For Florida's ultimate tourist experience, turn right on I-4
By Jay Cridlin
Published June 22, 2007
Forget the untouched canvas of Alligator Alley, or the rustic panorama of the Tamiami Trail.
If you're looking for a road that defines modern Florida, it's gotta be Interstate 4.
A 130-mile crescent that bisects Florida like a sweaty asphalt scar, I-4 is one of those candylands of consumerism that makes road-trip purists cringe: a bright, blaring highway, bereft of natural beauty, riddled with billboards, traffic cones and tourist traps.
You may hate it. I think it's fantastic.
I-4 represents the ultimate trek for the tourist in all of us. Who out there hasn't snapped at least one photo of a roadside attraction while driving on I-4?
One day last week, photographer Luis Santana and I set out to cruise the entire length of I-4, from Tampa to Daytona Beach, visiting as many interstate-adjacent attractions as possible. Our goal: to embrace the road from a tourist's point of view.
Some would call us lunatics. Some would say we're mad. Others would insist we need to get a life.
In the end, these people would be proved absolutely, positively, 100 percent correct. Here is the story of our trip across I-4.
* * *
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Tampa
I walk into the Hard Rock at the dawn of our journey, intending to gamble. The way I see it, no morning that starts in a casino can ever end in disappointment. Right?
I pump $5 into a machine called "Lobstermania" and hit "play all." Nothing happens, but it seems my money is gone. Come again? What just happened? Did I lose already?
This is going to be a long day.
Dinosaur World, Plant City
Located just off I-4, Dinosaur World is a shrine to the Plaster Age, a time when great fiberglass dinosaurs ruled the earth. Inside, we find carbon likenesses of superstar dinos like stegosaurus and tricerotops; lesser, B-list reptiles like the iguanodon; and some that just sound completely made-up, like the "stygimoloch" and the "minmi."
We also learn how the dinosaurs evolved: They were carved from Styrofoam blocks, then covered in fiberglass, putty and paint. I very much wish Stephen Jay Gould were alive to refute this theory.
Dinosaur World also has a Pringles machine, which is nice.
Florida Air Museum, Lakeland
This is a giant hangar filled with famous planes like the 1967 Woody Pusher and the Bensen B-8 Gyro-Copter. It is worth the $8 suggested donation to learn those two plane names alone.
Fantasy of Flight, Polk City
We further reflect on mankind's taming of the skies at Fantasy of Flight, which begins with a walk through a lengthy and realistic mock World War II combat zone. You do get to walk through a B-17 bomber, which is sort of fun.
Dozens of aircraft, watercraft and roadcraft are displayed in and around the museum's hangar, which I suppose illustrates the overarching lesson of both the Florida Air Museum and Fantasy of Flight: Man really likes his airplanes. And, to a lesser extent, his jalopies.
Water Ski Hall of Fame and Museum, Polk City
In the English language, there is no combination of words more enticing than "Water Ski Museum, " so we make a quick stop at the Water Ski Hall of Fame, near Fantasy of Flight.
We sign the guestbook; the museum is trying to obtain 17, 000 signatures so it can request a sign to attract I-4 drivers. "Since we moved here from Cypress Gardens, no one knows where we're at, " says the receptionist, who clearly was not expecting any visitors today.
The highlight of the Water Ski Museum is a Wall of Fame dedicated to all your favorite legends of water skiing: Skip Gilkerson! H. Stewart McDonald! Jean Jacques Finsterwald! Wayne H. Grimditch!
Bring the kids.
Orange World, Kissimmee
Orange World, a dome-shaped gift shop in Kissimmee's Old Town, is billed as the World's Largest Orange, though a more accurate description might be World's Largest Half-Orange, or World's Largest Thing That Sort Of Looks More Like A Pumpkin Than An Orange. Inside the gift shop, we see surprisingly few oranges.
