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Flyin' to Florida


Original Article and Photographs by Kenneth A. Larson © 2008 - 2017

Day One - Getting There is Half the Fun

Six months earlier, we almost missed our flight to meet our cruise, this time I allowed plenty of time. We needed it - sort of. It was Christmas day and everyone was where they were going, but the parking lot at the Van Nuys Flyaway was full. We were on the waiting list behind seven others waiting to park and while the parking attendants did their best to get us in, it was an hour and a half before enough arriving passengers had left the lot to allow us in. A month earlier, I had lost my indoor glasses while at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and a week later the park service mailed them back to me. Today I arrived at the Flyaway and discoveredI had lost my sun glasses - hopefully somewhere at home. We had over an hour to spare when we finally sat down in the waiting area of Los Angeles International. The Theme Building was still covered with scaffolding, as it had been six months earlier, for a much needed face lift. About time to board the aircraft, we were informed that there would be an hour delay while mechanics replaced a valve, so we waited. After about two hours, they switched to another aircraft at another terminal - ten minutes away. Finally about two and half hours late, we lifted off into the wild blue yonder, siting in row 13.
We were flying to Florida for the first time. Since my vacation time and my wife's vacation time don't usually line up, we took advantage of our short time off together. We celebrated Christmas with the family the night before and had no other obligations this year.
Our Airbus A320 flew us out over Los Angeles, Salton Sea, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. I've seen most of this from the ground, but the weathered terrain of this arid land was even more apparent and just as beautiful from this vantage point. It was getting dark as we crossed over the Gulf of Mexico and after another hour, I watched the west coast of Florida slowly approach. Orlando seemed much bigger than I expected and we finally set down on the runway about 7:30 pm local time.
We retrieved our checked bag and waited for the shuttle to the rental car office. We watched several vans from other companies pick up passengers while we awaited for ours. Finally it came - and drove on by without stopping. A large number of passengers were waiting when the next approached and I stood in the middle of the drive to flag him down. Finally we were in our rental car and everything was arranged for my driving convenience, I turned the key in the ignition, and nothing happened. Fifteen minutes later we were driving away in another car. I followed the directions to the highway that were given to me and got lost. Finally, two hours after the wheels of the airplane touched down, we were heading in the right direction, north on US27. I had expected to be at this point by about 6:00, but it was now 9:30.
I knew that I couldn't drive all the way to Tallahassee tonight so we planned to spend the night in Ocala, about 90 miles away. Although it was night, I was surprised to find almost the entire route illuminated by commercial development as we drove on through the late Christmas night. We were hungry, but little was open. Our Christmas dinner was one rolled taco each from 7-Eleven. Three and a half hours later, about 1:00 AM, we finally arrived at our hotel. The desk staff was very nice, as they trained a new desk clerk. Finally, about 2:00 AM, we drifted off to sleep.

Day Two - Back Roads

We slept late, 8 AM local time. By about 10 am we had enjoyed our continental breakfast and checked out, continuing northwest along US 27. We could have taken I-75 and traveled faster, but Iwould have missed the real Florida at a slow enough speed to see it.
We followed US 27 as we crossed from Marion County to Levy County. There were a few points of interest along the way, but we were behind schedule so we kept moving. The first photograph I shot in Florida was of an old railroad station shot from the car while stopped at a red light. We drove through Gilchrist County about five minutes before we crossed into Dixie County on a bridge over the famous Suwannee River. Suwannee River is the state song. I tried to take a photo, but couldn't find a place to pull off the road. I stopped a minute to photograph a three-legged water tower near Cross City and what I assume is a fire lookout tower. All the old growth timber is long gone, but we passed a number of tree farms growing wood mostly for pulp. My wife found the tall sparsely branched trees interesting, I noticed the log trucks, some with and some without cargo. I noticed some cars ahead slowing for a small dog which, as I got closer, I realized was a grey colored fox of some type. Aside from a few birds and squirrels, this was the only wildlife I observed on this trip.
Not long after entering Taylor County I noticed a new looking but battered motel along side theroad. I had noticed the occasional sign designating US 27 as an Evacuation Route and I wondered if this motel had been a victim of a hurricane and thought of the people who might have used this evacuation route. We pulled off the road a minute to check out Forest Capital State Museum, open 9-5, but closed Tuesday and Wednesday - this was Wednesday. So we continued on. Our rental can came with a GPS system which we tried to make use of. Every time I took a side road or stopped to take a photo, this little box ordered me to, "Proceed to the high-lighted route." I'm good with reading maps, but a few times this little device helped us find places not shown on the maps that we had brought. Still I laughed every time it said, "U-turn ahead," or "Proceed to the high-lighted route," or just gave up altogether as I followed my own route. The drive through a corner of Madison County took only a few minutes before we entered Jefferson County for about 20 miles. Finally we entered Leon County where we would stay for the next 26 hours.
Eventually we found our first destination at the end of our second day. Mission San Luis de Apalachee is open until 4:00 and it was about 2:30 when we arrived. Somehow we managed to stay over two wonderful hours exploring this archaeological and educational site. Mission San Luis was the Western Capital of Spanish Florida and home to the most powerful Apalachee chief. This is the only restored Spanish Mission of what was once over 100 missions in Florida and even more along the southern Atlantic coast of what today is Virginia to Georgia. Most were destroyed by British troops invading from the north, but San Luis was burned by its own residents two days before the British arrived in 1704.
The State bought the site from the Messer family in 1983 and immediately began archaeological work, and reconstruction shortly thereafter. The Messer house is now the Visitor Center and Museum. The first thing that was obvious to us, was that the construction and layout of this Eastern mission was nothing like the ones we are so familiar with in the west. See the web site, US Mission Trail for more about other missions. As we walked the path, we first came to the Friary, a wooden structure. Next was the wooden church which has the only known baptismal font of the eastern missions. We continued to the site of the Chief's house which is the next building scheduled to be recreated, and then the impressive Counsel House. The Counsel House is a truncated cone 125 feet in diameter at the base and five stories high with a 40 foot diameter hole in the top. The perimeter base is open a little and with a large fire burning in the center, the draft of raising hot air blew out any rain that tried to enter through that large opening in the top. It took the Apalachee 455 people working in shifts four months to build the original and one and half years for the state to rebuild it with thatch experts brought in from another country. Next came a typical home of a Spanish resident, then we went on to the Stockade or fort a few hundred feet off the plaza.Coming from Southern California, I was fascinated by the Spanish Moss hanging off of everything. I would have thought this relative of the pineapple was placed there for looks, but it's everywhere, on every tree and bush. Living history people explained everything and as we left, we told some of the staff how much we enjoyed the visit and how special it was for us to see the only restored Spanish Mission on east coast. My wife and I have visited all of the missions sites available to the public in California and it was such a contrast to see this one in Florida. While the mission of the mission wasthe same, the physical and social structures were very different.
We enjoyed a delicious dinner at Maccaroni Grill, checked into our motel, and settled in.

