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A Bookish Sort, Wary of Disney, Finds Happiness in Orlando

By Michael Dirda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2001

Except for one unavoidable three-day vacation with my family in 1999, I have never visited what Orlando residents call "the attractions" -- Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World. As one British aesthete said, when asked what it was like to be at the front during World War I, "My dear, the noise! And the people!" In Florida one can add, "And the heat and the humidity and the long lines and the cost and the all-around disappointment!"

But I like Orlando and what guidebooks call its environs. Sometimes derided as a wasteland of highways and strip malls, Central Florida actually offers plenty to amuse and divert even the most bookish or culturally demanding. I should know, having flown down here with some regularity over the past three years.

Start with, yes, the natural beauty. Serenely perfect sunsets. A blue heron on a still creek. Roiling thunderstorms of such awesome grandeur that even Wordsworth would be impressed. Then there is the smorgasbord of Orlando restaurants, from Fuji Sushi to Margarita Grill to Lee's Lakeside and Houston's, with its wooden Adirondack-style chairs on the back veranda and a view across one of Orlando's man-made lakes. I also like the Old Town Alexandria feel of downtown Winter Park, with its shops and boutiques and Morse Museum, famous for Tiffany glass.

There are even pockets of the city that resemble Adams Morgan. Near the Orlando Art Museum, one can visit Bread and Books Cafe & Bookshop and nibble on gourmet sandwiches before going out to prowl the secondhand jewelry boutiques nearby. On Route 17/92, the gourmet can buy fresh mung beans at Asian groceries -- or Krispy Kreme doughnuts hot from the oven. One can spend a Sunday afternoon at the funky Stardust Video and Coffee, reading Scott Joseph's restaurant reviews or Nancy Pate's book reviews (in the Orlando Sentinel) while sipping on a latte, then pick out an evening's entertainment from the shop's enormous collection of movie classics. At the Enzian Theater, a local landmark, movie lovers can eat dinner and sip beer while watching sexy art films.

Such pleasures are hardly unique to Orlando, yet they do make the city a pleasure to visit.

For book lovers, Orlando offers more than one might expect. First off, any trip to Florida encourages reading. Away from the highways or Mickey Mouse, the state feels like Lotos Land, and one quickly forgets the Yankee ethic of work and more work, coupled with stress, frustration and migraines. What could be more pleasant than to lounge by a pool or on the sand at Cocoa Beach or under a backyard palm, sip at a cold Mike's lemonade and lose oneself in, say, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's classic memoir, "Cross Creek" (its setting is a short drive from Orlando), or Wallace Stevens's poems, many of which reflect the Florida landscape (e.g., "The Idea of Order at Key West"), or the modern crime thrillers of Carl Hiaasen or Randy Wayne White? The hours slip by lazily and one soon feels as serene as a Zen Buddhist.

Orlando possesses a far more bookish culture than it is generally given credit for. A pamphlet lists 15 used-book stores in the city. My favorites are Leedy's in Casselberry Commons and Legible Leftovers on Route 17-92. Both are general shops, the first small and selective, the second large and supplemented with a stock of cat trinkets, videos, games and assorted tchotchkes.

On my first visit to Leedy's, I bought an attractive first English edition of P.G. Wodehouse's "Ice in the Bedroom" for $25 and a $7 ex-library copy of Evelyn Waugh's collected essays and reviews: two of my favorite books, by favorite authors. When I was there last, the shop had acquired an extensive collection of Pogo cartoon albums, which I resisted only because I didn't know which one to buy first and couldn't quite justify buying them all.

At Legible Leftovers, with its extensive stock of science fiction, fantasy and mysteries, I recently picked up extra copies of John Sladek's "Tik-Tok" and "Roderick: The Education of a Young Robot" (two masterpieces of black humor and social commentary) and a couple of paperbacks of early John D. MacDonald novels ("A Key to the Suite" and "Cape Fear"). On one visit I was particularly pleased to find Barbara Mertz's "Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs," a wonderfully entertaining account of ancient Egypt, and the first book by an author better known as Elizabeth Peters, chronicler of the Amelia Peabody adventures set in 19th-century Egypt.