Shell World, Kissimmee
Waiting to purchase a souvenir seashell owl figurine, I stand behind a guy on the phone with his panicked daughter, who needs 60 sand dollars for place cards at her wedding. He hands the phone to the receptionist, who's asked to measure the sand dollars' diameter with a ruler. The man seems apologetic for holding up the line. I believe him.
Holy Land Experience, Orlando
At $35 per person, the Bible-themed attraction known as the Holy Land Experience was one of the most expensive stops on our tour. And at the risk of being smote by a lightning bolt, I have to say: They rippeth us off, for when we looked upon it, lo, it was not good.
Religion must be a tough subject to turn into theme-park fodder. The park's primary entertainment consists of lectures, films and live shows. One fun part is a 45-by-25-foot model of Jerusalem in the year 66 A.D., which purports to be the world's largest indoor model of its kind. I can safely confirm I've never seen one larger.
The Holy Land Experience would be a great field trip for a Sunday School class, but as a roadside tourist attraction, it doesn't quite work. Forgive me, Lord, for saying that.
A residential neighborhood in Orlando
We are lost.
Tupperware World Headquarters, Kissimmee
I have come to the Tupperware World Headquarters in search of the World's Largest Tupperware Tower, which the Internet tells me stands over 100 feet tall. But I am saddened to learn the tower was demolished in 2000. Perhaps they needed it to make the World's Largest Potato Salad.
A kind receptionist allows me to poke around the gift shop, but after learning of the demise of the Tupperware Tower, I'm just not in the mood to buy a $3 sandwich box.
Few cures for the blues are more effective than a swamp full of 125 alligators. Sure enough, after a few minutes of watching the massive lizards lollygag about Gatorland, I forget all about the Tupperware Tower and the Holy Land Experience. Alligators are the greatest.
For $2.50, you can buy five turkey dogs to feed them by hand. If you were to spell out phonetically the sound an alligator makes while eating a turkey dog, that word would be CHOMP.
I won't come right out and say feeding turkey dogs to a pile of alligators was one of the five most awesome things I've ever done. But if you ask, I won't deny it, either.
Lunch at Paisano's, Orlando
We stop at a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint for food. It's rush hour, and we haven't even passed downtown Orlando. It's raining, we're both weary, and there's a tornado warning for this part of Florida. It's beginning to feel like Lord of the Rings, where Sam and Frodo realize they might eventually make it to Mount Doom, but they probably won't make it back.
The pizza is good. Someone spins Hall & Oates' Rich Girl on the jukebox. We play Frogger, which helps. We forge on.
Rollins College Walk of Fame, Winter Park
Picture a cemetery, only no one is buried there, and there's no rhyme or reason to who gets a headstone, and some of the headstones are made from famous rocks. This is the Rollins College Walk of Fame.
More than 500 large stones in the ground memorialize legendary humans, from Abraham Lincoln to Cleopatra to Danny Glover. Some are supposedly chunks of famous buildings, like the Wright Brothers' shop, the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu.
Ostensibly, these stones are designed to represent greatness, though in all honesty I've never heard of many of the honorees. This, I suppose, says a little something about them, and a little something about me.
Mainly I want to pay my respects to the stone honoring Fred "Mr." Rogers, a Rollins College alumnus, who taught me many life lessons, including how to properly remove my footwear.
The Senator, Longwood
It's pouring rain when we arrive to gawk at the Senator, a 3, 500-year-old, 118-foot-tall bald cypress tree that is recognized as one of the largest in the United States. The Senator is located in Longwood's Big Tree Park, which, let's face it, is probably about as honest a park name as you're ever going to find.
We race 600 feet through the monsoon to reach the Senator, which I am happy to report is, in fact, a really, really big tree. We salute its sheer bigness and head back to the car.
Cassadaga is a well-known spiritualists' community, populated by a wide-ranging collective of psychics and healers, and it's a rather spooky place. Winding our way to Main Street along a darkened backwoods road, we pass a woman riding a horse, smoking a cigarette, a creepy and portentous omen if ever I've seen one.
