While the term "eco-tourism" might be new, the concept is not. Florida's biggest attraction has always been the state's natural beauty. Early explorers equated the state with the Garden of Eden and described it as a lush, tropical paradise. Its very name – La Florida – a feast of flowers perpetuated that image.
Well before Walt Disney World opened in 1971, Florida's natural beauty attracted tourists to Central Florida. Attractions fell into several categories for early tourists – springs, gardens and native animals. One of the state's earliest attractions, Silver Springs, neatly fell into all these categories. Glass-bottom boats gave visitors a view of the springs and Florida's most fascinating attraction – reptiles! Other wildlife – the Florida panther, black bears, key deer, and of course, more gators, could be safely viewed from the river. The Springs' popularity reached its peak during the steamship age in the post-bellum period, and as steamship popularity declined, so did the Springs. By the early 1950s, advertising and new highways helped rejuvenate the Springs.
Orlando drew tourists with its own natural attractions. Nicknamed the City Beautiful, tourists spent time admiring Lake Eola, Sunshine Park, the Orchid Gardens and Sanlando Springs. Big Tree Park was also a popular attraction. Located in nearby Longwood(?), the park was home to "The Senator," one of the oldest and largest cypress trees in America. The Silver Spurs Rodeo in Kissimmee has been in operation since 1889, drawing tourists with its display of Florida's pioneer spirit, and tourists could take in Spring Training at Tinker Field.
Other popular Central Florida attractions were established in the 1930s. The automobile and Florida's boom economy drew many tourists to the "southernmost" state; even the Depression couldn't kill Florida's tourist industry. The Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales opened in 1929. Perhaps the state's most famous attraction, Cypress Gardens, was opened by Dick Pope in 1936. Another famous attraction, Gatorland, opened in 1940.
For tourists in the 19th century, Florida's natural beauty provided escape and fantasy for the upper classes whose "nerves had been shattered by modernity." Tourists were segregated by race, class, age, religion and ethnicity. After World War II, a Florida vacation became part of the American dream; it was both a democratic right and a republican virtue. As leisure was transformed by conspicuous consumption, small roadside attractions faded and modern Florida became dominated by interstates and large-scale attractions like Walt Disney World, Sea World and Busch Gardens.
The Big Tree, otherwise known as "The Senator," is one of the oldest and largest cypress trees in America. The Seminole Indians and other Native Americans who lived throughout Central Florida used this tree as a land mark.
The Big Tree has been a tourist spot since the late 1800's. A local resident, Mr. Lord, took visitors to the tree via horse drawn carriage, but to complete the journey the visitor had to jump from log to log because of the land being so swampy. Today, much of the land around the tree has dried up and wooden walkways have replaced jumping from log to log. In 1925, a hurricane took the top off the tree, reducing its size from 165 ft to 138 ft. In 1926, lightning rods were installed down into the tree by the Longwood fire department.
In 1927, Senator Moses Overstreet agreed to donate six acres to the county for a park. In 1929, President and Mrs. Coolidge visited the tree; the President made a speech and dedicated a bronze.