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Look back at Pinellas history recalls lost attractions
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PINELLAS COUNTY – In my childhood, Sunday mornings often meant breakfast at the Pelican Diner followed by a drive down Gulf Boulevard to the beach at Pass-A-Grille. Along the way, the towering, golden geodesic dome of the Aquatarium always captured my attention. Then, it was as important a landmark to me as was the Don CeSar, which I am often reminded I nicknamed “Darn Cigar” as a toddler.

Likewise, on Friday night pilgrimages to Haslam’s Books in downtown St. Petersburg, aging billboards advertising the wonders of Webb’s City offered a glimpse at an attraction I would never visit.

Sadly, both the Aquatarium and Webb’s City were in decline by the early ’70s. My memories of them are few and fleeting, though the impact each made on the area was significant.

With the fate of the Belleview Biltmore uncertain, and with familiar mom-and-pop motor lodges and motels disappearing from our barrier islands to make room for upscale condominiums, take a moment to flip through the family photo album to recollect the places on the fringes of memory. Pinellas County has seen more than a few famed attractions fall prey to mismanagement, economic slumps and the Disney theme park empire that continues to lure tourists. Following are among the most notable local destinations that have been lost:

The Aquatarium – St. Pete Beach

[Image]
Photo courtesy of Gulf Beaches Historical Museum
Aquatarium postcard
In the 1960s, St. Pete Beach boasted a tropical dream vacation with Jai-Alai, horse racing, golf courses, sandy beaches and a popular aquarium. Built in 1964, the Aquatarium housed trained porpoises, sea lions and pilot whales. Set on west side of Gulf Boulevard along the sandy beaches, its golden dome gleamed against the blue Florida sky connoting perpetual summer afternoons.

As Disney filtered tourists in the early ’70s, the Aquatarium changed hands and changed names. It briefly transformed into Shark World, hoping to capitalize on the success of the movie “Jaws.” Eventually it closed its doors and fell to the wrecking ball to make way for a resort.

Tussaud’s London Wax Museum – St. Pete Beach

Remember seeing a replica of Big Ben on the beach? This landmark stood in front of Tussaud’s London Wax Museum. Opened in 1963, the museum featured more than a hundred wax figures depicting famous personalities from sports, history, literature and entertainment. One exhibit portrayed the death of Abraham Lincoln. The Enchanted Forrest featured authors as well as their fictional creations. The very gory chamber of horrors spawned more than one nightmare among visitors. The museum remained open through the late ’80s. A more modern museum was proposed, but plans ultimately fell through.

Tiki Gardens – Indian Rocks Beach

[Image]
Tiki Gardens advertisement from St. Petersburg tour guide
Originally conceived as a simple gift shop, Tiki Gardens grew into a 12-acre attraction over the course of several decades. With tropical gardens, exotic birds and monkeys, Tiki Gardens offered a “South Sea island paradise in Florida” complete with a Fire Mountain and the Temple of Kon Tiki.

Exotic Tiki Gardens slowly declined through the ’80s. In 1990, its owners sold the property to Pinellas County. The shops were razed and the tikis sold, and the land is now used for beach access parking.

The Fountain of Youth – St. Petersburg

Spanish soldier, explorer and colonial governor Ponce De Leon must be partially credited with giving rise to the source of Florida’s most exploited attraction. A number of cities took advantage of his celebrated search for a fabled fountain of youth in the territory. St. Augustine still maintains an attraction devoted to the legend. Apparently, St. Petersburg once featured a similar attraction. A postcard from the era states that “no trip to St. Petersburg is complete without a visit to this spot and a drink at this famous fountain which dispenses crystal clear water.” The fountain was in use into the 1950s and was located “on the waterfront within easy distance from the main thoroughfare.”

Webb’s City – St. Petersburg

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Webb’s City postcard
It foreshadowed the mass appeal of Wal-Mart. It employed publicity stunts and gimmicks to entice its customers during the height of the depression. It housed mermaids and dancing chickens. Supposedly, it introduced a feature with which we are all familiar: the express lane check-out. Webb’s City, billed as the “World’s Most Unusual Drug Store,” opened its doors in 1925 (it was renamed Webb’s in 1926) and survived for more than four decades, offering clientele a larger-than-life shopping destination providing a wide range of goods and services. During the Great Depression, when most businesses failed, Webb’s expanded. In its most prosperous days, it served more than 50,000 customers a day. Webb’s was located between Second Avenue and Fourth Avenue South , between Seventh and Tenth streets. Had the area around the store not fallen into economic decay in the ’70s, Webb’s might still be in existence today. The musical “Webb’s City” celebrates the store’s founder, J.E. “Doc” Webb.

Considering the lost icons of this county’s history, pessimism comes naturally. The face of Pinellas will continue to evolve and transform. The places we enjoyed as children will slip into obscurity, only to be replaced by more modern facilities. Gradually, our memories we will find framed in scrapbooks, relegated to postcards and snapshots.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way. Look at Fort De Soto County Park – a focal point for recreation appealing to boaters, campers and beachgoers alike. Last month, I combed North Beach for shells and sand dollars just as I did some 30 years ago. No condos have sprouted up on Mullet Key or Egmont or Caladesi. As long as there is interest in preserving the things we cherish most from youth, childhood will remain within our grasp.
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