This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Ann Meier discusses life in Orlando, Florida.
Orlando: What’s it Like Living in a Mickey Mouse Town?
by Ann Meier
Good question. Orlando is the City Beautiful and that’s not a bad slogan. Orlando’s clean, shiny and new, with lots of trees and lakes – read former sinkholes. Periodically, the Convention and Visitors Bureau gives us a new slogan. A recent one appealed to me – Orlando Makes Me Smile. I smiled every time I saw the banner hanging from the convention center. We also Believe in Magic, both the basketball team and the Magic Kingdom.
There are many misconceptions about Orlando that confuse international travelers. The Miami airport is not a hop, skip, or jump away. Orlando does not have a beach. The east coast beaches are 45-minutes away. And when we say west coast, we mean the Tampa area—not California. Those beaches are two hours from Orlando. And the town closest to Walt Disney World, Kissimmee, is not pronounced Kiss a me. It’s Kuh sim me. One misconception we told ourselves for years, was that we were too far inland to worry about hurricanes. Wrong. Charley, Frances, and Jeanne visited in 2004. Those were visitors we hope we don’t see again.
Most people who visit Orlando never come anywhere near Orlando. They fly into OIA and head directly by cab, rental car, or shuttle to the parks which are many congested miles southwest of town. A few may notice that the airport code is MCO and try to figure out the designation. It’s not some combination of Mickey and Orlando. The designation is for McCoy the name of the military airfield that was there before the airport.
We love our tourists, but driving amongst them is dicey. They are lost often. Think nothing of cutting across three lanes of hurtling traffic to make a last minute turn, and then there are the Brits. They fly in by the hundreds—bless their Virgin Atlantic hearts—to the second area airport called Orlando-Sanford International. This airport is not in Orlando. This airport is more than forty miles from the tourist attractions. This means the Brits rent cars. Some scary things happen as they get used to driving on our side of the road in traffic going 70 mph down the interstate.
Tourists complain about paying tolls twice on the section of the Beachline (SR 528) that only runs a few miles from the airport to Interstate 4. We locals hate the tolls also and no one really believes the Expressway Authority needs all that money. But rest assured, the tolls are not just bunched in the tourist corridor. Most of us have E-Passes to blast through all these toll plazas. Orlando is obstinate. The rest of the state uses Sun Pass. E-Pass automatically charges $40 dollars to our credit cards each time our account balance gets low. Around here that can be a couple times a month especially if we use the Greeneway around the eastern edge of town to avoid the congestion and tourists on Interstate 4.
Greeneway is not misspelled. Despite all the greenery it runs through, it was named for a person. There was a contest for naming the road. One suggestion was the fruit loop, but the road didn’t make a circle and the orange groves are pretty much gone. The development post-Disney and some hard freezes ruined them. Used to be, the fragrance of orange blossoms filled the warm spring air at night. Now, the smell from muck fires is more common. Swamps burn and often. Central Florida is sometimes referred to as the Lightning Capitol of the country (maybe the world). The weather people run a lightning counter with their updates. These numbers can be upward of 6,000 strikes in an hour. Hunker down is a common admonition on these broadcasts. Seasoned firefighters from other states are surprised that bright green foliage can burst into flames easily in a forest fire. Back to orange blossoms. There’s a major roadway called Orange Blossom Trail. It’s not lovely. Don’t be misled.
Getting around in Orlando is expensive and frustrating for locals and tourists. For starters, Interstate 4 is an east-west highway, but in Orlando it actually runs north-south. Asking directions can be tricky because a local may tell a visitor to go south on the interstate, but when the visitor gets to the interstate the signs say east or west. Everyone in Orlando drives—except recent arrivals from the islands (Puerto Rico and Haiti) and the aforementioned Brits. Unfortunately the busy streets are not safe for walkers. Taxis are concentrated at the airport and they ONLY want to take people to the parks or International Drive. They can be surly if you want to head into town since they’ll have a hard time finding a fare for a return trip. Locals probably have never hailed a cab. In town, there is a free bus called the Lymo that runs between parking garages and through the heart of the business district. Lynx is the name for the regular bus system. The buses are painted bright colors like neon pink, lime green, or electric blue.
