Oh, #Florida!

Florida’s Best Castles, Dinosaurs, Roadside Attractions, and UFOs
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July 24 2013 6:30 AM

Oh, #Florida!

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The best castles, dinosaurs, roadside attractions, and UFOs.

People watch a show on stage in front of Cinderella's castle at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom November 11, 2001 in Orlando, Florida.
Cinderella's castle at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

When you think of landmark structures in Florida, you probably think of Cinderella's castle at Disney World ... and then ... that's about it, right?

Wrong. Florida contains far more interesting buildings than the ones built for Mr. Disney. On the campus of Florida Southern College in Lakeland, for instance, you’ll find 10 buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—the most examples of the master’s work to be collected in one spot. Architects rave about Miami Beach’s iconic Fontainebleau Hotel and the eye-catching Atlantis condominium, made famous by the opening credits of Miami Vice.

But my own preference is for the more fanciful landmarks, the ones that are so startling as you drive by them you nearly run off the road. There’s the giant golf ball by the roadside in Callahan (tough lie!); the Stonehenge-like “Airstream Ranch” outside Tampa; and Betsy, the 30-foot-tall, 40-foot long female spiny lobster that stands guard at the entrance to the Rain Barrel Artist Village in Islamorada. And if you're ever in Christmas, Fla., make sure you take a gander at the world's largest man-made alligator (although there was some concern over maintaining the record after a TV news van backed over part of the tail).

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But nothing makes me grin like a toothy gator quite like the dinosaurs.

In prehistoric times, the land we now know as Florida was home to mastodons and mammoths, giant sloths and saber-toothed cats, all of which left behind plenty of fossils. There were no actual dinosaurs. But now we've got plenty of them. Dinosaurs adorn the Goofy Golf in Panama City Beach and serve as a gas station in Spring Hill. Everyone poses with the Stegosaurus at Lion Country Safari and snaps pictures of the pink dinosaur that marks what used to be the entrance to a wildlife exhibit in Spring Hill (now long gone, as with many of Florida's pre-Disney roadside attractions). I have no proof, but I am convinced that Florida contains more faux dinosaurs than any other state in the Union.

Driving along Interstate 4 between Tampa and Orlando, you’ll suddenly spot a 28-foot Brachiosaur by the side of the road. Further on there's a pair of 40-foot Tyrannosaurus rexes. They're out there to advertise Dinosaur World, which, with 150 fake dinos on the property, bills itself as the “world’s largest dinosaur attraction.” A family owns and runs it and does a thriving business with both passing tourists and school groups. A few years ago it also attracted some thieves who managed to make off with one of the smaller dinosaurs, to the bafflement of the staff.

"What are you going to do with a dinosaur?” one asked. “Put it in your yard? Try to pawn it?"

Florida also contains castles—not as many as Europe, but the ones we have are definitely ... different. In the tiny town of Ona, you'll find the shiny edifice of Solomon's Castle, built by sculptor Howard Solomon. “The gleaming exterior is made of the printing plates discarded by the local newspaper,” he boasts on his website.

And if you travel to Homestead, south of Miami, you'll find the Coral Castle. Like Solomon's Castle, it's the work of one man, a 5-foot-tall Latvian immigrant named Ed Leedskalnin. It's Florida's version of the Taj Mahal. Starting in the 1920s, Leedskalnin began carving giant blocks of stone from oolitic limestone beneath the Everglades and using it to construct a tribute to his lost love, Agnes Scuffs, the girl who broke his heart, the girl who left him at the altar. He sculpted walls, walkways, furniture, planets, a telescope, even a heart-shaped table. He moved them into place by himself, even though some weighed 20 tons. He did it at night when no one was looking. No one really knows how, although he would tell visitors he'd discovered the secrets of the pyramid builders.

Of course, there's one Florida landmark that stands out above all the others. In fact, it even rated a mention in the New York Times last year right before the Republican National Convention in Tampa. I am referring to the flying saucer atop the 2001 Odyssey strip club.

“The spaceship, a much-talked about private V.I.P. room perched atop the 2001 Odyssey like a wedding-cake embellishment, has also helped burnish Tampa’s louche label,” the Times harrumphed. When the manager boasted that it's one of the seven wonders of Tampa Bay, the paper added, “The provenance of that distinction is hard to decipher.”

The UFO for VIPs atop the 2001 is actually one of two Futuro houses in Florida. The other is on Pensacola Beach, where it supposedly survived a direct hit from Hurricane Ivan because of its aerodynamic qualities. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that this saucer-shaped house is right next door to the one-time UFO capital of America.

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian and an award-winning reporter who covers environmental issues for the state's largest newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of three books, the most recent of which is The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World's Most Beautiful Orchid. Follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes

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