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By Donna Carter
Ever since the 1950s, car racing has been a major feature of this sunny city on Florida’s Atlantic coast. Today, hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts annually flock to the Daytona International Speedway for blockbuster events like the Daytona 500 and the Rolex 24-hour race. Certainly the Speedway is where the rubber hits the road yet beyond the track – unbeknown to many – is a vibrant and well developed goldmine of arts and culture. Daytona Beach CVB
I’ve been wintering in Daytona Beach for nearly a decade, mostly focusing on exploring the flip side of “Speed City” including its arts and culture. The diamond in its crown is the Museum of Arts & Sciences (MOAS), the largest in Central Florida. It houses the Center for Florida History featuring exhibits that graphically depict a time when dinosaurs once roamed the Sunshine State. The highlight of this historical chronology is the mammoth skeleton of a Giant Ground Sloth, the most complete of its kind in North America. Situated on a lush nature preserve of tropical trees and plants, MOAS has more than 30,000 items in its permanent collection including African, American, English, Chinese and Pre-Columbian art. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum also houses one of the largest collections of Coca-Cola memorabilia, together with a striking display of vintage automobiles and railroad cars. Also among the Museum’s rare attractions is a Cuban art collection (the largest outside of Cuba) that was donated by former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. During the 1940s and 1950s, Batista was a regular Daytona vacationer who ultimately donated the core of today’s 200-piece collection covering more than 300 years of Cuba’s history
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When it comes to the culture of performing arts, Daytona Beach has a highly respectable repertoire. The city’s most illustrious venue is the elegant Peabody Auditorium, a 2,500-seat theatre that over its 60-year history has hosted such entertainment luminaries as Liberace, Elvis Presley, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, the Boston Pops, Rudolf Nuryev and many more. The Daytona Beach Symphony Society uses the Peabody for hosting its annual entertainment schedule of renowned orchestras, opera and professional dance from around the world. Lined up for the 2013-14 winter season are a number of headliners including the Moscow Festival Ballet, the Haifa Symphony Orchestra of Israel and the celebrated Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. The Peabody Auditorium will also be the upcoming season’s venue for a presentation of the Broadway musical, Hello Dolly, plus a guest performance by iconic songster, Bobby Vinton, known as the most successful love singer of the Rock-era. Also on the agenda is a live comedy show starring well-known actress and comedian, Lily Tomlin, notable for a variety of roles but always remembered as the hilarious telephone receptionist, Ernestine, on the TV show Laugh In (1968-73).
While anytime is a good time to sample Daytona’s abundant performing arts scene, the best period overall is during Winterfest, an annual winter series that runs November through March and features a variety of world-class performances. In addition to its reputable agenda of performing arts, the Peabody also houses the Rose Room Art Gallery featuring the original works of national, international and Florida artists. The Gallery is open daily except weekends.
It remains surprising to many that this city, deeply entrenched in the culture of competitive car racing and nicknamed “the birthplace of speed”, is richly endowed with an abundance of museums and historic sites. Among the most interesting is the Halifax Historical Museum whose permanent exhibits present the history of the greater Daytona Beach area known as Halifax County. The Museum is housed in a former 1910 Merchant’s Bank building where its collection of historical artifacts dates back to 5,000 B.C. Various exhibits shed light on the area’s early Native Americans, the British and Spanish plantation periods, early pioneer life and the history of beach racing. There’s also a remarkable museum dedicated to African American art plus others featuring photography, earth minerals, sculpture, maritime history and original Florida art.
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Daytona Beach and area also has its share of important historical sites including the famous Ponce de Leon Lighthouse – one of the most significant of its kind along the east coast of the United States. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1998, and visited by nearly 150,000 people a year, it’s one of the best preserved and most authentic lighthouses in the nation. This is a must-see attraction that speaks to the culture of a period when lighthouse beacons were the saving grace for early mariners who counted on them for direction and most importantly for saving them from becoming shipwrecked on shoreline shoals. Soaring more than 53 metres into the air, the Ponce de Leon Lighthouse is the tallest in Florida and one of the loftiest masonry lighthouses in the U.S. Visitors can climb the 203 steps to the top of the tower and also follow docent-led tours of the Museum property for an introduction to turn-of-the-century life at the Lighthouse Station including a tour of the Lighthouse Keeper’s home as it was in the early 1900s.
Serving as an architectural example of late 19th century Daytona Beach culture, the Lilian Place Historic House can be toured only on Sunday afternoons but it’s well worth accommodating a visit. Built in 1884, it’s a grand example of Italianate Victorian architecture complete with a “widow’s walk,” a rooftop balcony from which wives of the period could keep a lookout for their whaler husbands returning from sea. During a tour of the home visitors may even experience the supernatural. Lucille, the mystery ghost of Lilian Place, is said to have been causing mischief in the house for more than a century. Some claim to have seen the ghostly apparition of a woman in white, supposedly Lucille, while others say they have seen the ghost of Stephen Crane, the distinguished author of the book, Open Boat, who once lived in the house.
While Daytona’s Marine Science Center is a nature-based attraction, it also embodies the culture of the area’s marine surroundings. This facility is an extremely popular visitor attraction devoted wholly to the local marine environment. Not only are there interactive exhibits such as a stingray touch pool, a giant aquarium with a variety of local fish, but the Center also has an important preservation function operating an active and respected rehabilitation program for injured turtles and seabirds.
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Combining both historical and cultural significance is the Jackie Robinson Ballpark situated in the heart of Daytona’s downtown section. Built in 1914 as the Daytona City Island Ballpark, it was renamed the Jackie Robinson Ballpark in 1989 to commemorate the stadium hosting the first racially integrated game in baseball history. Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson (1919-1972), after whom the park is named, was the first African American to play in Major League baseball. Today, the stadium hosts Minor League ball and is the home park for the Daytona Cubs. The Jackie Robinson Ballpark & Museum is open daily for self guided tours.
Daytona Beach admittedly exists in the shadow of a giant – the giant being the enormous reputation of its International Speedway – yet in no way does this minimize what the city has to offer in other areas including arts and culture. Indeed, there is a wealth of entertainment beyond the checkered flag. Daytona Beach CVB
Something for Everyone
• There are more than 20 golf courses ranging from premier tracks designed by big name architects to good value courses offering varying degrees of challenge. Daytona Beach is also the headquarters for the LPGA and golfers wanting to play a trophy course will find it at either of the two LPGA International layouts, the Legends and the Champions. Golf buffs looking for an oceanfront course can head up the beach to Ocean Hammock where six of its beautiful holes run along the edge of Atlantic Ocean dunes.
• Daytona’s largest shopping centre is the Volusia Mall containing more than 100 major retail chains and department stores, however, one of the most fun places to shop is the Daytona Flea Market, one of the largest in the state covering several acres. Here visitors can buy anything from sunglasses to souvenirs, jewellery, food, clothing and more. The city is also home to one of the largest Harley-Davidson outlets in the world where biker buffs can check out motorcycles, bike apparel and leather goods.
• Daytona was made for beach lovers and there is plenty of beachfront to choose from. The famous 32-kilometre stretch of sand where the city’s history of car racing first began is one of the few places on the planet where people can drive cars.
• The city is blessed with a healthy serving of dining spots offering everything from fresh seafood to Asian, Italian, Mediterranean and Caribbean-inspired cuisines. There are a few iconic restaurants that visitors in the know never miss. Among the best known is a waterfront eatery, Aunt Catfish, where the very best fresh seafood is prepared with a Southern twist.