Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My Travels - Florida

"I've been everywhere, man, I've been everywhere!" - Johnny Cash

Not literally - at least, not yet - but as of this writing, I've been to 42 US states, 2 US territories, 11 countries, 4 continents, 2 oceans, and 7 seas. I'm going to take you to some of the places I've been, in no particular order. Sometimes this will be a place I just was, and sometimes it's a place I haven't been to in a while.

Next up: Florida. (Big surprise, huh?)

“Florida knows how to handle hurricanes because it’s filled with Floridians.” - Governor Jeb Bush, 2004, after 5 hurricanes hit the state in rapid succession.

Florida. It sounds beautiful without you even having been there or known what it was named for, doesn’t it? But you know Florida is jam-packed with things to see and do, and that’s why I love it so much. I've been to almost every part of the state without the accompaniment of my truck.

When we were little, my dad took us down there to see my grandparents every year, and we usually went to one or two theme parks and deep-sea fishing and other stuff. Our total round trip was typically over 3000 miles over the course of 2 weeks. It was a lot of fun, the kind he now gets to share with his grandkids and other friends and family who come see him now and then.

It wasn’t until I moved to Florida in 2004 that I got to experience a hurricane, and then I got to experience THREE hurricanes in that first month, and even saw one come back for a second try. I've since been in a couple more, including the eye of a very slow-moving one; it was like a normal day inside!

I like Florida so much, I made scenarios in two different railroad games that feature the state. One is for a little game called “Rails”, based on the “Empire Builder” boardgame (I have a post in the forum dedicated to the game too), and the other was for Railroad Tycoon 2 Platinum, but I haven’t released it to the general public yet (I will eventually).

Everglades National Park: (Official link, Wiki, Other Site of Interest)
There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them... ” - Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Miss Marjorie, the world-renowned Grand Dame of the Everglades, is totally right. Nowhere else in the world is there anything like the Everglades. Nowhere else in the world do salt-water and fresh-water crocodiles mingle. Nowhere else is there a river a hundred miles wide, a hundred miles long, and only a couple inches deep. It’s unique, and it’s disappearing. Development consumed a considerable amount of the Everglades, but in 1947 the US government set aside most of what remained as a protected preserve. There’s still a considerable amount of it to see, and it’s not at all like a Louisiana swamp.

I went down there in August of 2006 with my dad as sort of a birthday present for him. There are plenty of places you can ride an airboat through the slough. A slough is a wide, shallow river which is chock full of reeds and weeds and other grasses and a few open spots of water. Our ride included a stop to a small island in the middle of the slough where Indians had made a hideout long ago. There was a guy was playing with a gator and a small, abandoned village.

We also drove along one of the alleys and encountered three gators sunning themselves on the road. It’s funny; as a truck driver, I see a lot of thrown treads on the road, and these are referred to as gators, so when we saw the first one, our minds dismissed it as nothing, until it ran off and jumped back into the swamp. The same thing happened to the second one; we just didn’t see it. But the third time, we saw it, and tried to creep up on it, but it must’ve been nervous, because it ran off well before we got close enough for a good picture.
Along the southwest edge you have a lot of little islands, and we arrived in time to take a boat tour of the coastal area. We got to see some dolphins — almost got close enough to touch them! — and learn a little bit about the ecology of that area and how it’s different from the rest of the ‘glades.

We spent the whole day there, taking a couple tours, the airboat ride, and the regular boat ride, and there were a few things we didn’t get to do, but it was interesting, peaceful, and we had a good day. Dad even got to buy his Federal Park Pass, which entitles him to enter any federal park for free! (Next stop: Yellowstone!)
 The Florida Keys and Key West: (Official Site, Wikipedia, Other Site of Interest)

“Helping others is like helping yourself.” - Henry Flagler

In 1912, a year before his death, Henry Flagler, Florida’s greatest railroad tycoon and already plenty rich from his Standard Oil days, completed the Overseas Railroad, which linked Key West, a city of 30,000, to the mainland by rail. Having already built a rail line all the way along the Atlantic coast, from Jacksonville to Miami, complete with some of the grandest hotels ever built, this linked Key West to the rest of the nation! Unfortunately, in 1935 a hurricane destroyed some of the bridges. Later, the US bought the remaining bridges and constructed what is now US1 using much of what Flagler had built. You can still see a few of the old rail bridges where they weren’t reused.

The trip to Key West is interesting. You’re island-hopping without an airplane or Douglas MacArthur, and you’re not going to meet the Imperial Japanese Navy anywhere along the way either. Many of the keys have some signs of civilization, or some parks you can park in. You can camp out about 30-50 miles east of Key West, or you can continue on and pay for an expensive motel room; your choice. If I recall correctly, you can camp out at Bahia Honda, which is about 30 miles from Key West.

In the city of Islamorada, on the north end of Upper Matecumbe Key, there is a seafood buffet restaurant called the Whale Harbor. I’ve been to a few such restaurants, including the good ones in Norfolk, Virginia, that I enjoyed visiting while stationed there, and this one was at least as good; it ought to be, considering where it is!

Key West itself is a quiet little historical tourist town, reminiscent of some quieter place, like Fowler, Indiana, but with coastline and everything that comes along with that. There is a LOT to see and do there; you could spend a whole week, I’m sure. We only spent 3 days.

