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 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

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13 Facts About Robert E. Peary, North Pole Explorer

Christie's, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Christie's, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Robert Edwin Peary, called "one of the greatest of all explorers," claimed to have been the first person to reach the North Pole on April 6, 1909. But from the moment his achievement was announced to the world, Peary was mired in a controversy that overshadowed his other accomplishments as a skilled civil engineer, natural historian, and expedition leader. Here are a few things you should know about this daring Arctic adventurer.

1. Robert Peary was extremely close to his mother.

Robert Edwin Peary was born May 6, 1856, in Cresson, Pennsylvania, an industrial town in the Allegheny Mountains. His father died when he was 3, and his mother, Mary Wiley Peary, returned with her son to her home state of Maine. As an only child, Peary formed a close bond with his mother, and when he attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, they lived together in rooms off campus. When Peary married Josephine Diebitsch, Mary accompanied the couple on their honeymoon on the Jersey Shore and then moved in with the newlyweds, to Josephine's utter surprise. The explorer confided all of his aspirations to his mother throughout his life. In one prophetic letter to her following his first expedition to Greenland in 1886, he wrote:

"I will next winter be one of the foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future instead of letting it come as it will ... remember, mother, I must have fame, and I cannot reconcile myself to years of commonplace drudgery and a name late in life when I see an opportunity to gain it now."

2. Robert Peary had a side hustle as a taxidermist.

Peary enjoyed a childhood spent outdoors playing sports and studying natural history. After graduating from college with a degree in civil engineering, Peary moved to his mother's hometown of Fryeburg, Maine, to work as a county surveyor. But the county had little need for a surveyor, and to supplement his income, he taxidermied birds. He charged $1.50 for a robin and $1.75 to $2.25 for ducks and hawks.

3. Before he went to the North Pole, Robert Peary went to Nicaragua.

Portrait of Robert Peary
Robert Peary in his naval uniform
The American Museum Journal, Wikimedia Commons // No Known Copyright Restrictions

In 1881, Peary was commissioned by the Navy Civil Engineer Corps, which made him a naval officer with a rank equivalent to lieutenant. Three years later, renowned civil engineer Aniceto Menocal picked Peary to lead a field party to survey an area in Nicaragua for a canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Peary's ability to hack through thick jungle and scale mountains impressed Menocal enough that he hired Peary for a second survey of Nicaragua in 1887, this time with a well-funded, 200-person operation.

4. Robert Peary met Matthew Henson in a Washington, D.C. hat shop.

Though some details of the encounter differ, Peary met his eventual polar partner Matthew Henson at B.H. Stinemetz & Son, a hatter and furrier at 1237 Pennsylvania Avenue. Peary needed a sun helmet for his second trip to Nicaragua. He also needed to hire a valet. The shop's owner recommended his clerk, Henson, who surely impressed Peary with his years of experience on ships. Henson accompanied Peary to Nicaragua and on every Arctic expedition thereafter, including the successful North Pole excursion in 1908-1909.

5. Robert Peary made seven trips to the Arctic.

Peary's first trip to Greenland occurred in 1886 between his two trips to Central America. With a Danish companion, he trekked 100 miles across the Greenland ice cap but had to turn back when food ran low.

During his second and third expeditions (1891-1892 and 1893-1895), Peary, Henson, and company traversed the northern end of the ice cap and established that Greenland's land did not extend to the North Pole. On his fourth trip (1896-1897) [PDF], he brought back meteorites for the American Museum of Natural History. Peary's fifth and sixth expeditions (1898-1902 and 1905-1906) tested a feasible route to the North Pole and established relationships with Inughuit communities on which Peary would rely for assistance and supplies. Peary and Henson finally reached the North Pole on the seventh expedition in 1908-1909.

6. Robert Peary's successes in Greenland contrasted with two previous polar disasters.

Robert Peary in furs
Robert Peary, in fur clothing, stands on the deck of the Roosevelt.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1879, newspaper mogul James Gordon Bennett and Navy commander George Washington DeLong organized an expedition to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait in a reinforced ship, the Jeannette. After months of besetment, ice crushed the ship and the crew made a desperate escape to Siberia, where all but two members died. Then, Army lieutenant Adolphus Greely led a 25-member magnetic survey expedition to the Canadian high Arctic in 1881. Relief ships failed to reach them for three years. By the time rescue arrived and they returned home, only Greely and five other men had survived starvation. The public's appetite for polar adventure waned until, a few years later, Peary's triumphs in Greenland earned him a heroic reputation and revived interest the quest for the North Pole. 

7. Robert Peary lost eight toes to frostbite.

On the grueling march to establish his camp at Greely's abandoned Fort Conger on the 1898-1902 expedition, Peary suffered a severe case of frostbitten feet. When they reached the hut, Henson took off Peary's footwear and revealed marble-like flesh up to his knees. As Henson removed the commander's socks, eight of Peary's toes popped off with them. As Bradley Robinson writes in the Henson biography Dark Companion, Peary reportedly said, "a few toes aren't much to give to achieve the Pole."

8. Robert Peary's wife Josephine accompanied him to the Arctic when she was eight months pregnant.

Josephine Diebitsch Peary was a formidable adventurer as well [PDF]. Her father Hermann Diebitsch, a Prussian military leader who had immigrated to Washington, D.C., directed the Smithsonian Institution's exchange system. Josephine worked at the Smithsonian as a clerk before marrying Peary in 1888. Bucking social convention, she insisted on accompanying his second expedition in 1891-1892, and in Greenland she managed the day-to-day operation of the base camp, including rationing provisions, bartering goods, hunting, and sewing furs. She even helped defend the men from a walrus attack by reloading their rifles as fast as they shot them.

