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Forget sunshine; Florida’s better known for oddball

POSTED: March 30, 2008 5:01 a.m.

What do a Florida State Trooper and a mermaid have in common? Later this year, they will both be government employees of the Sunshine State.

Weeki Wachee, the Florida tourist attraction that features an underwater show with girls in mermaid outfits, has been operated for the past few years by the tiny hamlet of Weeki Wachee.

When I say tiny, I’m not exaggerating. The U.S. Census lists the 2006 population at 12.

It appears there had been some struggles, and the state has decided to take over Weeki Wachee next November. Think about it, you could be a mermaid and earn a tidy state pension.

The whole mermaid thing is a bit bizarre.

Newton Perry, a Navy veteran who taught frogmen to swim underwater during World War II, discovered the site in 1946 and thought it would make a dandy place for a new business.

He came up with the mermaid idea and fixed up hoses attached to an air compressor. The girls could suck on the hose periodically and keep swimming.

By 1959, the American Broadcasting Company acquired the place and built a 500-seat theater. Stars ranging from Elvis to Don Knotts came to visit Weeki Wachee and so did throngs of tourists on their way through Florida.

When Disney arrived on the scene followed by others, such as Universal Studios, the once bustling attraction was overshadowed by the big competitors.

But what would Florida be without offbeat attractions, such as:

Burt Reynolds & Friends Museum, Jupiter, Fla.: We don’t know if they have one of the “Smokey and the Bandit” cars, but they do have a piece of chewing gum that Burt chewed during the movie.

Jackie Gleason’s Mausoleum, Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Cemetery, Miami: Here you can see the final resting place of Burt’s nemesis in the movies. The only inscription on the tomb is Gleason’s trademark “And Away We Go.”

Flipper’s Grave, Grassy Key, Fla.: “Flipper,” whose real name was Mitzi, is buried in the courtyard of the Dolphin Research Center. Why is it that Flipper was really a girl and Lassie was really a boy?

Gatorland, Orlando: Billed as the “Alligator Capital of the World,” it is home to the famous gator, Jumparoo. I guess the name “Killer” was already taken. There is also a gator farm in St. Augustine, where their feature attraction is a crocodile. That’s as bad as Flipper being a girl.

World Chess Hall of Fame, Miami: How big of a geek do you have to be to plan your trip to visit this place?

Seven Mile Bridge, Marathon Key, Fla.: This is a marvel of engineering, but the truth is that it’s only 6.79 miles long. It was first called “Six and seventy-nine hundreths mile bridge,” but the name was changed after dozens were killed trying to read the sign.

World’s Smallest Police Station, Carrabelle, Fla.: It’s basically a phone booth that dates back to when this panhandle town only had one policeman.

World’s Largest Drive-In, Sunrise, Fla.: Open since 1963, the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop boasts the largest drive-in movie theater and daily flea market in the world. And isn’t there just something magic about a combo drive-in and flea market.

Well, I hope I have given you additional reasons to pack a grip and head off to sunny Florida. If you need bus schedules or the location of a nice motor court, call me up.

Harris Blackwood is community editor of The Times. His columns appear Wednesdays and Sundays.



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