Travel Report: Florida Nostalgia.
The summers of 1989, 1991, 1994.
Hey folks, I’m gonna try something different today. In fact, this is is not your usual programming. After eight instalments documenting my U.S. travel nostalgia, I found myself tempted by the prospect of concluding the series with a piece that goes even further back.
Now when I say back, I mean waaaay back to the family visits I made to Florida as a kid. On the one hand, I realised it would be criminal to leave out the adventures that inspired my love for travel in The United States. Not to mention the experiences that served as some of the happiest days of my childhood.
On the other hand, I was under no illusions as to what an incredibly challenging project it would be. And so it proved. With help from my dad, I gathered 60+ photos from across the three trips. All of which had to be scanned into digital format.
I also had a couple of home movies to refresh my hazy memories. Moreover, my mum’s old diary entries helped clear up questions related to dates and accommodation. Next came the photo editing itself and trying to organise these decades old travels into some kind of logical narrative. Deep breath…. here goes.
My first trip to the U.S. took place in the summer of 1989. I was 11 years old and nothing short of exhilarated to be in America. We stayed in what I now realise was a poky little Days Inn Days Lodge, somewhere in the heart of Kissimmee, Orlando.
But for me of course it seemed like a palace. Everything felt new and exciting, such as the icy air con and a seemingly infinite array of crazy TV channels. It was also within those walls that I ate my first ever Domino’s Pizza. And marvelled at the fact that you could have it for free if they failed to deliver within forty five minutes. Man, I was so disappointed when that pizza arrived on time.
And then of course there was the pool! And actual serviceable weather from which to enjoy it. Yup, we were a long way from England and my 11 year old mind was suitably blown. That’s my dad in the middle of the pool teaching my sister Natalie to swim. I’m sat on the middle of the ledge calling to my mum behind the camera.
When it comes to romanticised childhood memories, there’s not much that can compete with those daily Florida breakfasts. How I wish we had a few more photos. We ate at Denny’s, Perkins, Brodies and Bob Evans, which Natalie kept mispronouncing as Bob in a Heaven.
There were pancakes, maple syrup, streaky bacon, poached eggs and buttery toast. Waffles drowned in ice cream and strawberries. And the milkshakes… oh lord, the milkshakes. Looking back, it’s a wonder I was able to fall asleep each night, such was the anticipation.
They say a visit to Florida is an absolute dream come true for a kid. They weren’t wrong. My sister and I were both Disney nuts who could just about quote entire movies, word for word.
Indeed we knew flicks like 101 Dalmatians, The Fox and the Hound and The Jungle Book like the backs of our hands. Thus I’m sure you can imagine just how buzzing we were the day we went to Disney World.
And what a day it was. For a gentle beginning, we negotiated the wooden bridge walkways up in the branches of the Swiss Family Treehouse. Then jumped onto the Alice In Wonderland inspired Mad Tea Party spinning cup ride.
One of our favourites was The Jungle Cruise, an attraction that takes you down the grand rivers of Africa, Asia and South America. Led by a wisecracking captain, we came up against hissing pythons, screeching elephants and disgruntled rhinos. Furthermore, there were giant butterflies, snapping crocodiles and cannibalistic pygmies.
The Jungle Cruise.
With all the flashing animatronics and the veering of the boat, taking passable photos proved next to impossible. Luckily my dad shot the entire thing on camcorder, an amazing memento of that exciting and often terrifying ride.
“If you think it’s foggy here in the rainforest, it’s because the boat in front of us just exploded”, quipped our captain, as we were about to enter a series of gushing waterfalls. “I would like to point out this is the back side of water. Looks a lot like the front side.”
Added to The Magic Kingdom in 1971, I’m delighted to see that The Jungle Cruise is still going after fifty years in operation.
It’s been fascinating reading about the major changes that have passed since we visited. Boat captains, for example, have been stripped of their pistols and no longer mock fire on aggressive robot animals. And the jungle itself, initially man-made, is now 100% real thanks to its own self-sustaining ecosystem.
It’s a Small World.
Another standout was It’s a Small World. In contrast to the frenetic Jungle Cruise, this endearing boat ride is an unapologetic slab of cutesy innocence.
Championing the idea of international unity and cross cultural understanding, the ride takes visitors through 100 virtual countries in 7 virtual continents. Along the way, you get to meet over 300 singing and talking animatronic dolls.
Built for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, it was Mr. Walt Disney himself who ordered his engineers to “make me a little boat ride”. He wanted something that would unite all cultures under a single sonic umbrella.
With this in mind, he asked Disney songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman to compose the ride’s almost infuriatingly catchy theme song. “It’s a small world after all” he reportedly muttered, unwittingly supplying the Shermans with the song’s famous line. Today it stands as the most publicly performed song in history.
There were countless other memorable experiences at Disney World of course. But for the sake of brevity I’ll mention just one more highlight. As fate would have it, we’d timed our visit for Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday celebrations. The main event was a lavish musical parade that ran down Main Street.
