Roadside Attractions

Florida plays host to millions of tourists and travelers every year. Most of those visitors head to the big theme parks in Orlando, the sandy beaches along the coasts or the vibrant scenes in cities such as Tampa and Miami.

But once upon a time, before the interstates and tollways, families coming to the Sunshine State would ply the two-lane highways and side roads and really explore Florida.

There, they would stop at old-timey roadside attractions that offered fun and excitement (and a cold soda pop) amidst all the heat and humidity.

Some of those roadside attractions—a bit rough around the edges—still exist but are scattered around the state. Here’s a look at a few that can be found in sunny Southwest Florida. Once they step out of their cars to explore, visitors will be left wondering how so much fun and charm can fit into one parcel of land.

EVERGLADES WONDER GARDENS Tucked away in the heart of old Bonita Springs sits a classic roadside attraction, one that’s been going strong ever since 1936. It’s called the Everglades Wonder Gardens. Inside the zoo, there are scary alligators and crocodiles, playful river otters, endangered Florida birds, creepy snakes and spiders, and much more. Even better for the botanists out there, the Wonder Gardens are set amidst a virtual Eden of lush tropical greenery. “It’s probably one of the last old Florida attractions still hanging on that was developed in the 1930s. I don’t know of any other,” says Charles LeBuff, a local author and historian who worked at the Wonder Gardens in the 1950s. “It was a hub of environmental education at a time when there wasn’t a lot of that going on, and it still serves that purpose today.”

SHELL FACTORY One of Southwest Florida’s most-visited tourist attractions also may be one of its oldest. The Shell Factory in North Fort Myers has been entertaining guests for more than 70 years. The centerpiece of the sprawling complex is the Shell Factory store, where seashells of every shape, size and color from around the world are on sale. From there, check out the Shell Factory Nature Park with more than 350 animals on display. There are restaurants, a video-game arcade, miniature golf, bumper boats and paddle boats. And don’t forget to tour one of the world’s largest collections of taxidermy.

“It’s got a little bit of everything and appeals to all ages,” says Heidi Zoltak, a mother of three from Davison, Mich., who has visited The Shell Factory a half-dozen times. “It’s kind of got a fun, ticky-tacky flea market feel to it and it makes for a whole afternoon of fun.”

SMALLEST POST OFFICE IN THE UNITED STATES In Ochopee, Fla., right off the Tamiami Trail, lies a closet-sized, 8-by-10 foot building now known as the smallest post office in the United States. The eye-catching building was once an irrigation pipe shed for a tomato farm and also kept farming equipment. The post office came into service when a fire destroyed the former post office, located inside the Ochopee general store, in 1953.

The smaller structure began serving as both a post office and a bus stop, called Trailways Bus Stop, in its early years. Two local residents known as "Mr. Cail" and "Mr. Sidney Brown" built shelves and small cubby holes to hold the mail. When the Tamiami Trail was subsequently widened, a wheelbarrow moved the tiny building to its current location.

The post office is welcome to visitors, many who stop by to purchase postcards that depict the quaint building. Postcards are priced at three for $1 and are the post office’s top-seller. The post office is fully functional and serves the surrounding population of Miccosukee and Seminole Indians.

SKUNK APE RESEARCH HEADQUARTERS As you are driving or hiking through Southwest Florida, keep your eyes peeled for a large, hairy, ape-like creature crossing the road in front of you. And keep your nose peeled, too, as the beast is famous for its pungent smell.

We are talking about Florida’s legendary Skunk Ape, a tropical type of Bigfoot. If you can believe the tales told from generation to generation about the supposedly scary creature, or even if you're not a complete believer, you'll enjoy this attraction.

“The ones we have here are smaller than the Bigfoots in other parts of the country,” says Dave Shealy, a life-long Skunk Ape enthusiast and operator of the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters. “The Skunk Apes are sometimes spotted in the treetops and you just don’t hear about Bigfoots in treetops.”

Certainly, the best way to learn all about the Skunk Ape is to stop at Shealy’s research center sitting alongside the Tamiami Trail 30 minutes or so southeast of Naples.

It’s a classic, roadside “tourist trap,” but you’ll never forget your visit to the unique attraction. The center’s home to gators, snakes, a campground (which dates back to 1961), a gift shop, canoe and kayak tours, and, yes, displays and information about the hairy beast that supposedly lives in the swamps nearby.

GIANT HEAD OF BEETHOVEN AT NEW UNIVERSITY PYRAMID VILLAGE A giant head depicting a scowling Beethoven—a quirky sculpture that's nestled in Fort Myers and eerily guards a picturesque resort—greets many explorers and visitors of Southwest Florida. And the sight is one not to be missed by those with a penchant for unique discoveries.

New University Pyramid Village, where the sculpture is located, was built by Austrians in Fort Myers as a vacation resort. It is now located near busy US-41 and a housing development. According to Roadside America.com, the pyramids in the resort are both hurricane- and burglar-proof and were invented by engineer Walter Freller. They are mostly sold to European tourists and also serve as time-shares for the adventurous who decide to take a chance on the development.

Beethoven seems to be overlooking the scene of futuristic-like condos featuring two bedrooms each and a pool and a beach.

While the pyramid-style homes might pique the curiosity of most, it’s the giant Beethoven head that catches the eye of visitors as they take a detour toward the unique community. It’s definitely worth a photograph and a stop while driving through the Fort Myers area. Just be mindful of the locals who live there—and be respectful when visiting the maestro's sculpture.

If You Go
Everglades Wonder Gardens
Where: 27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs
Info: www.evergladeswondergardens.net or 239.992.2591

Shell Factory and Nature Park
Where: 2787 North Tamiami Trail, North Fort Myers
Info: www.shellfactory.com or 239.995.2141

Smallest Post Office in the United States
Where: 38000 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee
Info: 239.695.2099

Skunk Ape Research Headquarters
Where: 40904 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee
Info: www.skunkape.info or 239.695.2275

Giant Head of Beethoven at New University Pyramid Village
Where: 7000 Constitution Loop, Fort Myers
Info: www.pyramidvillagepark.com

About the author