Friday, May 30, 2014

Florida Splendid China

Amongst the chaos and sensationalism of Orlando's theme parks, the People's Republic of China thought it would be a great idea to get in on the action and open one of their own. And with what theme? Why, Chinese history, of course. What could possibly go wrong?

They partnered up with a Taiwanese couple who issued some odd statements about how much they detest the Chinese government, even as they were going into business with them. In 1993 Splendid China opened in the Orlando suburb of Citrus Ridge, with lots of fanfare and very few customers. (A bit confusingly, it was often called "Florida Splendid China" in the park's own brochures, to unnecessarily differentiate it from a similar park in Shenzen.) They spent lavishly on every detail except for perhaps the most crucial one of all - pre-market focus-group testing. #100 Million were poured into this park which consisted mainly of 76 acres of land peppered with miniature replicas of historically important Chinese buildings.

And that's it. No rides, no water slide, no laser shows or explosions. Even a newspaper article in the Lakeland Ledger, trying to give the park some good advance PR, stated that kids might find it boring. As word got around, it seems everyone was finding it boring. On a great day, the place got about 400 visitors (compared to the tens of thousands of hordes standing in line for other Orlando attractions) and on a bad day, well, nobody came at all.

According to Lost Parks:

Although all of the miniatures were meticulously done, some were more effective than others. The Yurts of Mongolia, for example, were on so small a scale compared to the surrounding grass that they appeared like nothing so much as upended dog bowls. It only took a few years for a few of the scenes to begin showing cracks and other wear, with some of the small figurines that populated them broken or missing entirely.

They tried to jazz it up a bit by bringing acrobats from China to perform, but that backfired when the acrobats kept running away from their handlers and seeking political asylum in America. Towards the end of the park's run, they started hiring local acrobats instead of risking any more defections. A well-meaning but embarassingly crank-sounding group calling themselves "Citizens Against Communist Chinese Propaganda" began staging nonstop protests outside the place, and you could hear their angry chanting while you were trying to have a peaceful visit. Soon Florida school boards were voting to ban field trips to the site, and clearly the writing was on the wall.

On December 30, 2003, the park's website announced it was closing, and blamed "the continued downturn in the tourism economy" rather than the obvious fact that there just aren't enough people who want to pay twenty bucks to stand in the hot sun and look at a 1/8 scale replica of the Leshan Grand Buddha Statue.

It didn't take long for the place to fall into ruin, hastened by constant vandalism. After sitting vacant for a decade, they finally started tearing it all down last year.

Master Bait & Tackle

Curiously, their website's FAQ doesn't touch upon what I would think would be some of the most-asked questions...

Lygia and the Bull

Oh, a statue of a naked woman tied to a bull? Okay.

Lygia and the Bull is a sculpture by Giuseppe Moretti, based on Henryk Sienkiewicz' 1895 novel "Quo Vadis," in which the Roman Emperor Nero condemned a princess to die in the arena because of her Christian faith. Without the backstory, however, tourists viewing it on display at Sarasota's Ringling Museum of Art are no doubt puzzled and quickly consulting the brochure. And of course, finding out the statue's grim meaning is a real buzzkill.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Protruding Shark

Just another day in Interzone.

Magic Beach Motel

This wacky inn is located on that island near St. Augustine that has no name, but I call it Vilano Key because Vilano Beach is its primary hub unless you count Mickler's Landing and I don't.

Originally this motel, which is very near the pier and the pavilion that once was the Vilano Beach Casino, was called simply Vilano Beach Motel. But in 1999, it was used as the set for the TV series Safe Harbor, which altered the sign to read "Magic Beach Motel" because the show's setting was in the fictitious town of Magic Beach, FL. After the show was cancelled, the owners chose the keep the sign and the name change, and is now of Florida's most elusive specimens: a old-school retro "Cadillac" motel that is also clean, updated and modern at the same time.

And yes, at night when the sign's turned on, the neon bunnies light up in a staggered manner so that it creates the illusion of them bounding out of the top hat.

