Florida nostalgia lovers, rejoice. And maybe say a prayer for your pocketbook.
After a multiyear hiatus, Floridania Fest returns to Tampa Bay on May 21. Thousands of historic Sunshine State souvenirs, artwork and collectibles will be for sale at the Gulfport Casino, from postcards and felt pennants to orange blossom perfume and alligator-skin handbags.
“It’s just a super fun hobby because it can combine your love of history, and especially Florida history, with collecting,” said author Ken Breslauer, who has hosted the event on and off since 1994. “You can have lifelong friendships with people who have the same passion.”
Breslauer typically spends six months or so promoting his events and works with about 20 dealers, who are all devoted to scouting out fun and quirky artifacts. The event will also have plenty of Florida books for sale, from Breslauer’s own volumes detailing the state’s souvenir history to coloring books about Florida’s lost landmarks.
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Breslauer, 65, has an interesting history of his own: He grew up in Delray Beach and became a sports writer for the Pensacola News Journal, then spent 37 years at the Sebring International Raceway, where he retired after working as the media relations director. Along the way, Breslauer earned a master’s degree in historic preservation, publishing a thesis in 1999 based on roadside attractions in Florida.
“It wasn’t that big of a topic and then all of the sudden in 2003, Cypress Gardens went out of business,” he said. “Everyone was worried about the future of these roadside attractions, how they might be lost to development and so forth.”
Breslauer followed up his thesis with a book on the history of local roadside attractions. And he started collecting. His first show was at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, but over the years it’s traveled to other historic venues in cities around the Sunshine State.
Browsing the merchandise isn’t just a fun way to spend a Saturday. It’s also a way to understand how Florida has sold its sunshine over the years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, most trinkets were handcrafted, including mementos made with natural Florida wood and gator skin.
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“The early attractions of Florida are based on the natural appeal of Florida,” Breslauer said. “The springs, the gardens, the wildlife.”
As the 20th century progressed, the rise of the roadside attraction ushered in a new era of keepsakes: ashtrays, decals, plates and View-Master reels. Before Disney made a splash in the ‘70s, spots like Silver Springs, Sunken Gardens and Cypress Gardens reigned supreme.
Certain attractions have big crossover appeal among collectors and will be very present at the show, like Weeki Wachee’s mermaids and Cypress Gardens’ water skiers. Tiki Gardens, a now-defunct Indian Rocks Beach attraction that capitalized on the midcentury tiki craze, is popular with tiki enthusiasts. A 33 RPM record put out by the attraction now can go for up to $500.
“Whatever people tend to remember from their childhood tends to be what they go crazy for,” said author Rick Kilby, who will be selling his history books at Floridania Fest.
When Kilby was working on his last few books about Florida’s springs, he attended Breslauer’s events to find artifacts he could use. These days, he’s going more to have some fun shopping.
“Ken buys the cream of the crop,” Kilby said. “He has stuff no one else has.”
Kilby’s advice: If you see something you like, grab it. He still remembers unique items from previous festivals that he didn’t buy and hasn’t seen since, like tiny hand-drawn billboard inserts that Silver Springs sold to be added to model train sets from the 1950s and ‘60s.
“This is really a good chance to find your Florida treasure,” Breslauer said.
If you go
Floridania Fest takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 21 at the Gulfport Casino. The last admission is at 3:30 p.m. $5, children 14 and under are free. 5500 Shore Blvd. S, Gulfport.