The Sunshine State and primary Weirdness Magnet for the United States, Florida is mainly known for a few things: weird stuff that happens Only in Florida, lots of beaches, undocumented immigrants (primarily Caribbean rather than Mexican), and lots and lots of elderly northerners.
The "Sunshine State" moniker is a half lie as most Floridians can tell you - the state's climate has a pronounced cycle of wet and dry seasons, with summer featuring near-daily thundershowers and winter, such as it is, being very dry. Convenient for northerners looking to escape the snow (now if only more of them would go back once they've forked over their money...), not so much for those looking for a semi-tropical vacation spent mainly on the beach. Get used to the water, because Florida is a very wet state: surrounded on three sides by water and filled with swamps, wetlands, and retention ponds. Tourists, take note: if you're here during the summer, keep an umbrella on hand. Brief but intense thundershowers with little warning are common. Florida is also ridiculously flat. The highest point of elevation, Britton Hill, is just that, a hill, and a rather unimpressive one; some Disney rides are close to reaching its height.
Historically, Florida has always been a little distinct from the rest of the United States. The region was colonized by the Spaniards long before the French and English arrived in the northern parts of the continentnote French Huguenots did attempt to set up a colony at Fort Caroline in what is now Jacksonville in 1564, but it was raided and destroyed by the Spaniards a year later., and they gave Florida its name: Land of Flowers. For all practical purposes today, Florida's lengthy and Spanish-tinged history are irrelevant and largely unknown outside of the state's natives, and even then your typical Floridian won't know much beyond a) being taught about Spanish explorers of the state like Hernando de Soto and Ponce de León back in elementary school, and b) the fact that St. Augustine, on Florida's northeast coast, is the oldest continually inhabited city in North America. Great Britain acquired Florida from Spain in 1763, including an extra length from the northern state that was later chopped off and absorbed into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
Up until the advent of air conditioning (originally invented by a Floridian doctor treating malaria patients in Tallahassee during the 1830s), Florida was part of the Deep South with all that that implies. The state was, and to a degree still is, a primarily agricultural state based on its famous citrus (especially oranges), livestock, and fishing. Florida was sparsely populated and generally had little significance and less impact on history, with the only notable exception being Key West, which was for a few decades the Richest City in the US, and one of the richest on the planet. The state did join the Confederacy in The American Civil War, but again not much of interest happened — quite a few Confederate blockade runners were based out of the state, Judah P. Benjamin escaped to England through the state, and the only battle of any size that occurred in the state was a Confederate victory that made Congress question why people were dying for the worthless backwater to begin with (but gave a moment of distinction to a certain famous all-Black Union regiment).
Really, "worthless backwater" aptly sums up most of Florida until just before the start of the 20th century, when the construction of the railroads led to increased trade (mostly citrus products, winter vegetables and cattle) with the North, and the cigar industry developed in Tampa. Following the Spanish-American War, tourism really picked up, and thanks to the efforts of railroad builders and the mild nature of winter in the state, the first real estate boom led to the development of much of South Florida in the 1920's. Unfortunately, this initial housing boom turned out to be a bubble and its bursting by the end of the decade was on of the major factors leading to The Great Depression, which set the state back once again. Following the end of World War II, however, the development of air conditioning, highways (in case you haven't realized it, Florida is a big state for folks traveling north or south), and a second real estate boom lead to Florida's transformation into the conglomeration of suburbs, beaches, and retirement homes it is today.
As has been noted, Florida natives tend to be relatively few in number compared to northern immigrants in the populated coastal regions. Some of these northerners are migratory and known to natives as "snowbirds" for their habit of fleeing to Florida from snow in the north and returning home once the snow melts. Lots of them stay, however, and Florida has a disproportionate number of elderly northerners in the state, second only to the American southwest. Most Floridians like the money the Tourists bring in, but wish they would go home after spending their money (Especially Yankees.) Note that it actually does snow in Florida on occasion. It's rare, usually coming once every couple of decades, normally restricted to the northern edges of the state, and very light when it does happen, but between Florida's very mild winters and generally dry winter and spring, Florida snowfall remains little more than a curiosity.
On that note, here's a quick way to distinguish natives from immigrants en masse: when a cold front hits and drops temperatures below 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit or so, natives will be the ones bundling up and talking about how it's freezing. Yes, this does qualify as cold in Florida. The flip side, of course, is that temperatures in the low-mid 90s with extremely high humidity are considered perfectly normal conditions by natives, and opening the front door anytime between May and September has been compared to walking into a sauna.
