One of the stranger Florida attractions was located in the Daytona Beach area in the 1950s & 1960s.
Probably located in the city of Port Orange or possibly the city of South Daytona, this unusual attraction was self-described as being “7 miles south of Daytona Beach, Florida on U.S. No. 1.”
Little definitive information on the attraction is available. W.R. Johnston is said to have built the structure, primarily as a shop to sell orchids and other plants which were on display throughout the building. It was located on US Route 1, the main road from the state of Maine south to Key West along the eastern seaboard.
Erroneously described as a bomb shelter by some people long after it’s destruction, this misinterpretation likely comes from the dramatic name of the attraction for part of its existence. The “Beautiful Atomic Tunnel” gives the impression that it might have been underground and possibly bombproof. It’s clear that neither is true however.
The wholly above-ground structure appeared to be long, curving, narrow and rounded. Likely to have been made of concrete, it had an unusual organic feel and was pierced by dozens of small, irregularly-shaped windows, which partly illuminated the interior. There seem to have been more than one larger rooms between sections of the tunnel as well.
The overall length is unclear, but considering the description of what visitors could see and experience, it must have been fairly long. Speculation suggests somewhere around 100 to 150 feet of tunnel. The tunnel was generally circular with walls about 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3m) apart.
The attraction operated for several years in the 1950s and 1960s, but opening and closing dates have not been determined. A postcard for the attraction was postmarked 1963, so it probably was operating at least until then.
The brochures (see below) have a list of sights on view, including a “bird” room, an orchid room and various fish – including piranha. There was also a patio, which had further animals (monkeys and more birds) as well as plants for sale.
Obviously, the person in charge of promotion for the Atomic Tunnel felt that “Happy” the walking catfish was the thing that would encourage visitors to come, hence his starring role in the brochures. The species most commonly called a walking catfish is Clarias batrachus. Native to the Indonesian island of Java, the unusual fish can walk, in a fashion. Living in swampy areas, the fish evolved to be able to leave one dried up pool to head to another by walking and slithering along.
Like several other fish (including the betta fish which are popular as pets), walking catfish have a partly modified gill structure containing a labyrinth organ, which allows them to both collect the oxygen saturated in water as well as pull it directly from the air.
Walking catfish can grow to about 20 inches (0.5 m) long and weigh up to 2.5 lb (1.1 kg). Today, it’s considered an invasive species in Florida, coming to the state as early as the 1950s. Happy might have been related to some of the other walking catfish that were released into Florida waters.
As mentioned before, there’s not a lot of information about the attraction. Atomic Tunnel appears to have been an earlier name, which makes sense considering how much the word atomic was in the news in the 1950s. Tunnel of Fantasy was a later name, including being in use on the postcard postmarked 1963.
The attraction was clearly interesting, assuming kitschy can be a positive term. It was certainly unique and it embraced the exotic, one of the main hallmarks of Florida tourism.