Trip Report — Confessions of a Twisted Mind (Part 1)
I. ORLANDO, FLORIDA
I am not making this up.
Each and every time I must endure a trip to Florida, I’m reminded of the musings of writer Dave Barry.
Barry is (in)famous for his witty non-stop Florida-bashing. Since Barry actually resides in South Florida, he gets away with offending just about everyone in the Sunshine State. For two decades, Barry was a writer for The Miami Herald, penning a masterful column that was eventually nationally syndicated. Barry’s writings were routinely infused with humor at the expense of all the gator-skinned sun-baked Floridians — which he characterizes as doddering elderly, angry Cuban exiles, and crazed dope dealers all entwined in chaotic bliss. Okay, so actually that’s *my* characterization — not his.
I suspect that Barry got away with much of what he wrote largely because he’s one of “them.” It’s sort of like a family, or a fraternity, or a minority group. You can’t criticize and be funny at anyone’s expense without actually being a member of the crazy family.
Prior to this trip which began in February 2012, the only area of Florida I’d set foot in was the parched asphalt wasteland between Miami in the south and West Palm Beach to the north. It’s territory I shall refer to as New York’s “sixth borough” — a hellhole of three million fat fucks donning New York Yankee baseball caps shading transplanted broken-down bodies in flowered shirts, most complaining incessantly about not being able to find a good pastrami on rye anywhere close to Boynton Beach.
My Florida travel scorecard showed three vacations to West Palm Beach taken years ago, two business trips to Miami, plus innumerable air connections through Miami International Airport, capped by a two-week assignment last year at West Palm Beach during the inaugural World Series of Poker Circuit stop — the first ever held in the state of Florida.
Returning again this year brought a mix of dread and anticipation. So, thinking about lemons and lemonade, I decided to kick the pitcher off the table and order a bourbon and soda, instead.
The plan was to spend four days/nights in sunny Orlando — a place I had never been. Next, we’d drive down to the warm beaches of South Florida for a few days, before assuming my duties at the Palm Beach Kennel Club. In the midst of making my preparations, I got lucky. Poker Hall of Fame inductee and friend Dewey Tomko had been urging me to visit him in Florida for many years (figuring I’d never actually ACCEPT the invitation). He lives near Orlando. Now it was time to take full advantage of Dewey like the pesky leech that I am. To his credit, he didn’t show the least bit of horror when I actually called him up to say we were coming. We were worse than cheap relatives. Dewey offered to let us stay in (his words) “one of my houses right on the golf course, with a pool,” — all free of charge.
“Free” — as in, “stay as long as you’d like.”
Hey Dewey, how about allowing us to stay, I don’t know, say the next 35 years?
With wife Marieta in tow (disclaimer — she’s not responsible for any of this), we arrived in Orlando on a Saturday night. I knew Dewey had serious money — but I had no idea he had what I’d classify as “fuck you money,” which is the lofty perch occupied when you answer to NO ONE. When we finally meet and greet, he reveals that the development where we are staying was once a giant orange grove that he owned (actually, one of many). But 20 years ago, they had a bad freeze late in the season and he lost the entire orange crop. So, Dewey decided to bulldoze all the orange groves and turn it into a gigantic golf course and multimillion dollar housing development (it’s probably a fair bet that Dewey won’t be winning any Greenpeace awards). He partnered with Jack Binion (yeah, *that* Jack Binion) and together they built a garden paradise.
Dewey’s got THE life. He custom built his home overlooking the 18th green, right next to the clubhouse. His daily ritual includes a leisurely morning walk up to the clubhouse each morning, followed by breakfast, then a round of golf. When I asked “how many” houses he built (and sold), he said, “You mean here in THIS development?”
Huh? Run that by me again?
I’m doing some quick math here. Each one of these homes has to go for at least $300,000 a piece (and up), even in a depressed market. So, I guess Dewey did good.
Really good, especially for someone who used to be a kindergarten teacher.
The next evening, we’re invited to visit to Dewey’s restaurant. I had no idea what that meant when asked to join Dewey for dinner. All I really knew was that he owned some kind of restaurant. Hell, it might have been a hot dog stand. Who knew? I mean, when someone invites you to come to MY RESTAURANT, that’s not the time and place to ask about the catch of the day or menu prices. Dewey told us he owns “a small place” in Orlando and wants us to appear for a gratis dinner.
