Two common habitats in Florida - the Gated Community, and the Cinderella Castle. She lives there. Honestly.
The great State of Florida is nothing if not an enigma. It is the home of Walt Disney World, purportedly the place ‘Where Dreams are Made’ but also Jeb Bush, the Governor who makes his brother Dubya look like a liberal. It has cities like Miami, where Spanish speakers are the majority, but also counties where immigration is seen as the newest form of evil. However, the most stark contrast can be seen in the fact that it has beautiful, warm, sunny beaches, often populated by beautiful, sunkissed people, and yet Florida’s most lucrative industry is Aged Care. For the summer months at least. A few days ago, whilst undertaking a seven-hour commute from Northern Florida to South Carolina, we bore witness to an interesting phenomenon: the Great Migration. No, not birds. Geriatrics. With the cold northern winter over, this migratory species began its long journey back up to the less oppressive summers of their home states. At a rest stop just over the Georgia state line, we were literally fighting our way through swathes of campervans and sedans with New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Ontario and Quebec numberplates, populated by over-70s who felt it perfectly acceptable to putt along 15 miles under the limit, enjoying the scenery, and using the basins of the public toilet as a place to strike up a conversation with the next person, leaving a line of disgruntled oldies behind them, who then turn to do that which the elderly do best: complain. What resulted on our part was a journey almost an hour longer that necessary, filled with sudden braking, swerving, and me shouting ‘I swear, if I see another slow moving Quebec numberplate I’m not going to Montreal!’ and the final decision that old people are not people, but in fact highly developed migratory birds. Fun times.
Of course, I am generalising horribly about the pre-Baby Boomer American populace. It is only a certain demographic, and probably a small one, that exhibit these traits I am describing. Let us, for this Attenborough-esque dissertation on this particular type of senior, refer to them as the ‘migrators’, as opposed to the ‘stay-putters’, and assume they account for about ten percent of the over 65 population of the US. Important to note is that they can be distinguished when they are in the stagnant point of their yearly cycle through one other common trait they share: the Gated Community. The idea behind this nifty little invention that now covers approximately 48% of Florida’s land area (by my own calculations) is that you put yourself behind a guarded gate, in a ‘home’ a fly would struggle to turn around in, that looks just like the other few hundred homes in the complex, and you do this for just one reason: security. So that those damned young whippersnappers don’t roar around looting and rioting and thieving and doing all those things that all young people do. As a matter of fact, many of these communities market themselves as such: Perico Bay is a ‘Deed Inspection Community’ – whatever that means. Pine Oaks is a ‘Police Check Community’. Lovely. And, of course, not at all judgmental. Worse than this, though, is when these places start extending themselves beyond their gated barriers. At a park not so long ago, where we stopped to eat lunch, we were shooed away as it was in fact property of the gated community next door, and to be used only for the pleasure and enjoyment of the upstanding residents of the community, to ensure no sort of immoral or illicit activity occurs which might dampen the allure of the recreational facility of the residents. The day I have to pay for a public park is the day I know I’m completely senile.
There is one Gated Community in Florida which I was able to stomach – Walt Disney World. It may seem to be over-simplifying what is the world’s largest theme park/resort, but that’s really all Disney World is – a 30 000 acre, fenced in, heavily orchestrated, escape from reality Gated Community where you can eat, sleep, be entertained, and even work, without ever having to venture out into the world outside its gates and face up to the realities of human society. Having said that, not every Gated Community has four theme parks, 23 resorts, two water parks, its very own Cirque du Soleil, and an integrated train-monorail-ferry-bus public transport system that puts most major American cities to shame, so perhaps Walt can claim one-up on good ol’ Perico Bay. Although Perico Bay did have a hydrotherapy pool and a tennis court. What really defines Disney World, though, is the surreal feeling that it could all be, well, real. You can walk through the international villages at the Epcot Centre and legitimately feel as though you’ve wandered from the US into Canada, England, France, Japan, China, Mexico, and the Middle East – all within a few steps. Animal Kingdom actually takes you on a safari through Africa, or to the Triassic era on treks with dinosaurs, or even through the Himalayas on a hunt for the Yeti – culminating, of course, with a 45-minute wait (if you’re lucky) to board a roller-coaster that finally brings you face-to-face with the beast himself. Hollywood Studios recreates, with startling believability, the ‘main streets’ of well-known American cities. San Francisco and New York both look as though they stretch on for miles, until you realise you are being bamboozled by some brilliant perspective art. And there’s a haunted hotel elevator, a live-action stunt filming, and the Muppets and Toy Story in 3D to boot. Then there’s Magic Kingdom. Home of Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Snow White…the list could go on forever.
Whilst any of you who have never been to Disney World may be pooh-poohing my excitement, I am now quite convinced all that is true – Disney World just has that effect on you. Partly this is due to its size – it would be quite possible to spend a year there and not see it all – for the two days we were there, we were practically at a canter all the time, and still saw maybe one percent of the place, leading us to the conclusion that the rest of it must be where Mickey and his mates kick up their heels at wild parties, or responsibly raise families, depending on what kind of personal life you think Disney characters lead. Of course, that is how Walt wants it (or wanted. I’m not quite sure whether or not the man is dead, alive, or in some kind of strange frozen suspended animation state). He deliberately created back-door tunnels and delivery chutes so guests would just assume that every item of food and merchandise appears magically, and not have to see the army of trucks and minimum-wage grunts that keep this obnoxiously incredible dream factory running smoothly – after all, who sees FedEx trucks in their dreams? I must admit, however, that whole ‘Where Dreams are Made’ (or as Kayla more aptly put it, ‘manufactured’) slogan unnerves me somewhat, because having visited the place, and even having given them my fingerprint to gain access, there is a small part of my brain that believes I have been assigned a couple of chipmunks who now sit in the bowels of Disney’s underground city and each night insert an appropriate dream into my head. Still, that’s just Florida – it doesn’t matter how fake its glamour is, how locked in its Gated Communities are, or how oily its Gulf beaches become, you still wind up dreaming about it.