I don’t go to Florida often, but I’ve liked it each of the times I’ve been there. The first time I went was in the late 70’s. My brother, an engineer, was building a Budweiser plant near Tampa, and I went down for his wedding. Nine years ago, I went again. I was tired of the Syracuse’s endless winter, and happy to make the plane trip in March. At Cocoa Beach, I surfed for the first time.
My family’s contact with Florida goes back a long time. My grandfather ran a lumber yard there in the 1920’s. He once stayed in a hotel room down the hall from the legendary George Gershwin. Gershwin’s habit was to go to Florida as soon as one of his shows opened. There he would golf and compose the music for his next show. Unfortunately for my grandfather, he often worked in the night’s wee hours. One night my grandfather knocked on Gershwin’s door, and told him that his piano playing was disturbing his sleep. He told the great composer to desist. Surprisingly enough, Gershwin complied.
My own trips to Florida have not been so momentous. But I love to surf, even if I’m not good at it. This year my wife said we should vacation in Florida. As she’s a Disney person, and I’m an ocean person, we decided to split the trip between Disney World and Cocoa Beach.
The first four days were at Disney. The Disney experience has always been a mixed bag, going back to Walt Disney, himself. Disney had a number of retrograde, stereotypical notions, and the Florida community he envisioned has an eerie resemblance to the tightly-controlled Communist states he detested. On the other hand, there was considerable creativity in his early animation work, and he had an innate grasp of the connection between film and music.
These contradictions continue in Walt’s kingdoms. As I have always been bored by amusement parks, I have little patience with the Magic Kingdom. The numerous people pushing to get into rides are less than polite or happy.
But I found enough to amuse myself with at the Animal Kingdom, which is something like a trip to the zoo. The safari showed us a number of giraffes, gazelles, rhinos, hippos and elephants in environments similar to those they experience in Africa. We saw little of lions, who cared little for the midday heat.
My wife’s biggest enjoyment at Animal Kingdom was a ride down “Everest”. Mine was the aviary, in Marakesh Trek, where I walked past trees full of Asian birds. Most of these birds were quite musical, and the air was filled with their singing.
Merikesh Trek featured many Asian animals. The large tigers we saw, like the lions, had no interest in the 80-plus heat. Two of them tried to sleep in the shade. As Noel Coward once sang, only “Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”
After four days at Disney, we went to Cocoa Beach. I did not surf so well as I had last year at Waikiki. Perhaps the Atlantic was a bit more pugnacious than the Pacific. But while I was not ready for competition, I was still in my element on the ocean.
In this trip, I saw, for the first time, the true Florida behind the tourism. It was hard-faced and economically struggling. Certainly the Cocoa Beach area has not been helped by the shutting down of much of the space program at nearby Cape Canaveral.
At Cocoa Beach, my wife and I decided to eat at some chain restaurants. This was our way of resuming normal life even while on vacation. In Merritt Island, we ate at Chili’s, Ruby Tuesday’s, Olive Garden and TGI Fridays, all of which were pleasant in food and service. We also ate at Florida Seafood Grill and Simply Delicious, which in fact had delicious deserts.
Still seeking routine, we saw a movie the night before we left. We saw Trouble With The Curve, starring Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams. Eastwood is a much better director than he is an actor, but Adams is one of our best actresses. She also does well picking good movies, and I was not disappointed in this one.
When we returned to our hotel from the movie, we went out onto our ocean-front balcony. The light from the full moon flooded the palm trees and beach. We saw, in the distance lights from ships.
I was reminded of a letter I had read long ago. Writing to my grandmother in their time of courtship, my grandfather wrote lyrically of the Florida nights, with their ocean breeze and palm trees.
More than eighty years later, my experience connected with his.