Today we start back. Some people look at the traveling part of travel as a necessary evil that occupies the time between leaving where they are and getting to where they want to go. I’m not one of those people. Carla isn’t either. It’s another one of those little things that illustrate how I hit the spousal jackpot.
We both grew up in families who loved to travel but didn’t fly to get there. We drove. Long, long road trips. Pile in the car early in the morning, load up up on books. Stop at rest areas and get lunch out of the cooler. In my family’s case we tended to have our travel trailer behind us, so if it was a multi-day trip we’d find a KOA or other campground and set up for the night.
I really hate flying. I’m that guy no one wants to sit next to on an airplane. It’s no picnic for me either. It’s a dehumanizing experience all the way around. I choose not to do that anymore. I prefer to drive. When I was freelancing the last time, the folks I did onsite webcast engineering for found it very amusing how much I hated to fly. It probably cost me a couple of gigs, but if it did they never made an issue of it. They were actually very accommodating.
So while you are reading this, we’ll likely be on the road, It’s the classic I-75 route. Walt Disney World to the turnpike (SunPass FTW), the turnpike to I-75. We’ll spend the night in Atlanta and see my sister-in-law, then back on I-75 north to KY-18 and we make a left. And yes, as a matter of fact, we probably did go to Wawa for breakfast on our way out.
We’ve made this drive so many times it’s routine. When we cross under the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway we’re really on our way. We’ll cross Payne’s Prairie up around Gainesville and also get Stephen Foster stuck in our heads for the hour after we cross the Suwannee river. Then South Georgia, the land that makes Audible pay for itself. The trip just hasn’t been the same since Tifton! (the exclamation point is silent) has quit promoting itself as “The Reading Capital of the World” on billboards.
The billboards are actually some of the most entertaining part of the trip. In Florida every fifth billboard proclaims that heartbeats begin “18 days after con-cep-tion.”1 The other four billboards are for Ron-Jon’s Surf Shop. In Georgia you start seeing the billboards that tell you why you’re going to hell. They fail to point out that, by being in South Georgia, you’re already there.2 It’s always struck me that you see more billboards for strip joints and adult book stores in the Bible belt than anywhere else. Those start becoming less frequent as you get closer to Macon. I have nothing to say about Macon. No one does. I do enjoy going through Vienna, GA because of all the Ellis Brother’s Pecan billboards and seeing the site for the Big Pig Jig. I’d like to see that some day.
Macon to Atlanta is an exercise in trying to figure out where Atlanta really starts. I don’t have an answer for that yet. Then there’s the try-not-to-be-killed-by-an-idiot-Atlanta-driver on the way through. Assuming we do that we’ll get to out hotel that conveniently shares a parking lot with Taco Mac. It’s not a bad way to end the day.
Then tomorrow we go back to real life.
1I don’t understand the hyphens either, but they’re there. I’m assuming they’re having to break up the word because it’s too long for the target audience to parse. 2Motto suggestion: “If you were going to hell, you’d be home by now.”
For nearly the last 14 years we have spent a week of January in Florida. I say ‘nearly’ because there have been a couple of years that we made other plans Even in those years, though, we’ve scheduled a make-up sometime later, usually in the spring. This doesn’t count the trips we sometimes make in November and the others we sometimes make in March or April. This year, for example, things have worked out so we’ll be back down at the end of March so I can see my beloved Astros in their last Spring Training at Kissimmee.
It’s nice to come down so much because you don’t feel like you have to do everything each trip. This year we’re using our Disney Vacation Club points to stay on Disney property, but we don’t have any park tickets. With Christmas just over and the Disney Marathon weekend coming up, there’s just too much nonsense to deal with. It’s been the plan all along for this year, but it really worked out well because Carla is getting over an awful sinus infection. I caught a cold during Santa season and that’s been working itself out, but I didn’t have it nearly as bad. So a laid back trip wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered, but she sure was happy when Carla told her those were our plans before we left last Friday.
We got to have lunch with some family on Monday and we mentioned that we were going to go over to Tampa on Wednesday to finally visit Cigar City Brewing. Later, Carla’s cousin (once-removed) suggested that we go to Weeki Wachie Springs as well.
And with that, a pretty good plan turned into an epic one.
We’d picked Wednesday for our Tampa side trip because we were moving from one resort to another. It’s a good way to mix things up. We got packed up and made a beeline to the greatest convenience store on the face of the planet: Wawa.