Today, there are three distinct Floridas within the state's borders. Old Florida, a proud part of the Deep South, is in fact alive and well — it just occupies inland and northern Florida as well as the panhandle, i.e. the parts of the state tourists don't see (outside of a few resort towns such as Panama City Beach). South Florida exchanged its man card and Southern credibility for lots of money, lots of sprawling suburbia, and lots of northerners (particularly East Coasters from states like New York and New Jersey). This region, especially around Miami, also hosts large communities of Caribbean immigrants and has a distinctly Latin tinge and a working knowledge of Spanish can be a big help (some 70% of Miamians are Hispanic and over 70% of Miamians count a language other than English as their mother tongue: mostly Spanish, but a substantial number report Haitian Creole. It's the highest proportion in the country.). Central Florida, anchored by the Tampa Bay and Orlando metropolitan areas a.k.a the "I-4 Corridor"note Named after the interstate highway that connects the two cities, serves as a bit of a middle ground between the two other regions and has more of a Midwestern atmosphere (owing in part to a large number of transplants from that region of the country). You Should Know This Already, but tourism is Florida's biggest industry these days (but only just ahead of agriculture) and is, along with California, one of the classic spring break and summer vacation destinations in the United States. Agriculture and phosphate mining are also common, but again are parts of the state that tourists usually don't see.
The Yanks with Tanks are also quite active within the state, and Florida is home to three of the ten Unified Combatant Commands, more than any other state or region in the world — the grand theater-level strategic commands. Central Command (USCENTCOM) which oversees operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) which oversees Central and South America plus the Caribbean, and Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) which oversees America's special forces, all call Florida their home. NASA also has a major facility within the state: Kennedy Space Center, better known as Cape Canaveral, is the site of NASA's space launches.note Technically speaking, the city of Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center launch complex are not the same place; the Space Center is located across the Banana River on Merritt Island. They both have their own zip code and everything. However, they are highly dependent on each other in more ways than one, so they can be used interchangeably.
One unusual feature is the presence of pools in almost every house that can afford one. This is partly because it's nigh-impossible to have a basement in Florida — once you dig fifteen feet, you hit groundwater. Instead, patios with small pools are almost a necessity if you want to re-sell your home, and these help attract out-of-state buyers thanks to the novelty factor.
Geographically, there are a number of different regions in Florida, only a few of which are relevant to visitors:
The Panhandle: So called for reasons obvious to anyone looking at a map of the state, the Panhandle is home to Tallahassee, Florida's largely forgettable capital city, with little else of note besides being the home of Florida State University (and also the historically-black Florida A&M University). Some nice Gulf beaches up herenote Panama City in particular has gained a status as the mecca for college students on Spring Break and...not much else. Peculiarly, much of the Panhandle is in a different time zone (Central) than the rest of the state, due the time line being a continuation of the Alabama/Georgia bordernote This also makes Florida the geographically easternmost region of the US to be part of the Central Time Zone. It's sometimes grouped with Southern Alabama/Georgia.
North Florida: It's the oldest and most historic part of Florida, home to Jacksonville (the largest and most populous city in the state and, surprisingly, the largest city in the contiguous United States... by land area, that is.note The five largest cities in the United States by land area are all in Alaska. From largest to smallest, they are Yakutat, Sitka, Juneau, Wrangell, and Anchorage. The state's most populous city by far is Anchorage, to give you an idea of what this statistic means.) Saint Augustine (the oldest continuously inhabited city in the country), and... not much else. Pretty much still the Deep South, but with a couple of 16th and 17th century Spanish forts.
The boundary between North & Central Florida is somewhat fuzzy, and there are two smaller cities of some note in this area. Gainesville is home to, and basically is, the University of Florida, and is a quintessential college town. Daytona Beach, on the east coast, is famous as the home of NASCAR's Daytona 500.
Central Florida: Now we're getting somewhere. Centered around Orlando, Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World can be all found here, as well as Cape Canaveral and a handful of other smaller theme parks in the surrounding areanote Although the quality of these other parks can be... ratherquestionable and many are nothing more than tourist traps. It is also home to one of the state's major professional sports teams, the Orlando Magic of the NBA. If you're driving south through Florida, Orlando roughly marks where Old Florida deteriorates into pockets dotting the inland corridor through the state. Go a bit further southwest on Interstate-4 and this leads to the other major city in the nearby region...
The Tampa Bay area (which includes both Tampa itself and St. Petersburg and Clearwater across the bay) is normally spun off into its own region, Western Florida, along with Ft. Myers and Sarasota further south. This is the part with the really nice, "world's best" competition winning beaches, not that anyone remembers it. The Northerners in this area are also more likely to be from the Midwest than the Northeast, due to Interstate 75 connecting it with Michigan and Ohio. Although Orlando is generally regarded to be the "theme park city" of Florida, Tampa manages to hold its own with Busch Gardens, which is famous for its many roller coasters. It's also well-known for its strip clubs (it was the setting of Magic Mike) and a number of on-and-off sports teams, including the Tampa Bay Rays of the MLB, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL, and a solid ice hockey team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Historically this was a major citrus growing area, though much of that has moved outward and inland.
South Florida: The "tri-county" area,note Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach which is by far the most heavily populated region of the state. Once you get south of Tampa, the climate turns steadily more tropical and the terrain steadily more swampy. The Everglades once covered most of South Florida, but now... not so much. Still nice beaches on the coast, but not much to see inland unless you really want to see a giant, shallow lake with a name that hardly anyone can spell correctly for some odd reasonnote It's spelled "Lake Okeechobee"., or miles and miles of swampland and/or sugar cane fields. Miami is of course in this region and, due to the large Latin American (primarily Cuban) community, knowing some Spanish helps. There's also pretty much continuous urban/suburban sprawl from Miami north for about 100 miles — but never more than 20 miles to the west, making it the longest and narrowest metropolitan area in the United States. Other major cities include Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.note Although some inhabitants in these cities will proudly label themselves as being part of the "Metro Miami area", for others it will be a major Berserk Button to be considered "Miamians" so one should exercise caution and generally use the more neutral "South Florida" term to refer to the region as a whole.
Being the biggest metropolitan area of Florida, it is home to most of the state's pro-sports teams, including the NBA's Miami Heat (currently the two-time defending champions), the NFL's Miami Dolphins, the MLB's Miami Marlins, and the NHL's Florida Panthers.note Unfortunately, the latter two are generally considered to be the Butt Monkey of their respective leagues and in the Panthers' case, are so unpopular that many South Floridians are often unaware of their existence.College football is also very popular in the area, with the University of Miami's Hurricanes being one of the state's three major historic powerhouses (along with the aforementioned University of Florida and Florida State University).
In some parts of Miami, knowing Spanish is mandatory, and many of the signs are written in both English and Spanish. Occasionally by law. South Florida also has a growing Haitian and East Indian population, and there has been some friction between the Hispanic and Haitian groups, especially since the latter is growing following the massive Haitian earthquake.
South Florida also had the third-largest Jewish population in the world, coming right after the Big Applesauce and Israel. Not all of them are Alter Kockers, but some are - especially around South Beach and Boca Raton.
The Keys: An archipelago of islands off the coast of South Florida, with the two most famous being Key Largo (the closest to the mainland) and Key West (the farthest and westernmost island). Technically part of Florida, but really, the Keys are the northern edge of the Caribbean and Old Florida does not acknowledge the Keys as part of the state proper. The government does, though, and it's a good thing - the Keys are one of the big summer tourist destinations in the United States despite their tendency to get obliterated by hurricanes every couple of years. This is not an exaggeration: most of the Keys are for the most part sandbars with delusions of grandeur and can be wiped off the map by a hurricane.note Well, that's not exactly true, as the Keys proper are a mostly submerged limestone ridge, but still low enough that everything, aside from the Nigh Invulnerable Hemingway House, can get blown or washed off. Including those nice beaches installed on Key West at such expense.
The Federal Government has often disregarded the Keys. In 1982, they tried to install a drug checkpoint on US 1, the only road out, leading Key West's mayor to "declare independence", calling the Keys the "Conch Republic". The Keys have used the "Conch Republic" whenever they felt slighted by the Federal Government, even "winning a war" in 1995 when an Army Reserve exercise tried to use the Keys to simulate an invasion, directing personnel to treat locals as foreigners.
Aside from some points like Marathon and Key West, US-1 is pretty much the only road in the Keys. When getting directions in the Keys, expect it to be in reference to the Mile Marker.
