It was an enchanted land of neon, the Daytona Beach of my youth. Hotels and motels lining either side of the shoreline road, their pastel façades awash in an otherworldly glow. Cheery signs buzzing along A1A, welcoming weary travelers with the one word that brought joy to every parent, girl, and boy. VACANCY.
And that one sign screamed at us in red neon.
It was always the neon that I loved most, and it was everywhere. Daytona Beach in the early 1970s was the place to be as a kid if you enjoyed the nighttime and long drives up and down the strip. It was fun arriving to town after sunset. Every sign that could be lit glowed bright on A1A.
Riding in the backseat of the family car, a purple 1965 Ford Galaxie 500 XL, I would watch the world pass by as we snaked our way to our hotel. There were souvenir shops that stayed open a bit late, their white or blue neon signs advertising everything from surfboards to swimwear. Fast food restaurants shined in the distance, competing with the yellow glow of the streetlamps that ran the length of A1A.
It was fun rolling along and watching people mill about on the sidewalks, some of those people heading to bars that catered to all kinds throughout the night. In my young mind, figured out what drew people out into the evening. Must’ve been the neon. At night, Daytona Beach was intoxicating. Captivating. And all of it was drenched in color. From the signage along A1A to the colored floodlights shining up on the palm trees that sat clustered on motel properties. There was color, color, everywhere. Part of what made Daytona great for me back then was the bright and boisterous neon utopia of the Boardwalk itself. Oh, that Space Needle!
My parents would take me to the Boardwalk after sunset. The sound of waves crashing on shore as the tide rolled in was a complement to the sound of the latest rock songs blaring away in the arcades along the strip. Shrieks of laughter would erupt from the bumper car area. The dinging sound of pinball machines echoed out in between strains of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos. Overwhelming with its aroma of hot dogs, buttery popcorn, and the scent of freshly spun cotton candy, the Boardwalk was a poor child’s version of Disney World.
After our Boardwalk visit, we would pile in the car and head straight to the Rat Hole. My parents were car enthusiasts, which meant that I was one by default. There were choice examples of that day’s finest Detroit steel on Main Street on those summers so long ago. Ford Mustangs, Chevy Chevelles, Pontiac GTOs, Plymouth Roadrunners. Even though there were bikes, bikes, and more bikes on Main Street, it was the wide variety of cars that caught my attention. Every muscle car in every color imaginable lined up along the street outside of Big Daddy Rat’s place. Every car drenched in the ever-present Main Street neon.
I drank in the scene. It was mesmerizing. Women in halter tops and short shorts. Guys in cut-offs and sandals. Eccentric looking old folks milling around. It was a wonderful world of wacky, and I couldn’t get enough.
Fast forward to today. Just this past May, my husband and I spent some time in Daytona Beach. We visited our usual haunts. Abraxas Books on Beach Street. Atlantic Sounds on West International Speedway. La Fiesta on Nova Road. Each time I have come here to visit, my mind hearkens back to the early Seventies and the nights filled with loud music, loud cars, and loud people. All the noise and neon that made Daytona Beach such a magical place to me as a child.
A1A of today has its own beauty, its own distinct personality, and it still contains a bit of my beloved neon from the past. As small motels make way for mega condo buildings, the neon is lost forever. It becomes the thing I long for as I drive down the strip at night, looking for a place to eat. Memories fill in the gaps between new developments and empty beachfront properties. If I close my eyes and concentrate hard enough, I can see into the past as I stand on the beach and look inland at the new construction alongside remnants of the old. And though my parents and I never dared enter the Rat Hole, fading memories of the place still flicker in my mind. Fading memories of Boardwalk nights, band shell concerts, hot dogs dripping with ketchup. Fading memories of the Daytona Beach of yesterday, many yesterdays ago, are memories that will forever shine, like neon in my mind.