A STATE OF MIND: On the Road: The Land of the Mouse

by Larry Floersch

You may have seen those bumper stickers that declare “All Roads Lead to Adamant!” There is no Adamant in Florida, but there is an Orlando, and it seems almost impossible to drive near Orlando without getting sucked into it. The sole reason for this is to make you go to Disney World, whether or not you have kids in tow. I have been in the “Land of the Mouse” for seven days now, and I must remind myself that Orlando was not always this way.

In my youth we would come to Orlando for high school football games. The highlight of those trips was not to ride “Dumbo the Flying Elephant.” It was not even to come to Orlando, which we teenagers in Daytona Beach considered a quiet, sleepy backwater of a place with NO BEACH! (The Beach Boys never mentioned Orlando in any of their songs.) We only looked forward to a postgame visit to Ronnie’s Jewish delicatessen in Colonial Plaza, known for its garish neon lighting and huge ice cream desserts.

Back when Florida was invented, Orlando was left in the dust by places that had beaches. So Orlandoans had to rely on the town’s other assets. Orlando sits on and is surrounded by wetlands, a technical term that means “swamps.” Therefore it had many alligators and mosquitoes. The bedrock under Orlando is porous limestone, which makes it susceptible to sinkholes. It did have some orange trees and a few air bases left over from the war. What better place upon which to build Florida’s third largest metropolitan area?

Everything changed for Orlando, of course, in 1971, when a guy from California, who had made caboodles of money producing feature-length animated films about evil queens and dwarves and witches and cuddly little woodland creatures that talked amongst themselves, plunked down some extra pocket cash on a huge tract of swampy land southwest of town. With the creation of Disney World, Orlando suddenly became a destination city — THE place to go; it is now the theme park capital of the world. Over forty million passengers will move through the Orlando airport this year. Most of them come here for Orlando’s “attractions” such as SeaWorld, where you might possibly witness 12,000-pound marine mammals killing each other or their trainers over a bucket of fish; Epcot Center, where you can, for instance, pretend to be in a Moroccan bazaar if Moroccan bazaars mostly sold Florida souvenirs; Universal Studios, where you can imagine yourself attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry without the risk of being burned at a stake; or the original Magic Kingdom itself, where standing in massive lines has been elevated to an artform by hiding the lines in huge warehouses, all so you can “have a knee-slappin’ good time” (Disney’s words, not mine) watching some robotic cartoon-like bears play and sing country songs for about 15 minutes, after which you are hustled out the side doors to find another line in which to wait for some other knee slappin’ good time. Did I also mention this all costs a ton of money?

The artifice of these theme parks spills over into real life. The hotel we are using, the name of which (when translated into the Seminole language) means “the place with bad art on the walls,” is in a complex of hotels near the airport. By all standards it is in a beautiful setting, surrounded by grass, trees, tropical vegetation and ponds, some of which have fountains. It is beautiful except for one thing: it lacks sidewalks to somewhere. There are sidewalks within the grounds of the hotel. They just do not seem to go where you need them to go, such as beyond the edge of the hotel property. The hotel’s parking lot is separated from a four-lane divided street by a grass-covered berm that could thwart a Sherman tank. There are no sidewalks on either side of that berm. There is a breakfast diner and a pizza restaurant on the other side of the four-lane street, not more than 100 yards away. There are no sidewalks leading from the hotel to the diner or pizza joint. To get to them directly you have to climb over the berm, then dash across the four lanes without the assistance of a crosswalk. Or you could do what most people do and take your car.

The reason for this lack of sidewalks is that Orlando is not built for people. It is built for people in CARS, in particular people in CARS GOING TO THEME PARKS. The expressways that take you to the theme parks are cleverly designed to keep all these cars under control through the application of toll booths, but don’t think about using your EZ-Pass. Florida has not yet worked out a reciprocal arrangement with EZ-Pass. Only a Florida “Sun Pass” will do. You have to pay the toll with money. To make things simple, many of the toll booths require a Sun Pass or EXACT COINS. Imagine my foolishness when I discovered I did not have 50 cents in quarters and sat waving my dollar bill at the locked and shuttered toll booth as if that would attract an attendant to make change. The more I waved the dollar, the more I was encouraged by the friendly motorists behind me with pleasant beeps of their horns.

So Orlando is doing just fine with its theme parks and no beach. Plus, because of one additional factor, things might get even better for Orlando in the future: the city is 82 feet above sea level. That means if sea levels continue to rise, Orlando might finally have a beach of its own — and it might finally get mentioned in a Beach Boys song.

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