August, 2012

All photos courtesy of The Florida Aquarium: at right, top row: SCUBA divers, otter, sharks. Bottom row: Bay Spirit II, Penguin Encounter; Shark Bay-bait ball. Above:  building exterior, Below: leafy sea dragon
All photos courtesy of Ybor City Museum State Park. Above: front of Museum (old Ferlito Bakery); Bottom of story: casitas; Below: courtyard/gardens; oven
(West) Central Florida

The Florida Aquarium – Tampa


At the Florida Aquarium you can discover over 20,000 aquatic plants and animals which represents over 600 different species as a bystander or you can jump in and become part of the exhibit as part of their enhanced guest experience programs. Guests 6 and older can Swim with the Fishes and certified SCUBA divers 15 and older can face massive sharks in their largest exhibit during Dive with the Sharks.

Don’t forget the kids’ swimsuits at this kid-friendly venue: There’s a 2.2-acre outdoor water adventure zone to let the kids cool off while parents relax under the shade of the Cantina bar and grill. There are water jets, climb-on animals, a pirate ship with working water cannons, wave water slide, and Shipwreck Shore—a place for toddlers.

Under a glass dome, you can meander through Wetlands—home to freshwater fish, alligators, free-flying birds, snakes, and playful otters. Upstairs into the tree canopy, is Aquariumania—where you can get ideas for your own home aquarium. In the Bays and Beaches area, look for seahorses, snook, sharks, lobsters, invertebrates and a Goliath Grouper weighting over 200 lbs. In the No Bone Zone, you can see and touch invertebrates: sea stars, crustaceans, urchins and mollusks.

The Coral Reef Gallery is a one-of-a-kind view as you descend through shallows, tunnels, reef walls and caves and come to a panoramic view of a coral reef. It simulates a 60-foot dive, with each window presenting a micro habitat. In the Ocean Commotion exhibit there are pulsing jellies, giant spider crabs, a red octopus and thousands of sardines swirling.

Each day there are free scheduled shows, touch tanks, and the Penguin Promenade. For an additional charge, there is a Behind-The-Scenes Tour; Penguins: Backstage Pass Tour; A Stingray/Shark Feeding Tour; and a Wild Dolphin Cruise—a 90-minute narrated eco-tour aboard the 72-foot catamaran, Bay Spirit II in search of Tampa Bay’s 500 wild bottlenose dolphins. The Florida Aquarium’s Aqua Summer Camps provide plenty of hands on learning for kids of all ages.

At the Florida Aquarium getting close to the animals encountered is encouraged. One of the most popular ways is to slide your hand across a sting ray as they glide past in their touch tank. Interaction and immersion is the Aquarium’s byword—even if it’s just their mist projection system which creates a fun wall to walk through.

The Florida Aquarium is located at 701 Channelside Drive in Tampa. Nearby parking is $6. Admission is $21.95-adults, $18.95-Seniors 60+; $16.95 for children under 12; and free for children 2 and under. Check online for discounts and savings. Open daily 9:30 am – 5 pm. Call 813-273-4000 or go to www.flaquarium.org.

  Ybor City Museum State Park

It’s safe to say that the Ybor City Museum is the only State Park located in a vintage bakery. It is located in one of only three Florida National Historical Landmark Districts, and is one of few urban State Parks—settings without a natural expanse of forestry and water. The park is only a small assortment of buildings and a Mediterranean-style garden, although they represent a large segment in the chronicles of Tampa and the ensuing Ybor City history.  

Visitors should not be dissuaded by the original and unassuming 1920’s Ferlita Bakery’s exterior. In its prime the bakery produced 35,000 loaves of bread daily for the ethnic community. Today, inside, the building is chock-full of memorabilia including the brick ovens, but the only sustenance produced is for satisfying the interests in past human events.

In the early 1880’s Tampa was still an isolated village with a population of about 700, but it had a good seaport and Henry Plant’s new railroad. It was perfect for Vincent Martinez-Ybor, a Spanish cigar manufacturer. Ybor had moved his operation from Cuba to Key West in 1869, but labor unrest and the lack of room for expansion had him looking for another base for production and a company town.

In 1885, the Tampa Board of Trade helped broker the purchase of 40 acres of sandy scrubland just northeast of Tampa that would become Ybor City, and annexed by Tampa in 1887.

The neighborhood grew to be one of the most unusual in the southern United States, notable for its multi-ethnic and multi-racial population.  By boat and train Cubans, Spanish, and Italians flocked to the area. Italians initially lacked the cigar-making skills, but the women were accomplished, acquiring the talent quickly, often earning more than their male counterparts.

There was also an influx of Chinese and Jews who were employed mainly in service trades and retail businesses. The least known of the immigrants are the Germans who arrived after the 1890s—mostly businessmen working as managers, bookkeepers, and supervisors in the German-owned cigar box factories.  Germans produced the lithographs—beautiful artistry—for the box labels. For the next 50 years, this hodgepodge community would produce millions of cigars annually, making Tampa the “Cigar Capital of the World.”

In the museum all the information is available, complemented by fascinating old photos and a replica of a cigar-making facility—available for viewing at your own pace. A museum store next door offers gifts and books on local culture as well as a continually running video of Ybor history. In addition, every 30 minutes between 10 am and 3 pm a guide will tour you through the adjacent garden and inside a “casita”—a typical worker’s home, restored and furnished as company quarters—often the only accommodation available. The houses—hundreds built in almost identical style—were primitive even by the standards of the time, and although workers were deprived of creature comforts, Ybor City flourished until the Depression era.

Less demand and the switch to cheaper mechanized manufacturing precipitated an exodus that accelerated after World War II, leading to a period of abandonment and decay. By the early 1970s, very few businesses and residents remained.
It was the early 1980s when an influx of artists seeking interesting and inexpensive studio quarters started a slow recovery, eventually escalating commercial appeal. By the early 1990s, many of the old long-empty brick buildings had been converted into bars, restaurants, and nightlife attractions. Several structures in the area are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

 In 2008, the American Planning Association recognized 7th Avenue, the main commercial thoroughfare, as one of the “10 Great Streets in America”, and in 2010 the Columbia Restaurant was named a "Top 50 All-American icon" by National restaurant News magazine.

Ybor City is less an entity resuscitated than a whole new industry. There is something here for the fun lover seeking a night’s entertainment, and for the historian fulfilling curiosity.

Entertainment varies according to taste, but history is a review of facts, and those are probably best related by Wallace Reyes who conducts tours leaving the museum daily at 10 a.m., 12 noon, and 2 p.m. Reyes, with a Ph.D. in history, takes you on a 90-minute excursion of 12 sites along the washboard streets of brick, explaining architecture, and each place in context of the city’s past.  Reyes, also a master cigar maker, speaks with authority on that subject as well. He and his wife set the Guiness Book record in ’06 and ’09 of the largest stogie ever rolled.

The distinctive architecture of Ybor City with its red-brick buildings, wrought-iron balconies and narrow brick streets provide an old world charm. Here you’ll enjoy the scent of roasting Cuban coffee and often the aroma of a hand-rolled cigar--a Latin feast for the senses.
The Ybor City Museum State Park is located at 1818 E. 9th Ave. It is open from 9 am to 5 pm daily. Admission is $4. Phone 813-247-6323 or go to www.floridastateparks.org