By Roy Adams
When Central Plaza opened in 1952, it was deemed Florida’s largest shopping center. This massive retail development covered 7-8 blocks of St. Petersburg between first avenue north and south, crossing Central Avenue.
People would come from all over Florida to experience the stores and restaurants at Central Plaza. To help shoppers get around, the shopping center had its own train called the “Shopper Dropper” that circled the complex daily.
A modified tractor was made to look like a locomotive and was hitched to three passenger cars. It took 20 minutes to circle the complex, making 15 stops along the way. According to news stories, it traveled 20,000 miles a year and carried 600 passengers a day. It was free for shoppers to ride. They could just hop on and off as needed.
The Shopper Dropper had two engineers during its history. Art Burgett was one of them. I was five years old when I first rode the Shopper Dropper and met Art. We soon became good friends. Art would let me ride up in the engine with him as the Shopper Dropper circled Central Plaza. Since my mother and grandmother wanted to shop in peace, the simple solution was to put me up in the engine with Art and they would pick me up when they were ready to leave. You could say that Art was sort of my babysitter. We kept each other company during the one hour visit we had each week. I can’t guess how many hundreds of times I circled Central Plaza with Art on the Shopper Dropper. (I’m sure some risk manager would cringe at the sight of me standing in the cab of a moving vehicle, wearing no seat belt while distracting a driver transporting 12-25 passengers).
The Shopper Dropper was also in the St. Petersburg Santa Parade each year. Art would invite me ride on the outside front of the engine in the parade and wave to the crowds (another risk manager’s nightmare). My grandmother made me my own engineer’s suit. I guess I sort of became the official Shopper Dropper mascot.
I Wish I knew how the story ended. Tyrone Mall opened in 1973 and the Central Plaza crowds dropped off dramatically in favor of the cool indoor mall. I don’t know when the Shopper Dropper stopped serving Central Plaza.
One afternoon in June of 1975, there was a knock on my door. To my surprise it was Art. He stopped by to say hello and see if I remembered him. I was in high school by then. We had a nice visit and talked about all those trips on the Shopper Dropper. But I never asked him what happened to the Shopper Dropper. Do you know? I’d love to hear the end of the story or even see the old train if it still exists somewhere.