I was very fortunate to be a change-of-life child. My older brothers weathered lean financial years growing up, typical of young families. But by the time I came along (mom’s surprise at the age of 37!), the household I was born into was a comfortable middle-class situation with dual incomes. Ergo, we enjoyed a new car every other year, Saturday night dinners out, and a couple of amazing vacations.
In 1967, we went to the World’s Fair in Montreal. That will be a future remembrance in itself.
In 1968, after much Flipper-fed begging on my part, we drove to Florida.
That two weeks make for some of my most precious memories. And it’s a pleasure to dust a few of them off and share them with you.
One June morning, we piled into the Plymouth and headed for the Sunshine State. I was in eager expectation as we headed for something I’d never seen, but always dreamed about visiting: the ocean.
My first glance of the ocean was in Biloxi, MS. I made a beeline for the shallow Gulf surf and tasted a drop of water to make certain that it really was salty, a ritual I still find myself performing when visiting either coast.
Soon, we were heading straight east along the coast for Florida. The ocean was a constant companion along the right side, and I bugged dad to death wanting to stop and jump in.
But dad had other ideas. He drove across Florida’s panhandle in a beeline for the Atlantic. Eventually, we popped out of landlocked driving at St. Augustine.
Florida of those days had less ostentatious tourist attractions. Orlando was simply a sleepy, unremarkable little inland town known for its orange production. The destinations sought out by 1960’s Florida tourists were by and large historical, natural, or kitsch, sometimes a combination of the three.
History-wise, we spent a morning at Castillo de San Marcos, a fort built at St. Augustine by Spaniards eager to defend their territory from those blasted Brits. The 17th century fortress is no worse for wear today, unlike many other 1960’s coastal attractions.
Dad knew how to take a vacation. Take two weeks and do whatever. No hurries, stop and spend time at interesting places. Thus, we stayed a night or two at a series of small motels along Route 19.
One I recall with particular pleasure was in Daytona Beach. It faced a quiet backwater beach that allowed for some bodacious sand castle building. Low tide would also reveal a wealth of undisturbed shells. The lonely beach had few people walking up and down its stretch. The gentle water would wash up sea urchin shells intact, the eggshell-thin structures handled with care by the mighty ocean.
But mom wanted to see Miami Beach, so we moved on. We passed countless mom-and-pop alligator farms and parrot shows, most of them long gone. Once in a while we would stop, thus was I able to touch an endangered indigo snake, watch parrots ride little tricycles, and take home a genuine stuffed foot-long alligator. Once we arrived at Miami, we also visited the Seaquarium. I recall disappointment that the “real” Flipper (no doubt one of her stand-ins) didn’t chatter endlessly like on television.
Mom finally saw Miami Beach, and the future of Florida. It was all huge hotels, condos, and other developments. Unimpressed, we got back on the road.
Their hundreds of billboards worked their magic on us, and we made a stop at Cypress Gardens. The water skiing exhibitions were pretty cool, but the glass-bottomed boats were what really lit my fuse. To this day, I still spend a lot of my beach time snorkeling like the eight-year-old kid I was then, utterly fascinated by the underwater world.
That was the last two-week vacation we would take. Sadly, our family just got too busy with other things to enjoy more than a week or less at locations that needed to be arrived at quickly.
I still have a deep passion for all things Florida. I once took the kids to Disney World, but now that they are grown, have no desire to return. Instead, my wife and I share a love of the simpler Florida of the 60’s. Thus, our present-day vacations involve lots of beach time, quiet boat rides to see wildlife, and an occasional indulgence into a kitschy tourist trap (just as long as it looks like it’s been around since the 60’s).