The ‘New” Daytona Beach: Much More Than Just Racing
Joe Vetter during his tour
Joe Vetter wants travellers to know that you don’t have to go to
Williamsberg, or Charleston if you want to experience American Colonial
History. There is plenty of it in the Daytona Beach area, specifically at
Sugar Mills Botanical Gardens in Port Orange, Florida.
Vetter, a grade 8 history teacher, moved to Port Orange, Florida seven years
ago. He came across Sugar Mills Gardens on a bike ride through the
neighbourhood and was intrigued by the beautiful natural environment and the
layers of history. “Already an amateur screenwriter and avid history buff, I
was truly amazed by the living history which was everywhere!” says Vetter. He
found the area so interesting that he became a volunteer (the gardens are
entirely maintained by volunteers) and now gives one hour tours, at least
once a month.
He also has been involved in putting together an event that reenacts the
story of the Battle of Dunlawton. On this site in 1836, the Seminole Indians
and escaping slaves led a rampage against white settlers. “They were very
angry over the white settlements on their territory and burned 18 plantations
from St. Augustine to New Smyrna Beach,” says Vetter. “This period in US
History eventually led to the infamous Trail of Tears and the forced march of
Indians west of the Mississippi River.”
On a lighter note, the present day Sugar Mills Garden is also the site of one
of the first Florida theme parks which was called Bongoland after the park’s
mascot, a live baboon. The idea was conceived by local doctor named Sperber
who tried to take advantage of popularity of the theme parks in Florida and
decided to open one with life-sized dinosaur sculptures and a Seminole
The park only lasted from 1948-1952. The huge dinosaur sculptures are now
considered historical landmarks and have weathered over the last 54 years.
In what Vetter describes as an interesting coincidence, a giant Land Sloth
was actually excavated in Port Orange in the late 70’s. Its skeleton is now
at the nearby Museum of Arts and Sciences. Generations of children, including Vetter’s two daughters, have played on the sculptures, which are now
protected from climbing.
When picturing my first visit to Daytona Beach, I had expected to meet a
bunch of racing fanatics, but as more than one resident informed me, Daytona
has a lot more to it than leather clad guys roaring around on motorcycles. Of
course for those who enjoy racing, it’s all here: the Daytona International
Speedway, the world’s largest Harley Davidson dealership, right next door to
the bikers’ hangout, the Daytona Diner, and Daytona’s answer to theme parks,
Daytona USA, where interactive racing simulators allow you to feel what it’s
like to race around the track at high speeds. Many of the eateries have
racing themes, such as the popular North Turn, in Ponce Inlet, which is
located on the actual site of the North Turn of the original beach track.
It is nature that is responsible for creating the natural driving course that
made Daytona Beach famous. Hard packed sand covering a bed of native coquina
shell creates a velvet-like surface that has enabled motorists to establish
world speed records. At low tide the strip of sand becomes 500 feet wide.
Until recently, vehicles were allowed to drive across all of its 23 miles of
beachfront, but now, with pressure to make the area ecologically responsible
and safe for families, a one mile stretch of the beach has been closed to
traffic. Such changes have been difficult for some residents, who feel that
the driving on the beach is a sacred right that shouldn’t be tampered with.
However, the dramatic facelift is good for the economy and is very attractive
to families, who’ve been nervous about vacationing with young children on a
beach strewn with cars. To encourage people to park their cars away from the
beach, there is a new complimentary VOTRAN Beach Tram, which operates every 15 minutes during the day and makes stops along the beach.
The most ambitious beachside project has been Ocean Walk Village, which is right along the vehicle-free stretch of beach. This family-friendly complex includes the Ocean Walk Resort with its one and two bedroom condo-style suites and numerous daily activities, as well as some brand new restaurants and entertainment venues, such as Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company, and RC Cinema Ocean Walk Movies 10, the only Oceanfront cinema in Daytona, complete with individual seats that rock back.
