Along I. Drive, Orlando, Florida
Disney is like the beach when you go to the shore for vacation. On arriving in Orlando all you think about, all the huge anticipation, excitement is when am I going to Disney, Disney, DISNEY, and Disney! When you hear the ocean, you know it is there, smell it and think when am I going in the water, when am I going in the water? I want to swim, be in the sea. Even Shash, Tom Ackert’s assistant explains Orlando to me in ocean analogies. “Orlando is crisp and clean, like when you come off the beach all craggy, dirty and sweaty and you take a shower and clean up and you are sun burnt and tired but clean and there is no better feeling in the world.”
Through unusual circumstances I know the brother of the Mayor of Orange County and I was asked to chronicle the top tourism sites along International Drive with the hopes that the paintings would be displayed in the new Orange County Convention Center.
And of course there is so much more; there is so much more to Orlando than Disneyland. There are so many other venues. There are more hotel rooms per square mile than any other major city. There are more rental cars at the Alamo lot at the airport than many major car dealerships: 30,000.
All in all I visit 12 sites, Lake Eola, Sea World, Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center, Church Street Station, Cypress Gardens, Gatorland, Wet n’ Wild, Kennedy Space Center, The Winter Park Boat tour, and Universal Studios. I had an insider’s view and the tourist’s perspective for my 10 days on location.
The schedule; every morning I’d paint from reference in my hotel room. Clean up and go to breakfast so the cleaning ladies could do the room. This entails hiding all the paint paper and brushes so they wouldn’t catch on to what I was doing. The reward is I would return from the Florida heat to a clean, vacuumed, air-conditioned room to paint in all evening. There was a mini refrigerator in the room and I stoked it with chips and onion dip and Diet Pepsi. I’d turn on the World Series and pray the games would go long, extra innings so I could keep on painting. Sporting events are always easier to paint to then movies, especially baseball because you don’t have to watch. It’s like listening to the game on the radio. I don’t have to look up from the paint, I can hear it. They are comforting voices in the background, voices from childhood voices I know. The Yankees lose the first two at home and then losing 6-0 come back and take it. And I paint the alligator and think yeah, yeah, yeah keep going guys. I’m with you, painting here getting after it, in yet another hotel room on the road.
Along I-Drive in Orlando, Florida.
Dinners are always eaten out, alone, or grabbing something quick at a convenience store. My waiter at Denny’s tells me weird facts about the ‘characters’ at Disney. “My wife was Mickey for awhile, I was Chip of Chip n’ Dale and then Roger Rabbit before I got too tall. Those kids are smart though, they know more than you do about your character. And damn they are rough pulling on you and your costume every day. I had to get out of it.”
At Seaworld a little girl on the tram asks me if I am alone and I laugh realizing I have followed their family around enough to kind of feel part of their group. In a pink and white striped shirt I look up at the fireworks in the twilight and know I am an independent woman on the road a woman that an inquisitive kid just like this will grow up to be.
“Hello, are you on vacation?” two Indian guys ask me after I successfully get money from their ATM a couple of nights later. I’m halfway out the door with my bright yellow Alamo rent a car key ring and I wonder how they could possibly know. “No, I always get my dinner at a 7Eleven, a banana, a Diet Pepsi and a blueberry muffin “I shout in my head. Later, in my white car with brand new Florida plates, no tan I think, yeah I guess I am a tourist.
There are many moments of magic but I leave feeling Orlando is a land; piped in music hidden in rocks at prefabricated parks; it’s not real.
On the flight back to New York City a tired mother with her two kids leans across the aisle and asks if her daughter can sit in the empty seat next to me for takeoff. This kid, beautiful, blue-eyed child sings quietly to herself, “look at me way up in the clouds.” I tell her my name and she tells me hers. When I ask her when her birthday is she holds up four fingers and answers, ‘a couple of years ago.’
I draw a Mickey picture for Courteney. Each line, each step of the way, the ears, the eyes, the bowtie, the suspenders I tell her okay here is what I am drawing next. Now I’m going to add the legs. She nods her head okay and I continue. After lunch on the flight Courteney whispers in my ear. “Can I tell you a secret? Its a Small World is my favorite ride at Disneyland.”
