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The Sunshine State and primary Weirdness Magnet for the United States, Florida is mainly known for a few things: weird stuff that happens Only in Florida, lots of beaches, illegal immigrants (primarily Caribbean rather than Mexican), and lots and lots of elderly northerners.

The "Sunshine State" moniker is a half lie as most Floridians can tell you - the state's climate has a pronounced cycle of wet and dry seasons, with summer featuring near-daily thundershowers and winter, such as it is, being very dry. Convenient for northerners looking to escape the snow (now if only more of them would go back once they've forked over their money...), not so much for those looking for a semi-tropical vacation spent mainly on the beach. Get used to the water, because Florida is a very wet state: surrounded on three sides by water and filled with swamps, wetlands, and retention ponds. Tourists, take note: if you're here during the summer, keep an umbrella on hand. Brief but intense thundershowers with little warning are common. Florida is also ridiculously flat. The highest point of elevation, Britton Hill, is just that, a hill, and a rather unimpressive one; some Disney rides are close to reaching its height.

Historically, Florida has always been a little distinct from the rest of the United States. The region was colonized by Europeans even before the French and English arrived in the northern parts of the continent, but was part of the Spanish empire. As a matter of fact, the Spanish gave Florida its name: Land of Flowers. For all practical purposes today, Florida's lengthy and Spanish-tinged history are irrelevant and largely unknown outside of the state's natives, and even then your typical Floridian won't know much beyond being taught about Spanish explorers of the state like Hernando de Soto back in elementary school. Good one for trivia night: Saint Augustine, on Florida's northeast coast, is the oldest continually inhabited city in North America. Great Britain acquired Florida from Spain in 1763, including an extra length from the northern state that was later chopped off and absorbed into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Up until the advent of air conditioning, Florida was part of the Deep South with all that that implies. The state was - and still is - a primarily agricultural state based on its famous citrus (especially oranges), livestock, and fishing. Florida was sparsely populated and generally had little significance and less impact on history, with the only notable exception being Key West, which was for a few decades the Richest City in the US, and one of the richest on the planet. The state did join the Confederacy in the American Civil War, but again not much of interest happened - quite a few Confederate blockade runners were based out of the state, Judah P. Benjamin escaped to England through the state and the only battle of any size that occurred in the state was a Confederate victory that made Congress question why people were dying for the worthless backwater to begin with.

Really, "worthless backwater" aptly sums up most of Florida until just before the start of the 20th Century when the construction of the railroads led to increased trade (mostly Citrus products, winter vegetables and Cattle) with the North, and the Cigar industry developed in Tampa. Following the Spanish American War, Tourism really picked up, and the combination of the efforts by railroad builders, and the Mild nature of winter in the state, the First Real estate boom led to the development of much of South Florida in the 1920's, and then following the end of World War II the development of air conditioning, highways (in case you haven't realized it, Florida is a big state for folks traveling north or south), and a second real estate boom lead to Florida's transformation into the conglomeration of suburbs, beaches, and retirement homes it is today. As has been noted, Florida natives tend to be relatively few in number compared to northern immigrants in the populated coastal regions. Some of these northerners are migratory and known to natives as "snowbirds" for their habit of fleeing to Florida from snow in the north and returning home once the snow melts. Lots of them stay, however, and Florida has a disproportionate number of elderly northerners in the state, second only to the American southwest. Most Floridians like the money the Tourists bring in, but wish they would go home after spending their money (Especially Yankees.) Note that it actually does snow in Florida on occasion. It's rare, usually coming once every couple of decades, normally restricted to the northern edges of the state, and very light when it does happen, but between Florida's very mild winters and generally dry winter and spring, Florida snowfall remains little more than a curiosity.

On that note, here's a quick way to distinguish natives from immigrants en masse: when a cold front hits and drops temperatures below 70 degrees F or so, natives will be the ones bundling up and talking about how it's freezing. Yes, this does qualify as cold in Florida. The flip side, of course, is that temperatures in the low to mid 90s with extremely high humidity are considered perfectly normal conditions by natives, and opening the front door anytime between May and September has been compared to walking into a sauna.

Today, there are three distinct Floridas within the state's borders. Old Florida, a proud part of the Deep South, is in fact alive and well - it just occupies inland and northern Florida, i.e. the parts of the state tourists don't see. Coastal Florida exchanged its man card and Southern credibility for lots of money, lots of sprawling suburbia, and lots of northerners. Southern Florida, especially around Miami has a distinctly Latin tinge and a working knowledge of Spanish can be a big help. You Should Know This Already, but tourism is Florida's biggest industry these days (but only just ahead of Agriculture) and is, along with California, one of the classic spring break and summer vacation destinations in the United States. Agriculture and phosphate mining are also common, but again are parts of the state that tourists usually don't see.