Dinosaur sculpture at Sugar Mills Garden
The coming year will be an interesting time to visit Daytona Beach, as 2003
marks the 100th anniversary of the Birthplace of Speed and there will be a
number of Centennial Celebrations, to mark this historic event. The main
celebration will take place on March 26-28, 2003, marking the 100th
anniversary of the first timed trials of automobile races which took place on
Ormond Beach. A re-enactment of the historic race between the Winston Bullet
#1 and the Ranson E. Olds ‘Pirate’ will be one of the many of highlights of
this unique event. There will also be a dedication of a park which will be
named the “Birthplace of Speed Park”, a display of special Classic cars, free
concerts, and 50 pre-1932 cars will compete two by two down the one eight
beach course, until one car is declared the overall winner.
Once you’ve had had your fill of driving-related activities, there is enough
to do in Daytona to keep you very busy.
Check out the new Marine Museum. Here, injured sea turtles are nursed back to
health and the public is educated about various forms of marine life that
live in the area. The display which shows all kinds of trash, including nylon
rope, tin cans and netting, which have been removed from the innards of sea
turtles, is a real eye opener. Hatchlings have less than a 1% chance of
safely making it back to the water after the pregnant Loggerhead turtles lay
their eggs in the soft beach sand. It is interesting to learn that visitors
can play a role in protecting them by not shining lights at night which
confuses them, keeping the beach clean and not disturbing them while they are
making their way to the ocean.
Ponce deLeon Inlet Lighthouse
Next door is the Ponce deLeon Inlet Lighthouse. Volunteer Tony Girolami is
not what you’d call a young man, but he has no problem climbing the 213
stairs to the top while I’m embarrassed to admit that I needed a number of
breathers on my way up the winding staircase to the very top of the
lighthouse. The gorgeous view makes the climb worthwhile. At 175 feet, this
is the second tallest lighthouse in the US and it was built over 100 years
ago. The original buildings are all still standing and now contain a
historical museum, a video on the lighthouse, and a Fresnel lens exhibit.
Civic pride is obvious in Daytona Beach. Residents, whether they were
volunteers, like Joe and Tony, or employees in the tourism and service
industries, were proud of their history and eager to show off Daytona’s
attractions both old and new. Yes, it is still a paradise for bikers, race
car fanatics, and Spring Breakers, but there are also historic attractions,
family-friendly accommodations, wonderful museums, great shopping and the
list goes on and on. And although there is plenty to do, Daytona is still
small enough that it is easy to navigate and has retained that Old Florida
Don’t leave without touring downtown Daytona Beach. This area has been
undergoing a redevelopment and there are inviting shops, antique stores and
good restaurants all along the Riverfront Marketplace. The Jackie Robinson Ballpark, where Robinson played in the first integrated spring training baseball game, is across the street and is flanked by a nice statue commemorating his contribution to race relations.
Downtown is where you’ll find a Daytona institution, Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory. This chocolate shop was founded in 1925, by two women from
Michigan, Riddell Angell and Cora Phelps Wheeler, and present day owner, Dr.
Alvin Smith has made it his mission to ensure that candy and chocolate are
still made the old fashioned way, which is why it is so good. The factory has
been open for free public tours since 1994 and people seem to really like the
intimate nature of the tour. It is fun to watch the peanut brittle being
deftly poured and spread, so that it can be cut before it hardens, and then
move on to the next window, where a crew of ladies in hairnets are moving and
boxing the chocolate-covered creams a la “I Love Lucy.” The best part of the
tour is the chance to taste free samples, of course. Who would have thought
that chocolate covered potato chips and key lime chocolates would be so delicious?
Martha Ross, Tour Director for Angell & Phelps, says that the candy is
popular because of the quality. “It is really different from candy made in
large, very commercial factories. You can make candy with care when you are
only making a batch of 100 pounds at a time.” Dr. Smith bought the business
specifically to maintain production of the high quality chocolates, that he
so loved as a child growing up in Daytona. One of his sons, Chuck, makes most
of the candy himself and they still use the original recipes and equipment
that the original owners used.
Martha takes her time, answers our questions and is generous with the free
chocolate, which is so rich and delicious that I feel my hunger disappear
even though it is lunch time. Attractions like the free tour of Angell &
Phelps capture the feel of Daytona Beach: history, a personal touch, service,
and, progress, without the loss of quality. It’s nice to visit a place where
people care about such things.