“That’s big, bad Bob,” Capt. Fred told us. We were eyeball to eyeball with more than a pair of shoes and a handbag. Bob, at 12 1/2 feet, was a whole set of alligator luggage on the claw. “See that hump on his back? It’s air — he’s blown himself up so he’ll look bigger.” Bob didn’t need the balloon act. I was impressed.

Keep your Disney Worlds and Universals. Florida was a tourist attraction long before the mouse. And those attractions are still there. Discover them and find the new, old Florida.

Like a dowager’s hump, the Lake Wales Ridge lumps up in the center of the state.

Barely discernable, the region is one of the most distinctive biological and geological areas in the nation. These sandy uplands are the remnants of islands in a pre-Pleistocene sea. A number of unique and endangered species of plants and animals inhabit the Ridge.

In spite of the poor soil, this is the heart of Florida’s famous orange groves. Like the threatened resident sand skinks and scrub jays, Florida’s citrus industry faces challenges. With competition from cheaper markets and the onslaught of developers, orange growers have had to innovate to maintain a way of life that often encompasses multiple generations.

Learn more about where your morning sunshine comes from by visiting the Grove House, the visitor center for Florida’s Natural juices. Have a glass of juice, sit in a rocker on the porch of the cracker-style center, shop for citrus souvenirs and hear the story of this cooperative of small growers working to preserve a historically important part of the state’s economy.

As you drive down Highway 27, you’ll pass acres of orange trees but, for a bird’s eye view, climb to the hilltop home of another Florida icon, Bok Tower. In a fast-paced world, Historic Bok Sanctuary provides a place for respite and reflection. In a world obsessed with celebrity and materialism, it provides a higher philosophy. Edward Bok’s ruling precept was “Make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.”

And he did, by creating lush gardens, supported by tons of rich soil brought in for their construction. Native plants have not been neglected and the protection and propagation of endangered plants is an important part of Bok Sanctuary’s mission. Included in the collection is the Florida Jujube (Ziziphus celata) one of the rarest plants in the world.

The heart of the Sanctuary is the Singing Tower. Standing 205 feet tall, it is constructed of pink Georgia marble and native coquina with decorations of pierced marble and colored tile. At the top of the tower are the 60 bells that make up the carillon. They range in size from the giant Bourdon, weighing 23,400 pounds to the smallest bell, which weighs 16 pounds. During the daily carillon recitals, all activity stops — lawn mowers cease — only the sound of the bells cascades from the tower and rolls through the gardens. This is a magical place, one that captured my childish imagination half a century ago. And, unlike so many of my childhood memories, it retains that special, romantic air to this day.

Another Florida perennial is Cypress Gardens. Thanks to their famous ski show, I begged my parents for water skis. It didn’t matter that we lived in lake-limited Kansas and had no boat. My skis stayed under my bed until I went to college when they mysteriously disappeared — and I never noticed. The ski show is still super with somersaults and slaloms and smiling beauties, but today’s guests sit in a covered grandstand. No more wooden benches with the damp, heart-shaped prints we left after sitting in the Florida sun.

The gardens glow with color and majestic great blue herons wade grandly through lily pads and pose beside garden statues. Cypress Gardens has kept up with the times, retaining the historic botanic gardens and the much-photographed southern belles, while adding attractions to appeal to a younger generation. Animal shows, rides — from a gentle carousel to wild and wooly roller coasters — a water park and concert venue offer entertainment for visitors who want to pick up the pace.

The old Florida, however, recaptures a time when vacations were more leisurely. Nowhere is this truer than at Chalet Suzanne, a country inn and restaurant founded in 1931. Disney could have borrowed ideas from this eclectic assortment of buildings. A pink stucco confection with turrets and towers, Chalet Suzanne also features a Swiss Room, the Little Swedish Bar, a wine dungeon and is liberally decorated with Persian, Romanian, Spanish and Mexican painted tiles.

Brush off your old copy of Emily Post and put on your best bib and tucker. Elegant gourmet fare is the hallmark here. The Chalet serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with the ultimate experience being the six-course dinner. Jackets are required, although ties are optional. Just remember to bring your wallet. Choices range from $59 to $79 and include options like king crab thermidor, broiled shad roe, lamb chop grill or filet mignon.

Each meal starts with Chalet Suzanne’s signature broiled grapefruit — you haven’t tasted citrus until you’ve tried a juicy Florida grapefruit topped with brown sugar, cinnamon and butter, all broiled to a perfect crunch. Or try the famous, out-of-this-world Soup Romaine, the choice of Apollo astronauts.

Come back to earth with an airboat adventure and see some of Florida’s wildlife up close. Central Florida is a mecca for birders and the list I’d made was impressive, even including two whooping cranes, but my trip up the Kissimmee River into Lake Hatchineha, the Dead River and Reedy Creek was the highlight of the trip. I couldn’t imagine seeing wildlife from the noisy airboat but Capt. Fred Neidlinger was both a master naturalist and a great driver, cutting the engine when we approached prime habitat. My bird list grew — killdeer, caracara, green-backed heron, turkey, kingfisher and even a bald eagle. But the big attractions were the alligators — small, medium and Big Bob-sized. It’s hard to imagine how an animatronic animal can come close to the thrill of seeing one of these giant reptiles in person.

So make the obligatory trip to the fantasy parks, if you must. But don’t forget, there’s a real and different world here. It may be old-fashioned, but Florida’s groves, gardens and ’gators are still a great reason to visit the Sunshine State.

(Travel writer and photographer Elaine Warner is a freelance writer living in Edmond and can be reached at okietravel@yahoo.com .)

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