Day Three - Politics and Mastodons

We awoke early, enjoyed the continental breakfast, and checked out. Our first stop wasn't far, Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological Site. We were a bit confused at first. We parked and climbed the first mound and saw nothing else. So we returned to the car and saw an interpretive trail with no other information provided. The trail wasn't long, but we didn't know that when we started out and thought maybe the other mounds were along this trail. It was a nice trail through ferns and gum trees and fungus covered logs. My wife returned to the car and I walked to the back of the first mound to get a photo of the other side. This is when I noticed another mound beyond and climbed it also. There really isn't much to see, but the signs on the second mound explained it all better. These mounds were made using simple tools and a dwelling was placed on top. The reason for this wasn't clear as there is natural high ground close by. There was also a sheltered area with benches and more interpretive material, probably for school groups.
From here I dropped my wife off at a store for a few minutes as I returned to the Mission. The day before was cloudy and we arrived late. Today it was a little better and I wanted a few photos with a blue sky, or blue and grey. The clouds drifted by all day and it was cloudy again before I finished my reshoots. I picked up my wife and we headed for the New State Capitol Building, a 22 story tower immediately west of the Old State Capitol. We had seen the Alaska State Capitol only seven months earlier and now we were seeing the one furthest away. When Florida built this 22 story steel and glass box and turned the old capitol into a museum, it joined Alaska as one of the few states with a capitol without a dome. We toured the second floor, then visited the Legislative and Senate chambers on the fourth and fifth floors. These were larger and more modern than the counterparts in the Old Capitol, needed to accomodate the boom of the last few decades. The 22nd floor is the observation deck affording a very impressive view of the surrounding horizons.
The Governor was out, so we exited the other side and walked across a small plaza to the Old Capitol Building which is now a museum. The Old Capitol had grown over the years until it was deemed too small and the new Capitol was built around it. To provide proper fire safety clearance,all of the additions made after 1902 were removed and the building restored to the way it looked at the turn of the last century. It was filled with many exhibits, including one on the controversial 2000 presidential election with Florida's famous "hanging chads." As we left, we observed a local newscaster being taped with the Old Capitol as a backdrop. I guess the new capitol doesn't look enough like a real capitol.
It was about half way back to the car when we stopped to visit The Mary Brogan Museum of Art & Science. This is a wonderful hands-on museum directed mostly at children, but had an unusual photographic exhibit on the third floor. The woman at the front desk told us of a plantation open for tours that she is also involved with so we added this to our list for today.
It was only a block to the Museum of Florida History. This eclectic collection of exhibits starts with prehistoric animals and works its way through recovered ship wreck treasure, old cars, a stylized model steam boat, and artifacts from Indian, Spanish, and American cultures. I was particularly interested in the Mastodon because of my involvement with the George C. Page Museum of La BreaDiscoveries in Los Angeles where we have our own Mastodons.
Mastodon found in Florida.
It was only a few miles to the Governor's Mansion. Unfortunately, the Governor was too busy to meet with me, so I parked in the parking lot provided for visitors and walked along the front fence and took a few photos, waved, and moved on.
It was only about ten more minutes to reach the Goodwood Museum and Gardens. At first, I had my doubts as the place looked worn down, but was delighted to learn that this is a new project and still in the early stages of restoration. The last resident died in 1990 leaving the property to the foundation that now runs it. There were two years of legal matters followed by six years of fund raising and two years of restoration. The museum opened in 2000 and restoration continues with a restored carriage house under construction for use as meeting area. The woman from the Brogan Museum who sent us here was working here for the afternoon and gave us a wonderful and informative tour of a portion of the grounds and then the main house. The 8,000 square foot house had five bedrooms upstairs and several bathrooms. The house was designed for the southern climate to provide cross ventilation and venting of hot air out the cupola. There are two matching sitting rooms on opposite sides of the house, the north for summer and the south for winter. There was a two room kitchen, one for cooking and one for washing with a breeze-way between. The furnishings are mostly original, the interior finishing (wall paper, carpets, and paint) have been reproduced as closely as possible to the original, and there are beautifully restored painted ceilings. This stop was not on our original itinerary, but we were very glade that we had time to add it. The plantation is at 1600 Miccosukee Road in Tallahassee.
It was now time to head east to Jacksonville. Everyone had told us it would take two hours which was good news because I had estimated three hours. Three hours later, we arrived in Jacksonville. This section of I-10 had a rest stop about every 30 miles and I stopped at most of them to walk around a little to stay awake, but finally we arrived. We enjoyed a nice country style dinner and went to bed.

Day Four - The Oldest City in America

We got up early and were on our way by 8:30, traveling south on Interstate 95 about 45 minutes until we arrived at Saint Augustine, the oldest city in America. There are a number of places to park, we just followed the signs to the first one and paid $7.00 for the day. The parking structure opened directly to the Visitor Center where we got our bearings and headed north to the Fountain of Youth - which I needed. Before the days of Disney and the entertainment giant that Orlando has become, Florida was still a popular tourist destination with old entertainments like The Fountain of Youth, The Alligator Farm, and Cypress Gardens.
The Fountain of Youth is a little silly, a little educational, a little contrived, and a little historic. There is a giant globe explaining early Spanish voyages of exploration using black-light and a planetarium to demonstrate astronavigation. The actual Fountain of Youth is still there, but because the water table has fallen, it's no longer bubbling to the surface but is deep below. We were all given a cup of this water and a guide explained the whole story of the fountain. Other exhibits discussed other historic facts and there were artifacts, statues, and even an ostrich to offset the many peacocks. It was fun and I did feel a few minutes younger as we left.
Just a block or two away is Nombre de Dios, the first Spanish mission in what is now the United States, founded in 1565. Mission San Luis, which we saw two days earlier, is the only restored eastern mission, since Nombre de Dios isn't really restored. There is Our Lady of La Leche Shrine, the cemetery, and various other shrines, monuments, plaques, and statues. There is a modern church, gift shop, and a 208 foot tall stainless steel cross that was dedicated in honor of the 400th anniversary of the mission's founding. We wandered for an hour or so and returned to the Visitor Center. I was shocked to see that we had so easily spent four hours in these two stops.
We next crossed San Marco Boulevard to see one of the most popular sights of Saint Augustine, the impressive Castillo de San Marcos, a real genuine fort like those in a pirate movie. We paid our fee, crossed the bridge, and entered through the gate to the fort. There were people everywhere and it was hard to photograph. We began exploring the many rooms within the thick walls made of Coquina which is both strong and soft. This sedimentary rock material was porous and the hollow spacesmade an excellent shock absorber when struck by cannon fire. Suddenly I noticed that there were fewer people walking through my photos. I quickly realized everyone had gone up on top to see an artillery demonstration that we caught only the end of. Still, I got some good photos. We then explored the top now that most of the people had cleared out after the artillery demonstration, studied the various types of heavy artillery on display, and moved out to explore the outside.
From here we found the oldest wood school house and walked down the main drag, Saint George Street, a quaint narrow pedestrian space lined with all sorts of shops, food establishments, small museums, and filled with more people. It wasn't too many blocks to the Lightner Museum, an eclectic collection of glassware, stain glass windows, buttons, furniture, and much more, mostly dating from about Victorian times. The front is three stories and the back includes a large Ball Room around the open ceiling to the giant indoor pool below, once the largest in the world. The pool is now an antique mall and cafeacute;. Our feet were aching and we headed back to our car.
We had one last stop before leaving Saint Augustine, and that was the 165 foot tall Saint Augustine Light House and Museum across Matanzas Bay on Anastasia Island. Before we could do that, we had to wait for the draw bridge, or more correctly, a lift bridge, the Bridge of Lions. This took only about five minutes and we found the lighthouse in short order. Our feet were still sore and my wife stayed behind, but I climbed the 219 steps to the top and watched a sunset over a power plant 27 miles away. Joy had stayed below and already toured the Museum, so I gave it a quick walk through and we were off. The big mistake we made with Saint Augustine was to have stayed in Jacksonville the night before. Not being familiar with the area, I didn't realize that it would have taken only about an extra half hour to have driven to Saint Augustine the night before. Had we done this, we could have walked the streets before most of the tourist arrived. There were many sights, small museums, and historic buildings we didn't have time for. We missed the Alligator Farm and Marineland and easily could have spent two days here.
It took about two hours to reach Cocoa Beach. We found our motel, checked in, and settled in for tomorrow's big day.

