12 Icons That Define Florida

For many native Floridians, these are the things that define the Sunshine State

Florida is sun. But Florida is also swamp. Florida is miles of sand, no two grains alike. Florida is people — native residents and new arrivals — and odd-looking creatures unlike any other. Florida is all of this and more. These are the 12 icons that we think define our state.

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The Sand

No visit to Florida is complete without getting some sand on your toes. pixabay.com

You may think sand is all the same, but no two grains are alike. There is sand from Daytona Beach, where the particles are so fine that they pack tightly together, forming a surface so dense people can drive on it. There are gold sands that have been carried through the underwater bedrocks, colored by algae and coral. There is nearly 100 percent quartz sand from the Northwest, the kind people call sugar sand for its dazzling white appearance. There is black sand from Venice Beach, colored by crushed fossils. There is color, texture and complex beauty on every beach — the key is to look for it.

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The Manatee

Visit these gentle creatures at natural springs during the cooler months. pixabay.com

Sometimes the best attractions are a surprise. Take the manatee. Nicknamed sea cows for their unconventional looks, they’re rotund and slow, weigh more than 1,000 pounds on average and can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes. But they are considered beautiful at TECO Manatee Viewing Center in Apollo Beach. Now in its 27th season, the attraction draws an estimated 200,000 people who come from November through April to gaze down on the hundreds of manatees that laze and graze here. The gentle creatures also congregate at several other spots around the state, including Blue Spring State Park in Volusia County, Crystal River in Citrus County and Manatee Park in Lee County. But please remember this: it’s illegal to feed or touch a manatee, so eyes only, please.

The Names

No doubt, we have some strange names. But there is an interesting history behind some of the state’s stranger monikers.

BOCA RATON Referred to as Boca de Ratones on early maps, it translates to “rat’s mouth,” a warning of sharp harbor rocks that could damage anchoring ships.
YEEHAW Having nothing to do with a rodeo, Yeehaw comes from the Muskogee for yaha, or wolf.
ZELLWOOD This little town known for its sweet corn was named after winter resident Col. T. Elwood Zell, who published the 2,200-page Zell’s cyclopedia in 1876.
MASARYKTOWN The editor of a Czech newspaper founded this town in Hernando County, naming it after a president of Czechoslovakia.
WITHLACOOCHEE Derives from Creek Indian words we (water), thlako (big) and chee (little).
APOPKA The name of a 19th century Seminole village, it translates to aha (potato) and papka (eating place).
PAASS-A-GRILLE Thought to have come from the Frenchphrase passe aux grilleurs, which refers to fishermen who used to stop here to grill and salt their fish.

The Natives

The word Seminole is heard throughout the state: It’s the name of a county, a city, even a college mascot — all of which pay homage to some of our earliest inhabitants, the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Remembering heritage is an important mission, says Willie Johns, outreach coordinator for the Brighton Reservation. But the tribal mission isn’t limited to past and present; it’s also about protecting their land for future generations via the Seminole Everglades Restoration Initiative, a $65 million, multiyear project that aims to mitigate the effects of development on their homeland, improving water quality and providing better flood control throughout the region. After all, there are few better ways to celebrate heritage than by assuring a legacy for generations to come.

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Key West

Sunset in Mallory Square pixabay.com

This vibrant island — lively with wood-frame houses set just feet from each other and chickens roaming through the lawns — is a place apart with a lifestyle all its own. So what gives this place its magic? For artist Ray Rolston, it’s the fact that everything is within walking distance, so you can think and dream while you’re walking. It’s the way people cheer every night when the sun sets at Mallory Square, where he sells his work. It’s the unstructured life — how people swim in the morning and go free-diving on their lunch breaks; how gay, straight, black, brown and white are all welcomed with the same enthusiasm; how the island’s natural beauty and free spirit attracts people you might never expect. It’s how you can’t judge the scruffy guy sitting on the barstool next to you, who could be the leader of a Fortune 500 company or a great artist or writer. In Key West, all are equal and all are celebrated.

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The Gator

Take an airboat ride through the Florida Everglades for safe gator spotting. pixabay.com

No one knows our native reptile better than the folks at Gatorland, the central Florida theme park family-owned and operated since 1949. We asked Tim Williams, the so-called Dean of Gator Wrestlin’, for some facts about this iconic creature — and added a few of our own for fun.