I could write a whole post about the wonders of Wawa. I spent two years teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia. Many, many good things happened to me there. One of them was being introduced to Wawa. Yes, it’s a convenience store. Well-stocked, usually kept neat, and not obnoxiously overpriced, but that describes a lot of stores. But for me, a Wawa is a place to get a great sandwich, When I was in Philly you’d have to go in and fill out a slip with what you’d want on your sandwich and hand it to a clerk. They’d give you a number. You’d go pay for it, then pick up the sandwich when they called your number. They’ve gotten high-tech since those days. Now you input your order onto a touch-screen. It spits out a receipt. You go pay for it and then get a real sandwich. Not one of those Subway or Jimmy John’s thing. The bread is fantastic. And it has exactly what you want and nothing you don’t. You can’t understand until you have one. And we did, yesterday. For breakfast and for dinner.
Wawa has only been in Florida since 2012. It appears they showed up first over in Tampa and St. Petersburg. I’m assuming that’s because the Phillies have had Spring Training over in Clearwater since 1947. Apparently there are a lot of ex-Philly residents who didn’t have to have it explained to them what a Wawa was. And I’m glad for that. It was a good way to start and end the day.
We wanted to stay off interstates so we went up US-27 to Clermont. It’s the home of the Citrus Tower and what is, quite possibly, the most terrifying tourist attraction on the face of the planet: The President’s Hall of Fame. Forget that being elected President of the United States makes you about as famous as you’re going to get. I guess the last step is making the Hall of Fame housed in a disintegrating white building that looks vaguely colonial and nothing White House-y. There’s famous. Then there’s Clermont, FL famous.
At Clermont we headed west on Florida Highway 50. It’s miles and miles of Florida ranch land, the occasional swamp and little barbecue shacks that I would have loved to have stopped and sampled. Except we were still very full from Wawa. So we didn’t. But there’s another trip in my future.
Weeki Wachee Springs has been a tourist trap destination since 1946. I need to say something up front: I’m going to make jokes about Weeki Wachee Springs. Under no circumstances should you take that to mean I didn’t fall in love with the place at first sight. It’s awesome. You need to go. It was kind of rainy and gray when we were there. I’d love to see it on a sunny day, Somewhere in the state government of Florida there’s someone who had the idea of saving Weeki Wachee Springs by making it part of the Florida State Parks system. That person deserves our thanks.
The mermaids make it look easy. We saw the version of the show that spends a little time explaining how they do what they do. There is nothing easy about what they do. In what passes for research for this post, I found this Wired article from 2012 that talks about the mermaids. It doesn’t answer the one question I really have, though. Since the park is owned by the State of Florida, are they state employees? There’s probably some concession contract that keeps that from happening, but I’d like to think they are. Best state job title ever.
I think it has to be a hard job in other ways as well. Here’s an actual conversation I had with a man who was eager to introduce himself to everyone as not being from Ohio anymore. When we mentioned we were from the Cincinnati area, I had a new friend. He was from Springboro, but he moved here three years ago.
Me: This is so cool. I’m glad the state took it over.
Him: Oh yeah, I live just three miles from here. I come over here all the time.
Me: (to myself) Oh my God, he’s a stalker. (to him) I saw there was a yearly pass that wasn’t much.
Him: Yeah it’s a great deal. I come over here three or four times a week, I know all the girls. Without the pass it’d really be expensive.
Me: (to myself) Yep. Stalker. On a budget! (to him) We spent some time last year at Lake Louisa over near Clermont, It’s really nice. Have you been there?
Him: No. I really want to see the other parks.
Me: (to myself) Not until they get mermaids you won’t. (to him) There are a bunch of them (to myself) but there aren’t any mermaids. (to him) Oh, I think my wife went in the gift shop. Bye!
To be fair, he also mentioned how much he liked the water park they’ve added. But it’s not open in the winter and he was there when we were. For a show. Do the math.
Weeki Wachee is located at the intersection of SH-50 and US-19. The latter also goes through Asheville, NC where I’ve lived a couple of times, so I thought it would be neat to take it to our last destination of the day. Big mistake. US-19 south into Tampa/St. Pete sucks. Suburban sprawl hell. And it’s apparently where the people who mis-time the traffic lights in Northern Kentucky go to retire. The less said about the next hour or so the better.
Our final destination was Cigar City Brewing. They are on the list of breweries that we call our “Cant’ Make A Bad Beer” list. I’m not g0ing to say about it here because I need to write a Traveling Tuesday for Hoperatives, but sufficed to say the beers were good. It was pretty busy, but they know how to handle the crowds. For being a legitimately world-famous brewery, I loved how down-to-earth they were.
My point today is actually not to be serious. I guarantee this post will be 100% profound-insight-free. To be honest, I’m going to struggle a little bit to rise to the level of being merely trite.