Of course, I completely bungle the occasion, wearing shorts and sandals, which means this is going to turn out to be the mother of all embarrassments. When we make our grand entrance, there’s a matre’d standing there looking like a gatekeeper whose job is to keep out riff-raff.
Guy in the penguin suit gives me the up and down and before I can open my mouth tells me “RESTAURANT IS COMPLETELY BOOKED.” Before I mumble something to the effect that I am the OWNERS GUEST, he darts off away the podium and doesn’t return for like five minutes.
I see disappointment-shock-disgust on his face when he returns, a sort of WHAT IN THE FUCK ARE YOU STILL DOING HERE? kinda’ look. I get that sometimes.
I insist, “I’m a guest of “MR TOMKO.”
Suddenly, the snooty maitre’d changes his tune and becomes overly nice and helpful.
“Oh, so you are Mr. and Mrs. Dalla! Dewey is expecting you! Right this way!”
Dewey’s place is UN-real. A live band with a grand piano at center stage is trilling out the classics. The singer sounds just like Tony Bennett. A giant steakhouse with faux fireplaces. A stunning wine room in dark walnut for special parties. Table side cooking. Fucking cafe diablos with the full blue flame effect. I must admit it’s pretty cool knowing that your pal owns the joint. Dewey shows us the ultra-special ARNOLD PALMER ROOM, where he regularly sits and where all the VIPs come in to dine. Before I can stop the words from actually tumbling out of my mouth like a case of rabies, I ask if Palmer ever “actually visits the place.” Dewey frowns and looks at me like I’m a fucking idiot. He quips — “yeah, he lives two miles down the road. he’s in here all the time.”
So is Michael Jordan, he tells me. Tiger Woods, too. All of the Orlando Magic players. All the NBA teams when they visit. They have a special cigar bar outside, which is the city’s hot spot.
I’m not exactly into that scene, but I must admit it was nice seeing one of poker’s most humble personalities, Dewey Tomko as the Wolfgang Puck of Orlando.
Of course, dinner was one for the ages. Magnificent. The night ends after a four-hour (FOUR HOUR!) course of appetizers, delicacies, cocktails, wine, desserts — peppered with so many Dewey stories of his gambling days that my head is practically spinning. It wasn’t a dinner. It was an EXPERIENCE. It will be hard to top this place or this evening. Dewey’s ceaseless parade of friends how drop in only adds to the glamor. It was like sitting next to David Letterman at a cocktail party.
What a night.
The next day, it’s off to the Disney empire.
II. THE DISNEY EMPIRE
I hate babies.
Can’t stand them. Can’t stand being seeing them or being around them. Wailing, slobbering, shitting machines — that’s what they are. Give me a cat or a dog instead. At least an animal uses a litter box.
Well, if babies and all things “kid” isn’t quite your thing, then I’d advise avoiding anything associated with Orlando. Aside from Dewey’s heavenly oasis and bourbon-infused bliss, Orlando and its suburbs are a sprawling mass of nothingness littered by roads seemingly going to nowhere congested with rented mini-vans, overpriced chain hotels, Chuck E Cheese-type eateries, and OBSCENELY-PRICED “amusement” parks.
Oh fuck, don’t even get me started on Disney. Okay, here it goes.
The plan was to do three things while in Orlando:
DAY ONE: VISIT EPCOT CENTER
DAY TWO: VISIT DISNEY WILD KINGDOM
DAY THREE: VISIT KENNEDY SPACE CENTER (which is actually about 50 miles away)
I couldn’t give a rats ass about amusement parks with all the kiddie rides. So, we pick out the three things that might interest a couple of middle-aged self-centered elitist snobs that could have been extras in one of those neurotic Woody Allen movies — which will include an international attraction, wild animals, and outer space. Hard to go wrong, right? Paging Dave Barry. White courtesy phone, Mr. Dave Barry.
The first day starts off badly. VERY badly.