“America loves you Mickey Mouse! Happy Birthday to our favourite superstar. Let’s have a party like we’ve never had befoooore…”
In addition to seeing the great mouse himself, the parade treated us to dozens of floats inhabited by Disney’s most iconic characters. Goofy trotted by on horseback. Tigger danced along to a Beach Boys track whilst surfing a giant wave.
Elsewhere, Donald and Daisy Duck waved to the masses, while the unlikely combination of Cinderella, Mary Poppins and Alice (in Wonderland) engaged in some kind of manic dance competition.
What’s more, there was a dedicated float for The Little Mermaid, whose movie premiere was still a few months away. And if you’ve ever wondered what a screenshot of a 32 year old home movie looks like… well… that’s the photo below.
As much as I loved Disney World, it was Universal Studios that really stole the show. I was already well on my way to becoming a huge film fan, hence there was no beating our visits to the world’s best movie theme park in 91 and 94.
Here, we got to enter alternate realities of our favourite movies for personalised, high octane adventures. With so many incredible rides, it’s been tough settling on a rundown of the best. I’ll start with the exceptional E.T. Adventure Ride, which we did in the summer of 1991 about a year after it launched.
The experience starts with our good old friend Mr. Spielberg explaining that we all have to pitch in and help E.T. get home in order to save his dying planet. Armed with a bicycle and an interplanetary passport, we set off on a journey through the city pursued by baddie NASA and police officials.
Just as it seemed we were about to get caught, up we shoot into the air. Over the city we go, climbing higher into outer space towards E.T.’s home, The Green Planet. There, Hollywood’s favourite alien restores his land and people with that famous healing finger.
At the end, I remember E.T. thanking each rider personally as we filed towards the exit. It was a clever touch, as they made a special point of taking everyone’s names at the beginning before we boarded. Unfortunately, old E.T. made a real mess of saying Leighton. But hey, it’s the thought that counts.
Back to the Future: The Ride was equally memorable. This one had just opened and boy oh boy, do I remember the queues. Seriously, it felt like weeks. However, all was forgiven when we climbed into “Doc” Emmet Brown’s brand new invention, an 8-seat DeLorean.
Back to the Future: The Ride.
The narrative is somewhat complicated, with multiple plots relating to 1885, 1959, the present day and near future. But you don’t have to get bogged down in details. Rather, just sit back and let the adventure wash over you.
And what an insane ride it was, with volcanos, dinosaurs, ice age caverns and, pleasingly, a starring role for the trilogy’s comical villain Biff Tannen. Sadly, I see the attraction closed in 2007 and was subsequently replaced by The Simpsons: The Ride.
In terms of outright terror, little could compete with the thrilling Jaws Ride. In this one we got to tour the harbour at the fictional community of Amity Island. And lo and behold, what starts out as a leisurely cruise soon turns into a fearsome attack by a great white shark.
I can still picture that awful animatronic shark lunging at us, teeth exposed. As Richard Dreyfuss and friends sing in the movie: “Show me the way to go home!” Despite being one of Universal Studios’ most popular rides, park management also called time on this one. It closed in 2012 to make way for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.
Another hair-raising ride was Kongfrontation, among the park’s first attractions when it opened in 1990. Partly inspired by the 1976 movie King Kong, this open air tram ride saw us trying to escape Manhattan with the rampaging giant ape hot on our heels. I remember that tram lurching around all over the place as Kong chased us along the city streets between various skyscrapers.
Kongfrontation was definitely one of the most popular rides in those first few decades. But eventually it got a reputation for being unreliable, with too many breakdowns and maintenance closures. Finally, they pulled the plug in 2002 and it gave way to a new attraction, Revenge of the Mummy.
As with Disney World, I could go on and on about the dazzling rides at Universal Studios. But there’s more to cover, so I’ll wrap this segment up with honourable mentions for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies and the Ghostbusters Spooktacular.
We really did have some energy levels back in those days. Especially when you consider the bulk of our trips played out as a relentless barrage of theme park days. Outside of the big two, SeaWorld was certainly a special one.
It was the first time I’d seen octopuses and dolphins up close, let alone a performing killer whale. Back then, SeaWorld’s star attraction was its Shamu Show. Shamu was actually the name given to a series of the park’s famous whales, dating all the way back to the late 1960s.
The Baby Shamu we saw (real name Kalina) was SeaWorld’s first surviving Orca born into captivity in 1985. The show was absolutely awesome. Shamu performed thrilling jumps with a trainer balanced delicately on her nose. She also splashed the audience and posed in shallow waters on the main stage.
It was only later, as a young adult, that I read about SeaWorld’s practices and the history behind the park’s famous whales. The story makes for some really grim reading, so much so that I remember feeling physically sick. The visit had brought me so much happiness, but behind it all there had been untold misery.
The Shamu we saw died in 2010 of septicemia aged 25. In 2016 SeaWorld announced the end of their orca breeding programs. They also revealed that their theatrical shows would be phased out in favour of “inspiring natural orca encounters”.