There are a lot of interesting things about Key West. It was one of the richest cities in the whole country, thanks to the coral reef; the only living one in the whole continental United States. No, not because of tourism, but because ships ran aground on it frequently, and the wreckers would go out and rescue people and salvage their cargo for themselves. The southern-most point of the continental United States is also on the Key, there are glass-bottom boat tours of the coral reef, there’s a lighthouse you can go to the top of, and Hemingway used to live on the island. And that’s just the stuff I got to see in the one day I spent there!

Ft. Lauderdale: (Official Site, Wikipedia, Other Site of Interest)

My first visit here was in 1998 as part of the Air and Sea Show. Bataan sailed down to participate. During the show, we sat off the coast and watched the airplanes, and later we pulled in and gave tours of the ship. I would’ve expected we’d have helicopter or Harrier operations, but we didn’t. They won’t let people be on the flight deck during air operations, but it’s neat to see if you can. Those of us not on tour duty were allowed to go ashore and see the town. It’s not too much different from most of the other coastal Spring Break Vacation spots, like Daytona Beach and Panama City; there’s a strip with a ton of shops, and then there’s the rest of the city, which I didn’t get to see.

The next year, we came back and did it again! That time, several members of my family were able to come down and experience it with me, including going out into the ocean on our boat! An experience few civilians will ever forget.

Unfortunately, because it’s been so long since I’ve been there, I don’t remember a whole lot about the place. We went to a couple tourist spots, we went to the beach, and we just relaxed.
Kennedy Space Center (Official Site, Wikipedia, Other Site of Interest, Other Site of Interest)
“Be an optimist — at least, until they start moving animals in pairs to Cape Canaveral.” - Unknown

I’ve been a space-junkie pretty much all my life. There is no planetarium I won’t go to if I can, nor any space center. I know all the names of all the shuttles and I used to know all the important statistics about them. I used to know several of the astronauts’ names, I have met the parents of one of them, and I would probably faint if I ever met Buzz Aldrin. I used to draw the space shuttle often, and had several space shuttle toys and models. I've even got a whole series of articles on this site devoted to space. So going to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is a big thrill for me every time I go.

They built it in a swamp in order to create a national nature preserve around the area, and they have some rare and endangered birds that live there.

You can get tours of the place, even to the launch pads (as long as there’s nothing on the pad) and they have several pads there. On their 50-some pads, they launch “normal” rockets, plus they also launch the Space Shuttles from two of the pads there. A few years back, they built a landing runway to save on costs associated with transporting the shuttle back from Edwards Air Force Base. The crawlers they use to move the shuttles from the Assembly Building to the launch pads are enormous!

If you go on a day when there’s a launch, you’ll be in for a crowd, but you’ll also be in for a treat. A rocket launch, and especially a shuttle launch, is a sight to see! There are only a few more shuttle launches scheduled, and then the program is going to be decommissioned while they build the next generation of launch vehicles, so if you want to see one, you’d better plan for it right now and get down there.

There are several tours you can take while you’re there, and it feels only a little like an amusement park. The tour that I’ve been on takes you to a close observation post about a mile or so from the launch pads, and one time, we got to get there about half an hour after the crawler had passed by (they delayed the tours until it got past), and it was carrying a space shuttle! So I’ve gotten pretty close to the Atlantis, within about half a mile of it, and watched over the next hour or so as they took it up to the pad and started securing it to the launch tower.
Orlando area: (Official Site, Wikipedia, Other Site of Interest)
It wouldn’t be hard to spend a whole month in the vicinity of Orlando and not do the same thing twice — except resting after several days of activity. There are a ton of major and minor amusement parks, the dinner-show has really taken off and there are about a dozen different ones here, and there are plenty of trinket shops too!

A few of the major theme parks:

Disney World-
             Magic Kingdom
             Epcot Center
             Animal Kingdom
             Hollywood Studios
             Typhoon Lagoon
             Blizzard Beach
Universal Studios-
             Universal Studios
             Islands of Adventure
             Wet ‘n’ Wild
Sea World
Busch Gardens

A few of the Dinner Shows (I haven’t been to them all yet, and they come and go)-
             Arabian Nights
             Pirate Dinner Adventure
             Medieval Times
             Wonder Works Magic
             Sleuths Mystery
             Al Capone’s
             Polynesian Luau
             Outta Control

My first experience with a Dinner Theater was in Spain, of all places. We pulled into Tarragona, which isn’t very far from Barcelona, and one of the tours was a trip to Madrid to go to a Medieval Nights show. Very interesting! There were people from all over the world there, not just us, and they were kind enough to do most of the show in English for us, since we made up the majority of the audience. Then we got to experience some Spanish dancing afterward, which is a show all in itself. Since then, I’ve been to a few others, but they don’t seem to have the after-show like they did in Madrid. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting experience!

Even if you don’t enjoy expensive theme parks, there’s still plenty of things to see and do in Orlando. There’s golf, there’s several sports teams, there’s a butt-ton of shopping, and there’s a Mongolian barbeque! There’s plenty of seafood and other good restaurants too. There’s also plenty of condos and hotels in the area.

I could go on and on about Florida, but I think I've told you quite enough to get your interest. I may in the future devote one of these articles to a particular place; the Everglades practically begs for it! So until next time, enjoy your summer!

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