Marieta and I are driving down Interstate-4. Just as we come upon the exit ramp, one of the scariest things I have ever experienced suddenly happens — without warning.
Mind you, I am driving a rented white Grand Marquis from Alamo. The car screams two things: 1. TOURIST! and 2. OLD PEOPLE!
So, I’m flying off the expressway taking one of the exits into the vast Disney empire. About 200 yards ahead there is a stop light with several cars idling.
I press the brakes and…………..
I hit the brake and it goes straight to the fucking floor like a broken benchpress. I’m doing like 70 mph and in those next three seconds my life pretty much flashes before my eyes. This is about to get very ugly. Quick.
I’m an instant from being the lead story on the local 10 o’clock news, about the tourist from evil Las Vegas who barreled into a couple of mini-vans packed with a bunch of kiddies, turning them into flaming shish-kabobs.
All I can remember is my heart nearly jumping out of my chest. Guess I should have taken out the car insurance for the extra $9 a day. The scorched little ones are got going to get much burial money if something isn’t done quick.
Somehow, by downshifting and hitting the emergency break at the same time I get the car to slow down and actually stop off on the shoulder, just as the red light turns green and the cars move ahead, avoiding a near catastrophe. They had no idea how close they came to being impaled by a speeding torpedo in the form of a Grand Marquis.
Not sure of exactly what to do next (I mean it’s not like the brakes on the car go out every day and there’s a manual on what to do), I decide the only logical thing is to…..
Fuck yeah. Disney wants our money!
For whatever reason, now the brakes seem to be working (which is kinda’ nice when you’re driving). Gee, I hope I won’t need to stop for anything is my next though. That COULD be a problem. It’s only about a mile or two to the Disney park and I’m not going to sit there for three fucking hours pulled off an Interstate and wait for a tow truck so they can bring me a Geo Metro as a replacement car. I’M ON VACATION!
Driving like 30 miles an hour in the far right lane, I’m fast becoming a Floridian. We get to the outer gates of mammoth Epcot Center, which I am told is the “most adult like park” of all the Disney complex. Well, they do charge adult prices.
It’s $14 to park the car. FOURTEEN BUCKS. I’ve haven’t even seen Mickey Mouse yet, and I’m already stuck nearly a sawbuck.
I seriously wonder. Might have been fun if the brakes on the car had instead failed when approaching the Epcot Center toll booth. I wonder if I would have made road kill of the parking attendant, would I have still had to pay the $14 parking fee?
The madness has only begun.
It’s $85 for a day’s entry into the park. $85 per person. It’s now 1 pm by this time and we have about five hours max of remaining sunlight. Seems that they should have a half-day pass, sort of like the ski resorts do. I mean, the people who got at the park at 8 am have like FIVE MORE HOURS and we do to enjoy the park, and we still pay the same entry fee?
My first impression upon entry is not a good one.
Imagine going to the Las Vegas Strip, at its most crowded apex, and then take out all the poker tables, gambling devices, and sportsbooks. That’s it. Epcot is basically the Las Vegas Strip — sans the gambling or Elvis impersonators. *Everything* is designed to separate the visitor from his money. Photos for sale. T-shirts for sale. Pet the animals, but pay $4 for feed.
The shows are hit and miss. The best shows are the nature and environmental-themes, which I have now mostly forgotten. Many counties are also represented at Epcot. Best shows and displays are by France, United States, and China. Greatest disappointments are Italy and Germany. Kinda’ like the outcome of World War 2.
I give the park a solid “B.” I’m a tough critic, to be sure. But the bottom line was — there was enough in the park to amuse me (and Marieta), even with the ridiculous ticket prices. But I’m still pissed about the $14 shakedown for parking.
At end of the day, I phone Alamo Rent-A-Car, which promises to come out an exchange the rental with spotty brakes. They advise that this can be done “first thing in the morning.”
So, we drive back to Dewey’s place on the service roads, going no more than 30 mph, which takes like 90 minutes.
III. MORE DISNEY MADNESS
Following day. Car is switched and now we are driving a silver Crown Victoria — but this time with NEW YORK plates.
Now, everyone in the universe if going to think I’m one of the 3-million fat fuck transplants.