  1. Christopher Columbus first named the reptile, calling it el lagarto, “the lizard” — which eventually became alligator.
  2. Alligators have approximately 82 teeth that they shed and regrow throughout their lives.
  3. Per federal records, airplanes in America collide with an average of one alligator a year on runways.
  4. Gators have one the hardest bites in the animal kingdom, so strong it can bite through a car.
  5. Though the jaw muscles used for biting are strong, the muscles used to open the jaw are weak, you can hold a gator’s jaw shut with a piece of duct tape.
  6. Florida has the world’s largest gator population — an estimated 1.25 million or one per every 15 human residents.
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The Theme Parks

The famous castle that put Orlando on the map. pixabay.com

Walt Disney World. Orlando. Opening day. Oct. 1, 1971. Phil Holmes was 19. He stood in the Magic Kingdom at the bridge to the Haunted Mansion. His job would be to take tickets and let people onto the spooky, swirling car ride. He had never missed a Sunday-evening showing of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, which fueled his excitement. “I had nothing but good feelings about what could be,” he said recently, looking back on his first day. “I had seen enough of the news articles to know it was going to be pretty wonderful.” He gets those same feelings today, he says, while taking visitors through the opening of Disney’s new Fantasyland attractions. This time, however, Holmes isn’t a teenager taking tickets for the summer. He is vice president of the Magic Kingdom — and the magic continues.

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The Water

Florida waters vary from crystal clear springs to dark, murky swamps. isorepublic.com

Thousands of years ago, Florida was a prairie. It took the melting of glaciers in Georgia and Alabama to create the Everglades and the swampy Big Cypress Preserve. Underground springs — more than 300 in all — began to fill with cool water that never climbs higher than 70 degrees. Blackwater rivers — with water stained dark by decomposing plants — began to trek through Northwest Florida. Rainwater dissolved the porous limestone foundation, creating a kaleidoscope of inland lakes. Beds of sea grass blanketed the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, creating shelter for oysters and stone crabs. The marine bounty lured ospreys, herons, egrets and more: Florida’s original tourists, attracted by water.

The Immigrants

Florida has always been a magnet for new life, but never more than today. Why does Florida draw so many immigrants? Myriad reasons, says Saundra Amrhein, a Florida journalist who spent years interviewing immigrants for her book, Green Card Stories. They come for opportunity — to work in agriculture, construction, tourism and health care. they come for investments, buying property and making new homes. They come for family, to join loved ones old and new. And they stay for a lifestyle that embraces multiculturalism, as evidenced by all of the communities that came before them and thrived.

The Everglades

Perhaps no place in Florida has seen as many changes as the Everglades, but few people know it more intimately than Michael Grunwald, author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise. Here’s what he has to say about the beloved wetlands. “The Everglades really was America’s last frontier. And frontier stories are always exciting. You’ve got this mysterious, impenetrable, inhospitable, bizarre landscape, in a region with all kinds of ingredients for financial opportunities. Now just about everyone understands that the Everglades is a special place — not only its subtle beauty, but the way it protects our drinking water, absorbs our flood waters, provides kitchens and nurseries for wildlife, etc. It’s amazing how this vast wilderness exists so close to our megalopolis. Floridians call animal control thousands of times every year to get the alligators out of their backyards; we tend to forget that we’re in the alligators’ backyards.”

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The Space Race

Visit the Kennedy Space Center for an educational day of fun the whole family will enjoy. pixabay.com

Is space travel still going to happen? Can a child still dream of becoming an astronaut? True, it’s a changing time. The Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011, putting many people out of jobs in the transition. But means of space exploration are changing and advancing, not ending. “There are a lot of people who have a misconception about what has taken place out there for the future,” says Mark Smith, a NASA communicator who gives tours at Kennedy Space Center. “People think that since the shuttle program ended, space programs are done. That’s not the case.” To hear the staff tell it, they are focused on what’s ahead. The center is expanding to become a hub for both government and commercial space flights as well as preparing for the new Space Launch System being developed by NASA. As for what’s to come, only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: the possibilities are as infinite as space itself.

The Sun

In brightening dark past homes cocooned in mist and shade we rush to catch the sun lifting from Tampa Bay our daily doubloon from nature’s treasure chest … From the poem “Lassing Park” by Peter Meinke, Poet Laureate, St. Petersburg, Florida

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