I wrote yesterday about how I’ve lived lots of places and there are things I’ve liked about all of them. There’s one place Carla and I go frequently that has all the familiar feelings of home, yet we’ve never lived there: Florida. Specifically Central Florida. There’s this kind of rough triangle that goes from Clermont, northwest of Disney World and extends over Winter Garden to Cocoa Beach and then down past Sebastian to Vero Beach and then back to Clermont. That’s our Florida.1
Many people have tried to explain Florida. Carl Hiassen and Dave Barry have probably captured the weirdness best. There is an undeniable natural beauty that sits right up along side the most crass, soulless commercialism. Anyone who can drive down US 192 between Old Town Kissimmee and US 27 without wondering where evolution went horribly wrong is a better person than me. The human mind has given us poetry, music, medicine and science. It has also given us the Roomba Inn.
What the hell does that name even mean? I so want to walk into the place and be greeted by one of those little hockey puck vacuum cleaners. I suspect, however, like so many things along 192 I would walk away disappointed. The Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews read like a mashup of Stockholm Syndrome, deep denial and a cry for help. And it’s one of the classier joints on the road.
On the other hand, get off 192 and go north on 27 for about 15 minutes and you’ll find yourself at Lake Louisa State Park. It’s what this part of Florida looked like before the mice and wizards and superheroes moved in. Go southeast on 192 away from Kissimmee towards Vero Beach and you’ll see ranch land very much like what I used to see all the time in South Texas. Drive up A1A from Vero to Cocoa Beach and you’ll see your share of 1-percenters and wannabe 1-percenters stacked like cordwood in condos. You’ll also see these amazing little county parks that keep the beaches open and accessible to everyone. There are still little fishing towns and communities that might get a little touristy at some times of the year, but are mostly made up of people just working to get through the day like anyone anywhere.
There are always people to whom this place speaks. Literally. Like they hear voices in their heads. They get in their cars and drive south down I-95 or I-75 or east along I-10. They’ll drive 20 miles above or below the speed limit. No one will use a turn signal except by accident. And they will all come to Disney World the same week we do.
I have no idea whether this will become another place where we’ll live someday, or whether it will always just be a place we visit. I could see it going either way. I’m getting less enamored with winter all the time, but I despise hot, humid summers. And here that’s April to September. But we’ll keep coming back. Just like all the other crazies.
1I was going to make a cool map using Google Maps showing an overlay of the area I’m talking about. Unfortunately Google decided to add the “make everything freaking unusable” feature to all its products, so we’ll all just have to use our imaginations.
So Carla and I are at Disney World this week. If I was at all interested in being consistent in my worldview I should hate this place, but I don’t. We come down here all the time. We own Disney Vacation Club points at Animal Kingdom Lodge, for [insert deity here] sake. You can make impassioned arguments about the environment and the crass commercialism and whatever other sins you want to list and I’ll probably agree that those thing are terrible.
But I’ll come anyway.
I just like it here.
I hope they serve Mickey bars in hell if that’s where I’m going.
Three things have already happened that kind of sum up why:
We were originally going to spend the night in Valdosta, GA last night, but we were making great time and we would have gotten there between 2 & 3 in the afternoon. Nobody needs to spend that much time in Valdosta, so we said screw it and Carla called ahead and got a reservation at the All-Stars Sports for one night. It was just a few bucks more than we were going to spend anyway. We rolled in here a little after 6 and were in our room by 6:30. So we got to sleep in this morning before checking into Bay Lake Tower this morning instead of getting up godawful early. There were a million things that could have gone wrong, but they didn’t. Everybody did their job.
We were heading out to get some dinner last night and grabbed a beer over at the pool bar at All-Stars Sports before we took off. It was hot and the pool and pool area was packed. Lots of cheerleader teams, lots of school groups, lots of people. As we’re walking out after finishing our beers, “Let It Go” from “Frozen” starts playing on the sound system. The entire pool area — easily more than a 100 people, probably more — break into full-voiced singing. Kids. Teens. Everyone. It was hilarious. Wish I would have thought to shoot a little video, but I was laughing so hard and I don’t think the video would do it justice. I know it’s a completely different musical meme this summer, but it was the joy that the song “Happy” talks about that made it a moment I won’t forget. You had to be there. And I’m glad I was.
So we check into Bay Lake Tower (holy crap this place is amazing) and we’re heading down to the lobby to get some things straight on our Magic Band accounts (motto: “You’ll be amazed if you get them set up right the first time”). We stop a couple of floors down and this kid with a suitcase comes rushing on before realizing he wants to go up instead of down. His parents and a brother and sister are with him and they pull him off the elevator. Mom’s apologizing and Dad — holding this big garbage bag — asks “Hey do you guys like beer?” (Oh please, do go on!) Turns off they got off one of the cruise ships yesterday and they had some beer left over, They were heading back to New York and didn’t want to take it back. Very decent beer, too. So we’ve been in the building maybe 45 minutes and some random guy is handing us beer.