The Magazine

Too Much Sunshine

The quick, easy search for unconventional Florida.

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By THOMAS SWICK
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It is occasionally noted that Florida has replaced California as the legitimate home of the nation’s nuts, but what is left unmentioned is that Floridians, unlike Californians, embrace the title—sort of the way England cherishes its eccentrics, though they are generally a more lovable group. 

Weeki Wachee mermaids (2013)

Weeki Wachee mermaids (2013)

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Journalists in the Sunshine State are unquestionably the most passionate about the oddballs in their midst, which isn’t surprising, since they have the most to gain from them. When I arrived in 1989 to work at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, all the reporters raved about what “a great news state” this was. (The enthusiasm was somewhat lost on me, since my job as travel editor regularly took me away from the wackiness.) But their assessment of our pistol-shaped peninsula has not only stood up over the ensuing quarter-century, it has, if anything, become more accurate. In the first month of this year, we saw the fatal shooting, near Tampa, of a man who was texting during a movie, as well as the closing of a Miami Beach strip club because one of the dancers had only recently become a teenager. The name of the club—profanely or appropriately—was Madonna.

These things could happen anywhere, but their prevalence in Florida helps solidify an image of the state as a place where such aberrations not only occur with some frequency, but flourish and grow in our steamy, transient climate. Granted, it’s often a self-proclaimed image: A few days after Justin Bieber was arrested in Miami Beach for drag racing under the influence, a column appeared in the Miami Herald with the headline “Bieber’s follies an ‘only in Miami’ act.”

Some things are quintessentially Miami. This is a city that no longer has its King Orange Jamboree Parade, but every year puts on the King Mango Strut, an event that was created as a sendup of the first. Early in January, the Herald reported that a champion French bulldog had been stolen from a Miami home on New Year’s Eve. This seemed to be your standard canine kidnapping story, until, in the second paragraph, the name of the dog was revealed to be “El Che.” And some things are quintessentially Florida. Recently, I went to one of the beachfront hotels in my hometown, Fort Lauderdale, to watch the Friday evening mermaid show (visible through windows in the bar that look into the pool). Afterwards, I talked to a woman, a former underwater performer at Weeki Wachee, who assured me that tailed aquatic activities are the next big thing, as more and more people are discovering their inner “mermaidness.” Something tells me that not many of them reside in Nebraska. 

Mermaids don’t appear in Fringe Florida, which is a shame, as they are more indigenous than some of the groups that do—notably, bikers, fetishists, swingers, and ufologists. I doubt that Gulf Breeze, in the Panhandle, has anything on Roswell. Similarly, bikers—even female ones, who are the focus here—are more of a national than a local phenomenon. In the introduction, Lynn Waddell explains her methodology: 

Each subculture described in this book is distinct in some significant way from its cousins in other states. The lifestyles either originated in Florida or dwarf ones elsewhere in size or prominence. For instance, San Francisco and Boston are hotspots for fetishists who dress up like horses, but Florida is home to the International Pony Play Championships.

Makes a Floridian proud. 

Waddell is a native of Alabama, but has lived in Florida for a number of years and worked for an alternative paper in the Tampa Bay area, a job that introduced her to some of the wonders covered here. A fair number of the book’s subjects—strippers, mudders, nudists—also make their homes in central Florida. And though those of us who live in the southern part of the state (which is the least “Southern” part of the state) tend to assume that we have a monopoly on subtropical outrageousness, seeing our region as the adult (XXX) counterpart to the kiddie parks to the north, Fringe Florida demonstrates that there is more than enough deviant behavior to go around, from Pensacola to Miami. In fact, the one place outside the geographic range of the book—Key West—is one of Florida’s, if not America’s, most idiosyncratic towns.

People who visit our southernmost settlement may feel it has no competition for the title (especially if they come during Fantasy Fest). But they are tourists who never make it to Cassadaga. Northeast of Orlando, Cassadaga is a community of psychics, a place where Spiritualist Street intersects with Mediumship Way, where the town bookstore sells “prayer beads, fairy figurines, Native American dream catchers, crystals, healing rocks,” and books, mostly on the paranormal. Waddell takes a tour of the town with a man who believes in fairies; submits to a reading with a gray-haired medium; and allows some personal skepticism to seep through her generally straight-faced reporting.  

Another place bypassed by tourists, but not by Waddell, is Gibsonton (aka Gibtown), whose population was once made up largely of retired circus performers and sideshow acts. (It’s not far from Sarasota, the former winter home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.) Today it’s mostly a ghost town, but Waddell finds a still-working showman, Ward Hall, who regales her with stories of old friends like Poobah (“perhaps the most iconic American circus and sideshow dwarf”), and Monkey Girl and Alligator Man, who eloped together. 

This, for me, was the most intriguing chapter, possibly because the subjects were people for whom Waddell could feel empathy—and with whom she could perhaps even identify. (Journalists, though not necessarily freaks, are outsiders.) Elsewhere in the book, she occasionally establishes a connection—with the women bikers, for instance—but most of the time she keeps a distance while earnestly trying to understand. Sometimes too earnestly: A few of the chapters read like overlong feature stories. But the information Waddell unearths is almost always interesting. The Redneck Yacht Club—to which people drive their swamp buggies and trucks—cost $1 million to create and contains mud pits, dams, a stage, a racetrack, and two helicopter pads so injured mudders can be quickly airlifted out.

Billy Graham, we learn, got his start in Tampa, preaching to streetwalkers and derelicts (from prostitutes to presidents). The Church of Scientology “owns about half of downtown Clearwater and considers the city its spiritual headquarters.” The first swamp buggy was created by a mechanic in Naples. Daytona Beach’s Bike Week began in 1937, and women’s coleslaw wrestling was introduced to the event in 1985 (apparently the first time the world had seen shredded cabbage grappling). Today, Bike Week is the largest motorcycle event in the world.   

This is one of the book’s many lapses into superlatives. The largest Hare Krishna commune in the country sits just outside Gainesville (home to the University of Florida), and Florida leads the nation in the number of topless and nude strip clubs (which employ, apparently, America’s youngest dancers). Miami hosted the country’s largest swingers’ convention, while Coconut Creek, just up the turnpike, boasts the oldest swingers’ club (with, quite possibly, the world’s oldest swingers). After Californians, Floridians own the most motorcycles. No state has more animal exhibitors or, according to “online fetish registries,” human ponies per capita. Many of them, fittingly, live near Ocala, which is Florida horse country. Pasco County, just north of Tampa, has been labeled the “Nudist Capital of the World” (by the American Association for Nude Recreation) and is home to the nation’s largest nudist resort, Caliente Tampa Resort, which holds a Bare Buns Biker Party.  

Paradise on earth has become a travel-writing cliché, but if you’re a nudist biker in Florida with a swinger partner, a pet iguana, and a mud buggy, it would seem that you have found yours. 

Thomas Swick is the author of A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler.