March 15, 2005
Fear and Loathing In Disney World, Part I - Slouching Toward Kissimmee
We hates I-95.
Forty-eight hours later, that’s still the alpha and omega of my thoughts regarding our drive to Florida and back. Adding up the 900 miles each way between the Butcher’s House and the In-Laws and the 300 mile round trip from their place to the Den of the Mouse and back, I easily put in a solid 2100 miles of roadwork last week. According to a quick squint at the handy-dandy Rand-McNally map in the basement, in a straight line this would have put me into the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles or San Francisco. And I’m still feeling the after-effects of the sheer physical strain: my forearms are so pumped up, they look like Popeye’s. My wrists are still as sore as Pee Wee Herman’s in a peep show. And even as I write, my thumbs are still completely numb.
If you count the Dee Cee Beltway as part of it, I live only a few miles off I-95. So do my In-laws. This means that the vast majority of the drive is spent on this One. Bloody. Belt. Of. Asphalt. And the worst part of it isn’t the distance itself. No, as seasoned travelers of the East Coast know, anyone unfortunate enough to have to travel south of Dee Cee gets the short end of the stick both in terms of natural and man-made geography. This is one of the most bloody boring stretches of highway known to Man.
We take I-95 up to Maine every summer. Headed in that direction, there is almost always something to occupy one’s attention (apart from a couple hours dead time on the Jersey Turnpike. Sorry, Gordon.) The states are small, coming and going so quickly that one barely has time to stop grumbling about one toll-booth before coming to the next. (This is especially true of “sneeze and you missed it, but that’ll be $3.50 anyway” Delaware.) The highway runs directly through several major cities, including Baltimore with its Death Star trench-like Ft. McHenry Tunnel and, of course, New York, where I always take the Cross-Bronx Expressway for that certain touch o’ adventure. But even more interesting are the natural landmarks like the big rivers – the Susquehanna, the Delaware, the Hudson and the Connecticut – and the gradual change from the lazy hills of the mid-Atlantic to the starker, glacier-plowed granite landscape of New England.
Such is not the case headed south. Each state is several hundred miles across. You get tired of South Carolina long before South Carolina is ready to release you. As for cities and population centers? Fuggedaboudit! Once one leaves Dee Cee, and assuming one takes the Richmond/Petersburg bypass, the only city I-95 actually goes through on the way is Jacksonville, Florida. And no offense to its citizens, but, well, it really isn’t much to look at. So much for political geography. Unfortunately, Nature offers no better distractions. Once across the James River at Richmond, you won’t see another significant body of water until you hit Lake Marion, about midway across South Carolina. Topographically, things are even worse – the road wanders through the hills about the fall line for a while in Virginia, but once past Richmond, settles firmly in the coastal zone with nothing but endless rolling farms and woodland. Once you get well into South Carolina, it flattens out altogether on the true coastal plain, staying flattened all the way to Miami. It’s true that the flora changes as one passes from the Temperate to the Sub-Tropical region, but the only practical effect is that the endless acres of slash-pine are gradually replaced by endless acres of palmetto scrub. Woop-di-freakin-doo.
Of course, with a car full of small kids, we realistically could not think about doing the whole trip in one day. The Llama-ettes are good travelers, but not that good. So we split up the trip, stopping outside Savannah on the way down and near Florence, South Carolina coming back. Not so many years ago, there were not that many places to stop on I-95 unless one was a trucker or a biker. These days, though, there has been an explosion of construction and the landscape is now dotted with oases. The typical layout is a cluster of two or three hotels – Holiday Inn, various subsidiaries of Marriott and Hyatt and so forth – with a couple of “family friendly” restaurants like Cracker Barrel, Denny’s and Shoney’s, plus an attendant collection of fast food joints and gas stations. There is not that much to say about them except that they are typically clean, safe and accommodating – and at this time of year booked absolutely solid as often as not. We had to try three different places when we hit Savannah before we finally found a room. And even at the place we stopped in dinky little Florence, we only managed to nab the last available room about 30 seconds before someone else came in.