The Yanks With Tanks are also quite active within the state, and Florida is home to three of the ten Unified Combatant Commands, more than any other state or region in the world - the grand theater-level strategic commands. Central Command (USCENTCOM) which oversees operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) which oversees Central and South America plus the Caribbean, and Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) which oversees, well, special operations, all call Florida their home. NASA also has a major facility within the state: Kennedy Space Center, better known as Cape Canaveral, is the site of NASA's space launches. [1]

One unusual feature is the presence of pools in almost every middle-class and above house. This is partly because it's nigh-impossible to have a basement in Florida--once you dig fifteen feet, you hit groundwater. Instead, patios with small pools are almost a necessity if you want to re-sell your home, and these help attract out-of-state buyers thanks to the novelty factor.

Geographically, there are a number of different regions in Florida, only a few of which are relevant to visitors:

  • The Panhandle: So called for reasons obvious to anyone looking at a map of the state, the Panhandle is home to Tallahassee, Florida's largely forgettable capital city, with little else of note besides being the home of Florida State University (and also the historically-black Florida A&M University). Some nice Gulf beaches up here and...not much else. Peculiarly, much of the Panhandle is in a different time zone (Central) than the rest of the state, due the time line being a continuation of the Alabama/Georgia border. It's sometimes grouped with...
  • North Florida: Southern Alabama/Georgia. It's the oldest and most historic part of Florida, home to Jacksonville (the largest and most populous city in the state), Saint Augustine (the oldest continuously inhabited city in the country), and... not much else. Pretty much still the Deep South, but with a couple of 16th and 17th century Spanish forts.
  • Central Florida: Now we're getting somewhere. Disney World can be found here, as can Cape Canaveral. If you're driving south through Florida, Orlando roughly marks where Old Florida deteriorates into pockets dotting the inland corridor through the state. Most tourists will never venture further north than this part of Florida except on their way in or out of the state. Tampa's the other city of note in the region, one of the US's big ports on the Gulf, and home to a number of on-and-off sports teams, including a solid ice hockey team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, an ice hockey team halfway down the Florida peninsula. Historically this was a major citrus growing area, though much of that has moved outward and inland.
    • The Tampa Bay area (which includes both Tampa itself and St. Petersburg across the bay) is normally spun off into its own region, Western Florida, along with Ft. Myers and Sarasota further south. This is the part with the really nice, "world's best" competition winning beaches, not that anyone remembers it.
  • South Florida: Once you get south of Tampa, the climate turns steadily more tropical and the terrain steadily more swampy. The Everglades once covered most of South Florida, but now... not so much. Still nice beaches on the coast, but not much to see inland unless you really want to see a giant, shallow lake with a name that hardly anyone can spell correctly for some odd reason, or miles and miles of swampland and/or sugar cane fields. Miami is of course in this region, and knowing some Spanish helps. There's also pretty much continuous urban/suburban sprawl from Miami north for about 100 miles - but never more than 20 miles to the west, making it the longest and narrowest metropolitan area in the United States.
    • In some parts of Miami, knowing Spanish is mandatory, and many of the signs are written in both English and Spanish. Occasionally by law. South Florida also has a growing Haitian and East Indian population, and there has been some friction between the Hispanic and Haitian groups, especially since the latter is growing following the massive Haitian earthquake.
    • South Florida also had the third larges Jewish population in the world, coming right after the Big Applesauce and Israel.
  • The Keys: Technically part of Florida, but really, the Keys are the northern edge of the Caribbean and Old Florida does not acknowledge the Keys as part of the state proper. The government does, though, and it's a good thing - the Keys are one of the big summer tourist destinations in the United States despite their tendency to get obliterated by hurricanes every couple of years. This is not an exaggeration: most of the Keys are for the most part sandbars with delusions of grandeur and can be wiped off the map by a hurricane.[2]

And speaking of hurricanes, despite the recent tragedy of Hurricane Katrina fixing public awareness of hurricanes on New Orleans, Florida is the United States' main punching bag for Mother Nature's fall mood swings. Until Katrina, Hurricane Andrew was the costliest hurricane in American history, and take a wild guess what state it struck. Katrina also gave Florida a glancing blow, as have many other hurricanes - even storms that mainly strike further into the Gulf of Mexico or further up the Atlantic coast tend to graze Florida along the way. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seven of the ten costliest hurricanes in American history gave Florida at least a glancing blow. As a result, Floridians tend to be well-prepared to batten down the hatches and go without electrical power for a while when hurricane season starts up. It's usually not a concern for tourists, though, falling after the usual summer tourism season and before the fall snowbird migration.

As if that weren't enough, Florida has more tornadoes per square mile than any other state - thought most of those are pretty weak.

And despite what you may have heard, Florida really isn't all that weird, so don't be afraid to visit. Just make sure you actually leave once you've spent your money, y'hear?

Not to be confused with the hip-hop artist Flo Rida ("Low", "Club Can't Handle Me"), although the state's name is the origin of his stage name.

Notes

  1. Technically speaking, the city of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center launch complex are not the same place; they both have their own zip code and everything. However, they are highly dependent on each other in more ways than one, so they can be used interchangeably.
  2. Well, that's not exactly true, as the Keys proper are a mostly submerged limestone ridge, but still low enough that everything, aside from the Nigh Invulnerable Hemingway House, can get blown or washed off. Including those nice beaches installed on Key West at such expense.
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