She also went on Peary's third Greenland trip when she was eight months pregnant, and gave birth to their daughter Marie Anighito—dubbed the Snow Baby by newspapers—at their camp. In total, Josephine went to Greenland multiple times, wrote three bestselling books, gave lecture tours, was an honorary member of the American Alpine Club and other organizations, and decorated the family's apartment with narwhal tusks, polar bear skins, fur rugs, and other polar trophies.

9. Matthew Henson saved Robert Peary from a charging musk ox.

Cigarette card featuring explorer Matthew A. Henson
A cigarette card for the American Tobacco Company's Hassan Cork Tip cigarettes shows a portrait of Matthew Henson in a fur parka. The card belongs to the "World's Greatest Explorers" series.
American Tobacco Company, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

In 1895, Peary and Henson scouted a route toward the Pole over the northern edge of Greenland’s ice cap, just as they had done on their previous trip in 1891-1892. They reached a promontory called Navy Cliff, in extreme northeastern Greenland, but could go no farther. On the way back to their camp on the northwestern coast, they suffered from exhaustion, exposure, and hunger. Their only chance to make it back to camp was to find game.

As described in Dark Companion, Peary and Henson stumbled upon a herd of musk oxen. Henson and Peary killed several, but in his weakened state, Peary shot and missed one. The animal turned around and charged Peary. Henson picked up his gun and pulled the trigger. "Behind [Peary] came the muffled thud of a heavy, fallen thing, like a speeding rock landing in a thick cushion of snow," Bradley Robinson writes in Dark Companion. "Ten feet away lay a heap of brown, shaggy hair half sunken in a snowdrift."

10. Robert Peary absconded with a 30-ton meteorite.

In 1818, explorer John Ross wrote about several meteorites near Greenland's Cape York that served as the Inughuit's only source of metal for tools. In 1896, Peary appropriated the three huge meteorites from their territory. (By the late 19th century, Inughuit had obtained tools via trade and no longer needed the stones for that purpose.) The largest of the three weighed 30 tons and required heavy-duty equipment to load it onto Peary's ship without capsizing the vessel. 

Josephine Peary sold the meteorites to the American Museum of Natural History for $40,000 (nearly $1.2 million in today's money). They remain on display in the museum's Hall of Meteorites, where custom-built supports for the heaviest one extend into the bedrock of Manhattan island.

11. Theodore Roosevelt was one of Robert Peary's biggest supporters.

Robert Peary and Theodore Roosevelt
President Theodore Roosevelt (left) greets Robert Peary on the deck of the S.S. Roosevelt on July 7, 1908. Peary stopped at TR's home in Oyster Bay, New York, before departing on his North Pole quest.
George Borup, American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries // Public Domain

Peary and President Theodore Roosevelt shared a dedication to the strenuous life, and TR—who had served as the assistant secretary of the Navy—helped Peary obtain his multi-year leaves of absence from civil engineering work. "It seems to me that Peary has done valuable work as an Arctic explorer and can do additional work which entitles him to be given every chance by this Government to do such work," Roosevelt wrote to Secretary of the Navy William H. Moody in 1903. Peary repaid the favors by naming his custom-built steamship the S.S. Roosevelt.

In 1906, TR presented the explorer with the National Geographic Society's highest honor, the Hubbard Medal, for Peary's attainment of farthest north. Roosevelt also contributed the introduction to Peary's book about his successful quest for the North Pole.

12. Robert Peary met his nemesis, Frederick Cook, more than a decade before their feud.

Frederick Cook, a New York City physician, signed up as the surgeon for Peary's second trip to Greenland in 1891-1892. Neither Peary nor Matthew Henson was very impressed with his wilderness skills. Afterwards, Cook joined an expedition to Antarctica and claimed he summited Denali in Alaska, though his climbing partners disputed that feat.

So when Peary and Henson arrived back in Greenland in September 1909 after attaining the North Pole on April 6, they were shocked to hear that Cook had supposedly reached the Pole in spring 1908 and had announced it to the world just five days before Peary had returned to civilization. "[Cook] has not been at the Pole on April 21st, 1908, or at any other time," Peary told newspapers. "He has simply handed the public a gold brick."

From then on, Peary and his family strenuously defended his claim to the Pole. Cook had left his journals and instruments in Greenland in his dash to announce his discovery to the world, and Peary refused to transport them aboard his ship to New York, so it became Cook's word against Peary's. Peary also had the backing of wealthy funders, The New York Times, and the National Geographic Society, who eventually decided the matter in Peary's favor. But the controversy never went away; as late as 2009, the centennial of Peary's claim, historians and explorers were reexamining Peary's records and finding discrepancies in the distances he traveled each day on his way to the Pole. Cook's journals were lost in Greenland, and he spent time in jail for mail fraud. The jury is still out.

13. Robert Peary advocated for a Department of Aeronautics.

Peary was an early proponent of aviation for exploration as well as military defense. As World War I engulfed Europe, he argued for the creation of an air service, the Department of Aeronautics, that would operate alongside the Army and Navy and could then be used for lifesaving coastal patrol. Peary embarked on a 20-city tour to drum up public support for the Aerial Coastal Patrol Fund and raised $250,000 to build stations along the U.S. coast.

The Navy later implemented many of Peary's suggestions, but the tour left the explorer in frail health. He was diagnosed with incurable pernicious anemia and died on February 20, 1920. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and his gravesite is adorned with a large granite globe inscribed with a motto in Latin, Inveniam viam aut faciam—"I shall find a way or make one."

Additional sources: Dark Companion, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole