Americans seem to have a love affair with trains and they never seem to loose their appeal. When the conductor yells, "All Aboard!" it's not only children's eyes that light up with anticipation and excitement.
Florida's railroad ties go all the way back to the late 19th Century. Standard Oil principle Henry Flagler traveled to Jacksonville, Florida with his first wife for her health. Two years later he made a trip to St. Augustine shortly after the marriage to his second wife. The newlyweds found a charming city, but noted its inadequate hotel facilities and lack of transportation. Recognizing Florida's potential to attract out-of-state visitors, Flagler gave up his Standard Oil post to pursue expanding the rail line along Florida's East Coast and building grand hotels. By the end of the first decade of the 20th Century the railway stretched all the way to Key West. And, as they say, the rest is history.
Today, Amtrak's one-of-a-kind Auto Train transports visitors and their vehicles from Lorton, Virginia to Deland on Florida's East Coast; and, its Silver Service crisscrosses Florida serving Jacksonville, Orlando Tampa and Miami connecting Central and South Florida to points in the Northeast.
But, rail enthusiasts visiting Florida don't have to arrive by train, they can ride the rails on shorter excursions offered by special rail lines, and explore railroad museums located throughout the state. Discovering Florida's rail history is a great family-friendly activity any time of year.
Flagler Museum - Palm Beach
Henry Flagler's success in his second career as a railroad and hotel magnate is well-documented at Flagler Museum in Palm Beach. He continued the development of the Florida East Coast Railway and built the Over-Sea Railroad to Key West. Although visitors to the museum will find an interesting variety of changing exhibits, it's the permanent exhibits on the history of Henry Flagler's life and career that railroad enthusiasts will find fascinating. Visitors will especially find the Flagler Kenan Pavilion, designed in the style of a 19th century Beaux Arts railway palace, interesting since it houses Henry Flagler's private railcar, No. 91. Also, Flagler's grand residence, Whitehall, is open for tours.
Florida Railroad Museum - Parrish
There is plenty of fun at the Florida Railroad Museum where they encourage visitors to "Ride the Exhibits!" Hour and a half excursions are available most weekends for the general public and special events are scheduled throughout the year. Or, in what could be the ultimate adventure for a railroad fanatic, rent a locomotive and take the controls for an hour!
The Florida Railroad Museum is located at 12210 83rd Street East, Parrish, Florida, which is just 35 miles south of Tampa off I-75 at Exit 229.
Orange Blossom Cannonball - Tavares
Here's your chance to "ride the movies" ... or, at least ride the train that appeared in many award-winning movies. This historic steam train offers one- or two-hour excursions from the shores of Lake Dora's Wooten Park in Tavares. This is truly a trip back in time and makes a great memory-making photo opportunity as the staff is dressed in period costumes. Special pizza trains and other special trains are available throughout the year.
The Orange Blossom Cannonball is located at 100 East Ruby Street, Tavares, Florida. Call 352-742-7200 for more information or to make reservations.
Seminole Gulf Railway - Ft. Myers
The ultimate entertainment for railroad enthusiasts combines on-board entertainment in the form of a murder mystery and fine dining for an evening of runaway fun! The entertaining journey includes a five-course dinner, comical show and a nostalgic train ride. The murder mystery experience is available Wednesdays through Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5:30 p.m.
The Murder Mystery Dinner Train is located at 2805 Colonial Boulevard in Fort Myers, Florida. Call 239-275-8487 for further information.