You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, nor can you imagine the variety of activities offered by The Shell Factory in Fort Myers. The name conjures up a roadside souvenir shop, selling glossy seashells and nautical knickknacks, which is exactly how it started 67 years ago.
A young couple came to Florida to escape the bitter winters up north. They began selling shells and shell crafts from their porch in Bonita Springs. The shop quickly grew until a fire destroyed it in 1952. The couple didn't give up. They rebuilt north on Route 41. Then, disaster struck again from monumental Hurricane Donna in 1960; construction of Interstate 75 detoured traffic away from the store; and another fire occurred in 1980.
The Shell Factory came under new ownership, thrived for a period, but ultimately experienced hard times. In 1997, local businessman and visionary Tom Cronin saved it from bankruptcy and a multimillion-dollar renovation got under way.
The new and improved Shell Factory is eclectic in what it offers: from bumper boats to a pitching-speed challenge; a large nature park with petting zoo and exotic animals to a rainforest aviary, arcade games and an 18-hole miniature golf course; all encompassing more than 18 acres.
The Nature Park and Botanical Gardens is brand-new and it's sensational — and serene. Walk the trails and enter the 7,000-square-foot rainforest aviary, where parrots fly overhead among the lush tropical landscape, parakeets talk, peacocks strut and swans glide under a bridge nearby. In warm weather, wild colonies of native butterflies can be enjoyed in the Native Plant & Butterfly Garden, including monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, Queens and Zebra Longwings, the State's official butterfly.
Outside, you can witness the prairie dogs socializing with each other and, farther up the trail, the Primate Pavilion is situated next to the waterfalls. The ring-tailed lemurs are entertaining to observe.
Bobcats and their related species, the African serval and caracal, live among each other. Raccoons, armadillos, flying squirrels and other animals from all over the world are on view. The Small Animal Museum provides housing for bunnies, guinea pigs, brush-tailed rats, and baby alligators — even the Giant Hissing Cockroach (truly eerie) from Madagascar.
An alligator slough is home to Big Bertha, aptly named for a 10-foot-long female alligator. Guests can observe feeding times on the weekends, usually around 2:30 p.m., but call ahead for confirmation.
Chico, the dromedary camel (one hump), is being trained to give visitors a ride around the gardens.
The Petting Zoo is fun for every age. Safely meet and greet llamas, goats, chickens, turkeys and pigs, as well as Romeo, the baby bull calf that likes to have his chin scratched. Don't forget to bring quarters to feed the animals healthy treats.
The Nature Park and Botanical Gardens is open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Admission is $6, seniors; $8, adults; $4, children 4 to 12; and free for 3 and under.
The Fun Park boasts "the only bumper boats in town." The plump, round boats scoot around a lagoon that's adorned with a center fountain and shooting water used to drench fellow floaters. If you don't like to get your hair wet, you can sit under the gazebo and feed the bottlenose turtles and ducks, which hang around waiting for handouts.
Another Shell Factory venue is the Groovy Stop Video Arcade, which contains games for all ages. Adults almost equal the number of children playing games to win tickets for prizes.
Fun Park hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Admission for miniature golf is $5; bumper boats, $5; and pitching cage, $1 for three balls.
Participation in these attractions build up an appetite that can be satisfied at either the Subway sandwich shop or Capt'n Fishbones Seafood Grill, a full-service restaurant, offering lunch and dinner. Capt'n Fishbones has a large menu that can be enjoyed at an indoor booth, on the Patio or in the tiki hut area. The restaurant and patio recently completed extensive renovation. Dining is available 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The Patio is closed Monday through Thursday. Enjoy entertainment Wednesday through Sunday evening; call (239) 995-2655 for the musician schedule.
It's "Viva Las Vegas!" at Waltzing Waters presents Liquid Fireworks. Individual nozzles create jumping, twirling and dancing water illuminated by choreographed colored lights, set to music from rock to classical to show tunes. This patented production is the result of three hard-working generations, which was started by Otto Przystawik's musical fountain invention 70 years ago. It's difficult to repress gasps of amazement and appreciation during the show.
Show times are 7 and 8 p.m. nightly. Each show is unique, never repeating the same performance twice. The cost is $5 for general admission and free to kids 12 and under. Call (239) 995-2141 for more information.
True to its name, The Shell Factory does sell rare seashells, in addition to nautical lamps, jewelry, candles, home accents and gift items. Their merchandise also is available at www.shellfactory.com.
Rosie's Gourmet Fudge is the icing on the cake, if you will. Patrons watch while the candy makers stir giant vats and pour the mixtures onto the marble slabs for cooling. They make dozens of mouthwatering flavors, including chocolate, peanut butter cup, banana, French vanilla and chocolate mint, to name a few of my favorites. Rosie's also serves Sno Cones, soft ice cream and New York-style soft pretzels — the perfect compliments to a day at a fun park and zoo.
The name of the game is to take the kids or bring along big-kid friends to the Shell Factory. It combines innocent retro fun with rare educational exhibits. Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. If you recall visiting The Shell Factory sometime years ago, as I do, I strongly recommend you check out the remarkable renovations that make this experience more exciting than its name could ever suggest.