Too Much Sunshine
The quick, easy search for unconventional Florida.
Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By THOMAS SWICK
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.