Yeah, Courteney, me too, me too. I lean back, smile pull the blue airline blanket up over my chin and fall asleep.
And that’s what I believe in. There it is, not a harsh prefabricated ‘land’ but moments of wonder and grace. Dads laughing in Mickey Mouse ears, the kids, workers, a young wild-eyed wonderment. That there is a kid, goofy like grin, wide eyed, wonderment, childlike spirit in all of us.
On 528 West there are billboards; bas-relief, 3D, Sea World King Kong, The Terminator, Back to the Future, figures looming and casting shadows out over the road. I noticed them driving in from the Orlando airport. Attraction after attraction after attraction after attraction. One is bigger and better than the next. Totally fabricated, my hotel‘s landmark is the Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is near the McDonald’s by the Denny’s across from the Red Lobster next to the Taco Bell on International Drive. My room isn’t ready so I scout out the nearest Atm at 7Eleven and one hour photo place in the mini mart on Hawaiian Drive across from my room. Small Mickey Mouse stuffed animals go for $22.50. There is a display for discount Sea World tickets with a man in the booth on a cell phone asking into the line,’ well which day did you want to go and how many people in your party.’ There’s a booth with brochures and a booth with brochures and a booth with a guy and the brochures in every restaurant and hotel lobby I walk into while I’m here. There’s even a booth with a guy with brochures in it, in the McDonald’s.
As I wait for the people to check out of my room, #265, I wish for a shower and shorts wanting to get out of my already too hot and too black New York clothing. Scores of chambermaids in identical brown maroon polyester dresses and white aprons scurry into the 7Eleven looking for something some sandwich to microwave for lunch. The ATM is broken; at the next hotel I pay $2.50 for the privilege to get $100.00 of my own money and head to the McDonald’s to eat.
It’s Halloween in Orlando. So American for me to be in a gleaming Mickey D’s, eating fries with a gleaming white Alamo rent a car out the window. Everyone in short sleeve shirts. Tan legged women say to their kids across from me, the kids wearing king crown hats cut out Halloween masks, are you ready to go to Sea World yet? Everything seems too clean too perfect almost not right, out of place in a way. Where is the Main Street where are the real people a real neighborhood. Whatever happened to cooking and eating in?
Orange County has just about completed a massive formidable Convention Center. Almost one mile of green-carpeted white rolling walls air-conditioned monotony. No artwork in sight. Its air conditioned and huge, like first walking into a brand spanking new International Airport but because of lack of signage lack of any remarkable features (its like looking at a perfect models face and trying to find one thing, one hair out of place, one stray glob of mascara, a bend in the nose, two colors in the iris, nothing, nothing, something remarkable that sets this place apart except for its size. It needs a soul a heart. Shash, Tom Ackert’s executive secretary takes me on walk through the place. ‘They had a fight over the carpeting,’ she mentions as she opens a door to a room that seats 70,000 people. ‘It had an unusual swirl in it and they couldn’t decide.’ It is a subdued, safe pattern and one of the only visual details I remember from our tour. The place is huge, efficient; lacking a heart.
Tom Ackert, the Convention Center’s director, explains how thematically through pictures how Orlando is much more than Disney World. There is so much more than merely Mickey and Minnie. “With all of our economic development we want to show there is a link between the Center and the rest of the attractions. An average person spends $1,000.00 dollars when they come here to visit. I think in my head, that with spectacular public art, this place could become the jewel of Central Florida. They need a broken nose in the middle of its face, lovely large lush gestural big paintings in the already perfect white frame that’s been bought. I think of WPA artworks, the Diego Rivera murals, Thomas Hart Benton in Kansas, the Maxfield Parrish King Cole room in New York City. All pieces of art that add to and transcend the place. It’s probably how Michelangelo felt when he saw the blank Sistine Chapel for the first time. WOW.
