Posted by: Alamanda Gribbin, Political Officer
In 2011, approximately 86 million tourists visited Florida, making it one of the world’s top vacation destinations and third among U.S. states (hosting over 20% of all visitors to the United States). What attracts all these visitors to the Sunshine State? Much like the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, who in 1513 discovered Florida while searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth, visitors are attracted to Florida’s natural beauty and mild climate. While many visitors may know that Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando is the most popular theme park in the world and that with 1350 miles (2170km) of beaches Florida has the longest coastline of any state in the contiguous United States (only Alaska’s is longer), few are aware of the many other distinctive features that make Florida unique.
Florida is home to the oldest permanent European settlement in North America (outside of Mexico), St. Augustine, founded by Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in 1565, forty-two years before the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Florida is also home to the “sports fishing capital of the world (Islamorada),” the “dive capital of the world (Key Largo),” the “lightning capital of the world (Clearwater),” the “cigar capital of the world (Ybor City),” the “psychic capital of the world (Cassadaga)” and the “shark tooth capital of the world (Venice).” Gatorade, refrigerators, and sun tan lotion were also developed in Florida. In addition, who can think of Florida without conjuring up images of our prized oranges? Juice from oranges is Florida’s number one cash crop and Florida produces approximately 75% of all U.S. oranges and provides 40% of the world’s supply.
Florida also played a pivotal role in the development of the United States’ space industry. The first American to orbit the moon (1962), the first U.S. manned space flight (1965), and the first moon landing (1969) all launched from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC). In addition, between 1981 and 2011, 135 space shuttle missions launched from KSC. As someone lucky enough to have witnessed several space shuttle launches, there are few moments as awe inspiring as watching a space shuttle ascend into the sky while the ground shakes beneath your feet.
“River of Grass” is the name given to one of the United States’ most unique and treasured eco-systems, the Florida Everglades. The Everglades is the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States. It consists of 1.5 million acres of saw grass marshes, mangrove forests, and hardwood hammocks dominated by wetlands and is home to many rare and endangered species. If you are looking for a “real Florida adventure,” nothing tops an airboat tour of the Everglades. Just be sure to keep your eyes open for a glimpse of Florida’s exotic wildlife including the Great Blue Heron, Florida panthers, manatees or alligators. If you happen upon one of Florida’s 50 species of snakes, use caution and remember this handy rhyme in identifying the lethal coral snake, “Red touches yellow, dangerous fellow. Red touches black, friend to Jack.”
Tourists and adventure seekers are not the only ones attracted by Florida’s natural beauty and unique atmosphere. Nobel Prize winning authors Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Ernest Hemingway both called Florida home. Those interested can still tour Hemingway’s original house and see the notorious pool with the penny and Hemingway’s personal typewriter. In addition, visitors can also catch a glimpse of the famous “Hemingway six-toed cats” which populate the grounds. Many of these are direct descendants of Hemingway’s original cat. Die-hard Hemingway fans can also visit Sloppy Joe’s Bar on Duval Street in Key West– one of Hemingway’s favorite hangouts. Each July the bar holds the annual Papa Hemingway Look-A-Like contest, drawing bearded contestants from around the world.
(Editor’s note: For another exotic opportunity in Florida, visitors in winter can try snorkeling with manatees in Crystal River, north of Tampa. It’s fascinating to swim with these surprisingly graceful creatures up close. It’s also very cold.)