But there's more than this to cultural Orlando. Did you know that George Garrett, the eminent Southern writer, was born and raised in Orlando? Or that Jack Kerouac spent many years here (see his correspondence with Joyce Johnson), and that his home is being transformed into a writer's residence? That the city hosts an annual Shakespeare Festival, the edgy Orlando Black Essential Theater and the Orlando Symphony? Or that Zora Neale Hurston grew up in nearby Eatonsville, which sponsors an annual celebration of her work?

In Winter Park, Rollins College regularly invites prominent writers (novelist Ann Beattie, poet Dana Gioia) and critics (Sven Birkerts) for public lectures. The University of Central Florida also hosts a steady stream of notables in the arts and sciences. Their Distinguished Authors Series has, over the past three years, brought in Margaret Atwood, Rita Dove and Grace Paley for two-day campus visits. Last year, Gen-X novelist Douglas Coupland spent an evening answering questions about his work. Poets as fine, and different, as Ann Lauterbach, Elton Glaser and Anthony Hecht have read and signed on campus recently.

Of course, I'm slightly partisan. In 1999, I spent a semester at the University of Central Florida as a visiting professor in the Honors College and during that time grew attached to the place. The burgeoning English department supports three literary magazines: the undergraduate Cypress Dome, the well-known Florida Review and the scholarly Faulkner Journal. The creators of "The Blair Witch Project" graduated from the UCF film school, now overseen by a co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival. Throughout the year the university sponsors concerts, readings, plays and other cultural events.

With so much money being pumped into "O-Town" -- besides the attractions, the city is headquarters to various corporations, including the Olive Garden restaurant chain -- its wealthier residents have generously underwritten the city's cultural development. I lectured to scores of members of the local English Speaking Union. A group called Le Salon meets regularly to listen to talks and presentations by writers, artists and musicians. One can take walks in the Leu Gardens or visit the annual art shows in Winter Park and at Disney.

Many Orlando business people and UCF academics help support the Atlantic Center for the Arts, a world-renowned residence for painters, composers, novelists and other creative people in nearby New Smyrna Beach. Guests range from writers John Ashbery and Edward Albee, to composers such as John Corigliano (who composed some of the music for "The Red Violin" at the center), Ned Rorem and Lucas Foss, to singer Marilyn Horne and translator Richard Howard, to dozens of sculptors, choreographers, novelists and cinematographers. Having spent two exhilarating weeks in its leafy retreat -- palmettos, marshland, boardwalks -- I know how productive one can be in such an environment.

I'm currently on the national council of ACA, which is one reason why I fly down to Orlando at least a couple of times a year. Sometimes I visit friends from the university; at other times I just rent a car and poke around the back roads. In New Smyrna I like to have a beer at the Breakers, a honky-tonk right on the beach, and watch the surfers and sunbathers. On one visit last summer -- the hottest and most miserable time to be in Florida -- I spent three blissful days reading a fat biography of Proust; on another, I worked on a talk and a book review. I feel happy whenever I go down there.

Obviously, serendipity led me to Orlando, and one might find similar literary and geographical attractions elsewhere. I make no exaggerated claims for the city. And yet it is far more than just Disney, just as Washington is far more than just the White House and Capitol Hill. Orlando, like Central Florida in general, is a pleasant place to relax, kick back and go just a little bit to seed. When I visit Legible Leftovers, for instance, I've taken to stopping afterward for a sandwich and beer at the Handle Bar Grille -- a genuine bikers' hangout, with cheap drinks and good food and, this being the 21st century, its own Web site. With digital photos.

