25 Sun-Soaked Facts About Florida

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Ah, Florida. The land of palm trees, sunshine, and … a carnivorous pink cloud? To celebrate the 175th anniversary of Florida's statehood, here are more facts about the home of Walt Disney World and the world's worst superhero.

1. The full title of the Florida state song is “Swanee River (Old Folks at Home).”

The choice of "Swanee River (Old Folks at Home)," a minstrel song written by Stephen Foster in 1851, makes sense when you consider that the retirement industry is the state's second-biggest economic driver, and that by 2030, one out of every four Florida residents will be older than 65 [PDF]. The state officially adopted revised lyrics to "Swanee River" in 2008, replacing its original, racist ones.

2. Florida is 8223 square miles bigger than England.

The state has an area of 58,560 square miles, but a lot of that is swampland. Land totals 54,136 square miles and water covers 4424 square miles.

3. A 3500-year-old cypress tree named The Senator was the pride of Longwood, Florida.

The Senator was among the oldest known trees in the world. Then in 2012, a meth addict climbed inside the trunk and lit up. Senator was reduced to ashes. “I can’t believe I burned down a tree older than Jesus,” she later said.

4. People really, really love Walt Disney World—and some of them never want to leave.

It’s not legal to scatter human ashes in the Disney theme park, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it on the sly. The Haunted Mansion is an especially popular choice. But the effort probably isn't worth it: staff members who find suspicious piles of dust call code “HEPA cleanup,” after the special vacuum the custodians use to suck up what’s left of Grandma.

5. South Florida is the only place on Earth where alligators and crocodiles coexist in the wild.

Even if you're not quite sure of the difference between alligators and crocodiles, you can feel confident knowing the ranges of both animals overlap only in South Florida. American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) live across the Southeast from Texas to Florida, while American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) mostly inhabit the Caribbean.

6. Miami banks were losing business in the mid-'90s because rollerbladers didn’t feel like taking off their skates to go inside.

To accommodate banking on the go, one Citibank installed a custom-built rollerblade ATM, complete with a flashy pink ramp. “Hey, that's a great thing for skaters,'' one waiter on wheels told the Orlando Sentinel. ''I'll be using that baby all the time.''

7. A 1998 Florida law requires all state-funded daycare centers and preschools to play classical music to children.

“I want all the kids in the state of Florida to be the best and brightest,” state senator Bill Turner said. The so-called Mozart effect has since been debunked, but the law [PDF] holds.

8. Florida’s nasty mosquitoes have inspired some creative pest-control efforts.

In 1929, the owner of a Florida Keys fishing lodge spent $10,000 of his own money to build a 30-foot wooden tower in the hopes of attracting mosquito-eating bats. Equipped with “all the conveniences any little bat heart could possibly desire” and smeared with pheromone-rich bat poop, the tower would have been a big hit—if any bats had ever shown up.

9. You should keep your distance from Florida's beloved (and endangered) manatees.

The Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978 makes it illegal to disturb the creatures in any way; violators may face fines up to $500 and be sentenced to up to 60 days in jail. Manatees are also protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. People convicted of violating the federal laws can be sentenced to a fine of $100,000 and a year in jail.

10. Florida's state bird is not the flamingo.

Instead of those ubiquitous plastic lawn ornaments, Florida's state bird is the Northern mockingbird. The rather drab songbird, though an excellent mimic and singer, is a somewhat pedestrian choice for a state that is home to some spectacular species rarely seen anywhere else in the United States—like the roseate spoonbill, purple gallinule, and anhinga.

11. In 1982, the Florida Keys seceded from the United States and declared themselves the Conch Republic.

The move was to protest the placement of a Border Patrol-run road block in Florida City, the mainland gateway to the island chain. Key West mayor-turned-prime minister Dennis Wardlow declared war against the United States. The campaign was short-lived; within two minutes, Wardlow had surrendered and requested $1 million in foreign aid.

12. Florida has its own Bigfoot.

It's an 8-foot tall, hairy, smelly monster known as the skunk ape. Sightings were so frequent in the '70s that legislators feared it was just a matter of time before the skunk ape was caught or killed. They tried to make it a misdemeanor to “take, possess, harm or molest anthropoid or humanoid animals.”

13. A Florida man owns the world’s largest collection of fossilized poop.

Scientists can learn a lot about past flora, fauna, and entire environments from fossil poop, a.k.a. coprolites. Jacksonville resident George Frandsen has amassed more than 1200 of the ancient turds and operates an online museum called the Poozeum.

