What springs to mind when people talk about vacations in Florida? Theme parks? Rollercoasters? Cartoon characters? The Sunshine State might be famous for its colourful family-friendly attractions, but there's so much more to do there than the obvious. And some of it is creepy, spooky and just plain weird. Join us on a tour of the dark side of Florida, the absolute antidote to the sickly sweet Sunshine State you thought you knew.
1. The Gravity-Defying Hill
Visitors to Spook Hill in Lake Wales are instructed to drive to a white line on the road, put their car in neutral and see what happens next. Which is something pretty strange: the vehicle will roll up
the hill, defying gravity. The legend of Spook Hill is so famous that the nearby primary school has Casper the Friendly Ghost as its mascot. Experts say it is simply an impressive optical illusion, but it's fun to read this sign at the side of the road and believe that it might be to do with legendary alligators, chiefs and ghostly goings-on. Either way, it's bound to blow your mind.
2. The Stinking Bigfoot
The swamp ape is a tall, hairy, ape-like creature that is believed to live in Florida's Everglades. The elusive creature gets its name from the strong rotting smell that is said to linger around it. Although officially recognized as a hoax, some people refuse to believe that the swamp ape is anything but real. One such person is Dave Shealey, who has spent much of his life researching the hairy monster. He also runs the Skunk Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee, where you can find out all there is to know about the beast. If you're feeling brave, you could even stay overnight in the on-site campground.
3. The Evil Doll
Safely (or perhaps not-so-safely) encased in glass in the Fort East Martello Museum, Key West, is this flea-bitten looking old doll. This isn't just any doll, though: it's Robert the Doll, and he's thought to have supernatural powers. Robert belonged to eccentric artist Eugene Otto and it is said that the doll wreaked havoc in his childhood home. Loud noises were often heard from Otto's room at night and furniture and other toys were destroyed. Otto always blamed Robert, who over the years was also held responsible for servants quitting their jobs, divorce, illness and even death. Despite all this, Otto kept hold of Robert, keeping him by his side until his death in 1974. These days, Robert gets fan mail from all over the world. Staff at the museum, where visitors can buy a souvenir replica, say he often moves inside his case, and even that his facial expressions change.
4. The Serial Killer's Local
With its messy graffiti, neon lights and motorbikes parked outside, The Last Resort in Port Orange is every inch the American dive bar you've seen in the movies. In fact, this one really did feature in the movies and, as the sign outside declares, is world-famous. For what? Being the favourite drinking den of a notorious serial killer. This is where multiple murderer Aileen Wuornos sipped her very last beer, as it's where detectives arrested her in 1991. Scenes from the 2003 film Monster
, in which Charlize Theron played Wuornos, were filmed here, and photographs of the actress hang from the walls.
5. The Haunted Gangland Hideout
In 1935, the longest police shoot-out in history happened inside this house in the Lake Weir area. It went on for hours, and locals even sat down to have picnics while they watched the machine guns fire. The FBI surrounded the house after finding out that notorious criminal Ma Baker and her son Freddie were inside. The two were wanted for a string of violent crimes, including bank robberies, kidnaps and murders. Eventually, they were both killed in the front left bedroom. The facade of the house is peppered with bullet holes and shell cases are said to still litter the floors inside. For years, local residents have insisted that the house is haunted with the angry spirit of Ma Baker. In 2016, the house was loaded on a barge and carried two miles away, where it is being restored so it can be opened as a museum. Rumour has it that the ghost of Ma Barker is not happy about the house being moved, and that she's angrier than ever.
6. The Psychic Capital of The World
Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp was formed in the late 1800s, when the Native American spirit guide of a New York spiritualist told him to set up here. The area was chosen because it's apparently easier to connect to the dead here, and it has become home to a community of psychics and clairvoyants (about half of the people in the tiny town of Cassadaga are mediums of some sort). Here, it is said, you can receive messages from the dead and find out what the future has in store. The camp, located in Volusia County, boasts a temple, a library, an auditorium, a bookshop and a haunted hotel. In the nearby cemetery, there's a legendary bench called the Devil's Chair. According to folklore, anyone who dares sit on the bench will meet the devil, and if beer is left there overnight, it will be gone by the morning.
7. The Funny Cemetery
Key West Cemetery is one of the world's most well-known graveyards, but it's not because the famous are buried there. This is a cemetery with a difference because many of the epitaphs that adorn its headstones are actually very funny quips. Perhaps the most visited of these is B.P. Roberts' grave, which is engraved with the words 'I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK'. "I always dreamed of owning a small place in Key West," says another one, and "If you're reading this, you need a hobby," says another. The cemetery was initially designed for 15,000 plots, but it's estimated that as many as 100,000 cremated remains now rest here in the blackly comic grounds.
8. The Venom Factory
The Reptile World Serpentarium in St Cloud is more than just a zoo; it's a "working venom factory". As well as alligators and lizards, this fascinating attraction is home to more than 35 of the worlds most venomous snake species, including mambas, rattlesnakes and cobras. Members of the public are invited to watch daily "venom shows", during which owner George Van Horn "milks" the deadly snakes. You can watch as he coaxes the poisonous animals into biting a membrane stretched over a glass to collect the venom. Once collected, the venom is sold to universities and companies, for research and the development of anti-venom.
9. The Understairs Dungeon
The wooden schoolhouse in the Minorcan Quarter of St. Augustine is said to be the oldest of its kind in America, and has been on official records since 1716. Visiting the schoolhouse offers a fascinating insight into the way schools like this ran, with the headmaster and his family living upstairs and dunce caps the norm. The wooden house is tethered to the ground with a thick, rusty chain in case it gets whipped away by hurricanes. Perhaps the creepiest part of this place though is the cramped understairs dungeon, which is where children were locked when they misbehaved. Scarier still is the dummy of a small boy who's permanently resident in there these days. Apparently, he bites.
10. The Bat Tower That Even the Bats Evacuated
In 1929, fish lodge owner Richter Clyde Perky built this impressive wooden bat tower in Monroe County. The idea was that bats would roost there and help to control the number of malaria-spreading mosquitoes in the area. As soon as the bats were released into the specially-designed tower, however, they flew away and never came back. The 30-foot wooden tower stood eerily empty in the spot for nearly ninety years, before it was felled by Hurricane Irma in 2017. If you want to spot bats while you're in the Sunshine State, head to the Florida University Bat House in Gainesville, where 300,000 of the gothic creatures can be seen flitting around at dusk. Just watch out for guano and urine.