A Bit of Old Florida

When my grandparents moved to Florida in the mid-80s, it was inevitable that we would go down to visit them. At the time they had a trailer they had used to take a trip around the United States, and it was just lying around in the parking lot of their housing complex gathering dust. Either my parents put two and two together, or they had two and two together for them, and in the spring of 1986, I went on my first trip to Florida, spending a week in a camper on Flagler Beach.

To date, this is the worst trip I have ever been on.

Day 2: while splashing about in the ocean, a riptide catches my father and sends him out to sea. Only by the grace of God, a past life as a lifeguard, and the ability to wait until the pull of the current subsided before trying to swim back to shore kept him from drowning.

Day 3: I got sick. Scratch that. I became Sickness itself. The collected solids and fluids I had gathered in the previous 15 years decided to vacate my body via any available opening. This continued for a majority of the week. And then we went home.

We never stayed in a trailer again as a family. Not that I have any quarrels with Flagler Beach, which was simply an innocent bystander to my teenage angst, but I have never been back there since.

But the one thing I got to see in my first trip to Florida was the remains of Old Florida. The Non-Condo Version. The Mom-and-Pop-Beach-Motel Version. The Orange-Stand-Off-Every-Exit-of-95 Version. It barely exists on the coast anymore. You have to go searching for it inland.

So, in this most recent trip to Florida, we crossed the Halifax and went searching for Old Florida’s bones. My first stop was an oversight from our 2012 trip: the Hawaii Motel in Daytona. I had gotten good shots of it during the daytime, but I completely missed out on catching it lit at night. We got there a little before sundown, but it was getting quite dark and I figured they would light it up. I was wrong.

We parked along the side. Laura prodded me to go in and ask them to turn it on, so I did. A young Indian man was working that night and when I told him what I was after, he gave me a knowing smile. I was pretty sure I hadn’t been the first to ask.

Hawaii Motel, lit neon sign at night, Daytona Beach, FLThe hula skirt is not animated as it once was, but oh, well…

A couple days later, when the weather was supposed to be iffy at the beach and better inland, we went to see a location I had been scouting out in DeLand, along US 17. There was the Boulevard Motel, the kind Old Florida used to make with a sign to match, and just down the road, the Won Lee Chinese Restaurant, with another classic old sign in front. The sun burned the clouds as we drove, and by the time we got there, the Boulevard was bathed in natural light:

The Boulevard Motel neon sign, DeLand, FloridaHere’s your postcard.

Color TV? Awesome. Hot water heat? Well, I’ll take your word for it. I also love the old Amex sign dangling off the side, which was a first sighting for me. No doubt the old place is a little shaggy around the edges, but you can see what it once was.

The Boulevard Motel neon sign from close up, DeLand, Florida

The next one on my tour was just a few doors down. The Won Lee had at one point been Jack’s Boulevard Diner back in the day, but when it closed, the sign was fortunately kept for the Chinese restaurant when it was re-opened in the late 70s. Thanks to @sunsetmeridian on Instagram for her information on this one:

Won Lee Chinese Restaurant classic neon sign, DeLand, FLI was happy with that much, but US 17 in DeLand had another surprise in store. As we got going south, just to see what we could see before heading back to the beach, Laura’s finger began to point and she began to make noises like a child who knows the answer to the question the teacher just asked. I spotted it, too. I also spotted a problem. The sign, for B&O Cleaners (B&O? Unintentional humor strikes again.), was neon, with peeling paint, and enough character for three signs. That wasn’t the problem. The sun, which was coming directly from the south, wasn’t the problem. The telephone pole that had been placed seven inches away from the sign? Problem.

I got out of the car and pondered. But there was no way around it. I shrugged and took my shots.

B&O Cleaners neon sign, DeLand, FLHey! Down in front!

All in all, a highly successful trip. We even got back in to the hotel later that afternoon and got in the ocean. The ocean was marvelous. No one got carried out to sea. No one lost bodily waste in unusual quantities. Life was good. And we’ll be going back again.

Our Deck Down Under, Daytona Beach Shores, FL

Before we left, we went to Our Deck Down Under in Daytona Beach Shores. For the second time in a week. If you’ve never been, I suggest you go at least once. The restaurant is located underneath the A1A bridge back to the mainland. There’s seating outside on the deck. Dolphins and pelicans are frequent visitors. And the sun goes down in gorgeous hues. I couldn’t resist bringing my camera to gather some of this in. This is my idea of dining paradise:

Sunset at Our Deck Down Under, Daytona Beach Shores, FL


What Is to Come

Daytona BeachIt was windy on the beach at Daytona during the middle of the week. Not nasty enough to pick up the sand and hurl it in your face, but enough to question why you’re walking on the beach in the first place. Laura and I had walked for a good distance, past several mostly-empty hotels until we got to Treasure Island, a behemoth of a hotel that closed down after a hurricane several years ago and never re-opened, making it a Mecca for birds and graffiti artists alike. As were looking this over, seeing the half-collapsed Tiki hut, the cracked concrete, and the sagging metal fence surrounding the area, intended to keep the general public out, I said, “Do you want to turn around and go back?”

She said, “Let’s keep going. Forever.”