Day Five - Maybe This Is Rocket Science

We awoke before the wake-up call, filled with excitement and anticipation for today's outing, the Kennedy Space Center. Whereas Tony Nelson on I Dream of Ginnie, could reach NASA in five minutes when summoned, it took us about 20 minutes to reach the Visitor Center. We retrieved our tickets from Will Call and entered this space theme park where the theme is the very real history,present, and future of rocket powered space exploration. We had a few minutes before our first tour, so we wandered the Rocket Garden, a collection of over a dozen real, but unused, rockets standing tall in the morning light and a Saturn V lying on its side because the thing was just too tall to stand it up. There were also pieces of gantries, space capsules, engines, and other rocket related hardware. It was now time to rush off to our tour.
There are three tours offered. One comes with the general admission, the Cape Canaveral Then and Now tour focuses heavily on the history all the way back to the beginning of the Space Center, the NASA Up-Close tour focuses more on the Shuttle and Space Station and allows the closest views of Pads 39A and 39B from which the Shuttles are launched. We chose the Up-Close Tour because the Shuttle is scheduled for retirement soon and the Space Station will all be in orbit about the same time, so we can't do this tour if we come back in five years.
We almost missed the tour because we had trouble finding the right line, but the people were very efficient and spotted the orange stickers we wore and directed us to the right place just in time. We boarded the bus and headed onto the base. We first stopped at the public viewing bleachers. These face the launch pads and although still several miles away from the launch pads, they are as close as NASA deems safe. From here, we could see both of the pads used for the shuttle and several others for Titans, Deltas, Atlas, and more. We were next taken to a small hill off the beach where automated cameras record all the launches. This is between the two Shuttle pads and allowed good views of the pads, in this case, including Shuttle Atlantis. Actually, we saw the External Tank (ET) and Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB), the Orbiter was on the other side. The orbiter is what people think of as the shuttle, but NASA considers the Full Stack (ET, SRBs, and Orbiter) to be the Shuttle. We next stopped where we got a good look at the massive Vehicle Assembly Building. This was built for the Saturn V Apollo Moon rocket and is the world's tallest one-story building. It's divided into four areas, each with it's own large door, one for each Shuttle, although there are now only three Shuttles left. We drove to a spot about midway of the landing strip where the Shuttle lands and finally back to the Apollo/Saturn V Center with several Moon landing exhibits. Along the way we saw the huge crawlers that move the Shuttles to the pads along special crushed gravel roads, various support buildings and equipment, and some of the wildlife preserve that surrounds the SpaceCenter.
The tour dropped us off at the Apollo/Saturn V Center where a Saturn V rocket is suspended from the ceiling. Other exhibits in this building include a dramatic recreation of a Saturn V launch from the real Apollo Mission Control including rattling windows, a re-enactment of the Moon landing, rover driving, and some smaller exhibits.
We were now on the general tour with one more stop, The International Space Station Center. Here we saw and walked through mock-ups of Space Station modules and, behind glass, saw real modules being prepared for launch.
The bus returned us to the Visitor Center where we walked through a mock-up of the Space Shuttle and observed the memorial to Astronauts who have died, experienced the Shuttle Launch Experience which is a simulation of the vibrations of launch, and watched an IMAX film. I visited the Rocket Garden one last time for some sunset photos while my wife checked out a gift shop. We skipped a few exhibits designed mostly for children, since I'm trying to grow up. These included Mad Missionto Mars and Children's Play Dome. There were several other exhibits we didn't have time for such as Astronaut Encounter and Lunch with an Astronaut where you meet a real Astronaut, and several other buildings. Your ticket does include two days within seven days of first use, but we were mostly finished and had plans for tomorrow.
We returned to the car and drove to the last stop, the Astronauts Hall of Fame, about six miles east. My wife had been disappointed with the Shuttle Launch Experience but found what she wanted at the Astronaut Hall of Fame. One simulator locked one person in each of two compartments and spun it while showing a fly-by film inside. Another was a multi-passenger simulator of a fly-by and drive-over Mars Explorer. Other exhibits were more space hardware, Astronaut space suits and uniforms, tribute to Astronauts, and similar exhibits. Update: a year later, we visited Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
We returned to the motel, enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the adjacent Durango Stakehouse, and drifted off to a much needed sleep.

