I have mentioned before that I lived in Florida as a child, we moved there in 1951 and left in September, 1964. While those weren't exactly Pioneer Days, it was a long time ago. Florida in 1951 was a much different place than it is now. It was slower, poorer, simpler. That was certainly true in the small towns and even in the bigger cities to some extent.
There wasn't much industry except for citrus and cattle. Much of Florida had the winter snow birds that would come down for the "season", so there was some tourism but mainly in the winter. NASA was just getting started, but hadn't actually launched anything. Orlando was just a city on the small side as cities go and it really didn't have much going for it. Stuck there in the middle of the state, it had no beach access and no big draw, so it wasn't much of a town for tourism or growth.
Nevertheless, the whole state was peppered with "attractions", but if you mentioned Disney, people thought of cartoons; Busch meant beer; and no one had ever heard of Six Flags over anywhere.
There were small roadside attractions that promoted everything from "Alligator Farms" to "Drive on the Beach at Daytona!" and air boats in the Everglades. Some of the attractions were delightful others were just stupid. Of course, their purpose was always the same. Get people to stop and pay money to see the "the Live Prehistoric Creatures" (mostly alligators and iguanas), or "Pick Your Own Oranges", or "See Real Mermaids at Silver Springs". Some of those roadside stops were a family's total source of income. Many of them would actually sell you a living baby alligator that was about 18 in. long. Most of those poor creatures were ultimately dumped into lakes , rivers, and sewers from New York City to L.A.
Not all the attractions were fake, trumped up wannabees. There were several attractions that were truly worth the money and time and offered something worth seeing. Over the years there were three of that sort that I became quite familiar with and spent a lot of time at. They were unique, wonderful places. Sadly today, of the three, only one still exists, is still open and still worth the money and the time. The other two eventually, along with most of the others, closed due to the poor attendance and the increasing sophistication and education of the tourists. Basically they were overshadowed by Disney, Epcot, Busch Gardens, Sea World and the rest. Tourists wanted the thrills, and chills, and excitement of the newer "theme" parks, where you could spend your entire vacation(and most of your money) in one place. And they did, by the millions.
No wonder the smaller, less exciting attractions couldn't compete.
When I think of my favorite places in Florida, it isn't Disney, or Busch or Six Flags that comes to mind. My favorites are three you probably have never even heard of if you're under 50 years old! The thing that has always drawn me to these places is that they are eacg "Lovely to Look At."
The best known and largest of the three was Cypress Gardens just outside of Winter Haven. It was a beautifully landscaped and meticulously maintained garden with gorgeous and unusual flowers and plants that thrived in Florida's climate. The Gardens could be toured either by boat (through bayou type waterways) or by walking tours. They were known for the beautiful young women dressed in Antebellum hooped skirt dresses and big picture hats that would gladly pose for photographs. (If memory serves, several television and radio programs broadcast from the Gardens over the years....Arthur Godfrey was one, I think. -- Again, if you're under 50 you won't have any idea who that was!)
They also had one of the very first and arguably the best, water skiing shows in the country. Very impressive, again with beautiful young men and women who would perform tricks, and jumps, and pyramids, and patterns, while carrying flags and being pulled through the lake water right to the shore where they would let go of the ski rope and glide gracefully up the sandy beach. It was beautiful and fun to watch. Some of the performers were truly world class water skiers. (Anyone recognize the name Tibado??) The Gardens were justifiably famous all over the world and people came by the thousands to see them. It was only about 30 miles from Disney World. Sadly, it closed forever in 2009. http://www.cypressgardens.com/cghistory.php
The second place I love is the Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales Florida. Bok Tower is a gorgeous stone tower built by Edward Bok to house an enormous and beautiful carillon. There are carillon concerts every day that can be heard all over the grounds. Its a fascinating and beautiful place. Again there are wonderful gardens and walkways and places to sit to contemplate nature and life and and peace. It is the most peaceful place I have ever been. I am thrilled that it is still in existence and open to the public.
If you have never heard of it or been there, I can recommend it as a place that would shelter, comfort, and awe you. Here is their website, take a look! http://www.boktowergardens.org/