The rented car with the Monkey Jungle bumper sticker banked off the expressway onto Route 1, south-southeast out of Miami, heading on a course charted directly for the Serpentarium. The car was never seen again. The last contact placed it somewhere near the Orchid Jungle checkpoint. And then, nothing. "It is just like it was swallowed up by exhaust fumes, vanished into fat air," said one tourist official. Yet another victim of (ta-daaa) The Tacky Triangle!!!
Well, as Wink Martindale used to say as he closed his inspirational record Deck of Cards, "I know, because that soldier was me." I know, because that rented car was mine. In the days that followed, from one tip of The Tacky Triangle to the others, my family and I visited:
The Serpentarium, Monkey Jungle, Parrot Jungle, the Coral Castle, Tiger's Air Boat Rides, Miccosukee Indian Village, the Waltzing Waters Aquarama, the Thomas Edison Winter Home, the Shell Factory, the National Police Hall of Fame, the good ship Bounty, Potter's Wax Museum, various glassblowers, Spook Hill, Cypress Gardens, the River Ranch rodeo, the Tower of Peace, the Citrus Tower, the Singing Tower, the Tupperware Museum of Dishes, the Museum of Sunken Treasure, the Fountain of Youth, Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum, the Castillo de San Marcos, the Old Jail, The Oldest School House, the Museum of Toys and the Tragedy in U.S. History Museum.
I know, I know. You're saying, Why would anyone ever do a thing like that? And my answer to you, from the heart, is: Taste. Discernment.
The decisions were not made lightly, understand. When we took the trip last winter, we could have seen: the Orchid Jungle, Jungle Larry's African Safari, Lion Country Safari, Sarasota Jungle Gardens, the Gardens of Light, St. Petersburg Zoological Gardens, Busch Gardens, Masterpiece Gardens, Sunken Gardens, Everglades Wonder Gardens and Weeki Wachee Springs. Also: Ring-ling Museum, Circus World Showcase, Circus Hall of Fame, Marco Polo Park, Cars of Yesterday, Six Gun Territory, Tombstone Territory, Parrots Paradise, Flipper's Playground, Alligator Farm, Florida Reptile Land, Marineland, Treasureland, Fairyland, Sea World, Ocean World, Pirate's World and Jacksonville of the World Football League.
This is the first honest travel story ever written. It is about the real places that real people really go to. Most travel stories are not at all about where people travel to, but only about where travel writers can cadge the best trips to. Hence, the emphasis on the Taj Mahal, Rome, Italy, the Serengeti and whatnot, while genuine places like The Tacky Triangle go begging for exposure. I hope this is just the beginning, one small step for touristkind. In fact, what this country needs, travelwise, is its own version of the Michelin Guide.
The Michelin Guide is, of course, put out in France, where food is the thing. Chefs over there drown themselves in A-l Sauce if they drop in the Michelin ratings. Well, we are not a strong food country, unless you want to count the Colonel and his sort, but we have our own hang-up. We devour tourist attractions. Wherever we are going, we say, "What have they got there?" If St. Augustine's City of God was located, say, in the middle of Iowa, people would not go there unless there were mechanized angels at God's Gardens or God's Paradise or Godland or what-have-you. Unless something is a specific, authentic, by-admission-only Attraction, it does not exist for us.
Although this is the way of life for American tourism, we have no unbiased, comprehensive Michelin Guide-like authority to instruct us. We must depend on unsightly self-interest brochures to advise us which are the best tacky things to see and revel in.
Now understand, when I say tacky, that is not necessarily disparaging. There is tacky and there is tacky. If you go to an American tourist spot, you expect it to be tacky. What is the point of being a tourist attraction if you can't be tacky? You might as well get the environmentalists all involved and settle on just being a scenic overlook, right? The Pennsylvania Dutch country was once merely quaint. But recently it has been tackyized to the point of plastic, and I'm sure you'll find it an infinitely finer place to visit than before.
So you see, I'm not putting down Florida. On the contrary. Florida is not alone in tacky endeavors, merely exemplary. A great deal can be said for many parts of California. The strip between Dallas and Fort Worth is a real comer, too. And New Jersey cannot be sneezed at. The finest tacky symbol in America (this is your traditional tacky now, not your nouveau tacky) is the sea horse, and these positively abound at establishments along the Jersey shore. In this respect, New Jersey far surpasses Florida, which relies on alligators and dolphins. But town in and town out, no other place can boast the Attractions that the Sunshine State does.