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Date of Issue: January 10, 2008

That's entertainment

Islander reporter Rick Catlin spent last year’s vacation on a cruise with, from left, son Christian, daughter Cody Ann, and wife Jennifer.

This past Christmas week, my wife and I took our two teenagers and their cousin from Trinidad - by way of Canada - to Universal Theme Park in Orlando.

My niece, Natalia, said she’d already been to Disney World several times and seen all those attractions and thought Universal might be good. Lots of new rides like The Hulk roller coaster, scary shows like Jaws, shoot-em-ups like Men in Black battling the alien insects, and so on.

And plenty of gift shops, eateries and other souvenir shops. Everything at Universal, as at Disney World and all the other “attractions” in Orlando, is designed to part you with your hard-earned money. And those places ain’t cheap. The price at Universal is $82 if you buy at the gate. That’s $82 per person, and you can’t bring your own food or drinks.

A hamburger costs $12 at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, a margarita goes for $7 - and you barely get a sniff of tequila - and a tossed salad runs $10. An iced tea sells for $4.

I guess that our party of five easily spent $600 to “enjoy” the day at Universal.

But most of you have probably been to one of these Orlando attractions and know the drill - and the cost.

Looking at all this concrete, all these “man-made” attractions, all these mechcanical monstrosities, I recalled growing up in Florida in the pre-Disney era.

As a kid, Disney World was nothing but a bunch of orange groves. Kissimee had one traffic light, Celebration Station didn’t exist, and Interstate 4 was almost devoid of traffic.

Our favorite “attraction” as Clearwater kids was the beach, the real, white sand of Clearwater Beach, before high-rise condominiums, T-shirt shacks, biker bars, gift shops with “original” shells made in China. It was a beach with real sand and Mother Nature’s Gulf of Mexico.

For entertainment, we kids went fishing in Clearwater Bay, and caught real fish, lots of them. Or, we borrowed a boat and headed off to Sand Key - then known as Dan’s Island - for an afternoon “picnic” with our friends. Funny how the girls always showed up a few minutes later.

Before the bridge was built from Clearwater Beach to Sand Key, the only way to get there was by boat, or a two-mile hike through the sand dunes of Belleair Beach. Strange, but nobody back then had realized how much money could be made building 20-story condos smack on the Gulf.

Dining out was going to a “real” smoked mullet shack with “real” smoked mullet and fresh fish that was actually fresh, caught earlier that day.

Weeki Wachee was only an hour drive from Clearwater, and it was free, too. A natural spring with crystal-clear water. The only “attraction” there was a diving platform in the middle of the springs. Mother Nature did a pretty good job before someone “sold” the springs and turned it into a $40-per-person-per-day commercial venture, complete with water slides, T-shirt shacks and a gift shop.

I went to college at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Busch Gardens was a real brewery in those days and there was a real garden and a real bird sanctuary. The beer was free, as were tours of the brewery, which you had to take before you could get the free beer, but nobody cared how much you drank as long as you stayed sober. The crowds were small as you enjoyed the small lake complete with goldfish and diving pelicans.

Crystal River was a two-hour drive, a magical place of underwater beauty with “free” beaches, and snorkeling and scuba diving in the pristine waters of the lagoon from whence the river flows.

Lowery Park was the City of Tampa’s official zoo. Admission was 25 cents, but kids under 12 got in free.

Spring training baseball games were free after the seventh-inning stretch, or a quarter if you couldn’t wait. The stars of the day were Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle, Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn, Hank Aaron and Don Newcombe, to name just a few. They all really did sign autographs for free as they made their way to the team bus after a game. And it may be hard to believe considering today’s pro athlete mentality, but those guys were actually friendly to us kids.

If this sounds like a sentimental journey down memory lane, a longing for the “Old Florida” that I and many Islanders grew up with, I’m not apologizing. It is.

I know “Old Florida” is gone and it isn’t coming back. Progress is now measured by the corporate bottom line. Having “fun” is determined by how much money we spend to “entertain” our kids.

The point, however, is that back in the day, our “attractions” were made by Mother Nature, not Brown & Root Construction Company.

We didn’t need a home equity loan to have fun, didn’t have to borrow $50 from mom or dad to go out on a date, and didn’t need a dozen credit cards to go to the circus or carnival.

In today’s world, the mass media marketing of the computer age on TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and on all the “hot” Web sites has been directly aimed at the 16-25 age group; the group with little discretionary income, but with parents - and I include myself - who want their kids to “enjoy” life.

I know I’m guilty of that. My only excuse is that there aren’t too many days left before my daughter graduates from high school in May and is off to college, and the chance won’t come again for these memories.

I, and you, shouldn’t feel bad. The ad agencies and marketing companies of today have parents categorized, marketed, income ranged, credit carded, cast-typed and spending profiled down to our last dime, which I’m rapidly approaching.

Just about every teenager needs a cell phone (we go for this one because we want to know where our kids are at all times), has to have a laptop or home computer for their own use, has managed to get at least one or two of either a PlayStation, Xbox360, NineTendo, Wii, GameCube or iPod, and has managed to break or lose at least half of their “toys” within the first six months they have them.

Yet, my own kids complain there’s “nothing to do.”

Oh Lord, forgive me for taking them to the beach when they were kids, for trying to teach them to love nature, for trying to teach them that nature can do a good job of entertaining them.

Against mass marketing, peer pressure and the electronic wizardry of Disney World and Universal, against “being cool” to their friends, I’ve come up a loser, just as the marketing and advertising companies planned and expected.

My kids used to love kayaking down Anna Maria’s canals. They used to love body-surfing at the Manatee Public Beach. They used to love fishing at the Anna Maria or Rod & Reel Pier, or going out into the Gulf about 10 miles in a boat. They used to love going to Egmont Key, Fort DeSoto Park, Leffis Key and walking the nature trails in the Cayman Islands, where we lived until 2000.

Our “natural” attractions are slowly disappearing, paved over with concrete, outwitted by an advertising campaign that rolls Mother Nature into a phrase found only in the newspapers, dimmed in value by the slick music and sexy themes of young, good-looking boys and girls who apparently have plenty of money, and no time to do anything but party in the right places such as the Magic Kingdom, Hard Rock Cafe, Universal and Busch Gardens.

How long can Anna Maria Island remain a “natural” attraction?

There are no fast-food restaurants, yet. There are no man-made attractions, yet. There are no “party-hard” rock-and-roll night clubs, yet.

People come to Anna Maria because it is “natural,” because it’s trying to stay the way it was 40, 50 and 60 years ago, because there’s nothing here but the beach - and quiet.

Yet, our kids complain “there’s nothing to do.”

I guess that’s the lament of every generation. I can only hope that my kids will one day rediscover the magic of Mother Nature, the magic of the Island, and the magic of putting away your credit cards and cash, your iPod and portable CD player, and just “chilling out” at the beach for entertainment.

There aren’t very many “Mother Nature” attractions.

Count Anna Maria Island as one.