Orlando – A Family Vacation in America’s True Heartland
How do you prepare your kids for a trip to Orlando? How do you describe the wildly disparate attractions, the over-the-top mindset? How to handle the uniform expectation that the entire Orlando economy is devoted to separating visitors from their dollars? A couple Carl Hiassen books are a good start (Hoot, Flush and Scat are each excellent for readers of all ages). But mostly, it is best to just dive right in.
You can certainly hit all the usual spots. For those accustomed to only Disneyland, the sprawl of Disney World is an eye opener. When Walt became dismayed in the 1950s that his first theme park had become surrounded by tawdry hotels and gift shops sprouting like weeds in once-sleepy Anaheim, he began quietly buying up most of central Florida. He then created whole cities to watch over the growing empire of theme parks around Orlando. Highway exits take you directly into the parks (a feat his successors eventually accomplished for Disneyland as well), and a monorail can zoom you from one park to another without the hassle (and cost) of reparking.
My daughters pointed out the nuances and differences of the Haunted Mansion; by their account the Florida version is longer and better. The Hall of Presidents at the Magic Kingdom is quite stirring, and it is interesting to see how the references to FDR’s World War 2 challenges gloss over the nationalities of the enemies. In fact, we had an interesting discussion about the choice of countries represented at EPCOT. Canada and Mexico were likely chosen as they are neighbors of the USA, but the former is not exactly as iconic as other choices. The latter was presented comically via The Three Caballeros looking for Donald Duck (not exactly how the Mexican embassy would prefer folks view their nation). Morocco was a cool choice; history buffs know the nation was the first to recognize a newly independent USA. Morocco’s status as an exotic and generally stable Arabic country was a logical choice over Egypt, the latter which sports the immensely iconic pyramids yet is at constant odds with Israel. But the souk, medina and Marrakech tower were a shockingly wonderful reminder of my time spent in Morocco eons ago. The incense may have sharply triggered my memories, proving again the emotive power of that under-rated sense. The brass trays, the djellabas, the belly dancers and the fez I tried on stoked my wanderlust for a return to the real thing.
It was a chuckle to take the EPCOT boat from one country to the next (“Next stop Germany, then China” announced the captain). The employees (er, Castmembers) were plucked from the country in which they worked at EPCOT, a nice touch. When my elder daughter noticed the woodsman outfits in Canada, she hopefully and erroneously thought she would see a performance of Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song.”
My daughters noticed a few Amish women touring EPCOT. Leaving aside the question of how they arrived, it must have been an eye-opening experience for these ladies who presumably don’t ordinarily travel too far.
In Orlando there is a very curious secondary market for partially used theme park tickets. The official offsite ticket offices offer vague reasons how and why the myriad independent operators function. But for those folks who were overly optimistic in buying multi-day theme park tickets, the independent guys are a willing buyer. And for those needing to save some dollars, those same brokers become sellers. Yankee ingenuity, capitalism and theme parks…what could be more American?
The Arabian Nights dinner show is fun for kids. Loosely based on the story of Scheherazade (without any of the erotic overtones of course), the show taps into other cultural references, which reminded our astute daughters of the second half of various Nutcracker performances. The food at Arabian Nights will appeal to a broad swath of America, which is a safe bet for the producers.
Far more enticing on the food front was Cala Bella, located in Rosen’s Shingle Creek resort. The waiter and chef proved their mettle by going off the menu for our daughters, who voiced their ubiquitous request for pasta Bolognese. The result was a hit, with lush sauce over perfect al dente penne. I enjoyed a lovely pescatore, which had fresh pasta loaded with Australian lobster tail, Littleneck clams, mussels, shrimp and scallops braised in a spicy saffron tomato broth. My wife’s pork chop was pretty good. We started with a surprisingly tasty and unique Italian sausage and Florida goat cheese flatbread, served with red onion, basil and crushed tomatoes. We finished with a trio of crisp and tart sorbets. The elegance of the décor was matched by the meticulous service.
Although we travelled many Orlando roads smothered with tourist attractions, we were able to enjoy the visit. We were able to teach our kids about a service economy (“See? Nothing is manufactured here.”) We were able to see a smattering of world cultures, somewhat diluted to smooth any rough edges and we found some great cooking. On balance, it was a classic American family vacation.