Chasing Elvis on Florida’s Nature Coast
“Two kids from Dunnellon High School worked on that Elvis movie in Yankeetown,” I told my daughter as we sped down the road towards the film location. She pulled her earbuds out. I had snagged her attention.
“Yeah, they shoveled sand to make the movie set beach.”
She had already put one earbud back in and was heading onto the second.
One of them became a math teacher at Dunnellon High School, Mr. Jones.”
My daughter’s hand stopped and her eyes grew wide, “Mr. Jones?”
“Yeah, do you know him?”
“My teacher talks about Mr. Jones. He was his math teacher at DHS!”
I was on a quest to track down the places Elvis Presley had visited in Levy, Citrus, and Hernando Counties, and she was along for the ride.
Elvis Presley filmed Follow that Dream on Florida’s Nature Coast
Elvis Presley made a whirlwind tour of Florida in 1956 – 25 shows in 7 cities in 9 days. He swept through the state like a hurricane – Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Lakeland, Miami, Daytona Beach, and Jacksonville and rode like a surfer on the wave of his growing fan base. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1961 that the King made his way to the area of Florida we now know as the Nature Coast.
Matlacha Island Inspiration
The blue-eyed, Mississippi-born rock and roll sensation arrived in the sunshine state in July 1961 to film the United Artists movie, “Follow That Dream.” This would be Elvis’ ninth movie. The screenplay was adapted from the novel “Pioneer, Go Home!” written by Richard P. Powell. It was inspired by a true story about Matlacha Island in South Florida.
In 1926 Lee County put a bridge in between Cape Coral and Pine Island. The county dredged the Matlacha Pass for the bridge and the excess fill created an island- a piece of land that didn’t exist in public records or on maps. It was no-man’s land. Squatters arrived. They camped rough initially and, as time passed, built wooden shacks and sturdier structures. They began small businesses there as well. The county tried to run them off but eventually granted the no-man’s land squatters property rights.
The Beach That Wasn’t: Pumpkin Island Film Site
Elvis and the cast and crew spent July and August in 1961 filming Follow That Dream. Most of the filming took place on a riverside site in Yankeetown, the place where my daughter and I headed on a sunny autumn morning.
A Follow That Dream Parkway sign stretched across Highway 19 at Inglis. In 1996 the section of State Road 40 from Highway 19 to the Bird Creek boat ramp was renamed after the movie.
We turned left to Follow That Dream and had our first Elvis sighting at the Inglis-Yankee Town Chamber of Commerce. A statue of the iconic Elvis in his Las Vegas show clothes stood outside the building, begging for an Instagram moment.
On the grass beside the small building, a bridge safety railing framed a photo of a manmade beach on Pumpkin Island from the film. Other signs and placards directed the way to the film location site. Unfortunately, the office was closed.
Leaving Vegas Elvis behind, we hopped back in the car to find the beach. Elvis was 26 when he starred in the Follow That Dream movie. Many a fan says it was the last movie of the true Elvis – a soft-spoken, polite southern gentleman. The glamour and glitzy Elvis would emerge soon after. In 1961, the Elvis that arrived at Yankeetown was a perfect fit for this laid-back fishing community.
I drove over Bird Creek Bridge and pulled over so we could walk back. . Weekend fishermen cast lines out from the bridge. The Jailhouse Rock and Blue Suede Shoes crooner was probably far from their minds. Did they know that Elvis stood on that very bridge, filming a fishing scene?
Across the creek was Pumpkin Island, the undeveloped location that the movie producers desired. Now overgrown with sawgrass and bushes, it probably looked exactly like it did before the movie moguls began their transformation of the landscape.
For the movie set, tons of white sugar sand was brought in and palm trees were planted to give it an Anna Maria/Gilligan’s Island look. This was where the main characters, the Kwimper family, ran out of gas and decided to stay.
In the movie, with his dad, ‘Pop’, Elvis built a wooden home, strummed his guitar, and sang songs about not being a marrying kinda guy, while his little brothers played on the beach and his adopted sister stuck glass soda bottles in a deep hole in the sand to collect drinking water – this was the movies, not science. On film, they were living the true Florida dream before the mobster-neighbors moved in next door.
All evidence of the movie beach was long washed away by tides and storms over the years. Salt marshes and wire grass stretched out towards the gulf. The sounds of Elvis strumming his guitar were but a movie memory.
We climbed back in the car to head into Crystal River and the place where Elvis stayed.
Finding Paradise in Crystal River
During the shoot, Elvis and his co-stars stayed at the Port Paradise Resort overlooking Banana Island in King’s Bay. Although it has changed hands over the years, the waterfront hotel in Crystal River, now the Port Hotel & Marina, still stands. A wooden boardwalk follows the water, Adirondack chairs along the deck invite guests to linger and enjoy the view.
Twinkling lights hang over the open-air bar by the marina and music wafts from the restaurant, Waterfront Social. It was easy to imagine Elvis relaxing in the setting, so we did as well.
Elvis in Inverness
Our next Elvis day led us to the quaint downtown of Inverness.
Elvis spent 4 days filming the climactic court scene in the old courthouse in Inverness. The scene was pivotal not only to the movie but to the city. Years later when the courthouse was being restored, stills from the movie were used in the restoration process for architectural accuracy.
Visitors can explore the Follow That Dream courtroom on the second floor of the Old Courthouse Heritage Museum in Inverness. Cardboard cut-outs of the King are scattered throughout the museum, chronicling his eras from the boyish beginnings to Vegas glitter. The first floor houses local exhibits on natural history, Native American culture, and settler history. There’s even a permanent tribute to the King himself- Elvis Presley.
During our visit, the exhibition “Cinema in the Sunshine: The History of the Film Industry Locally and Throughout Florida” was on display. “Follow That Dream” is one of the highlighted Florida films in the exhibition, along with “The Yearling,” Mr. Peabody & The Mermaid,” and others. The Florida film exhibition is available for public viewing until October 13, 2021.
Red Level Mishaps
“Oh my gosh – Elvis was on Basswood Avenue!” My voice rose to a fevered pitch. I clutched my phone, talking to my husband while reading the exhibit panels in the Old Courthouse Heritage Museum. We traveled to Basswood at Red Level on a regular basis. All of a sudden, the residential backroad lined with scrub palms became infinitely more interesting.
Like 1960’s fan-girls, we popped on our sunglasses and hopped in the car for a drive back to the road where the “Follow That Dream” movie began. In the film, Pop Kwimper takes his patchwork family on a wrong turn off Highway 19 and heads down Basswood Avenue. Ignoring the Stay Away signs, he drives over what looks like a pine tree log in the road and gets stuck (again, it’s the movies!). Elvis lifts the car over the log, despite the fact that everyone is still in it.
Yes, it’s a corny scene, but it happened on Basswood and Elvis was there.
Elvis and the Sirens of the Springs
Elvis managed a couple of side trips during his time on the Nature Coast. He visited Weeki Wachee to see the world-famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids. The Weeki Wachee mermaids had been performing since 1947 for visitors from around the world. Elvis Presley passed out copies of his latest LP to the girls and in turn, the aquatic acrobatic sirens of the springs treated him to an underwater show.
The King’s Gotta Eat: Coney Island Drive In
My daughter and I took one last trip – a drive to Coney Island Drive-In – a hot dog diner in Brooksville. The King of Rock and Roll had stopped by in 1961 for a bite. In honor of Elvis, we ordered their famous foot-long hot dogs, cheese fries, and Dr. Peppers. It would have been the type of meal for someone who had an affinity for peanut butter & banana sandwiches – with bacon.
A velvet painting of Elvis hung over our table. Elvis memorabilia filled a corner of the eatery. Around the corner, a statue of Elvis belted out a song. In a back room, Follow That Dream played on a television. It was the perfect place to bring our Elvis chase to an end.
We ate our Elvis-inspired meal surrounded by Elvis. Elvis stamps, photos, license plates, decorated plates, and more.
Our journey has taken us from desolate salt marshes to back roads, bayfront hotels to historic downtowns. Follow That Dream may not have made the movie of the year, but Elvis’ time in the local communities will always be remembered and treasured.
For the past four years, Elvis Tribute Artists have been gathering in downtown Inverness for the annual Elvis: The Summer Festival Show. The next local event is slated for June 2022.
We drove through Brooksville as the sun set, the light illuminated the historic buildings like halos on angels. Elvis Presley died at age 42 at Graceland, his manor home, but his legend lives on in Florida’s Nature Coast.
If you want to see how it was “back in the day” when Elvis came to town, spend a couple minutes looking at this grainy video.
Chase the memories of Elvis at these places mentioned in this story:
- See Elvis at the Withlacoochee Gulf Area (Inglis-Yankeetown) Chamber of Commerce at 167 Hwy 40 W, Inglis, FL 34449
- Travel 4.4 miles west on Follow That Dream Parkway from the Chamber of Commerce to reach the Bird Creek Bridge film site.
- Waterfront Social and the Port Hotel & Marina can be found at 1610 SE Paradise Cir, Crystal River, FL 34429
- The Old Citrus County Courthouse Museum is located at One Courthouse Square, Inverness, FL 34450
- Basswood Avenue is a residential road off of Highway 19 in Red Level
- Watch a mermaid show like Elvis did at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, 6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill, FL 34606
- Try a foot-long hot dog and catch Follow That Dream at the Coney Island Drive In at 1112 E Jefferson St, Brooksville, FL 34601
- Here’s a Link to a Route Map: https://goo.gl/maps/ca7fxocX7adHtm7N9