Clay County Memories 8/1/19

Reptile Land was popular rest stop for weary travelers

Clay Today
Posted 7/31/19

For nearly three decades, a parcel of land along the six-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 301 that cuts across the north-west corner of Clay County was home to Florida Reptile Land.

Opened in 1955, …

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Clay County Memories 8/1/19

Reptile Land was popular rest stop for weary travelers

Posted

For nearly three decades, a parcel of land along the six-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 301 that cuts across the north-west corner of Clay County was home to Florida Reptile Land.

Opened in 1955, the Highland Zoo, as it was promptly dubbed by locals, was a popular stop for tourists along what was in those days one of the four main roads into the Florida peninsula. They arrived in big muscle cars, hot and sweaty from the long haul through Georgia and ready to gas up and take a break.

Blondie, the elephant, staked out front pulled them in like a magnet. Only the hardest hearted parent could resist the backseat full of kids clamoring and whining to see her up close.

In keeping with the formula for these roadside attractions, there was no admission charge and the entrance to the park was on the side with the exit through the gift store. Old timers in the trade always said that getting in was free but it cost to get out.

The “brainy” chicken was housed in a clever contraption constructed so that when a kid dropped a coin in a slot, the chicken rang a bell and out slid a few kernels of corn which were promptly gobbled up. The chicken was changed frequently because this set up was so popular that chickens soon lost interest and … the show must go on.

The concession stand was a major draw and cash cow. Out in the park, shaded by trees and surrounded by picnic tables, it was a welcome respite from miles and miles of dusty roads.

Eggs, bacon, grits and biscuits were served in the mornings. The rest of the day until the last of the daylight, hot dogs and hamburgers with sodas were the fare. Kids and adults accustomed to cooler climes ordered snow cones all day and year-round.

Hands down though, freshly squeezed orange juice was the most often ordered beverage and for some it was their first taste of the drink and officially proved they were really in Florida.

The sky-walking goats were another crowd-pleaser. They were trained to climb up steep stairs cross a narrow bridge near the tree tops then down steps at the other end. Then it was on to alligators, flamingos, rattlesnakes, Rhesus monkeys and the chimpanzee.

Old timers in the trade swore by the motto “free to get in but…pay to get out.

When time came to get back on the road, families had to run the gauntlet of consumerism through the gift shop to the exit. Souvenirs of all shapes and sizes threatened to overwhelm the unsuspecting. But there amidst the tomahawks, painted dishes, and salt and peppershakers was the ultimate souvenir craved by every child who ever passed through the store – honest to goodness live 12-to-14 inch baby alligators.

Needless to say these little critters were not so popular with parents who knew full well that like kittens they were destined to grow up and turn into something that would very probably eat the cat. Still, they sold a goodly number of the scaly reptiles with bands of scotch tape around their jaws.

By the 1980s, times were changing. Multi-lane interstates highways and Goliath sized theme parks began springing up in Georgia and central Florida. Florida Reptile Land closed its doors in 1984.

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