Florida's Newest Roadside Attraction: A Nine-Foot-Tall Robot Named REX

Jul 12, 2013

Meet REX, Florida’s newest roadside attraction. Set to be unveiled in September, the nine-foot-tall robot will have the friendly look of a massive children’s toy once local artist Mike Rivamonte finishes it.

With the robot, the 48-year-old Rivamonte hopes to honor Florida’s history of roadside attractions, an aspect of the state that has been key to its tourist-friendly reputation and helped draw many here during its mid-twentieth century heyday.

Rivamonte was introduced to this side of Florida history when his family started going on road trips from their home in Alabama to different areas in Florida almost 40 years ago.

“You kind of slowly watch the terrain change, the Spanish moss starts showing up, the sand starts showing up, and then when you hit Florida everything becomes Technicolor,” Rivamonte said. “It’s like a whole different place. So you’d stop at these places for gas, and they’d have all these racks of colorful little brochures... to go to the Sunken Gardens or to go to Cypress Gardens.”

Sunken and Cypress Gardens are both botanical gardens that were once popular tourist attractions. Rivamonte hopes that REX reminds people of how rich Florida history once was, inspiring visitors in the same way, for example, that roadside attractions did for him during those family road trips.

Before he came up with the idea for REX, Rivamonte was mainly known for his one-to-two-foot-tall robots made from vintage objects. The robots fascinated visitors at Miami's Bakehouse Art Complex (BAC), where the robots are housed. Rivamonte even noticed that they preferred to interact with the robots more than him.

“People just want to have their picture (taken) with these things,” Rivamonte said. “So then I thought, well maybe it would be nice to make a robot that was a little bit bigger.”

When the artist started toying with the scale, he initially conceived a five- or six-foot-tall robot. But once he started building a leg, he saw it would have to be over nine feet.

That’s when he realized he was looking at some sort of roadside attraction.

A Florida Tradition

Florida’s roadside wonders started to spring up in the late 1800’s, around the time that Henry Flagler was building his now famous railroad. But the real boom was in the early to mid-twentieth century when cars and road trips became popular, according to Charlie Carlson, author and Florida historian.

Because many areas of Florida were already tourist destinations, its attractions thrived more than those of other states, even to the point that people began moving their attractions into the state from other places, Carlson said.

Many of the attractions here were mystery houses and wax museums. Even small attractions, like mom-and-pop souvenir stores, showcased reptiles just to get people to visit.

This era came to an end as the Turnpike and I-95 were built in the 50s and 60s, directing people away from the smaller highways lined with the attractions, Carlson said. Soon after, theme parks like Busch Gardens and Disney World opened, further driving attention away from smaller roadside businesses.

The majority of attractions that survived were in popular tourist cities, such as Orlando, Tampa, Miami and St. Petersburg.

The remains of some attractions can still be found today, such as Port Orange’s Bongoland, a theme park comprised of a miniature train, a replica Seminole village and cement dinosaurs.

“Bongoland has been gone since the mid-1950s, but if you go to the Sugarmill Botanical Gardens in Port Orange you will see evidence of [it],” Carlson said. “So today when people go to the botanical gardens they see these huge dinosaurs just standing there among the beautiful oranges and flowers.”

What's Next For REX

Rivamonte caught these Florida attractions at the tail end of their heyday but has remained interested ever since. Recently, he even bought a vintage map of Florida dating back to before the large highways were built so he could locate what is left these attractions.

Rivamonte said BAC, where REX is being built, has all the qualities of a roadside attraction, as it is next to I-95 and offers free admission and parking. Though he is unsure how long REX will stay at the complex, he is considering creating his own map of Florida attractions to include his new bigger and better robot.

“I think it's really a playful idea,” said Rivamonte, originally pitching the sculpture on crowd-funding site Kickstarter as a mobile attraction so it could visit children’s hospitals or the Miami Science Museum, for example. By definition, however, roadside attractions are stationary.

Rivamonte is wary of deviating from REX’s original purpose, as project supporters funded it on that basis. But he believes he can make it a mobile attraction by keeping it in one location for long periods of time then simply tweeting or posting its whereabouts online when it moves.

Currently, REX is scheduled to be at the BAC for about a year once it is unveiled, although Rivamonte doesn’t know for sure what he’ll do with the robot after that.