Personally, I don’t mind this aspect of long-distance travel, particularly in the South and Midwest. The folks who work in these places are usually quite friendly (like the manager of the Shoney’s on Saturday night who chatted up my five year old about the Minnie Mouse cap she was wearing), if not always competent. (At one of the hotels we were first given the key to a room already occupied by someone else. And at a Mickey-D’s outside of Brunswick, GA, a busboy kept trying to sweep the floor right under my feet while I was eating in order, as he put it, to give me a “healthy dining environment”). Also, it has to be said that for all the frou-frou restaurants I’ve been to in my puff and all the fauncy food and drink I’ve tasted, after six solid hours of driving on a totally empty stomach, a bacon cheeseburger and cup of coffee from Cracker Barrel is, to me, the absolute apex of comfort food.
(Oh, I should say just a word or two about South of the Border here. As I noted a while back, I've had issues with Pedro's I-95 billboard campaign for many years. Suffice to say that Pedro no longer has any kind of psychological hold on me, as a car-full of hyperactive Llama-ettes has proved to be a successful counter-irritant. But more on that later in the series.)
This was the first time I’ve done any extensive driving in Florida (pronounced “Flahr-uh-duh” by many of the Snowbirds), but everything Dave Barry has ever written about the experience came flooding back into my mind. Here you had it all – flat, straight as a tape measure highways just crying out for triple-digit speed from the more hot-blooded of the drivers; mile wide Caddies driven by pairs of apparently disembodied hands and puttering along at 45 MPH; gangs of bikers who all insist on staying packed together in shoals, thus giving other drivers all the inconvenience of having to maneuver around an 18-wheeler sized block of real estate with the added bonus of having to worry about 10 or 15 different lunatics’ worth of bad driving decisions and sudden lane changes. But in fact, the most frustrating part was getting through Jacksonville. Lots and lots of congestion, construction and confusion there. No wonder they have sniper problems. Crawling north on Saturday, my day’s timetable already blown before I’d even gotten out of the state, I wouldn’t have minded taking a few pot-shots myself.
This was also my first experience with the Florida Turnpike. Until last week, I didn’t know there was a Florida Turnpike. It starts at Miami and cuts up through the center of the state, stopping God-knows-where. This road is even flatter and straighter than I-95, if that is possible. And at least on the 150-odd mile stretch between Okeechobee and Kissimmee, practically devoid of any signs of Humanity.
Rolling off the Turnpike on Tuesday, our last hurdle before entering the Den of the Mouse was the slouch, as it were, through Kissimmee itself. I remember that a few years ago, this town ran a series of national tee vee ads touting itself as the ideal place to stay in Central Florida for all your family vacation needs – conveniently located near Disney, Orlando and many other pleasure spots!
Forget about it. Kissimmee is a dump. A dive. A remora attached to the Mouse’s underside and feeding off the crumbs that dribble out of his giant maw. The place is extremely dirty and is jammed to the Plimsoll mark with very cheap and shabby hotels, fast food joints, souvenir stands and – those icons of seediness – putt-putt golf courses. I expect one would not have to look too far to find a mini go-cart track as well. It, too, was mobbed, both with cars and with a surprising number of people just milling about along the roadside. What they were doing, I cannot imagine. Looking for mini go-cart tracks, perhaps. But even this had an end. After crawling along the main drag bumper to bumper and through seemingly interminable road repair, now incessantly bombarded by the Llama-ettes with queries of whether we were at Disney yet, I suddenly noticed that we had passed into a region where all the traffic and street light poles were painted purple. Seeing this, I knew then that our long quest had come to an end and that the gates of the Black Land were near indeed. I knew that, at long last, it was time to face what lay beyond.......
Next time – Fear and Loathing In Disney World, Part II – Mickey’s Lair