- Associated Press - Sunday, February 1, 2015

OKALOOSA ISLAND, Fla. (AP) - From the moment it was discovered, Okaloosa Island has drawn people to its sugar-white shores.

As early as the 1920s, folks from across the country came to fish and swim in the Gulf of Mexico and Santa Rosa Sound, picnic, lounge in the sun and collect shells.

But it didn’t take long for more lively entertainment to find its way to the island. Through the years - and still today - it’s been home to nightclubs, strip joints, train rides, miniature golf, water slides and marine aquariums.

At one time - in the late 1960s and into the 1970s - the island was home to a popular amusement park with a Ferris wheel, a small rollercoaster and a pond full of bumper cars.

For the past several years, amusements on the island have been at a minimum.

But two new projects - Wild Willy’s Adventure Zone and Okaloosa National - suggest something of a return to the old-fashioned fun that the island was known for years ago.

 ”They are perfect for the island,” said Ed Schroeder, head of tourism for Okaloosa County. “The island is a family development and both those attractions will cater to family.”

Wild Willy’s is a dinosaur-themed amusement park going up on U.S. Highway 98 adjacent to the Emerald Coast Convention Center. It will boast everything from zip lines and laser mazes to a 4D theater and miniature golf with motion-activated animatronic figures.

“Wild Willy’s is an upgrade to a former amusement center that will provide additional family-oriented recreational opportunities for residents and visitors,” said Elliot Kampert, growth management director for Okaloosa County.

Okaloosa National, planned for Santa Rosa Boulevard, is local attorney Vince Bruner’s miniature homage to Augusta National, the famous home of The Masters. 

The putting course “is more of a low-key amusement and should appeal to people who like mini-golf but aren’t up for all the excitement of a facility like Wild Willy’s,” Kampert said.

The golf course also will be served by a sidewalk and is within walking distance of many island residents.

“It makes it much more enjoyable when you can walk places,” Schroeder added. “It’s just a tremendous win for the island.”

The island’s newest planned amusements owe their existence to local businessman and visionary Thomas Brooks, who was the first to develop Okaloosa Island through his Island Amusement Company.

He created the popular area known as Tower Beach, which boasted a boardwalk, a grill with slot machines, a dance pavilion and a cluster of cottages built right on the sand.

Written on the Tower Beach sign were the words, “Pleasant journey, return soon.”

And return, they did. By 1938, Brooks was getting annual cottage reservations from return visitors.

His daughter, Sug Brown, who is 82 and lives in Cinco Bayou, said her father saw the island as a place to have fun.

“Daddy wanted a place for the tourists to come and enjoy the beach,” she said. “He had a big fishing pier.”

But he was fiercely protective of the island’s natural resources.

“I remember Daddy would get so mad because the commercial decorators would come in and cut all the sea oats,” she said.

As teenagers, Brown and her friends spent as much time at Tower Beach as their parents would allow.

 ”There was just something about the boardwalk everybody liked,” said Liz McCartney, who grandmother was beloved community leader Liza Jackson. “You could just go out there and pretend you were somebody.”

McCartney was one of many girls who participated - and placed - in the annual Fourth of July beauty pageants on the boardwalk.

Another popular pastime was competitive water skiing in Santa Rosa Sound.

Cissy Wyninegar, who is 75, remembers the island mostly as a place to go for the day.

“Nobody really lived over there,” she said. “We had spend-the-night parties out there - that was a big deal! … It was a place for fun.”

In time Tower Beach faded, replaced by more modern attractions.

In the late 1960s and into the 1980s, multiple amusement parks were located on the east side of the island between the sound and U.S. Highway 98.

Some remember the attraction as Funway Amusement Park. Others have memories of a Pirate Island. Either way, they didn’t last. The whirling and spinning came to a stop and, eventually, the rides were dismantled.

Tim Donaldson, who lives in Mary Esther, worked there the summer he was 16. He ran the Ferris Wheel, the Tilt-a-Wheel and a host of other rides.

“They had a little bumper boat pond,” Donaldson recalled. “We helped build that thing.”

He remembers one contraption called the “Jungle Gym” that consisted of four cages. People would step inside and hold on to a metal bar - no harnesses -while the cages swung “around and around.”

“It was wild. That place rocked!” he said. “It was really busy.”

Donaldson still enjoys Okaloosa Island but believes it needs more restaurants and more to do other than the beach.

“My personal opinion is they need to go more toward children,” he said. “… That’ll keep more revenue here.”

McCartney and Brown agree, saying they would like to see more family-oriented amusements on the island.

They also can’t help but wonder what Thomas Brooks and Liza Jackson might think of how it’s turned out.

“She’d sit back and think - I know she’d do that,” McCartney said. “She would want it to look nice … not like a Myrtle Beach kind of thing. She wouldn’t want it to be cheap looking.”

Brown believes her father would be “stunned” - but in a good way.

“I think he would have liked it,” she said. “He would have been right in the middle of it!”

Harold Sundy was just a kid when Tower Beach was in its heyday.

But he was old enough to realize how important those early tourists were to the economy - and his wallet.

  It was 1946, and he was 11 years old with a job on at the popular beachfront grill known as the “casino.”

“A lot of military people would go over and drink beer,” he recalled. “My job was picking up bottles. I probably made three or four dollars a day.”

The tourists - or vacationists as they were often called back then - were dazzled by the busy boardwalk. They could drop in at Tower Beach, play a few slot machines, grab a hot dog, dance under a pavilion to live music and soak up some sun.

“People would come there from all over the country,” Sundy said. “You could rent a rubber raft or an umbrella. … It cost a quarter or 50 cents if you wanted to leave your valuables.”

Sometimes in the evening, he and a friend would scavenge under the bathhouses for dropped coins.

“Sometimes we’d make $30 or $40!” he said. “That was a lot of money back then.”

He also admits to playing the slot machines “every time I could catch someone not looking at me.”

Sundy’s father handled maintenance for Thomas Brooks, the businessman who developed Tower Beach. His family lived in one of Brooks’ popular beachfront cottages on and off from 1941 to 1954.

Sundy loved exploring the unspoiled stretches of beach and remembers climbing sand dunes much larger than the ones standing today.

“The sand hills over there were just filled with scrub pines and sea oats,” Sundy said. “It was beautiful. It won’t ever be that way again.”

___

Information from: Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.), https://www.nwfdailynews.com


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