And that’s when I lost it.

Daytona Beach SUVIt’s always a long trip down from Pennsylvania, but always well worth it. Even our worst trip, which included blasting in Roanoke, accident delays in Charlotte and Jacksonville, and an incident where several cars were broken into at our hotel in Columbia (but not ours), has been a blessing. I love the road. I love seeing everything along the way. Sure, a plane can get you there faster, but you miss so much.

Hard year. My job is so distant from home and spending three nights apart is painful, no matter how many phone calls and texts you send to the one you love. The first year defined how much we missed each other, the second confirmed it, and third year looms ahead. You start lamenting the loss of a night spent searching through a grocery store, or cleaning the bathroom, or whatever normal people do on a normal Tuesday. This isn’t what it should be, what it could be.

And right there on the beach I lost it. And wondered why there was a good reason why we shouldn’t keep walking. Forever.

Daytona has many things, but classic signs are not one of them. The blasts of heat and the sudden rush of wind  and rain sees to that. In a way, I find that comforting when we go down, because I can truly take the time to relax. Every day, the newspaper showed up at our hotel room, and I read a great deal of it, even the local stories that pretty much have no bearing on my life. I forget how much I enjoy the newspaper. Life has passed the newspaper by in favor of bigger and better things, and some places it’s disappeared completely. But I love a box score. An editorial cartoon. Even the obits are interesting, especially in Florida.

Then there was a story on Sunday in the Local section. A big one, with a big picture to match. And wouldn’t you know, but one of the key players in this picture was the sign at The Desert Inn, a 60s beaut I had yet to get. Three men standing in front of it smiling. The new owners. The paper said the old place was run down. The new owners were going to sink more than 10 million dollars into it. And try to get a national chain to buy in. And change the name.

So no more sign.

I was just in time.

Desert Inn Front Sign, Daytona BeachWe got there just before sundown. I had no idea that the signs would be lit or not, but sure enough they were. I had never examined the place before, but it’s massive, far bigger than most. Three signs, one in the front, one back and in front of a main parking lot, and one great big one at the top, which was not lit. Whatever was next door had been blown down in a storm and was just an empty spot. We slid into a parking lot along the side, vacant as the vacant lot next door, and considered what it must take to rebuild something this large and neglected. I almost couldn’t blame them for renaming the place and getting rid of the old signs, as beautiful as they may be.

Desert Inn Side Sign, Daytona BeachI snapped away for a good while, as I usually do, and in the midst of this, as I thought I had gotten all I could get, the sun blasted out of the clouds in all its golden magic-hour glory. And I had a window of opportunity to get the massive top sign. I sprinted back to the car and fixed my 75-300 lens on to the Pentax K5 and hot-footed back to a better position.

Desert Inn Top Sign, Daytona Beach

A good send-off, I thought.

Laura could see the look on my face when I got back to the car. And she was happy because I was happy. But all of these things serve as a reminder that there is always something greater, far more important. We continue, despite hardships and stresses and failures. In time, things come to us, opportunities, and we take them, because we were meant to. Maybe things change around us and things get in our way, but we walk on together, because this is truly good, hand in hand.


Gone Fishin’ (for Signs)

I suppose the mark of whether you are a good employee is the amount of work that piles upon you the last week before you go on vacation. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but since I’ve been vertically and horizontally swamped this week, I choose to believe that my work will be missed. Which brings me sideways to my point: next week I’ll be on vacation.

My family has been vacationing in Daytona Beach since the mid-80s, when my grandparents moved to nearby Ormond Beach. The last two years have been spent in New Smyrna Beach (please read as New Sa-myrna Beach, to sound like a native). And last year, we ran into one of the drearier Novembers Florida has had in recent memory, so there was little beach time and much more fishing for signs.

Shangri-la Motel, New Smyrna Beach, FL

During a brief amount of sun I managed to get to Shangri-La. Or at least, the motel version. This was a real old “motor court” style of place, with the individual cabins a la It Happened One Night. While I was snapping away merrily, a woman came out of one of the cabins. Turns out she’s one of the owners, and she let me know a little bit about the place. The sign has been out of order since a hurricane hit the area a few years ago. It might work, but when they tried it, there was some electricity arcing going on, so they felt it best to leave it off. The cabins, of course, are a rarity, and apparently the local architectural college has students come by on field trips.

Hall Machine, New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Just down US 1 is this beauty, which is essentially a bunch of walls of fading sign-painterly goodness. I ran into the owners this time as well, but they were a little more skittish. Apparently, they’ve been getting flak from the local powers-that-be for not cleaning up their appearance. Quite honestly, it’s some character of old Florida that I can’t get enough of, and told them so. They were pleased with that and let me take shots to my heart’s content.


Back in Daytona. Love this place, and I hit it just right, during a fleeting moment of sunshine. I think I ran into the owner again, but this one didn’t talk. He just stared at me at an angle and generally looked like he might bark at me if he were a German Shepherd. When neon hula girls are at stake, no amount of stinkeye is enough to keep me away.

There’s very little of old Florida signs left, unfortunately, so I’ve pretty much tapped that resource out. Unless of course, you know of any places I need to go (hint, hint). If so, please comment on this post.