And speaking of hurricanes, despite the recent tragedy of Hurricane Katrina fixing public awareness of hurricanes on New Orleans, Florida is the United States' main punching bag for Mother Nature's fall mood swings. Until Katrina, Hurricane Andrew was the costliest hurricane in American history, and take a wild guess what state it struck. In 2004, the year before Katrina (which did give Florida a glancing blow), Florida was hammered by not one, but four major hurricanes (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne), with three of them directly hitting Orlando. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seven of the ten costliest hurricanes in American history gave Florida at least a glancing blow. As a result, Floridians tend to be well-prepared to batten down the hatches and go without electrical power for a while when hurricane season starts up. The big negative: it's nigh-impossible to get homeowner's insurance in the state. It's usually not a concern for tourists, though, falling after the usual summer tourism season and before the fall snowbird migration.
As if that weren't enough, Florida has more tornadoes per square mile than any other state, though most of those are pretty weak.note The vast majority of these are actually spun-off from the aforementioned hurricanes so, even when they do cause major damage, are often still overshadowed by the larger storms.
And despite what you may have heard, Florida really isn't all that weird, so don't be afraid to visit. Just make sure you actually leave once you've spent your money, y'hear?
Not to be confused with the hip-hop artist Flo Rida ("Low", "Club Can't Handle Me"), although the state's name is the origin of his stage name. (He's from Miami, BTW.)
Tropes Commonly Associated With Florida:
American Accents: The southern option appears at the northern edge of the state and in interior pockets, while anything can be heard on the coast. Sadly, the actual Floridian accent is almost extinct.
American Football: Has very good college level programs, notably UF and FSU. Miami has some good history as well, and USF (Tampa) and UCF (Orlando) are developing. Jacksonville hosts the annual rivalry game between Florida and Georgia, unofficially referred to as the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party". Also, the state hosts a number of postseason bowl games; the most prominent is the Orange Bowlnote Historically located in Miami and currently in nearby Miami Gardens, one of the four BCS bowls.
NFL history is mixed, especially in recent years:
The Miami Dolphins have two Super Bowl wins, and the only perfect season in NFL history (1972), but have fallen off in recent years, particularly after legendary quarterback Dan Marino's retirement.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the league's Butt Monkey their first two decades (with a fluke NFC title game appearance in 1979), but a rebranding in 1997 (replacing "Creamsicle Orange" with "Red and Pewter") brought long-term success and a Super Bowl win. They fell off in recent years as well.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were surprisingly successful in their first several years. They've come off as the league's Butt Monkey in regards to attendance, even though they outdraw both the Dolphins and Bucs.note This is due to their enormous stadium, EverBank Field, which has a full capacity of 84,000. Its 2012 average home attendance, 64,984, is larger than the capacity of some NFL stadia. A new owner with local connections has brought the team new hope.
The state has hosted 15 Super Bowls: 10 in the Miami area (II, III, V, X, XIII, XXIII, XXIX, XXXIII, XLI, & XLIV), 4 in Tampa Bay (XVIII, XXV, XXXV, & XLIII), and once in Jacksonville (XXXIX)
Amusement Park: It's Orlando's signature move (Disney World, Universal Orlando, Sea World, Holy Land Experience), but there are others around the state, like Busch Gardens in Tampa, and LegoLand in Winter Haven.
Arcadia: Northern and central Florida can be like this, away from the coast.
Baseball: The Tampa Bay [Devil] Rays and Miami (Florida) Marlins call the state home. Do not mention Jeffrey Loria around Miami if you want the conversation to stay civil. Together with Arizona, the state is also the site of spring training for many MLB teams.
Basketball: The Miami Heat and Orlando Magic. Miami follows the Florida tradition of excellent professional sports teams. Orlando follows the other Florida tradition of having utterly clueless management for professional sports teams.
Big Fancy House: Usually of the retirement and summer home varieties, but there are a few old Southern plantation houses, too. Ernest Hemingway's former home in Key West (now a museum) is a particularly famous example.
Bikini Bar: Plenty. Tampa especially is notorious for them.
Brazilians Love Florida: In recent years, many Floridian cities (especially Miami) have seen a large influx of Brazilian tourists who come to the state's many malls as seasonal shoppers. This is largely stemmed from the fact that imported goods in Brazil are subject to extremely high tariffs (so high that for most consumers, purchasing a plane ticket to fly to a different country to shop is still cheaper than buying the items in Brazil). Florida, with its relatively close location and similar climate to Brazil, has been a natural destination for these tourists.