John's Pass Bigfoot Exhibit

Whether you call it Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape, or the Bardin Booger, you're sure to be interested in this exciting exhibit offered in John's Pass Village, of a plaster cast footprint alleged to be his.

Citrus Center Gator

At one of those ubiquitous Florida Citrus Centers that dot the landscape around the Florida-Georgia border - you know, the ones who sell the baby sharks in jars - a billboard promises a "13 foot gator".

What they didn't tell you is that the gator is dead.

The taxidermied critter sits (Stands? Lays? Crouches? Whatever it is that alligators are doing) on a table, rather like an altar, surrounded by the gruesome visage of dozens of severed baby alligator heads. I can't think of many other animals where a display like this would be accepted so casually - snakes, maybe.

(Also, a 13 foot gator may sound impressive at first, but half of it's the tail and it's not as big as you probably pictured it.)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sticks of the Peninsula

When was staying in Tampa, I had a swell time, but honestly, I'm having far better luck finding what I need over here on The Peninsula than I did in the cigar capital of the world. Then again, I know that some of the best places in Tampa are ones I didn't get to hit - like The Man Cave, Tampa Humidor, Edward's, Lit Premium, and Kuba Cigars on the Davis Islands.

But I tell ya, I couldn't be happier where I am now. Especially since I've discovered a lot more great smoke outposts in the area recently, giving me a vast range of choices within minutes from my front door. A wide open field awaits the wide awake man.

First and foremost, Cuban Paradise at John's Pass has some of the best locally-made sticks it's been my pleasure to procure. I am seriously addicted (oh, wait, no, strike that, bad word to use when it comes to tobacco) to the Santana-Lapinet New Generation smokes they roll. And they're right next door to a fine bar that stocks hundreds of craft beers, which is something you sadly don't see every day in Interzone.

I also nabbed some of the more obscure Drew Estate Natural stogies here, like Elixir and Root Deluxe. There are benches out front where you can sit and eat ice cream and watch the cigar rollers work their magic through the glass windows. In this knee-jerk politically-correct anti-tobacco nation we suddenly find ourselves in, sooner or later someone is going to say "this is illegal", so go watch the public cigar-rolling demonstration while you still can.

Cigar Republic is on Treasure Island on your left, just as soon as you get off the causeway from Paradise Island. It's a full-on cigar bar, and has some hard-to-find stuff in the humidor such as the XEN torpedo (I didn't even know they made a torpedo). Also Cuban Stout, something I'd never heard of called Perdomo Fresco and their very own in-house fine CR line.

All this time I've been here, I didn't even know St. Pete Cigar was hidden tucked away in the corner pocket of a shopping center several blocks north of me. The selection here is eye-popping, with all kinds of goodies I'd never heard of, including Recluse Iconic and Oliveros Eight Zero. The neighborhood's seemingly a little shifty, though, because you can't just march into the place, you have to ring a security buzzer to be let in. I try to pull the wool over my own eyes and convince myself that this just means I'm privy to a very special private club. This place is also way deep into Oliva, My Father, Tatuaje and Camacho.

I had stopped going to Central Cigars in St. Petersburg because, well, frankly, there was a guy working there who was a jerk. But I haven't seen him there lately, so me and this cigar bar are back on speaking terms. Which is good, because this place has a very deep selection of all my favorite Rocky Patel cigars, most notably the Royale. Now if they'd just go deeper into the Drew Estate they'd almost be my number one go-to smokerie again. Thank goodness Cigar Loft up the street has plenty of those, and much much more.

Both the people workin' the bar at Cigar Loft are friendly as all get out, and the conversations you get into with their usual crowd of regulars can be quite spirited.

You can also tell that they actually smoke cigars regularly, and know all their products from experience. (You'd be surprised how many cigar store people have obviously never sampled even a tenth of their own shop's products, and some make me wonder if they even really smoke at all. Some even actively diss the very sticks they're selling!)

