Monday, June 3, 2013

Life with Theme Park Mice: A Halo of Bubbles


"I'm not here to have fun." This thought passes through my head as I pull into the parking space, far away from my destination. I feel a moment of relief, having made it through the madness of Interntional Drive traffic once again. It's a gauntlet of distracted vacationers walking into traffic, drivers from the middle of nowhere dealing with congestion for the first time, and buses making continual stops along the strip of tourist traps.

My relief vanishes when I remember what's next. I check for car keys multiple times, delaying the inevitable. Finally, slowly, I take a deep breath and climb out of the car into the humid Florida air. The heat makes my head reel for a moment, but what keeps it spinning is the sight before me. I gaze upon the massive outlet mall and its shopping masses, and I wonder how I'm going to get through to my destination.

As I make my way through the parking lot, my body instinctively changes stance, taking on the form of a football player ready to crash through his opposition. My glasses slide down my nose, but I let them hang just a few centimeters from falling. Seeing everything as a blur only helps me deal with navigating the crowds.

This is actually Universal Studios Citywalk, but massive tourist crowds are pretty similar.
As I reach the storefronts, a nearby vendor sprays bubbles from his sidewalk kiosk. I briefly consider that this must look like a scene from some camp parody of an action movie. A slightly rotund figure walks with a determined stride and a grimace on his face. The only sound is the constant slapping of his Muppets flip-flops against the concrete. His pastel t-shirt and black athletic shorts show that he means business. A halo of bubbles falls onto his forehead. It is time to shop, or die.

These ridiculous thoughts flow through my mind as I flow through the crowd. With my glasses down, every person is just a blur, an obstacle to be dodged in the most efficient way possible. A childhood spent in malls with a retail therapy obsessed grandmother has trained me well, allowing me to find the smallest of openings and dodge the fastest of strollers.

Finally, I reach my destination, the store that I seek. It's a Disney Outlet store in Orlando, so of course it's almost as busy as the walkway outside. I buy some things, of course I do. I'm really here, though, to get pictures of some collectibles that are an obsession for some. I'm one of them, for reasons I can only begin to understand. These pictures mean I'm being published by someone, and that something I do is being viewed. It makes what's next worth it. Barely. Because now, I have to make my way back through those crowds, and that traffic, then the interstate to get back to the peaceful sanctuary of home.

This is the reality of living in Central Florida. While I don't call Orlando home, sometimes I feel like I'm in that city more than my own. This land would be oranges and retirees and not much else if the theme parks never arrived, and thus most everything intersects with the tourist industry in some way. A simple shopping trip for me is a major part of a vacation to most of the people I walk among.

When my wife and I first moved here, I was often confused why the locals, specifically those who grew up in the area, often had no connection to Disney World or its ilk. After living here a year, I can understand how it happens. Having to deal with the shadow of Disney constantly looming over your life has a good chance of draining away the "magic" the tourist industry sprays into the area. It also doesn't help that many of these tourism related jobs are low paying positions, which means many of these people can't afford to visit the same places people journey thousands of miles to visit.

I haven't lost an appreciation for the Disney lifestyle, and I don't think I will. My inner child dominates a little too much of my mind to ever grow tired of the place. When I'm with my wife, we're like kids again every time we walk through the gates of faux castles and into imaginary lands. However, much of my time spent alone among the tourists is for my writing and reporting. Sometimes, I'm not there to have fun.

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