I have just completed an essay about my Florida experience. It is posted here as well as below. Read and enjoy!
Florida, From the Inside and Outside
Has Florida gotten stranger since I left? During the forty years that I lived in Orlando’s suburbs (1966-2006), life there didn’t seem unreal, though it must have looked that way for outsiders. To start with, my family didn’t find anything odd about visiting a tourist attraction when we had an event worth celebrating. And even before the big three theme parks opened (Walt Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios), there were plenty of interesting places to visit: the beaches, Silver Springs, Cypress Gardens, Busch Gardens, Cape Canaveral, Rainbow Springs, Weeki Wachee, Gatorland, and so forth. For example, more than once my parents celebrated my birthday by taking us to the nearest alligator farm, Gatorland.
In 2006 the main building of Gatorland, the one where the door looks like a giant concrete alligator’s mouth, burned down; fortunately the alligators were all right because they stayed in the water. Has anyone reading this been to the place since it was rebuilt and reopened? Recently I listened to their information line (800-393-5297); the guy talking on it had a ridiculously exaggerated Southern accent, as if Gatorland expects only redneck visitors. The worst part is how I discovered the phone number; George Lopez mentioned it in one of his comedy routines, meaning that a lot of out-of-state folks must know about it by now! I will take issue with George calling Gatorland one of Florida’s "alternative parks," though. Owen Godwin built Gatorland back in the 1940s, so it is a more authentic piece of Florida than the artificial "worlds" built for Mickey Mouse, Shamu, and Harry Potter.
Another quirk about central Florida, that I have not noticed anywhere else, is how used car dealers decorate their lots with the flags of Third World countries. Most of the time there is no rhyme or reason to the flags they choose to fly. It makes sense when you see a German or Japanese flag over a dealership, because that represents a nation known for producing quality cars, but what about Bolivia, Kuwait, and Somalia? I recognized their flags over dealerships, but I have never heard of automobiles from there. Once in the Goldenrod neighborhood, I saw a car lot surrounded by Filipino flags; I’m guessing that was the nationality of the owner. Another time, near the Florida Mall, I saw a dealership flying Khmer Rouge flags; if the Cambodians built cars when Pol Pot ran the country, that’s news to me!
But the news stories which come from Florida have to be the biggest contributor, to what makes the Sunshine State look odd. Yes, I heard some offbeat stories while I was there, but not enough to make me think my home state was the weirdest. If you had asked me back then which state was the strangest place to live in, I would have answered California. But oh, the kind of news stories I have seen since moving away! In 2007 we had the love triangle story about Lisa Nowak, a veteran NASA astronaut, driving from Houston to Orlando to stalk (and possibly kill) a rival to a male astronaut she had her eye on. The strangest part of the story is that she wore an adult diaper to avoid making any restroom stops on the way. Who else would do that, when there are plenty of truck stops and rest areas along the interstate highways, and she would have to stop anyway to fill up her gas tank, right? In the same year came the sudden death of Anna Nicole Smith, in a Broward County hotel. Granted, that didn’t happen in the Orlando area, but most outsiders don’t realize south Florida has a different culture from the rest of the state, so they will tend to lump Broward and Orlando together. More recently there was the tale of Tiger Woods trying to escape from his wife in the Orlando suburb of Windermere, and he ended up hitting a tree and a fire hydrant with his van. One thing’s for sure, even if you never come to Florida, the state is going to entertain you!
I guess since Walt Disney World arrived, outsiders have decided that Orlando, like Hollywood, is a place where it can be hard to tell fantasy from reality. Even if they are right, a lot of the folks seem to think I’m mad, for moving from Florida to Kentucky, when they would like to do the opposite. My best answer to them is that after being in the same community for forty years, you are ready for a change, even if it’s a nice place.
Of course those who want to move to Florida often forget about the long hot summers, the reptiles and the bugs. When I was there, The Orlando Sentinel ran a comic strip about one of our good old boys, called "That’s Jake," by Jake Vest. My favorite cartoon had Jake hugging an alligator, with a big snake crawling in the grass nearby, and he shouts, "I just LOVE this humidity! I can’t wait to mow my lawn!" Meanwhile in the background, his wife says, "Oh look, Honey, fire ants! I’m going to feed them!" At the bottom of the cartoon, the caption read, "After a week in Chicago in the winter, nothing about Florida seems bad."