Habana Cafe & Cigar Factory is still my primary spot, being very near my home. I bought up all their Alec Bradley Nica Puro, Drew Estate Jucy Lucy, Illuminati Shield robustos and Rocky Patel Royale though - time to restock, guys! (They did restock my XEN toros though.) Meanwhile, I also get San Lotano, Rocky Patel Olde World Reserve, Oliva G and the Cigar Factory house blends, direct from the Dominican Republic, especially the barberpoles and ligeros. Tell Morgan and Sebastian I sent you by!

La Habana Cigar Club is still on my dance card too - this is the only place around I can find Herrera Esteli, Gurkha Ninja, Tamayo barberpoles, and Nat Sherman Timeless Collection. They keep having cigar events featuring, so the flyers say, "The La Habana Cigar Club Girls" which I regret to say I've missed out on thus far. And what I like most about this place is that they have a short description of each cigar on a piece of paper in front of it, with a series of star-shaped stickers that are color-coded to tell you which are mild, medium, and full. Oh yeah, and you get a free cigar each ten you buy, and they remember when you're up for your free one even when you don't.

There's even more cigar joints back up in the north part of the peninsula in Clearwater, as previously delved into on this blog. And Google Maps tells of some places on the islands like El Loco Cigarro and Havana Beach Cigars that I still haven't checked out yet. There's also Norman's Liquors in St. Pete's Beach and many ABC Liquors locations sprinkled around, and they all have deeper humidors than you might suspect.

You have to hit every location to see it all and keep up with it all, not that I mind. I'm always in motion like the future, like Yoda said.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Norge Balls

Once upon a time, there was a chain of Norge laundromats sprawling all across the nation, each festooned with a futuristic planet-lookin' polka-dotted plastic ball. Almost all Norges are gone now, though a few businesses that subsequently moved into these locations happily retained the ball.

As far as researchers can determine, there are four Norge Balls extant in Florida - two in Largo, one in Maitland, and one at Star Deli in St. Petersburg. There was a fifth in Miami, but it's apparently no more. The Florida specimens are all of the less-common striped variety, while the majority of Norge Balls look rather like the wrapper on an old package of Wonder Bread. There are also rare variants such as a black striped one, and some later owners took to repainting theirs to look like a globe. (And no, World Liquors is not one of these.)

The aging signs are very fragile, and it's a miracle that any Norge balls have survived after over a half century of abuse from the elements and from careless humans. Like those glorious geeks who obsess over Muffler Men and displaced Goofy Golf statues, there exists a subculture of archivists who fetishize the aesthetic glory of Norge Balls.

Who could blame them? Who can say they aren't beautiful?

I like to think that somewhere, deep in the wilds of Florida, there may yet be, in some isolated strip mall south of nowhere - perhaps at a remote abandoned swamp gas station deep in the Everglades - a Norge ball as yet undiscovered by the Norgeballers of our generation.

It's Coming

This sign heralding that it's coming has been in downtown St. Petersburg for months. Just what it is, I don't know. Is it possible that it called to say it's not coming anymore, and they've just been too disheartened to take down the sign?

Upside-Down Gator

An alligator, mounted upside down along one of the walkways at John's Pass, watches you from above.

Monday, May 26, 2014


There have been many instances where a small but shrill segment of the population rages illogically against something being taught, or not taught, in public schools. But the most insane of them all, I think, would be the furor that was caused by a dragon handpuppet named Pumsy in the early 1990s. Doctors Inlet Elementary School in northeastern Florida pulled the Pumsy program from its curriculum because one parent said it hypnotises children, and that parent in turn was getting all her information from one obscure psychiatrist's opinion.

According to the Associated Press:

The complaint came from Candy Johnson, who has a second-grader at Doctors Inlet Elementary School in northeastern Florida.

"There's a psychiatrist who says this program is very threatening to a child's welfare. It becomes a hypnosis session after a while," she said.