On a trip to Orlando last May I actually spent part of one afternoon thinking about buying a vacation or -- Lord help me -- a retirement home here. Barring a place in Cassis on the Mediterranean, or an apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans, I could do worse. The Maitland neighborhood might be pleasant and convenient. It's not far from several bookstores, UCF is just a short drive away, and you can get to Cocoa Beach in under an hour.

And best of all, the attractions are way over on the other side of town.

Michael Dirda, a writer and senior editor for The Washington Post Book World, never expected to like Florida. He's more an Ohio sort of guy.

WHERE TO STAY: Orlando has no shortage of hotels, in every imaginable price range. The Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau (see below) has information on lodging and packages.

WHERE TO EAT: Among my favorite local eateries are Fuji Sushi (1449 Lee Rd., Winter Park) -- don't miss the barbecued eel and the spinach salad; Enzian Dinner Theater (1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland), where indie films are served up along with beer, wine, gourmet pizza and burgers; Margarita Grill (583 S. Chickasaw Trail, Orlando), offering fresh, well-prepared Mexican food; Lee's Lakeside (The Plaza, 431 E. Central Blvd.), a prime place to watch the sunset and the swans from a table by the window; Houston's (215 S. Orlando Ave.), with tasty barbecue, where you can sip martinis or beer on the dock and count the blue herons; Handle Bar Grille (600 N. Highway 17-92, Longwood), with great burgers (Thursday is bike night -- ride the Harley and bring your cue stick); Stardust Video & Coffee (1842 Winter Park Rd., Winter Park), where you can sip coffee while lounging with a book, then check out the hard-to-find videos; and Breakers Oceanfront Restaurant and Bar (518 Flagler Ave., New Smyrna Beach), where you can gaze at the beach, gulls, surfers -- and cars caught in the sand when the tide rolls in.

CULTURAL PLACES AND EVENTS:

" Orange County Regional History Center, 1 Heritage Square, 65 E. Central Blvd., 800-965-2030, www.thehistorycenter.org. Admission $7.

" Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando Loch Haven Park, 2416 N. Mills Ave.,407-896-4231, www.omart.org. Admission $6.

" Orlando Science Center, 777 East Princeton St., 888-OSC-4FUN, www.osc.org. Prices $2-$14.50, for mix and match of exhibits, planetarium, etc.

" Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival, Lowndes Shakespeare Center/Loch Haven Park, 407-447-1700, www.shakespearefest.org. Currently on stage is "Taming of the Shrew," until Dec. 23; "I Hate Hamlet" to follow starting Jan. 18. Tickets $10-$35.

" Orlando Philharmonic, with performances throughout the Orlando metropolitan area, 407-896-6700, www.orlandophil.org.

" Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, 445 N. Park Ave., Winter Park, 407-645-5311, www.morsemuseum.org. Admission $3, with free hours on Friday.

" Harry P. Leu Gardens, 1920 N. Forest Ave., Orlando, 407-246-2620. Admission $4.

" University of Central Florida, 4000 Central Florida Blvd., 407-823-2000, www.ucf.edu.

" Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park, 407-646-2000, www.rollins.edu.

" Atlantic Center for the Arts, 1414 Art Center Ave., New Smyrna Beach, 386-427-6975, www.atlanticcenterforthearts.org.

" Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, Jan. 24-27, 227 E. Kennedy Blvd., Eatonsville, 407-647-3307, www.zoranealehurstonfestival.com. Varied prices.

BOOKSTORES: Leedy's (1455 Semoran Blvd., Suite 153, Casselberry) has good general stock, reasonably priced. Bread and Books Cafe and Bookshop (717 Smith St., Orlando) organizes special dinner evenings, with desserts a specialty. Legible Leftovers (712 N. U.S. Highway 17/92, Longwood) has extensive general holdings, with lots of paperbacks and genre fiction.

INFORMATION: Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 407-363-5872, www.orlandoinfo.com.

-- Michael Dirda

© 2001 The Washington Post Company