Welcome to Florida!

Florida was one of the first states to create highway welcome centers, which have now become almost standard across the nation. The establishment of the Dixie Highway routed travelers as far north as Michigan into the state of Florida via a little town called Yulee. Leaders of the growing Florida tourism industry saw this as an excellent opportunity to educate out-of-towners on the many sites and attractions the state had to offer.

Ribbon cutting at opening of hospitality house in Yulee, FL (1949).

Florida’s First Lady, Mrs. Fuller Warren cuts the ribbon at hospitality house opening ceremony – Yulee, Florida (November 4, 1949).

Florida’s first “hospitality house” opened in Yulee in the fall of 1949 on the Georgia-Florida line. Seven more centers followed to greet visitors arriving via US1/301 in Hilliard, US41 near Jennings, US231 near Campbellton, US90 in Pensacola, a marine center in Fernandina Beach, US27 in Havana, and US19 near Monticello.

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

People in front of welcome sign- Havana, Florida (1962).

Unidentified ladies and a man in front of the welcome sign – Havana, Florida (1962).

Although these original facilities have since come and gone, they created a long-standing tradition for offering complimentary orange juice, maps, attraction information, and assistance for tourists with travel inquiries. They also featured picnic and restroom facilities (and anyone who has been on a road trip understands the sanctity and relief of a well placed “restroom” sign).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Today there are five Official Florida Welcome Centers operated by Visit Florida. They are located on Interstate 10 in Pensacola, US231 near Campbellton, the State Capitol in Tallahassee, Interstate 75 in Live Oak, and Interstate 95 near Jacksonville. Personnel now undergo training to receive a national Information Specialist certification to better serve visitors. Otherwise, not much has changed in the way of good ole’ friendly service you can expect at any one of these stations.

The I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Interior of the I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Since the first welcome center opened in 1949, the State of Florida has estimated that 90 million visitors have been received, and more than 200 million maps have been distributed. Now that’s a lot of free orange juice!

Florida welcome sign - Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

Florida welcome sign – Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

If you’re traveling through the Sunshine State this summer, be sure to stop at an Official Florida Welcome Center. If you’re stuck at home for the moment, you can still enjoy a bit of Florida by searching for your favorite Sunshine State destinations in the Florida Photographic Collection.


In a State of Kitschiness: Jungle Land and Alvin’s Island

The early Miracle Strip along Panama City Beach was, and is, traditionally known for its outlandish attractions designed to entertain visitors to the Florida Gulf Coast. One such attraction was Jungle Land. Originally begun as housing for a roadside zoo attraction in the mid-1960s, the oversized artificial volcano reflected the whimsical architecture of reinforced stucco and concrete that was beginning to dot the coast.

Jungle Land Attraction in Panama City (1966).

Jungle Land Attraction in Panama City (1966).

Owner Val Valentine hired young women dressed (more or less) in full “Jungle Jane” gear to serve as tour guides leading visitors on a “dangerous” (again, more or less) tour through a winding cave to the center of the structure. Along the way, people could peek through holes in the cavern’s walls to get a glimpse of the “lava” bubbling at the core. Valentine also had the volcano fully stocked with smoke pots to emit smoke and flame from the opening which could be seen from quite a distance. Wild animals were kept at the center of Jungle Land and were trained by his “cave girls” to put on various performances for the tourists.

Women with Parrots at Jungle Land (1969).

Women with Parrots at Jungle Land (1969).

Although Jungle Land has since disappeared as a roadside attraction in Panama City, you can still experience the original, volcano-like structure which now houses Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain store. Venturing inside is a lot like walking into a colorful stalactite wonderland lined with plush dolphins and wholesale puka shell wind chimes. Nestled further into the center of the building (below the floor with the bathing suit cover-ups), you can find live alligators. Sometimes a trainer is on hand to give customers a chance to meet and greet these native reptiles.

Model Melody May posing in front of volcano at the Jungle Land attraction in Panama City (1966).

Model Melody May posing in front of volcano at the Jungle Land attraction in Panama City (1966).

The area may have lost an icon of kitsch when Jungle Land shut its doors for good in the early 1980s, but Alvin’s Island has rather historic roots in the area as well. Alvin Walsingham, founder of the Alvin’s Island chain, sought to cater to the booming tourist and souvenir business that was coming to define Panama City’s Miracle Strip. In 1981, he purchased the defunct Jungle Land volcano and opened a branch of his chain as the Magic Mountain store.

Alvin's Island Ad (circa 1980s). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Alvin’s Island Ad (circa 1980s). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Walsingham built onto to the volcano, ensuring that the new additions matched the existing rock-like structure. The store has since cut back on allowing the volcano to erupt, but has also tried to maintain the original pseudo-Polynesian and tropical theme that Valentine had envisioned. Today there are several Alvin’s Island locations in the Florida panhandle, including in Destin and Fort Walton Beach. The crown jewel, of course, is still the Magic Mountain Store!

Alvin's Island Magic Mountain Store (2013). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain Store (2013). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

See our photo exhibit entitled Roadside Attractions in Florida for more images of sites like Alvin’s Island.