Florida's hottest fashion item isn't to be found in the shops of Miami's trendy South Beach area. Instead, it can be observed along the turnpikes.
Since the summer of 1999, toll takers have been wearing cream-colored tropical shirts that feature beach scenes, palm trees and other images from Depression-era postcards, interwoven with the names of highways and toll plazas such as Alligator Alley and Yeehaw Junction. The shirts are intended to convey a friendly, relaxed atmosphere to tourists.
That strategy has worked. Almost from the first day the tropical shirts appeared, motorists offered toll takers big bucks to literally take the shirt off their backs. Demand was so great that the Department of Transportation worked with its vendors to offer the shirts for sale to the public. At a price of $39.95 each, the first shipment sold out within three days.
Orders are still coming in to a toll-free line from around the country. The shirts are also available at service plazas. Since the DOT decided not to seriously involve itself in the business of retailing clothing, its vendors are keeping the proceeds, except for $1 per shirt that goes into a state employees' charitable fund.
The shirts have succeeded in spreading Florida's convivial image far and wide. "We've been asked if we're going to do a winter line," Washburn says. "We're going to stick with what we've got right now."