People do not shop in town. They shop at the malls. The tourists love the outlet centers at the north end of International Drive and the large Florida Mall off the Beachline. There is nightlife in downtown Orlando with new restaurants and bars. Tourists are more likely to find night entertainment at Universal’s City Walk or Disney’s Pleasure Island. (By the way, the name comes from Pinocchio. Look it up.) At this point, there are no movie theaters downtown. The city streets are not on a grid pattern since there are lakes everywhere. Streets meander, change both directions and names frequently. It is a very confusing.
Houses are built from concrete block and mostly painted pastel shades. They sit on slabs. There are no basements and no coat closets. It is very common for bathrooms to have doors that lead directly outside to a patio area whether the house has a pool or not. Very few houses have hardwood floors. Carpet, ceramic tile, or laminates are the floor coverings of choice. A lot of houses do have fireplaces. Surprise. They might be filled with flowers or candles, but we do have them. And we love our paddle fans. No one lives in a house on a hill. Orlando is five feet above sea level and flat as Flat Stanley. To maintain a house and lawn, you need a good bug service. I personally have three. One for inside that comes every other month, one for the lawn that comes on the same schedule, and a termite service that comes quarterly to monitor for activity.
Running barefoot through the grass is a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, St. Augustine grass is predominant in our lawns – up north, you’d call it crab grass and yank it out. It’s a wiry, hardy grass that grows on runners. There’s nothing soft about it. The other reason is fire ants. Those little guys sting like fury. It takes weeks for the welts to go away. And never, ever wade into any body of water. Even casual water hazards on the golf courses are home to gators. The most common trees are live oaks and they lose their leaves in the spring. They don’t go bare, it’s more a shedding process. They also fill the air with yellow pollen that coats everything. It makes my eyes water thinking about it.
Our theme parks employ more people than live in a good sized town. Many of Walt Disney World employees are unionized. In other words, Mickey Mouse is a Teamster. When Disney came to Florida they invited the unions in as a matter of course, used to the studio environment in California. Universal Studios bought into Florida as a right to work state and fought unionization of its workforce. All theme park employees work extremely hard. They work odd schedules. They socialize in after hours bars and restaurants. Most give discounts to hospitality workers. Because of the 24/7 nature of the business, it’s not uncommon for someone to host a holiday dinner that runs all day with people dropping in before or after their shifts. Our workforce is diverse. Language differences can create barriers. I once worked in a resort where conflicts were common. I recall a knife fight at what we called the housekeeping barn. Don’t ask. The knife fight was over a bible. It’s that kind of place.
Employees at Walt Disney World are called cast members and they wear costumes—not uniforms. The costumes that characters wear are hot. They make 20 minute appearances in the park and they always have handlers nearby. They never roam about unescorted When cast members are at their work location, they are on stage. One cool detail is the two-fingered point used to direct guests (not customers) Watch for it next time you visit.
Yes, There is a tunnel system running underneath the Magic Kingdom (none of the other parks). It contains break rooms, stock rooms, the employee cafeteria, wardrobe and cash control. No. Walt isn’t frozen and stashed in Cinderella’s Castle. There are offices in the second story of the shops that line Main Street. Cast members are trained to respond to each question from guests as if it is not the one trillionth time it’s been asked. The most frequent question is “Where are the bathrooms?” The most inane is “What time is the 3:00 o’clock parade?” The answer to the bathroom question is frequently accompanied by the two-fingered point. You can imagine on your own how cast members react to the parade question.
EPCOT stands for Experimental Prototypical City of Tomorrow, but cast members like to say it stands for Experimental Polyester Costume of Tomorrow. EPCOT is probably the favorite Disney park for locals without children. Its restaurants, major festivals, and entertainment are a huge draw. The six week Food and Wine Festival is in itself worth buying an annual pass for. Throw in the Flower Festival and the pass can pay for itself.
Many, many, many of us have worked in the parks at one time. You can spot us anywhere. We can’t pass a piece of trash and leave it unmolested. When you visit, please take small children by the hand, be sure to gather all your personal belongings, and watch your step. If you follow all these instructions, I’ll shoot you my best theme park smile. I’ve got a closet full of them.
Ann Meier lives in Orlando and is working on a comic mystery series with a theme park setting. She was a member of Universal Orlando Resort’s opening management team and a trainer at Walt Disney World.