Talk of Orlando as a holiday destination tends to evoke a singular entity in the public imaginary: Disney. And while it’s true that much tourism is geared towards Walt and his mini empire built on top of acres and acres of swampland south of Orlando, this was all the more reason for me to try to seek out the real Orlando – or what I thought might be the real Orlando – on a recent trip to the Sunshine State.
The trouble is, Orlando and its surrounds don’t appear to have much of an identity beyond Disney. Like the teenage child of a well-off family trying to carve out his or her own niche in this world, the greater Orlando area, it seems, continues in vain to attempt to make a name for itself in other fields – universities, community development, space exploration – all the while falling back into Daddy Walt’s mould of bizarro and hyper-real theme-park-esque fairytales.
One example of this is the infamous lovebugs seen infesting southern parts of the U.S.A twice a year. These strange insects – so-called because they fly around attached in couples, permanently mating, for days on end – migrated to Florida in the 1920s from other Southern States. However, Floridians in Orlando were quick to explain to me, based on popular yet erroneous folklore, that these bugs were actually the result of a ‘science experiment gone bad’: the misguided cock-eyed optimism of a University of Florida DNA manipulation experiment for mosquito control, that inadvertently created an army of nuisance insects with a mutant-level reproduction rate. Sounds like an overblown Disney cartoon, right?
Another example is the Disney-spawned town of Celebration, Florida, nestled downstream from Walt Disney World at the end of World Drive. While the town is now largely independent from Disney control, there is an eery quality about the place, almost like a deserted film set with façades where homes should be. The lawns and public spaces are impeccably mowed, the churches, stores, and other public spaces seem picture perfect in their design and layout, and white picket fences, American flags, curbside mailboxes, and rocking chairs on porches abound on every quaintly-named street. But there is no apparent life to the community that Celebration’s Disney creators had so dearly hoped to foster (Celebration’s official website says that it “is not a town, but a community in every positive sense of the word”). One could just as well be a few miles north – on Mainstreet USA in the Magic Kingdom – as in a living, breathing, functioning town. Except without the crowds: I think I sighted a total of two people in a half-hour drive around Celebration’s streets.
Even the Space Coast just outside of Orlando, home of the Kennedy Space Center, with its real and genuine claim to fame and historical value, has a bizarre theme-park quality about it. At the Space Center, one can ride a simulator of a space launch, watch IMAX films of deep space narrated by Hollywood Stars, take an antiquated tour bus around the complex with sluggish narration provided by geriatric tour guides, have a photograph with an astronaut, and engage in conspiracy theorising about whether Americans ever really did land that man on the moon — why haven’t they been back, yet?
The ‘real’ Orlando, if you ask me, is just this: a little kitsch (we kept tally of the many themed highway motels, one of which was Fawlty Towers themed), a little bit loud and over-the-top (one cannot escape the barrage of highway-side advertising: gift shops, steak houses, supermarkets, ribs joints, lawyers, fried chicken, tattoos, electronic goods, and drive through everything, all screaming at you in flashing neon for your business) and, yes, somewhat brash (where else can one see roadside HOOTERS joints alongside churches, and billboards alternately pushing plaintiff lawyers for all manner of sue-able offences and anti-abortion campaigns for single pregnant women to carry out god’s will). Beneath the plastic Disney patina, it appears, there is a local culture of still more tackiness and kitsch!
Of course it’s not all cotton-candy, lights, music, branding and capitalism-on-speed. There is also a rough-and-tough and down-and-out feel about Downtown Orlando, several miles north of Disney, where the global financial crisis ostensibly has hit fairly hard, and in much of which you will want to stay in your car and drive through rather than hop out for a wide-eyed wander round the deserted streets and empty houses. Downtown Orlando ain’t no Celebration, FL, that’s for sure! But, for the most part, visitors to Orlando will give Downtown a miss – and most likely also ignore Celebration, the Space Coast, the local wildlife reserves, and possibly even the local (if also kitchy) eateries – instead spending an all-inclusive holiday park-hopping between Disney, Universal, and the other theme parks on offer, even eating, sleeping and after-hours-partying on theme park turf.
If kitsch and branding isn’t your thing, I would suggest skipping all the ‘attractions’ that Orlando has to offer and instead cash in on its natural beauty: swamps, lakes, muggy tropical heat, (nearby) beaches, picture-perfect sunsets and wildlife reserves replete with birds, manatees and gators. In this, I believe, lies the root of the ‘magic’ that Walt distilled into his manufactured Disney Empire, plonked in the middle of nowhere, somewhere off Florida’s turnpike.