Pink flamingos. A Kodak moment. Piped in music. Kenny G floating from speakers built into the rocks. Kaleidoscope, circus-like music. Kids pointing to the bad villain clown at the Clyde and Seamore show and clapping happily when the good guys win the day. A line up of baby carriages outside the theater left in good faith like mini-parked cars retrieved after the show.
Polar bears pushing off rocks with big paws under water. They glide effortlessly back and forth, back and forth. Blue green fish reflect silver slivers of light. They swim in groups, pools of color, in front of the bears, patterning the background.
I am happy in my short-sleeved striped shirt and sneakers, shorts bopping along free at last among nature and happy pointing kids.
Wednesday Disney Epcot Magic Kingdom
It is unreal here, a prefabricated world. “Have fun!” Even the parking lot attendant chirps as I pay to park. You ride a tram train from the parking lot to get to the entrance. That’s how big the parking lot is. Car after car after car pull up in endless rows and rows of people line in line up get on the tram. According to the time you park in the a.m. is how they can tell what row you are in when you leave.
Jennifer is my escort. She is a little stuffy, real cagey about giving any Disney details away. High heels, nylons, hair up, prim in 90 heat. I give this gal credit; in 4 hours we see it all .We start at EPCOT Walt Disney’s dream Ecologically Planned City of Tomorrow. Past the big geodesic dome and spaceship tomorrow I am amazed even this early in the morning how there are long waits on line for all the rides. We walk past it all and into the back of the park. People really don’t wander back here to the country pavilions until the afternoon. ‘Disney’s vision,’ she continued,’ was a vision for the world of the future and he died before EPCOT was completed.’
We pass timed water fountains that spray up water at varying intervals. Funny, with all there is to see, the kids seem to be happiest playing and running through the water waiting for the next spray to go off. Each country pavilion is more magnificent than the last. Jennifer tells me Disney hires students from each country to man the centers to serve the cuisine and clothing souvenirs of each land. There is a real Italian villa, Danish street corner and so on. There are real trees from each country planted and architecture and authentic restaurants in each pavilion.
At the Moroccan venue, Aladdin slips out from a tree to greet us. All the ‘character’ roles have to audition and they have to know everything about the part backwards and forwards. “The kids are so smart.” I ask about Mickey and she says coyly there is only one Mickey Mouse and then concedes quietly to add, yes there are many other Mickeys, called Mickey’s helpers. We pass Donald Duck in a sombrero at the Mexican Pavilion. Kids are lined up with little red autograph books. A large 6’2”’man has butted to the head of the line to get Donald’s scribbled name. This guy is so tall he has to kneel down to Donald’s level to have his picture taken from his very patient wife. He is more excited than the kids to see Donald and his goofy grin says it all. More often than not I see the adult in the group usually the Dad, wearing the Mickey hat or having the best time of anyone.
We walk into the Great Britain Pavilion and I see her: Mary Poppins. She is elegant and kind in a flowing white dress. Funny, she is the only tinge of truth and reality I feel all day even though I know she is an actress playing a part. But I am convinced. I believe it is really her, Mary Poppins. Her British accent is perfect. She scrawls, MARY real big in an autograph book and then kneels down to talk to a little girl quietly and thoughtfully.
Disney is probably how Coney Island was in its heyday. Mobbed, so many people, restaurants, places to eat, things to buy, stuffed animals, pins, pencils, games, things to look at every turn. You are visually bombarded. People scurry to and fro with their kids to rides to see it all color, movement, fun, spend, fun, spend some more. The American dream. Good clean fun at a convenient one-day admission price.
I take the bus at the end of the day and the driver asks,’ do you all know what EPCOT stands for?’ ‘Everybody’s Paycheck Comes on Thursday?’ One hopeful yells. ‘No, Every Person Comes Out Tired.’
On to the Magic Kingdom. I notice all the inscribed grey bricks in the sidewalk. People buy their names and times they visited and what country they are from. I even notice that the manhole covers have Mickey’s silhouetted head on them. ‘We have our own phone system electricity, and so on,’ Jennifer explains. She tells me she came as a child from Milford, Massachusetts and through unusual circumstances she was able to talk to Mickey by herself for twenty minutes. I say it must have been her destiny as we will be lucky to see Mickey from afar performing on the steps of the great castle at the end of Main Street. For Disneyland’s 25th anniversary they have painted the castle pink, “We had a contest and asked kids how we should decorate the castle and one kid suggested making it into a huge birthday cake. So we did.”
We wander up Main Street There is a worker selling Mickey balloons shaped in the shape of his famous head. Main Street was fashioned after Disney’s own hometown in Ohio? I see the castle and it is like seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris for the first time. You are so used to seeing it in a photograph to be actually standing at its base after walking up Main Street is a true wonder. Jennifer shares that above the restaurant in the castle used to be an apartment.
We walk to other rides. The sun is high and getting hotter and hotter in the sky. We pass Toontown and Mickey and Minnies houses and the overhead ski lifts. Adults laugh with glee at the teacup rides. Creamy pink and white cups twirl swiftly by. Behind it is the flying Dumbo ride. The adults seem grateful their small child is with them so they have an excuse to go up and down in a grey elephant.
My favorite moment was the “It’s a Small World After All” ride. I remember my own father taking me on it at the 1969 Worlds Fair in New York City. And it hasn’t changed one bit. It is essentially the same as when I rode it at age five. You get on wide turquoise or pink boats, which plunge quietly into still green water. It’s dark, not fancy. Soothing and quiet with one song playing as the animals open their mouths and dolls go up and down floating on their umbrellas. It is easy and restful to be on a a boat after walking all day in the sun.
There is a child ahead of me in the boat with his father. He catches my eye and I wink at him, he blinks both eyes back in unison; winking one is too much for him to coordinate. He is missing a tooth up front and laughs happily as we wink back an forth over and over again. There is another adult sitting next to him wearing a bright green Goofy hat replete with long flowing funny black dog-ears. The magic of being a child is that inner link that connects all of us. Like this ride, it’s simple, uncomplicated and real to everyone. Everyone gets it. It speaks to the lore of love and kids laughing with no teeth up front and sparkle glued to costumed figures on painted cardboard.
Jennifer guides me by monorail to the last park, MGM Studios. She points out where Mickey is giving autographs and I go on my way.
Wet n’ Wild looks like fun. I drive by it on my way to Disney land and wistfully think that’s where I wish I was today, standing in line, barefoot and in my bathing suit climbing turquoise stairs with teenage boys and their rafts gleefully anticipating the drop. Careening down on flumes all the way down on to the bottom pool. It is a larger than life Lego’s jungle gym for adults. But it’s Wednesday and I am scheduled to paint Lake Eola and downtown Orlando.
Disney’s Main Street is not Orlando’s Main Street. There is embarrassment over homeless people here and I am surprised to see a fringe element exists far apart from the sparkle and pristine clean of Disneyland. It reminds me of Atlantic City. There are Casinos and busloads of tourists coming in and literally two blocks away under the boardwalk are hungry, out of work welfare recipients.
At Lake Eola, Orlando’s Central Park, they have a fountain dead center spouting water. Big swan boats bob gently by the dock or use the fountain as a landmark to paddle by with their riders half an hour on the Lake. Homeless people sit overly bloated and overly sun burnt on the blue chairs that lead up to the half shell. The lake is an artificial green blue color.
Each place has it’s own picture postcard image melded into people’s brains; at Lake Eola it’s the fountain. Carlos the attendant tells me its official name is Centennial Fountain and then flashes his gold tooth at me. Black swans float by and real white swans preen in the water replicating the fake swan boats behind. People walk, jog, come by in wheelchairs. Kids run, ducks quack, squirrels and pigeons scramble and then Kate comes. “Kate’s my favorite,” Carlos exclaims. She is the most famous animal of Lake Eola. Kate is a big brown Canadian goose. She is big and knowing, and calm in nature when mothers bring kids over to pet her. It gets hotter and hotter as I sit there in the shade of bushes by the boat launch. No one seems to be from Orlando just tourists passing through. A mother calls to her son who is feeding the ducks, ‘Okay Nicholas let’s go. We have a long walk back to the playground.”
