The colorful history of Indian Shores landmark Tiki Gardens

The Polynesian-inspired attraction featured Tahitian-style landscaping, statues of tiki gods, gift shops and a restaurant serving exotic food and drinks.

The former Tiki Gardens in Indian Shores is today a county park and parking lot for beachgoers. [Florida Beach Insider file photo]
The former Tiki Gardens in Indian Shores is today a county park and parking lot for beachgoers. [Florida Beach Insider file photo]

INDIAN SHORES — Perhaps you’ve seen the beach access on Gulf Boulevard at 196th Avenue in Indian Shores that reads Tiki Gardens.

Maybe you’ve turned in, hoping to find some South Seas oasis the midst of condos. Or at least a retro bar to grab a Zombie or a Mai Tai.

And all you find is a parking lot.

Well, there are palm trees and some overgrown mangroves. Nothing you’d consider gardens. And not one hint of anything tiki related.

But from 1964 to 1990, it was the site of the most epic tiki attraction that Tampa Bay has ever seen. Tiki Gardens was a 9.9-acre, Polynesian-inspired kitschy utopia on the Boca Ciega Bay side of Gulf Blvd. Peacocks strutted through lush, Tahitian-style gardens dotted with statues of tiki gods and temples in which to pray to them. Gift shops sold exotic items, a restaurant served Asian and South Pacific cuisine.

Ask around, and many locals fondly remember the attraction. And one local is working to keep its memory alive.

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Jo and Frank Byars discuss the gardens with landscape architect Robert Lewis Malkin in 1963. [Florida Beach Insider file photo]

Raised in south Tampa, 52-year-old Dejah Gandy never visited Tiki Gardens, but was aware of it. Now a resident of Largo, she’s a tiki enthusiast and collector. Once she realized the attraction had worldwide notoriety, she started researching it, visiting the exhibit of it at the Indian Rocks Historical Museum.

She spotted a T-shirt that was hanging there, but not available for sale. She learned that no one owned the rights to the attraction’s name. She trademarked it and had shirts printed, now commissioning artists to make magnets and pendants inspired by Tiki Gardens. She sells the items on her Instagram account and at local markets.

When people visit Gandy’s booth at the markets, people become nostalgic about the attraction.

“It brings a smile to people’s faces,” she said. “It was such a happy memory. So many people want to share their stories.”

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The torch-lighting ceremony was an advertised event at Tiki Gardens. [Jeff "Beachbum" Berry photo from Florida Beach Insider files]

Tiki Gardens’ background starts in 1953, when the married couple Frank and Jo Byars opened the Signal House, a large gift shop that offered Asian and Polynesian imports. They’d caught the tiki fever that was in full swing around the world. By 1961, they’d begun to plant the flora of Tiki Gardens, offering guests free admission.

Sadly, a fire caused $200,000 worth of damage at the Signal House in 1963. Worse than that, their 16-year-old daughter died from cancer around that time.

When it was time to rebuild, they decided to evolve from a gift shop to an all-out attraction. The project was therapy for the grieving couple. Jo designed the gardens, sketching ideas on butcher paper each day for a contractor to execute. The gardens grew to 4½ acres. They commissioned an artist to design the tiki heads. Monkeys and exotic birds were added, colorful macaws and the regal, albeit noisy, peacocks.

They rebuilt the Signal House as a 450-seat restaurant, called Trader Frank’s. Guests drank tiki cocktails from commemorative vessels and ate pu pu platters in the double-pitched-roof restaurant, which was adorned with Polynesian masks and symbols.

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The Byarses work with a member of the "staff" at Tiki Gardens in 1965. [Florida Beach Insider file photo]

Frank cut through the mangroves to create a tropical trail that exposed the Intracoastal Waterway at the back of the restaurant. They staged luaus, with grass-skirted dancers and nightly torch-lighting ceremonies. Tours were offered on ornate pontoon boats. They turned the pier across the street into Pier Kahiki, a well-known fishing venue stretching hundreds of feet into the Gulf of Mexico. (The pier was destroyed by a hurricane in the 1970s.)

Instead of one gift shop, they built 10, brimming with exotic items they found on their world travels. Guests bought volcanic rock, sarongs and Japanese Hakata dolls. Their selection of Hawaiian fabrics was so large that Disney World sourced costume fabric from them.

And the only fee was for the tropical trail.

Families flocked there on the weekends. Couples got married in the thatched-roof garden chapel, then had their receptions in the restaurant. Postcards were printed. The Byarses even released an LP, The Exotic Sounds of Tiki Gardens, a “fabulous audio fantasy” featuring musicians the Byarses hired for the recording.

Tiki Gardens had millions of visitors over the years, but traffic started dwindling in the late 1980s, especially among locals. Compounded by landscaping costs of $100,000 a year, the Byarses were considering a new direction for the grounds, perhaps a marina or a yacht club.

The attraction's buildings stood for decades. Here is a souvenir stand and Trader Frank's restaurant in 1982. [Florida Beach Insider file photo]

Ultimately, a bad business decision led the couple to look for a buyer. Frank became a principal in the ill-fated Park Bank, which gave out millions of dollars in real estate loans that developers didn’t pay back. The bank folded in 1986 and Frank faced lawsuits totaling $49 million.

In 1988, Australian investors Neville Schmidt and Darrell Roder bought Tiki Gardens from the Byarses for $2.95 million. In a move befitting people who lived for the exotic, the couple accepted $1 million in rare black opals as partial payment.

Schmidt and Roder spruced up the gardens, making the necessary repairs. They leased out the gift shops to individual retailers. A Broadway/Las Vegas style show happened on Saturday nights at the restaurant.

But the investors struggled to get local interest, and sold it. The attraction passed through more hands before it was finally purchased by Pinellas County for $3 million in 1990. The county announced plans to tear down the attraction and create a beach access parking lot and county park, keeping the name Tiki Gardens. There were plans to transform the gardens into a nature trail, but that didn’t happen.

Jo and Frank Byars at the gardens in 1990, the year the attraction shuttered. [Florida Beach Insider file photo]

Jo Byars died Aug. 20, 1994, at age 80. Frank died the following year on Oct. 29, at age 85.

What became of all the inhabitants of Tiki Gardens? The animals were all sold off, and Pinellas County held an auction in June 1990. Fans keen to take home tikis and totems flocked to the event, scooping up furnishings and fixtures from the restaurant. All of those items are now highly sought after by nostalgic collectors.

Gandy would like to do even more to commemorate the attraction, perhaps even celebrate it with a festival, if she can garner enough attention.

“I’m so passionate about it, “ she said. “My whole goal is just for people to remember it, because it was such a cool thing that we had here.”

This article was originally published on April 24, 2019.

Maggie Duffy grew up on Florida beaches, which continue to be her happy place. When she's not writing about art and shopping for the Tampa Bay Times, she enjoys working out and testing new recipes on her hungry husband.