Today’s destination is called WILD ANIMAL KINGDOM. We love animals, especially when they are all dolled up in cages looking nice for us tourists instead of, you know, maiming each other, shitting, and generally, behaving like, you know — animals.
I can see from the instant we arrive this is not going to be a repeat of Epcot. The only thing this place has in common with yesterday is the hefty $85 a head entry fee, and of course — another $14 knee whack in the wallet for parking. So far, I’m stuck $400 in just two parks — and that’s without the food, drinks, and souvenirs.
Maneuvering through a confusing maze of families, I am thinking this is not going to be good. It’s stroller speedway. It’s the infant invasion. It’s “DALLA HELL.”
First show we enter is about insects. That’s right, INSECTS — those creepy crawly things. Don’t ask me how we ended up in this performance. The arena is filled with kids, probably a couple of hundred of them.
The show is supposed to be about how important insects are to the world and, uhhhhhh, well, I guess I can understand that they need to be here and all, but fuck me in the ass if this should be ENTERTAINMENT.
Visions of spiders crawling all over the place appear. Roaches are shown. Wasps fly. They show lavre, and caterpillars, and all these creepy things. Then, they show grasshoppers which is one of my phobias. I HATE GRASSHOPPERS! Oh, and it’s in 3-D. Kids are screaming and crying all over the place, and I can’t say I blame them. If I wasn’t stuck in mid-aisle, I would have been out the door in tears. Then, the room goes dark and they lower some light netting type devise which makes it feel like insects are dropping on you as the climax of the show.
I’m paying $85 for this?
Next show is the lone highlight of the WILD ANIMAL KINGDOM, which is the bird show. Bunch on birds flying all over the audience and basically doing cool things to the trainer’s commands.
There’s many other shows too, the worst one of which by far is the LION KING musical performance. It’s basically a sped-up version of the LION KING that used to play at Mandalay Bay, all in about a 23-minute whimsey of mediocrity. What pissed me off was having to wait in line 40 minutes to get into the show. Which brings me to the most memorable thing about Wild Animal Kingdom……
I am utterly confused because it’s a Monday which I thought was a SCHOOL day, but I guess no one goes to school anymore.
You wait in line to eat. You wait in line to drink. You wait in line to ride. You wait in line to get inside. You wait in line to pay. You wait in line to piss.
If it were up to me, I’d rename this place: “WAIT IN LINE” KINGDOM.
Grade: D (bird show saved the grade from being an “F”)
IV: KENNEDY SPACE CENTER
The final day is a trip to Cape Canaveral, site of the Kennedy Space Center.
I was never much interested in science. I never got into Star Trek and all the flying spaceship stuff. Hell, I stormed out of the last Star Wars movie in mid-reel (which triggered another marital spat, I might add).
That said, I do have profound memories and dare I say it, undue pride in looking back upon this nation’s space program, particularly during the 1960s. Going to the place where all the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo rockets and missions blasted from is as close to awe inspiring as anything I can imagine.
The Kennedy Space Center costs $43 to enter — a pretty amazing bargain when you consider this is an actual place where history (not fantasy) was made and where it costs HALF the entry price of the Disney disaster. Parking is free, by the way.
FUCK YOU, DISNEY!
Only real disappointment were the IMAX movies, which are so-so. I’ve seen better.
Then, we get a 3-hour guided bus tour of several rocket sites and a museum with more shows and spacecraft.
There’s not much left here anymore. It’s a shell of it’s former awe-inspiring greatness. With the space program pretty much on mothballs, it’s sort of like walking into Tiger Stadium and looking for Al Kaline. I mean, there’s just not much there from the glory days. But I must stay — with memories of Cronkite’s golden voice still ringing in my seven-year-old ear when man walked on the Moon for the first time, I was touched by the experience.
I give Kennedy Space Center a solid “B.”
Back tomorrow with a visits to JUNO BEACH, SINGER ISLAND, and WEST PALM BEACH. Not to be missed — a visit to a ridiculously ritzy gem and jewelry show with Palm Beach’s “elite.” Be prepared for lots of political incorrectness to come.
Writer’s Note: This is the first of a five-part trip report from earlier this year (February-March 2012).