Orlando Memories

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.

Tom Swick

Tom Swick is the author of two books: a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a collection of travel stories, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. He was the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 19 years, and his work has been included in "The Best American Travel Writing" 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008.

12 Comments for Orlando Memories

Stephen Houston 08.19.09 | 12:01 PM ET

Nice article. And we Irish are both congenial and indefatigable!

Jeffrey Rambo 08.20.09 | 1:15 AM ET

Thanks for the inspiring article. I saw the scroll of On the Road when it came to New York, and I can’t wait to check out this Kerouac House, if I’m in Orlando. Thanks for reminding us of this bit of Beat history.

Terry Ward 08.20.09 | 4:31 AM ET

Nice piece, Tom. Yep, most tourists never see the ‘real’ Orlando. I’ve had visitors tell me they’re staying in Orlando and ask me to meet them 30 miles away off I-4 in some resort complex that’s not really Orlando. They usually never even make it downtown, to the actual city proper, to the Vietnamese restaurants and Thornton Park. My favorite Vietnamese joint is Lac Viet on Colonial Drive. There’s a great French-Vietnamese bakery on Mills Ave. called Bale. You brought back some good Orlando memories. Thanks!

Greg Weekes 08.20.09 | 4:28 PM ET

As someone who is unfortunate enough to live in Orlando, I read this piece somewhat slack-jawed. The city “mirrored by lakes and mossy with live oaks” is also blighted with seedy little strip centers, filled with boring suburbs and inundated with ultra conservatives, Southern twits, really dumb good ‘ol boys and downright scary redneck trash.

Colonial Drive is an ugly, congested thoroughfare lined with more seedy strip malls, desultory stores, gas stations and commercial blight. Little Saigon is okay, but I’ve been to much better Vietnamese restaurants in Vancouver and Portland, OR—to name just two cities that have 10 times the cultural sophistication and cosmopolitan variety that Orlando does.

I keep hearing that College Park has “quaint charm.” Yes, there are some cute bungalows, but they are outnumbered by shabby old houses in various states of disrepair. And the College Park commercial stretch is anchored by—wait for it—Publix.

Thornton Park? It’s the very definition of a wanna-be-hip-and-failing-miserably-at-it in-town neighborhood, the kind of “urban enclave” whose hip quotient is defined by Panera.

Throw in high crime, absolutely horrible weather (relentless, brutal heat and humditiy, excessive rain, the ever-present threat of violent storms and hurricanes) an almost complete lack of anything that smacks of history or culture, and without a doubt the worst drivers in the United States (and I’m not talking about the old folks—I’m talking about aggressive young hoodlums and hot-tempered rednecks), and you have a city that I would leave in a heartbeat if only the sucky economy would improve.

Sandie 08.20.09 | 10:15 PM ET

Tom I enjoyed your perspective on Orlando.  Thank you for pointing out there is more to experience than our Theme Parks.  If not for them our local economy would be suffering more.  Prior to Walt’s vision we were a cattle town.  There are ‘crackers’ with their history, and culture.

Orlando is a diversified community and lots of little pockets of people and cultures to explore.  We have many people from all over the world who choose to live here. That is part of our charm.

We are not a perfect town, and yes crime has found it’s way here too.  Where can you have such a high population and not expect it? 

I would suggest one remember their geography lessons and look at what latitute Orlando is located on the globe.  If you draw your finger around the planet you will cross major deserts.  If we were not a penensula surrounded by the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, Orlando,  in fact,  would be a desert. We are humid and rainy in July, August and September.  Ideal for growing wonderful plants,  hence the name Florida.
So if you live North of Jacksonville, Florida and want to visit and not complain about the weather, do not come during the summer.  There are reasons for those tourist discounts.

I hope the economy recovers shortly so those who do not like it here can move on.

sandie 08.24.09 | 10:02 AM ET

I missed the point.  What has China got to do with Tom’s article?

