by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
While a global pandemic has clipped our wings indefinitely, we are perforce learning to find magic in the seemingly mundane. This necessary enterprise is perhaps best at play in Orlando — a theme park paradise.
Since 1971, when Disney World opened its gates in Orlando, the city has been a landmark destination for people of all ages. With fairy dust seemingly infused in the warm Florida air and Harry Potter’s wizardry on display at Universal Studios, Orlando is the polestar for all things enchanting. But as the quarantine era directives shut down bewitching lights and thrilling rides, bringing frenzy to a fast stop, much else has come to light.
The Walt Disney Amphitheater at Lake Eola in the heart of downtown resembles a tiered collapsible cup. It is woefully empty and still. But behind it, the dancing lights of a majestic fountain take centerstage as city folk emerge from their homes for a breath of fresh air, maintaining a safe distance from one another. Fast-paced runners, stumbling toddlers, expecting mothers, couples holding hands, greying denizens and gleeful pet (some in buggies!), circle the almost mile-long lake in collective harmony. As though cast in a theatrical production, the vividly illuminated office buildings of downtown Orlando brighten the molten evening sky like a supporting cast. An elderly man, a regular at the lake, smiles peacefully as he weaves wondrous flowers out of palm leaves for a passerby. Amongst bars and restaurants along the lakefront that offer take out and carefully scrubbed and spaced seating, Relax Grill is a no-frills eatery. Their lavishly salted, French fries-shaped fried pickles are a hot favourite with patrons.
The approximately 50 swans that live on the lake are the cynosure of this urban oasis. These trumpeting birds even have their own Twitter account! Close by, the Church Street District—a landmark for sporting events and buzzing nightlife—is almost deserted, allowing a clear view of the impressive brick-lined promenade itself. While the museums and theatres remain closed in the eclectic Mills 50 neighbourhood, the murals across storefronts and back-alley walls are receiving newfound admiration. Unlike the edgy, bombastic, alfresco art in Miami that lassos one's attention with chromatic overtures, Orlando's murals unfold gently, like fairytales narrated at bedtime. These are stories of diversity and bonhomie artfully chronicled on an urban canvas of brick and concrete.
A similar tale of gathering occurs during the weekend farmer’s market in the quaint Winter Garden neighbourhood out west. As the city tests the waters for a new normal, vendors selling local produce and honey, stuffed olives and pickles, fresh mozzarella, and robust orchids assemble loosely in the majestic umbra of Spanish Moss trees. Eclectic shops and eateries flank a central promenade with benches and swings set amidst fountains and flowers with a European flair.
The Rogers Building, a Queen Ann style structure built in 1886, is a historic site on the South Magnolia Avenue. Perhaps better known as the English Club, the structure seems like it has been teleported from the streets of London! Given that Orlando was established in 1875, and doesn't boast of a rich architectural heritage like Prague or Paris, the English Club shines through like a delightful anomaly.
With over a hundred lakes in the city, walking trails, and micro-neighbourhoods with distinct identities, Orlando is an oasis for organic adventures that don't require a ticket. The Ivanhoe Village, once famous for finding antiques, is a charming area on the edge of the urban trail with contemporary home décor stores. A store owner points to a bicycle fashioned as a foyer table that has become a fast seller during the recent upsurge in home improvement projects.
As families huddle together in these uncertain times, it is heartwarming to see generations congregate on private docks along the sprawling lakefront homes around Lake Sue. Across the street, wraparound porches enveloped by lush foliage are alive with laughter. It almost feels like Thanksgiving!
The stars shine bright in Orlando even when the fairy dust settles.