Thankfully, I have no mixed emotions about Water Mania. Opened in 1987, this was Kissimmee’s first water park and home to the state’s largest wave pool. They also had some action-packed rides, including Twin Tornadoes and The Anaconda.
But the one that really stayed with me was a terrifying water slide called The Screamer. That’s it, tucked away behind my dad in the top left corner. It was a 22 metre straight drop and yes, as the name suggests, you could hear the screams from everyone who dared to ride it. Those sounds haunted me, I can tell you. As a result, I refused to go on.
Water Mania called it a day in September 2005. According to owners Gary and Randy Larson, they received an offer for the land that was too good to turn down. A number of attractions took Water Mania’s place, such as Pirate’s Island Adventure Golf.
One afternoon, during our 1989 trip, there was a dramatic change of tone with a day at Kennedy Space Center. Yup, the very place where NASA launched operations for the Apollo missions, including the 1969 Apollo 11 spaceflight that first landed humans on the Moon.
It was definitely a case of “one small step for Leighton” as I moved in front of the camera to have my photo taken with a Saturn 5 rocket. That’s the type of rocket used in the Moon landings.
There is so much history packed into this place, with exhibitions on NASA’s space shuttle programs and the world’s pioneering space legends. We also got to see several launch pads and an actual Lunar Module Eagle.
John F. Kennedy Space Center.
Of course there were days when Family Thomas desperately needed a break from all the relentless touring. On such occasions, we would drive out to a number of nearby beaches. First there was Cocoa Beach, a surfer’s paradise with coarse sand covered in seaweed.
But we much preferred Daytona Beach, a more handsome and smoother series of sands. I remember we could drive right onto the beach and park up where we wanted to settle.
I also recall a stressful afternoon when we locked ourselves out of the car and a beach police patrol officer had to help us get back in. Our favourite though, by a Florida mile, were the powdery snow white sands of Clearwater Beach.
I loved Clearwater Beach. Natalie and I built sandcastles and paddled in the sea while my parents kept half an eye on us from their snoozing positions. One day, we met a gregarious salesman who we nicknamed Panama Jack after the brand of tanning oil he was pedalling.
Panama Jack was a smooth talker alright and we ended up buying several bottles of his oil. It was also Jack who took the family shot of us that serves as this article’s cover photo. I wonder if he’s still roaming the beach today.
In 1991 we enjoyed a major accommodation upgrade. For that trip we stayed in a two bed deluxe at Legacy Vacation Resort. The entire complex felt so exotic, with its manicured lawns, trees, pool and lake.
I watched my first episode of The Simpsons in that villa. It was Lisa’s Substitute, Season 2 Episode 19, where she falls in love with her new teacher, Mr. Bergstrom.
Glued to the TV in our downtime, Natalie and I fell about laughing at Mr. Rogers and his cheesy but charming Won’t You Be My Neighbor Song. We then drove my mum mad singing it 24-7. Except we misheard the words and sang “neverly neverly” instead of “neighborly”.
In 94 our Orlando lodgings were the similarly swanky Fantasy World Club Villas. This place came with even more facilities, such as the tennis courts we regularly played on. In that villa the entire family was on hand to witness the insane O.J. Simpson Car Chase as it played out live on TV.
On that last trip my nan joined us and added much to the party. She had so much energy and brought so much positivity we dubbed her Go Granny Go. In truth she could outlast us all when it came to gallivanting around all those theme parks.
On one of the days leading to my 16th birthday we were strolling around Florida Mall when I came across the official U.S. soccer jersey for that year’s World Cup, held in the United States.
I was crazy about that shirt, something I’m sure I made no bones about to anyone who’d listen. Nan didn’t blink. “You can have it Leight, my birthday treat!” she exclaimed. 27 years later, I still have that shirt. It’s in pretty good condition too and fits like a dream.
Before wrapping up, I must mention the sleepy Floridian town of Indian Shores in Pinellas County. We came here for a week in both 91 and 94, chiefly to rest up after all the theme parking. For the most part our days played out on the local beaches, which were largely quiet and had the most gorgeous sunsets.
Near our apartment, we paid a visit to the lovely Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a wildlife rehabilitation centre that focused on sick and injured birds. Launched in 1971, the facility saved the lives of thousands of local birds before closing in 2016. That same year the foundation was reborn as today’s Seaside Seabird Sanctuary.
Well folks, if you’re still here I have to commend you for your literary stamina. And yet there’s so much I didn’t get to feature. So here’s an honorary mention to feeding alligators at Gatorland, riding The Scorpion at Busch Gardens and birthday eats with karaoke at Black Angus Steakhouse.
Cheers to stocking up on Reese’s Chocolate at K-Mart and watching Forrest Gump at the cinema on its week of release. To losing and regaining one’s wallet on a rollercoaster. And to the road trip we took to South Carolina to visit friends on Hilton Head Island. All these experiences will stay with me forever as treasured fragments of Florida Nostalgia.
For more on my adventures around the country, check out my travel articles from across The USA.
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