No one is home when I ring the doorbell of the Cassadaga Spiritualist Psychic Therapy Center, but there is a note on the door instructing visitors to call Father Christopher, the psychic on duty, if you want an after-hours reading, which I do. From his cell phone, he tells me he's gassing up his pickup and will be back in 10 minutes. So I wait.
Father Christopher is a portly man with graying hair, wearing cargo shorts and a black T-shirt bearing the words "High Roller." He asks me three questions: Where I'm from (St. Petersburg), how long I've lived there (five years), and where I'm from originally (Virginia). We sit at what looks like a dining room table, topped with a crystal ball, a white jar candle and a poster Bible beneath the glass surface.
Father Christopher purses his lips and doodles on a note pad, and starts by telling me he sees that I've been stressing about work lately. Work has been weighing heavily on my mind, he says. Work and money.
Right away, he has my attention. The previous night, I had been up late filling out a company self-evaluation form, and my annual performance review was coming up in two days. With it could come a raise.
He asks if my father is living (he is), and tells me he sees health concerns surrounding my father. This, too, is impressive: My 95-year-old grandfather, my father's father, has not been well lately.
The whole time, I sit there, nodding and saying "okay."
But over the course of my half-hour reading, I slowly see how the process works. His statements are vague enough that they might apply to, say, 80 percent of the population. When he talks, my mind fills in the necessary blanks, which makes his predictions feel specific to me and my life. Thus, I am healed.
In spite of my skepticism, my first reading turns out to be a personalized, interactive experience that is, I dare say, kind of cool - especially in an eerie place like Cassadaga.
My soul cleansed, my mind at ease, my wallet $40 lighter, we drive on toward Daytona Beach.
Brownie the Town Dog, Daytona Beach
I'd read that Daytona Beach once had a town mascot, a beagle named Brownie, who was so beloved that a plaque and dog-shaped topiary was erected in his memory. This sounded so surreal that I just had to see it. We're talking about Daytona Beach, the birthplace of Spring Break and the dominion of NASCAR - and in the middle of it all is a shrine so wholesome you'd think it was built by Beaver Cleaver himself.
We find Brownie the Town Dog at the corner of Beach Street and Orange Avenue. The plaque is impossibly cute. It reads:
THE TOWN DOG
A GOOD DOG
I hope when I'm gone, someone will say something that nice about me.
The Atlantic Ocean
We finally arrive at the shores of Daytona Beach, and I, in a ritual as old as time, purchase a souvenir shot glass. We say our good-byes to the ocean and head back to the Gulf of Mexico, where the sunsets are prettier anyway.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Tampa
We return, ragged and raw and full of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, to our starting point at the westernmost tip of I-4.
What we learned on our journey is this: Interstate 4 is a more iconic road than many of us would like to admit, a sun-speckled swath of Americana that both divides and unites our beloved Sunshine State. It's not Route 66 or the Las Vegas Strip, but it is one of those rare roads that actually links sea (the Gulf of Mexico) to shining sea (the Atlantic Ocean), and nothing's more American than that.
Except for Brownie the Town Dog. He's worth the drive all by himself.
* * *
I-4 by the numbers
381: Miles driven
18:03: Duration of trip in hours, minutes
16: Attractions visited
$40: Price of psychic readings
$29.46: Spent on souvenirs
$7.80: Spent on doughnuts
$5: Amount lost on Lobstermania bingo machine
* * *
Guitar pick, Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino: 75 cents
Toy dinosaur, Dinosaur World: $2.68
Patch, Fantasy of Flight: $3.16
Bottle cozy, Water Ski Hall of Fame and Museum: $3
Orange figurine and orange, Orange World: $2.63
Seashell owl figurine, Shell World: $3.20
Snow globe, Gatorland $9.54
Shot glass, Daytona Beach: $4.25