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Daytona (More Than) Beach
Thomas R. & Deborah A. Fletcher
Daytona has long been a favored beach stop of ours. The beach, as always, is fantastic. On a recent visit we discovered there is more to Daytona than the beach. Culture, history, shopping, and racing provide other-than-beach options for the visitor.
Representing a breath of cultural fresh air in this beach town, The Museum of Arts and Sciences is ranked among Floridaís top five museums. The museum covers a surprisingly diverse range of subjects in its current floor space of 65,000 square feet (which is expanding to 90,000 square feet). There are seven permanent exhibitions and several changing exhibitions. The Cuban Museum exhibition (one of the seven permanent exhibits) is an unexpected treat. The exhibit contains Spanish-colonial items and covers a two hundred-year period of Cuban Fine and Folk Art (1759-1959). The Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, fond of the area, was a frequent visitor and part-time area resident before he was deposed in his own country. Batista, knowing his days in Cuba were limited, took several pieces of art he had donated to the Cuban National Gallery, had them, along with many other items, packed and sent to the Daytona area. Ninety percent of the museumís collection was donated by the Batista family. Fidel Castro has floated several lawsuits in an attempt to have those donated items returned to Cuba. The Cuban Museum exhibit represents the greatest collection of Cuban art outside Cuba.
The Center for Florida History is another of the permanent exhibits. This exhibit tells the story of Floridaís historical and cultural development. This exhibit centers around the thirteen-feet-tall Giant Ground Sloth skeleton which was excavated from a nearby area referred to as the Daytona Bone Bed. The Africa Life and Ritual exhibit features sculptures, masks, ritual ornaments and everyday objects from a number of African tribes. The museum is an excellent, indoor, way to spend a day off the beach.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with racing has heard of the Daytona 500, one of the most-watched sporting events, held at the Daytona International Speedway.
What people may not know is that Daytonaís connection with racing is nearly a century long. The first race taking place in 1903, when automobiles were new on the scene and still something of a novelty. The hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach presented the perfect racing surface for the new vehicles. Daytona hosted the Land Speed Record runs until 1935 when they were moved to Utahís Bonneville Salts Flats. Speeds were getting too fast for Daytonaís conditions. Stock car racing replaced the speed runs, starting in 1936. The 1936 course followed 1.5 miles of beach and 1.5 miles of pavement connected by steeply-banked sand turns.
Daytona International Speedway opened the current facility in 1959. Today, the raceway infield covers 180 acres, including the 44-acre Lake Lloyd and bills itself as the "World Center of Racing.". The speedway features a 2.5-mile tri-oval course for NASCAR races and a 3.56-mile road circuit course for sports cars, go-karts, and motorcycles. The east and west turns on the NASCAR tri-oval course are banked at 31-degrees, the third steepest on the NASCAR circuit. More than twenty major racing events are held annually at the raceway.
Daytona USA is located just outside turn four of the speedway. This 50,000-square-feet entertainment complex allows race fans get closer to the sport than ever before through interactive, hands-on displays. Begin by taking a vicarious ride in the driverís seat on race day in the Pepsi Theater as you watch the short, 14-minute film The Daytona 500 Movie. Try your hand at being part of a pit crew, as you race against the clock to change tires. Race the Daytona 500 on interactive video, or see the static display of the Daytona 500 winning car.
All revved up and want to race? How about The Richard Petty Driving Experience? The program allows clients to don racing gear, buckle up and strap down for a front seat ride in a real NASCAR racing machine. Burn around the track three times, challenging the steep turns and hitting speeds of 150 MPH.
Too intense, but still like the idea of racing? Head over to Speed Park Motorsports and try your hand at go-kart racing or for a little more thrill, try the dragsters. Race against the clock to see who (among four drivers) can hit the gears best and finish first as the dragsters hit 70 MPH in a four second run. Itís quick and itís a rush.
Quiet the pace a bit with a relaxing cruise along the Halifax River aboard A Tiny Cruise Line, tiny being the operative word. The line has one boat, a replica of an 1890's fantail launch powered by a ten-horsepower engine, that carries a maximum of 14 passengers. The engine efficiently chugs along the shallow river as Captain Jim divulges a bit of history, rumor, and a ghost story or two. He tells about the historic homes and structures along the river and the rich and famous who have played there.
The Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory has been producing chocolate since 1925. The factory, in its current location since 1994, offers factory tours. Visitors learn about the production of chocolate from the growing of cocoa beans in the tropics to the finished delights found in the display case out front. Observe, through the large plate glass windows, workers mixing, sprinkling, and hand-dipping chocolate. The tour wraps up with a plate of samples being passed around.
Ready for a little shopping? The Daytona Flea and Farmers Market offers just about anything one could want. There are more than 1,000 vendors under one roof selling everything from fruit to furniture, beach towels to biker leather, itís all here. One can spend a day in the market and still not cover it all.
With 23 miles of beach, Daytona is definitely the place for fun in the sun. Whether you want laid-back, lying-in-the-sun fun, or fast-paced, racing-centered fun, Daytona has it covered. The chameleon-like town changes throughout the year. It is one town for Bike Week, with motorcyclists of every stripe jamming the streets, another town for Spring break with the party-hearty college crowd, and September through January is the mellow time. The crowds are gone, the weather is great and the retired folks hit the streets. Though Daytona is more than a beach, few things can compare with a romantic sunrise stroll along the nearly deserted beach sands.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS