Tom Swick: Contemplating and celebrating the world of travel
08.19.09 | 10:21 AM ET
My happiest memories of Orlando do not include Disney, though it was the reason behind my first visit to the city. (For accuracy’s sake, it should be noted that Disney World is closer to downtown Kissimmee than it is to downtown Orlando.) A year earlier I had become the travel editor of the newspaper in Fort Lauderdale, and it is against state law to hold such a title and not write about Disney. (Actually, judging by all the publicity the place gets, it may be a federal offense.)
Before approaching the sacred grounds I paid a visit to a retired city employee who had long ago warned of the enormous—and in his view deleterious—impact that the theme park would have on the region. He lived in a modest house in a quiet neighborhood and, while disheartened by his clairvoyance, he was too much of a good-humored Florida Cracker to wallow in bitterness. When, on leaving, I told him I’d call if I had further questions, he chirped cheerfully: “Okey-dokey Okeechobee.”
The following day I tackled the park. It was summer, and I knew enough about Florida weather by then to pack some rain gear in my book bag: a thin, tightly-rolled, military green trench perfect for traveling. I was, of course, the only visitor to the Magic Kingdom with a book bag. I was also the only person strolling by himself. When the inevitable rains came, everyone ducked into gift shops—which are to Disney World what bookstores are to Hay-on-Wye—and bought bright yellow ponchos with printed images on the back of either Mickey (for males) or Minnie (for females). So now—in addition to carrying a book bag and being the sole loner—I was wearing the only trench coat in a sea of smiling ponchos. Nobody came within 15 feet of me.
My next visit to Orlando, in 1994, was more enjoyable, for it was to write about the out-of-stadium experience of attending a World Cup (where dreams actually do come true). Mexico, Holland, Belgium and Ireland were all playing qualifying matches in the city, and I rode up on a bus chartered by a local pub and furnished with a keg of Guinness. Shortly after setting off we passed a woman pushing a shopping cart down the street, which caused someone to shout: “It’s Molly Malone!”
Every evening, fans filled the bars of Church Street Station: the towering Dutch, many dressed in orange; the tri-colored Mexicans; the rather low-key Belgians; and the indefatigable Irish who, had there been a congeniality contest, would have won it easily. They were famous for never getting into fights, no matter the level of inebriation. “If one of our lads starts any trouble,” a young man told me, “we take care of him ourselves.” Church Street Station offered a nightly lesson in international harmony that surpassed even Epcot’s.
Then a few years ago I drove up to see the scroll of “On the Road.” It was making a nationwide tour, and the Orange County Regional History Center was its first stop because Kerouac was living in the city—sharing a back-porch apartment with his mother—when the book came out. I had always associated the Florida Kerouac with St. Petersburg—where he died a fallen, alcoholic hero—and was delighted to learn that, before Walt Disney, Orlando had been graced by one of the Beats.
It gave me a new appreciation for this city mirrored by lakes and mossy with live oaks that have all been eclipsed by our national mania for manufactured fun. Most of the people who visit the theme parks—Disney World has been joined over the years by Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and others—never venture into Orlando, and those who do rarely make it to Colonial Drive, with its wonderful Vietnamese restaurants; or Thornton Park, where I spent a pleasant afternoon recently reading the poems of David Kirby in the UrbanThink! Bookstore; or College Park, where the Kerouac House, as it’s now called, shelters a seasonal writer-in-residence (minus the mother).
It’s an attractive, 1920s cottage, and you can stand by the bench in the empty corner lot and imagine Jack shuffling up to the back door with the dust of Mexico still clinging to his clothes. Tijuana to Orlando. You can think of Mrs. Kerouac cooking supper for her son in that cramped rear apartment. You can almost see that son still hungry, still driven, pounding away at his typewriter long into the muggy Florida night.