Dr. George Twente of General Hospital in Decatur, Ala., said Pumsy teaches children they can change the way they feel. "You're almost convincing the child he has magical powers," he said.

Twente and Mrs. Johnson said Pumsy was part of the New Age movement, a collection of philosophies often associated with self-healing and reincarnation.

Seriously? What were the teachings of these Pumsy stories that rang alarm bells for these cranks? Well, for one: "It's a practice where you go over what you're going to do in your mind before you do it. For example, when you learn to ride a bike, you go over it in your head first." Okay. And........... the problem with that is?

The Pumsy stories basically taught self-esteem and self-control, urging kids to stop and think logically before jumping into reacting and doing something rashly and impulsively. What parent would have a problem with that? Some severely confused ones, I should think. In fact, the panic reaction to rumors about Pumsy are a textbook example of why people should stop and assess what they're seeing before going off half cocked and blowing their horn like an angry torch-bearing peasant in a Frankenstein movie. More, from the New York Times:

Students are supposed to identify with Pumsy, who learns in the course of her adventures to overcome feelings of confusion and doubt, which she thinks of as "being in her mud mind," by thinking positive thoughts with her "clear mind" and creative thoughts with her "sparkle mind." This metaphor, having three minds for three different clusters of moods or attitudes, was among those that provoked storms of protest from conservative parents.

"They complained that we were teaching children to be schizophrenic," Ms. Anderson said. "So in the new edition we simply added the explicit clarification: of course, Pumsy doesn't have three minds."

Heavy sigh. I suspect these same gullible parents, if properly guided, could also be convinced to extend the same logic and call for a ban on the works of Sigmund Freud, whose fundamental basis of modern psychiatry posits a trifold model (and remember, it's only a model) in which the human mind is composed of an Ego, an Id, and a Superego.

Of course, to do so would discredit the same quack psychiatrist that this angry mom put all her faith in. QED.

The flames of the "controversy", such as it was, were fueled by right-wing pundits and Ultra-Christian conservatives like Chuck Colson. Yes, that Chuck Colson, the Watergate conspirator. Said Colson:

The Pumsy story is just a fairy-tale way of teaching Hinduism. Hindu doctrine teaches that the human mind or spirit is part of God--a spark in the divine fire, a drop in the divine ocean...

What we're seeing here is New Age pantheism in education. It's not sold to teachers that way, of course.

I'm not sure, but I don't think the Pumsy stories are used much nowadays. And that's a shame - everything I've read about them sounds like some of the most logical attitude-improving stuff for children to come down to the pike in a long while, at least for public schools. I suppose these activist parents would prefer their kids be hypnotised by television, ritalin, and goalless boredom instead.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Lynyrd Skynyrd Graverobbers

In 1977, an airplane carrying the Jacksonville-based southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed in a swamp in Mississippi, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and vocalist Cassie Gaines. The band persevered on, and though the hits stopped coming, they are still one of America's most popular concert draws with a huge Grateful Dead/Jimmy Buffett-like cult following.

Some of their followers, however, may be a little too cultish. In 2000, it was discovered that unknown persons had broken into the graves of Mssrs. Van Zant and Gaines in Orange Park, FL. Gaines' ashes were spilled, and Van Zant's coffin was removed but the vandals were apparently unable to get it open. The vandals were never caught, and it's unknown what their motive was. Some say their intent must have been to rob Van Zant's body of "collectible" items, or to confirm a long-standing rumor that he'd been buried in a Neil Young t-shirt (the band had an ongoing feud with Neil Young because of his song "Southern Man"). But that doesn't explain why they also desecrated Gaines' grave, which contained nothing but an urn of ashes.

The mausoleum was left in Orange Park as a tribute, and fans still lay flowers there, but the remains have been removed. For years, the location of Van Zant's reburial was a secret, but it eventually was revealed he now rests near other family members at Riverside Memorial Park in Jacksonville. This time, he's buried in a massive underground concrete vault, and would-be graverobbers have been warned, "To open the vault would require a tractor with a lift capability of several tons. It is also patrolled by security."

