For much of the twentieth century, Florida's warm sunshine and long sandy beaches have been associated with an exotic escape from the northern states' frigid winter weather. Though Florida vacations were once luxurious adventures for the wealthy, mass transporation soon opened the state to all. But it was not Florida's warm climate or accessibility that made the state one of the most popular vacation spots in the world. Walt Disney would combine the grand and luxurious image of the Florida vacation and create a comparable entertainment palace, the Magic Kingdom. As construction continued, the Walt Disney resort complex, Disneyworld, attracted visitors from all over the world, making the Florida vacation one of the most treasured winter escapes in the world.
While the heyday of vacations to the "Sunshine State" lies in the post World War II era, its foundation is set firmly in the nineteenth century. At a time when few individuals ventured more than one hundred miles south of the Florida-Georgia border, entrepreneur Henry Flager envisioned Florida as a winter vacation playground for wealthy northern tycoons. To access the southern portion of the state and its warm year round climate, Flager forged a railway through its dense natural vegetation to open the palatial Ponce de Leon hotel and introduce the wealthy winter weary to St. Augustine's pristine beaches in 1888. Visitors flocked to the hotel, inspiring Flager to continue expansion southward with his railway line and accompanying hotels. By 1894, the Royal Poinciana Hotel opened in Lake Worth near Palm Beach, accommodating 1,200 guests. As his railway stretched down the coast, with its terminus in Key West, Henry Flager succeeded in making the warmth of Florida a mere thirty-six hour train ride from the frozen north.
Spurred by cleverly designed advertisements in national magazines and northern newspapers featuring bathing beauties basking in sunshine during the dead of winter, vacationing to Florida continued to grow. Immediately following World War I the newly affordable mass-produced automobile opened the state to many average Americans who could not manage the considerable railway fare and rates of the posh established hotels. Funneled into Florida via the "Dixie Highway" network of roads, this new breed of tourist came complete with their own tents and food provisions. In an era before motels, "tin can tourist camps" sprang up around the state to assist in accommodating the budget-conscious travelers. However, the onset of Great Depression stifled the burgeoning middle-class tourist trade.
During World War II, Florida became a center for training military personnel, exposing an incredible number of servicemen to its attractive winter climate. With fond recollections of sunshine many returned to the state with young families in tow following the war's conclusion. Other concurrent factors assisted in Florida's ascendance as a tourist mecca in the 1950s and 1960s. First was an incredible period of national economic prosperity providing expendable cash for vacations. Also, the development of the interstate highway system reduced automobile travel time, permitting more relaxation time at the vacation destination. Finally, perhaps most important of all, the rise of affordable air conditioning opening the state to year-round tourism by making the humid summers comfortable.
The Gold Coast, stretching from Vero Beach south to Miami Beach along the Atlantic, became the destination of choice for vacationers. Its semi-tropical climate permitted Americans to visit the tropics without necessity of a passport or knowledge of another language. While southeast Florida may have been their ultimate destination, a multitude of tourist attractions popped up along the major traffic arteries. A few captured the natural beauty of Florida, most notably Silver Springs with its glass bottom boats. Others capitalized on "Florida living" activities such as the water skiing extravaganzas at Cypress Gardens or the underwater mermaids at Weeki Wachee. Gatorland and the famous "gator jumparoo show" became an instant hit with children. The tacky tourist emporiums did not stop once families reached the Gold Coast. In Miami there was Parrot Jungle, Monkey Jungle, the Miami Seaquarium, and perhaps most memorable of all, the Miami Serpentarium. Audiences thrilled to death defying Bill Haast milking venom from cobras and other poisonous snakes. With a drive south to the Keys children could even see the real "Flipper."
Though tacky tourist attractions proliferated, Florida, and especially Miami Beach, remained the ultimate prestige vacation to an entire generation. The Fontainbleau and Eden Roc were veritable land-locked luxury cruise ships rivaling the Queen Mary. James Bond stayed at the Fontainbleau in Goldfinger. Jackie Gleason touted Miami Beach as the fun and sun capitol of the world on the Honeymooners. And America watched as Lucy, Ricky, and the Mertzes took off to Miami Beach for a holiday in the sun on the television show I Love Lucy.
Florida vacationing reached a transition phase in the 1970s. The rise of the popularity of jet aircraft and decreased airfares led many vacationers to seek out new winter destinations. Bermuda, the Bahamas, or even Hawaii were now within the grasp of many. A series of racially-motivated riots at the decade's end tarnished the image of South Florida. Miami Beach no longer held the same mystique as it had during the 1950s and 1960s. But with the decline of fun in the sun vacation in the southern portion of the state, central Florida witnessed the birth of the greatest tourist attraction in Florida's history. The Magic Kingdom, the first phase in the Walt Disney World resort complex, opened its gates in 1971. The entertainment theme park building bonanza that ensued transformed Orlando into one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world and preserved Florida's long vacation heritage.
—Dr. Lori C. Walters
Flynn, Stephen J. Florida: Land of Fortune. Washington, Luce, 1962.
Tebeau, Charlton W. A History of Florida. Coral Gables, University of Miami Press, 1980.