extraordinary natural beauty. Visitors enjoy the record sunshine, dependable warmth, inviting beaches, and lush flora and fauna. Central Florida attracts a substantial portion of the millions of annual visitors to the state.
St. Petersburg: One of the First Visions of Florida Tourism
As early as the 1880s, promoters were calling the St. Petersburg/Clearwater area of the west Florida coast “the healthiest place in the world.” Even if you didn’t find a fountain of youth, as DeSoto had wished, sun-drenched days here could prolong a pleasant life.
The venerable Vinoy Renaissance Resort and Don CeSar hotels here re-create the early tourism era. Both properties have been restored to their 1920s splendor, down to the salmon-pink exteriors, as befits their National Register of Historic Places status. Sitting in the Vinoy’s opulent lobby thrusts a traveler nostalgically back to the era when railroads pushed down the Florida coast, bringing trainfuls of wind-chilled mid-westerners to sunny Florida.
Several elements of the pleasure of modern tourism can be enjoyed here, such as:
*Sailing to one of the remote and uninhabited islands at this informally-dubbed “Sailing Capital of the South.” Most sailing trips here require a local skipper because of the complexity of shallow coastal waters. For example, engage a local charter for a sail out to Egmont Key, now deserted. You can picnic on the sugar-white beaches, scramble over an abandoned fort, and snorkel around ruins from part of the fort, now a reef for colorful fish.
*Canoeing down Hillsborough River to see the mangrove swamps and abundant animal life. An outfitter called Canoe Escape can send you off on your own or with a guide you to explore the shallow river bottom. You’ll see alligators, brown snakes, turtles, and many kinds of birds (ibis, herons, and osprey).
*Immersing yourself in art at the Dali Museum. This large collection of 94 oils from the Spanish artist’s work, all organized chronologically, allows a viewer to see the Surrealist Movement in its context. Be sure to take advantage of a docent tour to unlock the many clues in Dali’s work. The city’s Fine Art Museum also boasts an eclectic collection of interesting pieces, ranging from well-preserved Greek vases to Georgia O’Keefe’s flaming “Poppies” oil.
*Luxuriating on 28 miles of white-sand beaches. It’s unlikely that your day at the beach will ever be ruined by cloud cover. The Guinness Book of Records asserts that St. Petersburg/Clearwater has the world record for consecutive sunny days–768. The St. Petersburg area is called The Pinellas Coast after the Spanish word for the pine trees.
*Meeting the gorilla-conservation movement at Busch Gardens, one of Florida’s top attractions. The addition of a sophisticated gorilla and chimp habitat filled a dual purpose–allowing the public to get close to these hairy cousins and permitting researchers to observe the animals in a fairly natural setting. Connoisseurs of daring rides will enjoy Busch Gardens’ Kumba, which twists and turns through upside-down rolls for two minutes.
Epcot: Disney’s Vision of the Future
Turning inland to Orlando, continue the search for Florida’s visionaries with a stop at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT.
Disney yearned for a world where nations lived at peace in a prosperous future, aided by technology advances. His Experimental Prototype Community would be an attempt to approximate the dream.
Boxed in by development around his Anaheim, California theme park, Disney sought new space, buying 28,000 acres near Orlando, opening to the public in 1971.
Disney envisioned an actual city at EPCOT, but his full dream died with him. Caretakers evolved the project into a theme park. The result has a strong element of entertainment, but EPCOT also projects a thoughtfulness and a stimulus to the imagination.
However, one Disney master-planned community, Celebration, still thrives on the outskirts of Orlando in Osceola County. Located near the Walt Disney World Resort, it is easily accessible from the Magic Kingdom. Developed in the early 1990s, Celebration now has a population of about 7,500 people.
The back half of EPCOT is a World Showcase of selected nations, featuring their culture, plus merchandise and food/drink. The front half is Future World, with a vision of human-friendly technology enlarging human possibilities.
If you don’t have time to see all of EPCOT, make some judicious selections. In the World Showcase, a kind of permanent World Fair, see the American Adventure show, where Ben Franklin and Mark Twain robots take you on a tour of American history. Then visit Morocco, which approximates a bazaar of street merchants in that North African country. In Future World, see the Journey Into Imagination, a ride celebrating the spark of imagination in all of us, and Spaceship Earth, which recounts the history of human communications.
Kennedy Space Center: Where Man Left for the Moon
On the east side of Central Florida, along the Atlantic shore, you can tour the Kennedy Space Center, where astronautic visionaries sent a man to the moon, among other firsts.
Begin by lingering in the Rocket Gallery, where many types of gravity-defeating vehicles are lined up for you to peruse.
Then take the two-hour, narrated bus tour out to the launch sites, where you see the actual control room for the early satellite launchings and moon shots. The bus also stops for views and photos of the Vehicle Assembly Building, said to be one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world. Outside the Vehicle Assembly Building, you can touch one of the five “extra” Saturn V moon-launch rockets. Twenty were built, 15 were sent into space. Saturn V is as long as a football field and ranks as one of the most powerful vehicles ever created by man.
Another interesting sight is the crawler transporter vehicle, the huge cleated tractor that hauls rockets from the Vehicle Assembly Building out to the launch pads, several miles away. Next to the crawler transporter, a traveler feels lilliputian.
At the time of the moon launch, fully 400,000 Americans from around the country were working on the project. The rivers of technology met here, at Kennedy Space Center, for the final catapult into space, giving Neil Armstrong the opportunity to walk on the moon. The moon landing could well be nominated as one of the peak achievements of mankind as a technological animal.
After the tour, immerse yourself in the IMAX movie, which captures the wonder of space flight. The film includes extensive footage shot by the astronauts themselves during their adventures.
If you have been moved by the “walls” honoring those who died for their country, at Pearl Harbor or at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, expect tears to flow at the Astronaut Memorial. The names of the dead astronauts, such as the fated Challenger mission crew, stand out as simple and elegant white letters on a black granite slab, forever illuminated by sun power, as a computer-controlled motor aligns them with the sun. The names of the astronauts float like stars in a dark abyss.
Kennedy Space Center achievements gave us a new vision of our earth. From outer space, earth looked like a fragile harbor of life, a blue-green gem to conserve and protect. The view of earth from space transformed forever our vision of who we are.
A day at the Kennedy Space Center also reminds a visitor of the residual civilian benefits of space exploration, such as satellites for worldwide communication, weather forecasting, and monitoring of earth resources.
Adjacent to the space facility is the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, an especially important area because of its diversified habitat. Wildlife biologists assert that an exceptional number of federally-listed endangered species flourish here. In May 1996 a total of 314 manatees, the large sea-cow mammals, were aerially counted here. The entire population of endangered manatees is estimated at around 4,480, due mainly to habitat destruction.
Central Florida is an intriguing destination, notable partly because it is a land of visionaries. Here energetic people dreamed of the future of Florida tourism, the prospect of nations living at peace in a technology-enriched future, and that man would escape the shackles of gravity to establish a presence on the moon and beyond.
Central Florida: If You Go
For overall Florida tourism information, see www.visitflorida.com.
For St. Petersburg-Clearwater area information, see www.visitstpeteclearwater.com.
For EPCOT, see www.disney.com.
For the Kennedy Space Center, see www.kennedyspacecenter.com.