The next morning I go to Gatorland early. I’m glad to get there as they are opening. I forgot how hot Florida gets, how the sun and the heat only gets more intense as the day proceeds. If I had to give Florida its generic postcard image I too would pick alligators and pink flamingos. They really are Central Florida.
The gators sit so still there is no movement in the water, no ripple at all. They lie in wait, stealth, waiting to move quietly. Heron and birds flit around. They are protected by the alligators and remain beautiful and healthy in their protection.
The alligators bellow and flap their tails. Two beady eyes stare up from from a silent pool of water. When they finally move slowly it’s a big kerplunk and splashes in the water with grand thuds. Their hide is like black steel belted radial tires thick and knotted. Real swamp things rising up from the ooze.
Cobwebs from the night before remain on the trees and I break them walking alone in the park. Gatorland is the real ‘cracker’ Southern attraction. Tom told me that it was the original theme park established well before even Disney World. “Wait till you see it. My kids love it the best because you have to walk through a huge turquoise gator mouth to enter the park.”
I hear the Southern good ole boy slow accent in the alligator attendants voices. It is the first time I’ve heard the real ‘thang’ since arriving. The pronounced floridian twang. At all of the venues up to now I have been with people from out of town, tourists from another country.
Turtles and macaws sit so quietly beside the modern day dinosaurs.” Aren’t you afraid of them?” a blonde haired girl asks me. I shake my head no and watch as she and her classmates walk the turquoise painted path to the alligator wrestling pit. The class makes monkey sounds as they pass the monkey cage, say hey to Judy the brown bear and make bah, bah, bah, bleating noises as they pass the goats. I follow them to the alligator wrestling and ooh and aah along with them as a real ‘cracker’ sits on a smaller gator and opens the mouth with his chin. ‘Cracker’ comes from the beef herders cracking their whips to keep the cattle in line. On the range they’d come to holes of water where the alligators lived and these cowboys would have to ‘wrestle’ them out of the hole so their cows could drink.
Wet ‘n’ Wild is the original water theme park and was the spin off of Sea World. Sea World, Universal Studios, and Wet n’ Wild are all linked to together in a visitor’s package. I see primarily Europeans, Germans, and Brits.
At the ‘beach’ there are simulated waves several pools and fun rides. The sun is hazy, humid and hot. The morning coolness and mist have burnt off an hour ago. The top of my head burns and I finally succumb to the heat. I throw off my clothes, put on my bathing suit, get a towel, a locker and a locker key and ride the Lazy River. The Lazy River is approximately a quarter mile of strong current that pulls you and green and pink inner tubes of honeymooning couples, kids and families along. I lie back in my tube and finally let go and relax.
Driving to Cypress Gardens along Route 27 I see orange groves, orange groves, and more orange groves. ‘We Ship’ signs line handmade cracker boiled peanut stands. Trucks. Here are the most beautiful clear highways in the world. Brilliant blue skies I’m zooming along in my white rent a car. There aren’t any Terminator billboards here, ‘Gloria’s fruits’, ‘State Motel’ signs hulk and rust over the road. Family owned fresh fruit, little grove stands. Red mesh bags of grapefruit and oranges swing in the breeze and line these roadside stands. Bags and bags and bags of fruit and rows and rows and rows and rows of grove trees orange trees orange groves follow me as I drive by.
29 dollars to get into Cypress Gardens. Unreal to see a woman dressed in huge Southern Belle hoop dress. Cypress Gardens is massive, where to begin. I ask the guy at the gate where to go if I could only go to one spot. “Oh this is the old part of the park,” he says pointing to a map. “And this tree, is the most amazing tree I’ve ever seen. It was the size of a bucket when it was planted and now it’s 50 years old.” I follow the guide’s advice to the place of the huge banyan tree.
It is cool under the branches, they spread out and over the massive spring green lawn and people are in awe of its sprawl, its magnitude. The roots stretch and reach straight down to the ground and they twist and knot when they all come together. Together at the base they become one huge rooted trunk.