14. Florida’s lush climate makes it a haven for escaped or introduced non-native plants and animals.

The Everglades teem with invasive species, including 8-inch-long giant snails, boa constrictors, two types of pythons, and crocodile-like reptiles called caimans.

15. Tourists in Florida have been chased by an evil pink cloud.

Travelers in the 1950s and '60s reported being pursued through the woods near Daytona by a strange pink cloud. Citizens told of a carnivorous cloud that would absorb people whole and spit out their bones.

16. Sarasota, Florida, is home to what may be the only Amish beach resort in the world.

Pinecraft is a small community of Amish and Mennonite snowbirds who bring a piece of Pennsylvania Dutch culture with them down south. Amish restaurants and shops in and around Pinecraft welcome all visitors.

17. In 2013, a Florida woman named Linda Ducharme renewed her vows to a Ferris wheel named Bruce.

After a short ceremony, the bride fed the groom a slice of pizza.

18. Florida was Spanish territory for a total of 280 years.

That's longer than the U.S. has existed.

19. NASA built a rocket test facility in Homestead, Florida, in the 1960s.

When the project ended, the government left the site intact—and there’s still a rocket there today.

Rocket in silo

20. One of Florida's prisons used to serve lobster.

The minimum-security prison at Eglin Air Force Base was so cushy that it was known as “Club Fed.” White-collar inmates enjoyed rounds of golf and lobster bakes before the party ended in 2006.

21. A major annual beach party in Florida includes dead fish.

Participants in the annual Interstate Mullet Toss throw dead mullet—a silver fish common in the Gulf of Mexico— over the state line from Florida into Alabama.

22. Florida was once called the "lightning capital of the world."

That was until NASA discovered that Rwanda actually deserves the title. Still, approximately nine people are killed by lightning strikes in Florida each year, far more than any other U.S. state.

23. Florida got its name from Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon.

Ponce de Leon sailed from Puerto Rico to what is now the area of St. Augustine, Florida, in 1513 and is credited as the first European to visit the place. He named the territory Florida because he landed there around Easter (Pasqua Florida in Spanish) and because of its lush tropical foliage.

24. In the 1950s, Miami’s Opa-locka Airport served as the CIA’s base of covert operations against Guatemala and Cuba.

The airport also played a role in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

25. Wherever you are in Florida, you're never more than 60 miles from the nearest body of salt water.

Florida also boasts 7700 lakes, 11,000 miles of river, almost 3000 miles of tidal shoreline, and 700 freshwater springs.

10 Enchanting Places That Align with the Vernal Equinox

A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On Thursday, March 19, the vernal equinox heralded the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Ancient civilizations built calendars and observatories to track the movements of the stars and mark this monumental time. Now, people still partake in a variety of traditions and rituals to honor the day when light and dark become equal. To take your celestial celebrations to the next level, here are 10 places that align with the spring equinox.

1. On the vernal equinox, a massive snake appears on the temple at Chichen Itza.

Legend says that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the Maya city of Chichen Itza receives an otherworldly visitor: Kukulcan, the feathered serpent deity. On these days, a shadowy snake slithers down the side of the god's namesake pyramid. As the temple darkens, a single strip of light stretches from the top of the northern staircase to the snake head resting at the bottom, creating the illusion of a wriggling reptile.

2. A beam of light illuminates a petroglyph within Arizona’s Boulder House each vernal equinox.

The Boulder House in Scottsdale, Arizona, looks like a strange home wedged amid a jumble of rocks. But it’s actually a modern house built around a sacred Native American site. The Empie family, who bought the parcel of desert land in the 1980s, commissioned architect Charles Johnson to transform the cluster of 1.6-billion-year-old boulders into a functional house. Johnson crafted a unique structure, incorporating the rocks into the house’s foundation and preserving the prehistoric carvings. On the equinox, sunlight pierces between two boulders in the unusual abode, striking a spiral petroglyph on the wall to create a dazzling piece of home decor.

3. On the vernal equinox, a group of Moai on Easter Island stare directly at the sunset.

Seven Moai gaze face toward the horizon
On the equinox, these Moai stare directly at the setting sun.
abriendomundo/iStock via Getty Images

People aren’t the only ones who pause to watch the sun slip beneath the horizon on the first day of spring. On Easter Island, at a sacred site called Ahu Akivi, a line of seven Moai—the island’s giant, mysterious heads—gaze directly at the point at which the sun sets in the sky on the equinox.

4. Each vernal equinox, light drenches a petroglyph-filled cairn at Loughcrew.

The hills of Loughcrew, one of Ireland’s four main passage tomb sites, are crowned by 5000-year-old megalithic structures. At dawn on the equinox, sunlight fills Cairn T, a passage tomb carved with astoundingly well-preserved examples of Neolithic art. As the light dissolves the darkness, the cup marks that dimple its walls and the symbols adorning its back stones blaze into view. The illumination lasts for about 50 minutes, giving observers ample time to take turns squeezing into the cairn.