Day Six - The Journey Home

We got up at 5:00 so we could be ready before sunrise. I had notice that our motel was only a few hundred feet from the beach and we thought we should at least see it before we left. We tried to walk the pier, but there was a fee to fish which we weren't doing. After a while, my wife went to breakfast and I waited for the sunrise which wasn't as nice as I was hoping for. We ate breakfast and attended Mass at Our Savior Church across the street from the motel. We then finished packing, checked out and drove to Orlando. We never did find Tony Nelson's house (but then I did see it once in a studio in Burbank).
We arrived at Universal Studios about 11:30, four hours before we had to leave. Unfortunately, we spent an hour and a half in line to buy our tickets. Then when we finally got to the window, the man tried to get us to get a 2-day park hopper pass and we kept saying, "We're leaving in three hours, we just want tickets." Then since we were on limited time, he tried to sell us an Express Pass for $50.00 each which would have saved time waiting in line, but our time was so limited, we would have only gotten in one extra attraction since we only waited in line about 30 minutes once inside. There was a frustrating delay entering for reasons we couldn't understand - problems with the finger printreaders. Finally we were inside and I began photographing the park that I had a small part in designing 20 years earlier.
My wife had been wanting to see Shrek 4D for some time so we saw that. We enjoyed that, but my wife freaked out when the spiders popped out. We next continued around, I found the stages just outside the tour area that I once built an architectural model of, then on past the Twister attraction, a large 3-D mural of the New York, skyline, and up the back side. We didn't have time for a number of attractions but the line for the Jaws ride was short enough so we did that. It was a short boat ride involving several shark attacks, sinking boats, exploding oil barrels, water splashing, and all the excitement you would expect from Jaws.
We continued around and wanted to see Men in Black, but the wait was estimated at 60 minutes and we had to leave in an hour. We continued and walked through the Woody Woodpecker Fun Zone which is made for small kids. My wife is a big kid and likes seeing this type of thing even if she's too big to play. There was Barny, Fival, Curious George, and other play areas. My wife loved the ET ride at the California park, but it's gone now and she wanted to see it here in Florida. The estimated wait was 40 minutes, but we now had to leave in 40 minutes, so we skipped it too. We continued past Mel's Diner which was doing a roller skate show and found the A Tribute to Lucy which my wife enjoyed and didn't take too long. We wandered a bit more and headed out. We had just enough time to take the long way out past the entrance to Islands of Adventure, an entire second park which seems to have more action attractions, although there is plenty in the first park. We hurried back to the car, then the airport.
We needed to return the rental car with a full tank and got a memorable send off by a woman upset that I didn't have any money and couldn't give her a ride. The rest of the trip to the airport was as expected, shoes off for the x-ray and all. The flight had only a 15 minute delay but was over booked and they were looking for volunteers to take a later flight. If we had known before leaving Universal, we might have volunteered, but I wasn't feeling well and we were anxious to get home. There was some turbulence on the flight home in the darkness passing over lighted cities I could only guess at the identity of.
When we returned home, my oldest cat met us at the door, my wife's cat followed a few secondslater, the youngest took till the following afternoon, and the shy one was still shy. I fond my lost sunglasses in a corner of the back seat of the car, but broke them that afternoon. And we discovered that our refrigerator failed while we were gone. We are looking forward to our return to Florida in about five years when we hope to see some of what we missed in the north and the south which we skipped completely. Then there is Walt Disney World, but that's a trip by itself.

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This page last updated: Friday, 28-Apr-2017 12:54:17 EDT

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