Greg 08.27.09 | 12:14 PM ET

Ahhhh, good ‘ol Walt, who brought his land-raping. money-grubbing, soul-sucking “vision” to the cattle fields and (former) rolling citrus groves of central Florida, forever altering history and yanking Orlando out of podunk status and into pretend big city status. And the good people of the Disney empire now charge $75 (and counting) per person (which does not include $10 parking, overpriced refreshments or any other “extras”) to experience a bunch of amusement park rides and costumed characters. Sorry, I’m not a fan. I highly suggest that you read “Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World” by Carl Hiaasen—that is, if you can entertain a perspective of Florida other than that it is allegedly paradise.

Orlando is a diversified community?? You could have fooled me. Then again I live in Sanford, so all I see is white trash. A couple of Mexican restaurants and the Vi-Mi District do not a diversified community make.

And Orlando is not only unpleasantly hot, suffocatingly humid and excessively rainy in July, August and September—it is unpleasantly hot, suffocatingly humid and excessively rainy in May, June and October as well. As for growing wonderful plants, San Francisco, Seattle and northern Virginia all put Florida to shame, horticulturally speaking. I’m a gardener, and Florida has the worst weather for gardening of any place I’ve ever lived. Vancouver is a floriferous paradise compared to Orlando. Atlanta is a floriferous paradise compared to Orlando. Portland, OR is a floriferous paradise compared to Orlando. These places all have seasons and conditions that allow one to grow a variety of plants and flowers, not just palm trees (and Orlando doesn’t even have the exotic-looking varieties that grow in south Florida) and a couple of hibiscus bushes (and they hate the unpleasantly hot, suffocatingly humid and excessively rainy months of May through October, too).

“Crime has found its way here?” What alternative universe is this? I hate to break the news, but Orlando has been plagued by high crime for years. And Florida, which attracts human riff-raff like an overripe melon attracts flies, specializes in nasty crime as well as garden-variety robberies, home invasions, carjackings, shootings and so forth. Animal torture? Child abductions? Homophobes and callous young adults viciously murdering gay youth and the homeless? Orlando’s very own Casey Anthony and her pathetically whacked-out family, poster people for pathological dysfunction?

Really, you can have it.

sandie 09.01.09 | 12:25 AM ET

Thank you, I will.

Greg 09.01.09 | 1:07 PM ET

You’re one of a dwindling number who inexplicably think it’s a desirable place to live. Be my guest.

Donnie 09.29.09 | 12:00 PM ET

Greg, you’re just BITTER! Can’t make wine out of sour grapes. And a GOOD gardener will know how to grow in any environment. Why are there so many farms in Florida??? You seriously need to broaden your horizons beyond Sanford. Sheesh, why bother anyway? You have it ALL figured out, don’t you?

Orlando isn’t perfect, no place is. As a gardener, you should know that the grass is always greener on the other side.

Greg 10.06.09 | 3:53 PM ET

True. A good gardener knows that the grass is always greener on the other side. But if you knew me you would know that I’ve been to many other places in Florida besides Orlando. However, you DON’T know me, so you’ve chosen to mistakenly assess the breadth of my horizons. And this isn’t about Florida as a whole; I never said it was. It’s about Orlando in particular, and central Florida (of which Sanford is a part) in general. Do you even live in Florida, or are you sitting behind a keyboard in Wyoming?

You can grow A SELECTED variety of plants in Central Florida as long as you choose varieties that can take relentless heat. If you don’t, you’ll be spending every minute trying to keep them alive, much less flourishing. I don’t have that kind of time.

Meanwhile, here are two individuals who epitomize the class, the refined upbringing and the impeccable social graces that distinguish central Florida as a whole:


Maria 10.06.09 | 4:13 PM ET

I agree with Greg. And, unlike him, I live in the alleged epicenter of Orlando cool: College Park. I’m just a hop, skip and a jump from all of the local “hot spots” Tom Swick describes in his article, yet I too think this city sucks big time. I speculate that the majority of people who think central Florida is a great place to live, eat, garden, etc. have either lived here all their lives or have moved here from someplace really, REALLY ghastly. Fortunately, I wasn’t (I’m originally from Massachusetts), and I still feel queasy anytime someone calls me a “Floridian.”

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