Monday, April 11, 2005

Another Roadside Attraction


Gatorland's famous entrance Posted by Hello

I have a confession to make - I love roadside attractions. Who could resist the unadulterated kitsch of “Arnold, the piano playing pig” or a “Gator Jumperoo show”? In a world distracted by hi-tech gadgetry and special effects these low rent sideshows serve as an antidote to our jaded senses. Give me cigarette smoking chimps and alligator wrestlers and you have made me a happy man.

It started years ago when I would go on family vacations. My family could never resist a come-on from the garishly painted signs along some lonely stretch of Arkansas highway or the siren call of the mermaids of Weeki Wachee near the Crystal River on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Perhaps it gave us a sense of superiority to peruse the gift shops where tackiness was raised to a whole new level. Sure, grandma would love the shell shaped ashtray with the pink flamingos crudely painted upon them. While we are here, why not get the matching set of salt and pepper shakers to go with the ashtray?

But times have been hard for this uniquely American form of entertainment. We, as a nation, have grown too sophisticated for such amateurish enthusiasms. After all, we now have reality television programming and Britney Spears.

One of the survivors is one of my favorites, Gatorland. Billed as the largest working alligator farm in the world with over 5,000 alligators there at any given time. The movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” had the now famous ending scene where the bad guys fell off the cliff into the waiting crocodiles’ mouths filmed there. The real highlight to this attraction, a few miles south of Orlando, is the “Gator Jumperoo” show. Whole chickens are pinned to a clothesline while the largest ‘gators leap up from the pond below and snatch the chickens off the wire. Now that’s entertainment.

Gatorland’s gift shop is second to none; pink flamingos, hula girls, and every minutia of alligator trinkets are to be found.

The “Chimp Farm” north of Clearwater was also one of my favorites before it closed a few years ago. Set up as a “retirement home” for chimpanzees that had grown too old or uncontrollable for their former employers in circuses or other attractions. Actually, the whole affair was a little depressing. When you went to visit, it was advisable to bring an extra pack of cigarettes. Apparently, in less politically correct times, it was fashionable to teach the chimps to smoke. While you walked between the cages, a sort of primate skid row, the chimps would “beg” for a cigarette. After taking the cigarette, they would press their faces against the chain link fencing waiting for their light. While I know this is deplorable on so many levels, there is something about watching our closest relatives in the animal kingdom taking a big drag. Also, there is nothing meaner than a chimp jonesing for a smoke!


Weeki Wachee cir. 1950's 1 Posted by Hello

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