Winter Park Boat Ride, one hour on the water. I sneak photos of our driver, Skipper Ed. “I’m retired and do this and I don’t have time for anything else.”
We take the boat by the Kraft Cheese family estate. “ I can’t actually tell you who lives there now.” And then Rollins College, “Buddy Ebsen and Mr. Rogers are famous graduates.” He had a garage that held seven cars, a different car for each day of the week so that when he drove into town he wouldn’t be recognized. On the boat Skipper Ed also points out how the Spanish moss slowly squeezes the life out of each tree branch, branch by branch killing the tree. He explains that Spanish moss is used in cosmetics, mascara and in car cushions.
I can’t believe the wealthy citizens who own houses on the canal let this boat tour exist. A scratchy mike with loud bullhorn speakers disrupt the residents hour-by-hour and clog the canals with tourists gaping at them. The owners of these huge sprawling homes have no say; the lakes of Florida are for everyone.
Cape Canaveral is long, low, straight driving to Coco Beach and the ocean. A huge Challenger like the real Shamus whale is parked right on the grass outside the museum. Inside you can see Alan Shepherd, the first man in space in his tiny, tiny capsule. I see the capsule at the Kennedy Space Center and I think he must be the bravest man alive. There are displays of space suit cords as they attach outside the earth.
The Challenger itself is huge, massive blocking the sun. People, as little as tiddlywinks appear as spots of color under its massive flap of a wing. Have I mentioned that I think it is big? There is a yard of missiles standing shafts straight and tall like arrows flung into the ground. With the puffy white clouds behind them in the missile yard they look like they are blasting off.
Paul is my guide for Universal Studios. We start off with the Terminator ride. It is the first ride I see advertised on the billboards as I drive in from Orlando Airport.
At the Terminator, they herd in 700 people a show every 20 minutes all day long. In the summer the show is completely sold out. The Terminator is Paul’s favorite ride. He calls himself a ‘fun facilitator’ and explained that Universal buys the rights to have the movie made into the ride and then encourages the original director and the stars to appear in it again. “Cameron, the director for Terminator, said he had nightmares of someone else directing it and them having Arnold wrapped up in aluminum foil, so he agreed to do it.” They combine live actors and then a 3D show so that you can actually experience the objects flying up and out over the audience towards you. It is so convincing I reach up with my hands and try to touch them as they fly in towards me.
Having Paul as my guide is like being lead around by a friendly Secret Service guy, clean cut short sleeves head set with a walkie-talkie communicating head –set. He gets us first into the Jaws, Kong-frontation V.I.P seats where the Jaws shark actually comes up into the boat and you are splashed with real, not simulated water.
The future. I sit in the darkened theater watching the terminator and think what is real and what isn’t from the week I’ve spent exploring all of these prefabricated lands. Bits fly by simulated in 3D and dry ice covers the auditorium making and covering the audience in a cold mist.
The actors tell us a fake story of how from space your license plate can be read, that kids all over the world are being trained the same robotic way over the internet. Scary Big Brother Turn of the Century concerns. Reaching into your homes and being able to see and know your every move. On television I have seen man walk on the moon. To a kid, the moon seems to be a mythical and place far away. At Canaveral I saw the space suits and the actual capsules and how these men weren’t so far removed from the atmosphere around them. And that wasn’t so long ago. Now we sit and watch monsters of space, monsters of the deep the Terminator, Jaws, computerized robots; Back to the Future rides in souped up Delorean cars. The turn of the century and I am sitting smack dab in the center of it.
Here in the South I hear endless digs about New York City. They are huge Atlanta Braves fans. The Yankees win the series. A Southerner will be sweet as pie to you on the outside and secretly stabbing you on the inside, whereas a New Yorker is gruff and abrupt on the outside but inside they are puppy dogs.
Orlando is a ’land’. Disneyland, music piped into speakers hidden in rocks at Seaworld, it’s not real. I looked for those truly magical moments of grace and I think I got them. But I kept wondering, why is the Small World ride still the most popular at Magic Kingdom? It’s simple it’s true its kids it’s magic and like great moving art in any language all people young an old get it, the message of joy and fun in their hearts