5. On the vernal equinox, light streams through one of the Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples.

The Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples on Malta’s southern coast are archaeological wonders. They were built between 3600 and 2500 BCE and are believed to be among the world’s oldest freestanding stone buildings. Not much is known about the people who created these megalithic masterpieces, though it’s clear they constructed one of the temples with an eye to the heavens. On the equinox, the sun streams through the South Temple’s main doorway, flooding the structure’s major axis with light.

6. On the vernal equinox, the sun sits directly atop the main temple at Angkor Wat.

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat would be a magical experience any day. Crowds hush as colorful hues paint the world’s largest religious structure with a gilded glow. Dawn at Angkor Wat is even more special on the equinoxes. Then, the sun rises behind the main temple before briefly seeming to balance on its tip like a fiery halo.

7. On the spring equinox, the sun rises through the entrance to Stonehenge Aotearoa.

Stonehenge has inspired replicas around the globe—including as far away as New Zealand. Stonehenge Aotearoa, which opened in 2005, was built by the Phoenix Astronomical Society. The structure is an astronomical tool for observing the local skies, and blends modern astronomy with ancient starlore. If you stand in the center of the circle on the Southern Hemisphere's vernal equinox, you can watch the sun rise directly through the Sun Gate, two carved pillars that flank the entrance to the henge.

8. The shadow of the intihuatana at Machu Picchu disappears at noon on the equinox.

A curious stone structure stands atop a temple at Machu Picchu. It’s one of the rare surviving intihuatanas that wasn’t demolished by the Spanish conquistadors. This “hitching post of the sun” is believed to have been an astronomical tool. At noon on the equinox, the granite pillar’s shadow briefly vanishes. Unfortunately, the invaluable object now looks a bit battered. In 2000, a crane toppled into the intihuatana during the filming of a beer commercial, smashing part of it.

9. At sunrise on the spring equinox, the sun bursts through the door of a temple at Dzibilchaltún.

Sunrise at Dzibilchaltún
Each equinox, the sun appears within the door of the Temple of the Seven Dolls.
renatamsousa/iStock via Getty Images

Though now reduced to a medley of ruins dotting the jungle, Dzibilchaltún was once the longest continually inhabited Maya administrative and ceremonial city. The star attraction here is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, a building named for the mysterious human-like figures discovered inside. At dawn on the equinox, the sun shines through the temple’s main door. It’s believed the sacred structure was aligned with the equinoxes to mark the beginning of the planting season and the end of the harvesting season.

10. The 'Woodhenge' at the Cahokia Mounds aligns with the sunrise on the equinox.

During the Mississippian cultural period, Cahokia's population exceeded that of London. In addition to giant pyramids, the North American city also featured circles of wooden posts, since dubbed “Woodhenge.” The wooden markers were likely used to track the sun’s movements. One of the posts aligns with the equinoxes, as well as with the front of Monks Mound. On sunrise on the equinox, it looks as though the sun is emerging from the enigmatic earthwork.

Lítla Dímun: The Smallest of the Faroe Islands Has Its Very Own Cloud

While some islands are known for their unusual geography or unique history, Lítla Dímun is notable for its weather. The island, which is the smallest of Denmark's Faroe Islands chain, is often capped by a lens-shaped cloud, making it resemble a scene from a fairytale.

According to Mental Floss's own Kerry Wolfe writing for Atlas Obscura, the cloud floating above Lítla Dímun is a lenticular cloud. This type of cloud forms when moist air flows over a protruding geological feature, like a mountain top. When the wind moving up the landmass hits the air current directly above it, a sort of wave is created on the downwind side of the mountain. The moist air falling down this wave evaporates and then condenses into a large, flying-saucer-shaped cloud atop the mountain peak as a result.

Another factor that makes Lítla Dímun distinct is that it's the only one of the 18 main Faroe Islands without human inhabitants. Visitors to the mystical location will instead find a thriving population of sheep. Originally, Lítla Dímun was home to a group of feral sheep likely dating back to the Neolithic era. But they were hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Domesticated sheep were introduced there around the same time, and today, farmers visit the island once a year to round up their flocks.

One of the few signs of human life are the ropes farmers use to scale the cliff faces bordering the island. Even if you have rock-climbing skills, Lítla Dímun may be dangerous to visit. A boat ride to the rocky shore is only possible when the surrounding sea is calm.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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