If there's a ground zero for kitschy roadside art in Central Florida, it's a stretch of Interstate 4 between exits 9 and 44 on the way from Orlando to Tampa.
Within that 35 miles, the scenery ranges from vintage aircraft to monstrous fake dinosaurs and Airstream trailers, the latter half-submerged into the earth in a cross between advertising and folk art.
For years, these landmarks have been things to point at as I sped toward something else in Tampa or St. Petersburg. Then, out of morbid curiosity, I stopped at Dinosaur World (dinosaurworld.com) two years ago, the extinction-defiant tourist stop in the shadow of those eye-catching prehistoric greeters at I-4 exit 17 in Plant City.
As one might expect of a dinosaur park, it's old-school: Technology (and air conditioning) is in short supply and the best lunch option on my visit was pizza delivered from a nearby chain. The Tyrannosaurus rex had a Gatorade bottle in its mouth.
Maybe because of that experience, I've been reluctant to see what's behind that giant airplane at Fantasy of Flight, a collection of flight-ready vintage aircraft at exit 44 in Polk City. Now, I wish I'd gone sooner.
I'm not an aircraft buff, but the flight demonstrations, tours of the hangars and functioning workshops were stylish enough to justify the $28.95 admission. Fantasy of Flight (fantasyofflight.com) wants to take visitors back to 1943, a time warp executed with great enthusiasm by Dash McCloud, a tour guide costumed in World War II garb.
"Your name's not really Dash, is it?" I asked cynically when "Dash" greeted me at the door.
"And why wouldn't it be?" he responded with impeccable stage presence.
"Oh, no," I thought, "an actor."
So what if the guy overuses "golly," "swell" and "nifty"? Dash won me over with a tour that featured a vintage Mustang P-51 and tales of historic flying aces. Even better, you can watch the planes fly in daily demonstrations.
Emboldened, I headed west on I-4 to Airstream Ranch, the trailers erected near exit 14 in Hillsborough County by RV dealer Frank Bates. After lawsuits by neighbors, it takes charm to get Ranch directions from folks at the dealership, but it can be done.
Alas, like many celebrities, the famous trailers look less impressive up-close.