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Goofy Golf

Did you ever wonder just where and how the tradition began to make miniature golf courses double as Outsider Art sculpture gardens? No? Well, here's the answer anyway: it all started with Florida's Lee Koplin, who came from California to help make the Sunshine State a little kookier.

Miniature golf had been mildly popular in America since at least the 1920s, but it was Koplin who took the game one step beyond into the land of kitsch forevermore. It all started with a giant sphinx he'd dragged onto the course for decoration. He looked upon his works and saw that it was good. Next thing you know, he's got a giant monkey out there. And a dinosaur. And when someone offered him a giant imitation Easter Island head, how could he say no? Soon the decorations had become half the attraction. And something started happening that had rarely ever happened on a golf course, miniature or otherwise, before: people took pictures. And more pictures. And bought postcards with still more pictures. Koplin had, in his visceral and tacky style, found a way to make the world's most boring game interesting and the world was never the same again.

Before long, every other putt-putt and Tom Thumb golf place on Earth was emulating Koplin. Dinosaur Golf, Hillbilly Golf, Monster Golf, even Biblical Golf. Even courses like Pee Wee Golf in California, which Koplin and his brother had founded in 1948, reinvented itself with statues of ghosts and gorillas and sea monsters. In its heyday, Goofy Golf had many locations in many cities. Most are gone now, but their statues still turn up when you least expect - such as the big orange ex-Goofy Golf dinosaur who's now found employment outside a hippie smokeshop in Jacksonville or the Easter Island head that can today be seen at St. Pete Beach's Polynesian Putter.

Goofy Golf is still in the family - the original Panama City location is currently owned by Lee Koplin’s daughter Michelle. Find it at 12206 Front Beach Road, Panama City, FL. You can also scope it out on Google Maps here.

Skycraft UFO

Why does Skycraft Parts & Surplus in Winter Park have a green-glowing (yes, it lights up nicely at night) flying saucer out front and some big red rockets on the side? I suspect it's playing off the name "skycraft", and that the name itself came from the fact such a big part of the original business was related to amateur radio. Nowadays the store is all over the place in their range of hobbyist goods, with every type of hard-to-find gizmo for electronics enthusiasts you could imagine.

Randy Rhoads Crash Site

The infamous crash site where Ozzy Osbourne's guitarist Randy Rhoads lost his life is at Airway Road, Flying Baron Estates, Leesburg, FL. The house, which was almost totally ruined by the 1982 disaster, has since been restored.

Ozzy and the band had been on their way to Orlando to play a gig, but got sidelined in Leesburg, Florida, to have repairs done to the air conditioning unit on their tour bus. While Ozzy slept in the bus, Rhoads, the band's hairdresser/makeup artist Rachel Youngblood and the bus driver, Andrew Aycock, sneaked over to a private airport nearby.

They stole a small Beechcraft F35 plane and Aycock, a licensed pilot, flew several close erratic passes around the tour bus in an apparent prank to surprise those on it. One of the plane's wings accidently clipped the bus, breaking a wing off and sending the plane out of control. It crashed into the garage of the nearby mansion, bursting it into flames and killing all three on board on plane. (Ozzy himself ran into the house and rescued an elderly man inside, who was near deaf and had not even heard or noticed the impact of the plane.)

The bodies were burned beyond recognition, and Rhoads' remains were identified only by his jewelry. According to Sharon Osbourne in her autobiography, "They were all in bits, it was just body parts everywhere".

According to the toxicology report, Rhoads' remains showed no drugs or alcohol, but Aycock's tested positive for cocaine. The NTSB investigation determined that Aycock's biennial flight review, required for all pilots, was overdue. It was later learned that Aycock had been the pilot in another fatal crash, six years prior, in the United Arab Emirates. One wonders what might have been, had they never decided to stop in Leesburg to fix the air conditioner. But given Aycock's drug use, the odds are high that a road accident could have occurred, thus killing the entire band.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Rogue Waves

On March 11, 1861, a lighthouse on Ireland's Eagle Island was engulfed by an impossibly large ocean wave that came out of nowhere and was accompanied by no storm and no other turbulence. It broke 23 panes, washed some of the lamps down the stairs, and damaged the reflectors beyond repair. What makes this all the more shocking is that the lighthouse was on a cliff, and in order to have struck the top of the lighthouse, the wave would have had to have been at least 66 meters high.

May 5, 1916: the British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton was at the tiller of the James Caird in the Southern Ocean. To his horror, he became gradually aware that what he thought was a line of white clouds above a clear dark sky ahead was actually the crest of a single enormous wave moving towards him. There was no avoiding the giant wave, and it nearly capsized his boat when it struck. Shackleton reported it was unlike anything he'd ever seen in his lifetime of seafaring.

The British cruise ship Queen Mary was struck in 1942 by a wave 28 meters high 608 and nearly sank. The Queen Mary listed briefly at a 52-degree angle before slowly righting itself.

Everyone of a certain generation - namely, mine - knows all about the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald, immortalized in Gordon Lightfoot's famous sea chantey. It sank suddenly and unexpectedly during a storm on November 10, 1975, crossing Lake Superior. It went down without a distress signal and all 29 members of the crew perished. The final Coast Guard report blamed water entry to the hatches filling the hold, possibly from damage in hitting a shoal. But a part of the story not so commonly told is that there was another nearby ship in that same storm - the Arthur M. Anderson, and it was struck by two enormous freak waves at around the same time as the Edmund Fitzgerald's disappearance. Why didn't people put the obvious two and two together back then? Because at that time, science did not accept the idea of "rogue waves".

But on July 3, 1992, a 27-mile-long rogue wave pummelled the Volusia County beaches of Florida, so wide that it struck Ormond Beach and New Smyrna Beach at the same time. The wave's crest, which was 18 feet high, was centered at Daytona Beach, causing sailboats to crash ashore onto cars. At a loss to explain the why and the how of the solitary freak wave, scientists suggested an underwater landslide must have caused a tsunami. However, such a massive landslide should have registered a blip on seismic monitors - and it didn't. And the National Weather Service confirmed there couldn't have been anything weather-related about the incident. Though even news reports invoked the term "rogue wave" to describe it, so-called experts were still skeptical.

It wasn't until 1995 that a single inexplicable giant wave, known as the Draupner Wave, occured off the coast of Norway and was captured by monitoring instruments, finally confirming among the scientists what the rest of the world's sailors already knew: rogue waves are real.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Land O' Scissorhands

Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands was filmed on location in Land O' Lakes, Lutz, and Lakeland, Florida, and though most of the settings were artifically altered on a grand Hollywood-style scale (homes in the Carpenter's Run neighborhood were repainted and fitted with false facades to get the look Burton wanted) there's one location he didn't have to change a bit.

The Southgate Shopping Center had the perfect crazy off-kilter retro look Burton adores, and I was surprised to learn it really exists, and wasn't just something his team temporarily constructed for the film. It still stands today, if you want to go have your picture taken where Johnny Depp stood.

The giant gothic mansion where Edward lived, however, doesn't really exist and was assembled for shooting and then taken down. Which is a pity - if they'd left it standing, imagine the tourist attraction that could have been subsequently made of it.

Burton, who had never shot a movie in Florida before, got more than he bargained for. Sometimes the clouds of insects in the air made the film appear grainy and spoiled much footage that had to be reshot. And though the beautiful surreal sky of Florida was part of what made him choose it as a location, he hadn't reckoned with just how quickly Florida skies change. The sky can look completely different here at any given moment than it did just half an hour ago, and it made it difficult to preserve a sense of continuity in scenes. (Not that continuity and cohesiveness have ever been Burton's strong suit.)