Quick piece of trivia regarding the employees of all those theme parks. Brazilians may love Florida, but Floridians hate Brazilian tourists. Seriously. And their hatred is pretty well founded: rude behavior, shoplifting en masse, and generally treating all service-industry workers like they were mobile pieces of garbage is only the beginning.
Deep South: Parts of Florida still adhere to it, specifically the Panhandle and North Florida.
Drives Like Crazy: Not so much the native Floridians, actually. The problem is all the crazy drivers imported from the rest of the country and elderly drivers who really shouldn't be on the road. The two groups overlap a lot, especially in the winter.
Fandom Rivalry: Beware putting a Florida State and a University of Florida fan in the same room.
It's also pretty bad between Florida State and "The U" of Miami, due to being in the same athletic conference and due to the 1990s when FSU, UF and UM vied for the national title on a yearly basis.
There is somewhat less animosity between the UF and Miami fanbases since the two schools discontinued their annual rivalry game in the late '80s. On the rare occasion when the teams do face each other however, expect a ton of bragging and trash talking from both sides.
Oddly enough, there's not much of a rivalry between the professional teams, although passions do run high between Orlando Magic and Miami Heat fans. A lot of it has to do with most of the pro teams playing in different conferences or divisions with little at stake: there had been only one playoff game between Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins, for example. Most pro team rivalries (Dolphins vs. AFC East, Bucs vs. NFC South in football; Marlins vs. Braves, Rays vs. Yankees and Red Sox in baseball) are with out-of-state opponents.
Ice Hockey: Yep. Some suspect that at least half the fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning are less interested in the sport than they are in the nice, cool stadium.
That's not true. A lot of fans show up to watch the Tesla Coils go off with every goal score.
TWO hockey teams, actually-the Lightning share the state with the Florida Panthers.
And of course, one can't forget about the minor-league Solar Bears, which will be returning to the sport soon enough.
Jimmy Buffett: Its almost required by law that Floridians like the man's music, and if there was one celebrity most often associated with the state, its him. This is ironic, given that he was actually born in Alabama and lives in South Carolina.
Misplaced Wildlife: Plenty. Some are benign, like the budgerigar (parakeet) and peacock populations in several coastal areas. Others are less so, like the pythons in the Everglades. Oh, did we neglect to mention the giant pythons?
Motor Mouth: Pretty much anyone you'll encounter in Miami.
Never Live It Down: The last few presidential elections, especially 2000's. Short version: although the Republican Party has the state government on lockdown, when the time comes for actual popular voting, Florida is increasingly the big purple state, very evenly divided between the parties.
Professional Wrestling: While the top two companies in the US both have their corporate headquarters elsewhere (WWE in Stamford, Connecticut and TNA in Nashville, Tennessee,) both have strong ties to the state. TNA previous held all of their weekly shows at the "Impact Zone," a soundstage at Universal Studios in Orlando before taking the show on the road. WWE's developmental program, NXT, recently opened a new performance center in Orlando, after having it previously under the title of Florida Championship Wrestling in Tampa (this is especially interesting as the two companies categorically do NOT get along.) Also, because of this, a large number of wrestlers: current, former, and upcoming, now call Florida home (though, for the sake of variety, most are billed from their childhood home, such as current Tampa native John Cena still being billed from his childhood home in West Newbury, Massachusetts.)
The Malenko family (Boris, Joe and Dean) broke away from Championship Wrestling from Florida to form their own outlaw (runs in the same geographical area as an established promotion in competition) promotion, Sun Belt Wrestling, which did not last very long.
Pensacola had Gulf Coast Wrestling, which crossed over into the Alabama area.
The Promised Land: A couple of religious sects have thought so. One believed that the world we live on is actually the inside surface of a sphere.
Quirky Town: With a population this diverse, the entire state can feel like this.
The Rival: To California. A lot of tropes that reference California could just as easily reference Florida.
The one rivalry involving California and Florida that Floridians scoff at is in their respective citrus fruits. Floridians maintain that there's no comparison, and thus no rivalry. The joke goes like this: You can run over a California orange with a bulldozer and the juice won't even wet the road. But you'll need napkins just trying to peel a Florida orange. And while that's not quite the truth, it is true thast Florida oranges are slightly larger and juicier than California oranges, on average.
Suburbia: All three versions exist in Florida. Sometimes on the same street.
Swamps Are Evil: They're not, but you're forgiven for thinking that they are. Although we do have to wonder about the Everglades these days...