The Orange County Regional History Center will unveils its newest permanent exhibit, “Destination Florida: Tourism Before Disney,” on Friday. The new installation will take visitors back in time to the ‘Golden Age of Tourism,’ nearly a century before Disney.
Visitors may be surprised to learn tourism in Florida stretches back to the late 19th century, when wealthy northerners were drawn by the weather and the area’s natural beauty, including supposed curative powers of the water. Silver Springs first drew tourists in 1860 and became more popular when the famous glass-bottom boats were added in 1878. In the 1920s, the less well-to-do tin-can tourists followed, arriving in their Model T campers with tin cans perched on their radiators. While fishing and other natural assets continued to draw tourists, more theme parks created around Florida’s natural beauty began to spring up, and by 1950 tourism replaced agriculture as Florida’s principal industry.
The new exhibit will allow visitors to discover the history of Florida tourism through artifacts, images, memorabilia, and interactive components. Visitors will be able to sit inside a replica Model T modified into a “tin-can camper” for an audio/visual trip on the roads tourists traveled long before interstate highways; and then test their “tourist IQ” in an interactive presentation.
The exhibit reveals the stories of some of Florida’s most historic attractions, including:
· Big Tree Park – Home to the Senator, the oldest and largest bald cypress tree in the country.
· The Singing Tower at Bok Gardens – Opened in 1929 with gardens designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead Jr., the designer of Washington D.C.’s National Mall and White House grounds.
· Wigwam Village – Operated from 1935 to 1973, it featured tepees that served as guest rooms.
· Cypress Gardens – Opened in 1936 featuring gardens, Southern Belles, and water ski shows, it quickly became Florida’s largest attraction.
· Weeki Wachee Springs – Opened in 1947, it became one of the state’s most successful attractions with beautiful “mermaids” smiling, drinking, and eating underwater.
· Gatorland – Began as a roadside attraction in 1949.
The Orange County Regional History Center is housed in a restored historic five-story 1927 county courthouse in downtown Orlando. For general information, call (407) 836-8500 or visit www.thehistorycenter.org.