You know about the beaches and theme parks, but do you know about the haunted dolls and mermaids?
Florida is famous for its world-class theme parks, sandy white beaches, and, sometimes, its ability to reach 1,000% humidity. Less well known are its bizarre, quirky, and downright unusual tourist attractions. These spots may not draw the millions of tourists that flock to Disney or Miami Beach, but they’ve certainly become famous in their own right. If you want to take an offbeat detour on your next visit to Florida, consider this list of tourist attractions your road map to kitsch.
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Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
WHERE: Spring Hill
There’s a mystical place in Florida where mermaids frolic in crystalline waters and their siren song has been luring tourists to Weeki Wachee Springs since 1947. To this day, the mermaids (with the help of specially-designed air hoses) perform daily shows ranging from classics like–you guessed it–The Little Mermaid to underwater feats like eating and drinking.
Weeki Wachee, named by the Seminole people who once lived in the area, is the deepest freshwater cave system in the U.S. The spring-fed waters make a great home for mermaids, but you can also explore the Weeki Wachee River on a kayak or paddleboard and swim, slide, and snorkel at the Buccaneer Bay water park.
INSIDER TIPIf you can’t make it in person and have school-age children, the mermaids accept “tail mail” from kids under the age of 17. In return, kids will receive an autographed photo of their favorite mermaid and a video response posted on the park’s social media pages.
The Big Orange
The orange is Florida’s official state fruit, but it’s still a bit of a shock to see a gigantic concrete one sitting on the side of the road. Built in 1967, The Big Orange is a whopping 15-feet in diameter and at one time served as a juice stand for tourists. The Big Orange has received some fresh coats of paint over the years and currently sits on the grounds of the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re into kitschy roadside attractions like this, the Roadside America app will help you find nearby attractions and learn about their history.
Big Betsy the Lobster
Inside the Florida Keys’ Rain Barrel Village, you can shop for art, crafts, clothing, and jewelry, but the real gem of this artisan marketplace is the 30-foot-tall, 40-foot-long Spiny Lobster that stands at the entrance. Big Betsy looks remarkably realistic, but don’t let that scare you. Sculptor Richard Blaze spent five years building this giant crustacean and her 12 legs and spiny body are just fiberglass. If you stop by to see Big Betsy, she’s easy to spot at her home right off the Overseas Hwy and she loves posing for selfies.
It’s known to anyone who’s visited that the Coral Castle was built by a man named Ed Leedskalnin, but nobody knows how he did it. Leedskalnin, who lived in the Castle until he died in 1951, never revealed how he constructed the walls, furniture, and sculpture garden from hundreds of tons of limestone rock formed from coral. He did much of his work under the cloak of night and, according to local legend, did so without large machinery or outside help. When Leedskalnin inhabited the Coral Castle, he allowed visitors to tour the grounds for a mere 10 cent admission. Today, you can take guided or self-guided tours and see if you can solve the mystery of the Coral Castle.
INSIDER TIPThe first Saturday of every month is Psychic Saturday. Consult with a palm reader or fortune teller during your visit.
WHERE: Safety Harbor
You’d never know the psychedelic, trippy, explosion of happiness called Whimzeyland was once a boring beige house near Tampa. Lifelong friends and artists Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda (the “Whimzey Twinz”) purchased the home in 1985 and it’s been undergoing its colorful makeover ever since. It all began when the two took advantage of a “free bowling ball” offer at a flea market and brought home 10 bowling balls that they decorated and placed around the property. In addition to an ever-growing bowling ball collection, you’ll find colorful sculptures, paintings, recycled materials, gardens, and more. A limited number of group and private tours of the home are available and you can purchase art from the Whimzey Twinz to support the future of Whimzeyland.
The Fountain of Youth
WHERE: St. Augustine
Tales of the life-sustaining Fountain of Youth have been around for hundreds of years before Juan Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in 1513, supposedly in search of the mythical spring. The area he explored was later conquered by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, which led to the introduction of diseases and epidemics that killed a large percentage of the Timucua people, who inhabited the area long before it was called St. Augustine. At Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, you can drink from the fabled fountains (no promises on the everlasting life part) and learn about the Indigenous inhabitants and the Europeans who came to the area.
Robert the Doll
WHERE: Key West
If you get your jollies from seeing creepy, possibly possessed dolls (no judgment!), you can find one such doll by the name of Robert at the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West. He’s tucked safely inside a glass case now, but he once belonged to a boy named Robert Eugene Otto. Robert the Doll was said to have supernatural powers and was sometimes heard giggling, seen changing his facial expressions, and otherwise causing mischief. Visitors to the museum where Robert now “lives” have reported instances of their cameras suddenly not working when they try to photograph the purportedly haunted doll.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re brave enough, you can take a guided ghost tour of the fort and find out for yourself whether Robert is more than just a children’s plaything.
International Independent Showmen’s Museum
The International Independent Showmen’s Museum lets visitors explore a bygone era of traveling circuses, carnivals, and Wild West shows. The museum houses photographs, artifacts, and memorabilia from traveling shows all over the U.S. from the 19th and 20th centuries. Among the exhibits, you’ll find sequined costumes, circus wagons, carnival games, and even antique midway rides. The International Independent Showmen’s Museum is only open to visitors on select days. They offer guided and self-guided tours, but be sure to check the hours before your visit.
Monument of States
The Monument of States is more than just a sculpture signifying the unification of states after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The monument was constructed using rocks from every U.S. state. The 50-foot-tall pyramid-like structure was conceived by Dr. Charles Bressler-Pettis and, in addition to rocks from all four corners of the country, has grown to include donations from around the world. According to Roadside America, part of Dr. Bressler-Pettis’ remains were entombed in the monument after his death in 1954.
INSIDER TIPThe monument is open to visitors 24 hours a day.
Ulele Fairyland Figures
The fairytale figures on display at Tampa’s Ulele restaurant were once part of an enchanting theme park called Fairyland. The park was attached to the Lowry Park Zoo and was free to visit, but saw its end when the zoo underwent major renovations in the 1980s. After some time spent in storage, beloved characters like Humpty Dumpty, the Three Little Pigs, and the Fairy Godmother found a new home at Ulele. The figures are stationed around the building’s exterior so they are free to visit.