Sun and Dwindling Funds in Orlando

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009

On Christmas Day, a man and his 8-year-old son set off with $669.66 on a journey that has been -- at one time or another -- an object of fascination for masochistic cheapskates everywhere: the infamous 13-hour-plus car trip to Orlando. As is often the case, the travelers became lost and were never seen or heard from again. Here are excerpts from a diary that was later recovered.

We are in good spirits, the two of us, but I must immediately confess to a few miscalculations. The PB&J sandwiches, to take one example, were to have lasted until Jacksonville, Fla. Instead, they were gone by Rocky Mount, N.C. All 10 pounds of library books were devoured by Fayetteville, N.C., and the iPod Shuffle was lost in the seat at mile 400. Hunger, nightfall and depleted munitions all conspired to produce fever dreams, but we were determined to save our money for Disney World, to stop only for gas. In South Carolina, I hallucinated a meal of pecans and discount fireworks, while my son was haunted by ghostly fellow pilgrims on Interstate 95, their faces bathed in the dead glow of seat-back DVD players. Together we fantasized about a life selling refrigerator magnets as we blew by South of the Border, that megastore for trinket lovers everywhere, at 70 mph.

And then, just as we'd reached our journey's nadir, another 70 blinked from the dashboard, this one of the Fahrenheit variety. At a rest area near Savannah, Ga., we rolled down the windows and felt it for the first time in months: warm night air. We traded knowing smiles with the families evacuating their SUVs, an avalanche of Mountain Dew bottles, hotel coupons and easy Sudoku books tumbling in their wake. We exulted in the sight of buck-naked children getting their diapers changed on park benches; we toasted our good fortune with a pair of strawberry shortcake Good Humor bars dispensed by a robotic vacuum-powered vending machine.

It was in the wee hours of the morning when we arrived in Florida, proving that a family could achieve such a feat by spending just $52.49 in gas, plus 3 bucks for the Good Humor bars. $614.17 left.

Unbeknownst to the pair, that moment would turn out to be one of their trip's few high points. The next entry in the diary recounts their efforts to contain spending in Orlando, or rather the Omni resort at nearby ChampionsGate. They had bid a rock-bottom $79 a night on and were ecstatic when the bid was accepted (total cost: $278.22 for three nights). $335.95 left.

You cannot imagine the thrill we felt upon arriving at this place called ChampionsGate. To get there, one travels south of Orlando for a few miles, past thousands of acres of still-undeveloped swampland and hundreds of planned developments in various stages of completion and/or abandonment. From a distance, the brightly lit, 16-story Omni appeared marooned, surrounded by miles of nothingness, and therefore a possible threat to our cost-cutting ethic. Happily, we would later discover a McDonald's within driving distance.

This morning, my sacroiliac pain having subsided, I toured the hotel grounds with my son; rarely has miserliness been so grandly vindicated. What can $79 a night possibly buy, you ask? The best piƱa coladas this side of International Drive, that's what. Two enormous pools separated by a long and extravagantly landscaped lazy river. A pair of golf courses. A slate of kids' activities to rival that of any cruise line. A 10-to-1 ratio of Brits to Americans.

After a long day of swimming and sunning, my son and I toasted our good fortune with, respectively, a virgin colada and a defrocked one, clinking our cups with that of an Englishwoman who at one point threw back her head and squealed, "This place isn't America anymore. It's Holidayland!" It was a bit rude, granted, but we laughed anyway, secure in the knowledge that even after the coladas ($18), cheap meals ($13.75) and a trip to the Publix supermarket for provisions ($24.28), we still had $279.92 left to blow on Florida.

The next day -- Disney day -- marked the beginning of the end for the duo. The period between Christmas and New Year's Day has always been one of the busiest for the Magic Kingdom. It is now nothing less than the most exorbitant mob scene on the planet, with tickets for adults running $75 and children 3 to 9 paying $63. As one would expect, from this point forward the diary entries exhibit a marked shift in tone.

The things I witnessed today . . . will give me nightmares for years. There was the little girl lost and crying, wandering helplessly around Cinderella's castle, her polyester princess gown frayed and dirt-stained. There was the 50-stroller pileup in Mickey's Toontown Fair. And the noon visit to Space Mountain that resulted in a Fastpass reservation for 7:40 that night, at which point we discovered that Space Mountain was temporarily closed, as was the Tomorrowland Transit Authority ride, as was the monorail for a time.

Today, in my judgment, we saw the fall of Rome as filtered through Walt's ever-fecund imagination. In the future, I learned, we will all gnaw on turkey legs for sustenance, because at $6.15 they are the cheapest fortification Tomorrowland offers. Today was the day to spend an hour looking for the end of the line for the Haunted Mansion, only to discover, another hour later, that we were actually in line for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Saddest of all, today was also the day to drop $146.98 on park tickets (tax included); $19.64 on food (snacks and that turkey leg); and $6.39 on one souvenir, a Matchbox-size Disney car. And after all the effort, what would my son say was the best thing about Disney World? Tom Sawyer Island -- a place of relative calm in the middle of the park, with no rides or drink stands, no cartoon kitsch or animatronic anything. It was a good city park, in other words. And what did we have to show for our day in that park? $106.91 left.

Except that they didn't really have that much. The Omni, they soon learned, charges a $15-a-day resort fee ($50.85 total with tax), which meant that the pair had just $56.06 left for gas money and the return trip home, a journey that would almost certainly cost that much or more. Desperate and destitute, the father and son tried valiantly to enjoy their last day in Orlando while broke.

We considered and quickly rejected the idea of begging on the streets of Downtown Disney, as well as on Disney's BoardWalk, but did not rule out the streets of Celebration, an upscale town founded and master-planned by Disney, just two exits up from our hotel. But first we would try to enjoy Thornton Park, a much-beloved neighborhood of the happening sort near downtown Orlando.

On a brilliant Sunday morning, we found ourselves entertained by many colorful aspects of a blissfully alternative Orlando, among them tattooed artists and several funky '20s bungalows in the Florida cracker style. The sidewalk tables at the restaurants on Washington Street and Summerlin Avenue beckoned us -- funky, unpretentious places with such names as Graffiti Junktion and Wildside BBQ. Alas, owing to our previous profligacy, the budget would accommodate only PB&J and the remaining string cheese.

A stone's throw away, however, was Lake Eola Park, a green space so full of possibility that Tom Sawyer himself might have frequented it. A raucous playground, fanciful and costing nothing, sat near the eponymous lake, which had obviously made a virtue out of an ancient sinkhole. Joggers panted on its perimeter, and swan-shaped paddle boats ruffled the water's pristine surface, but otherwise Eola was 43 acres of utter serenity, especially by Orlando standards. It occurred to me -- too late, of course -- that this was the town we'd really been craving, not that trumped-up other one. After all, what more does any vacation need but 80-degree temperatures and Spanish moss swaying languidly from old oak trees?

And on that wistful note the diary concludes, with no hints about the pair's final disposition or word of how they spent the $3.57 they would have had left (assuming, of course, that gas prices on the return trip were comparable to the outbound and the supply of string cheese held out).

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