By Shel Horowitz, editor, Global Travel Review
On my 5th trip to Orlando, I finally went to a Disney theme park. As a space and technology geek who also loves to travel, the logical choice among the four theme parks was obviously Epcot. (The others were a zoo, an amusement park, and a shopping center.)
But my image of the place turned out to be rather different than reality. I thought there would be extensive exhibits on the history and culture of many countries—but only 11 countries were represented in the World Showcase, and for several of them, we couldn’t find any informational exhibits—just places to shop, eat, and drink.
There were a few that did, and two of those stood out. Japan had a small but fascinating exhibit on the evolution of animé from ancient Japanese folk mythology, and China had a fairly extensive exhibit on the 6000 terra cotta soldiers guarding the emperor’s tomb in Xian. Also, we caught live performances at several country pavilions, all of which were quite good—especially the Chinese acrobatic troupe. Canada’s Celtic bagpipe folk rock band and the US’s 60s rockers were also fun.
And it was sweet that the ethnic pavilions were mostly staffed by people from those countries. But—having been to eight of the eleven countries represented—the whole thing felt very fake. Like Las Vegas, only without the gambling and heavy drinking.
On the technology side, the lines were a lot longer, which meant we did fewer things. I was pleased to have so many teaching messages focused on the environment, but not pleased at how little was at an adult level. And the scripting of some of the presentations was just sophomoric. I also expected a lot more hands-on activity.
Also several places in the technology area suffered from noise pollution and sensory overload because the exhibits were way too close together. We skipped a few of the most interesting looking exhibits, such as the flight simulator over California and the automotive test track, because the lines in several cases were more than an hour long. But we did manage to get into Mission: Space, with only a 15-minute wait, and took a wonderful simulated flight to Mars. Although it costs a pretty penny to bring a family to Disney World, many of these exhibits also have corporate sponsors, among them IBM, Siemens, and Chevrolet.
Showing up at 3:30 p.m., we were amazed at the relaxed atmosphere. I expected a lot of stress, a lot of crowding. But other than the long but very orderly lines, it wasn’t an issue. Most people seemed to be having a genuine good time, and I saw exactly two toddlers having meltdowns. At Epcot, most of the kids I saw were 6 or older, which makes a difference.
However, I really don’t see the attraction. For what it costs to spend a week at Disney World, we’ve done week-long vacations in foreign countries, which are infinitely more satisfying than Epcot’s ethnic museums. And there are many better, if less extensive, science museums. The ersatz-ness of the whole thing really bothered me, and even when you’re outside the park, you’re still in Orlando, with its endless sea of commercial craziness, traffic jams, and six-lane boulevards to nowhere. Yet people go year after year.
A Better Bet: Wells’ Built Museum of African-American History and Culture
I had a day to explore on my own, so I drove the half-hour to downtown Orlando (another area I’d never seen before) and went to the Wells’ Built Museum of African-American History and Culture. This fascinating little museum in the Parramore neighborhood, housed in the only Jim Crow-era hotel in all of Central Florida that would take blacks, provides an eye-opening look at what life was like during segregation if you weren’t white.
The museum is located just west of Interstate 4 along South Street. Parramore is still a mostly black neighborhood, as well as home to the Orlando Magic basketball team.
The hotel was opened in 1926 by Dr. William Wells, an obstetrician and a pillar of the Orlando African-American community for decades. He also built an adjoining concert venue and community center called the Casino—which was demolished in 1987—and regularly entertained the visiting celebrities in his own home. Ella Fitzgerald, Bo Diddley, Cab Calloway, Ruth Brown, Guitar Slim, and dozens of other famous musicians graced the Casino stage and stayed next door. And black celebrities in other arenas, such as athletes Roy Campanella and Jackie Robinson, and lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who would later be the first black Supreme Court Justice, also visited.
A ledger showing the Casino’s gate receipts for some of these acts has been photocopied and is on display. Also many images of famous African Americans with Florida connections, including writer Zora Neale Hurston and educator Mary McLeod Bethune…artifacts of local black community life ranging from a sign from one of the only black-owned banks to a 1950s-era traffic light…a small collection of African art pieces. Upstairs, they’ve created a replica of a guest room, with period furnishings including a manual typewriter.
I received a quick guided walk-around from Charlene, one of the docents, then watched a short video on the history and restoration, and then could explore at my leisure. It only took about an hour, but it was well worth it.
The museum has a website at http://www.wellsbuiltmuseum.org/ , but it’s only half-finished and not very informative. Though small, the museum is better than the website would indicate. And at $5 for an adult ticket, it’s a bargain in overpriced Orlando.
While in that area, go across the highway and north a couple of blocks to Church Street, one of the few places in Orlando with a concentration of historic restaurants and hotels. Be sure to take a peek at the tropical Art Deco railroad station, painted white and adjoining a beautiful old hotel. You might even think you somehow slipped into the French Quarter of New Orleans. It’s a very pleasant change from the soulless 70s-era office building landscape that dominates the south end of downtown.
The Parramore and Church Street are the nicest parts of Orlando I’ve seen in any of my five trips. Amazingly, this downtown district was also fairly uncrowded; it was even easy to find on-street parking in several downtown sections.