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Part of the fun of living in Gainesville is having to drive to Orlando if you want to go to Saks (or Neiman Marcus, or Bloomingdale’s, or Nordstrom…).

It’s nearly two hours from Gainesville to the Florida Mall, a drive that takes you through Conservative Republican country–PalinLand–with its highway billboards admonishing against abortion and offering quick and easy vasectomies and hyping the Ron Jon Surf Shop in Cocoa Beach and the alligators at Gatorland.  As you pass nearby the super-conservative Villages, a sign shares the dire statistic that two out of five African-American pregnancies ends in abortion.  This stern advertisement is nearly matched by one that shows a group of sweet-faced children dressed up as doctors and firemen.  “Who’s missing in YOUR family?” it reads.

The good thing about the proliferation of right-to-life signage is that if you are pregnant and need help, you know where to call. The bad thing is that you wonder when the faces of Tim Tebow and his mother will loom out from the side of the road, next to a sign for the world’s largest McDonald’s play area.

A hint: Always use the Saks valet parking at the Florida Mall. It’s five dollars and it’s well worth it when you consider the masses of crazed tourists in rental cars having fits and starts throughout the parking lot.  If the day is overcast and if you remotely value your vehicle, valet parking is mandatory.

At any time the dollar-to-pound exchange rate favors the British, you will see hordes of them here, eyes wide with shock when they find themselves able to purchase a pair of baby shoes that costs 50 GBP in London but here are fifteen dollars. Expect long lines and language barriers; we are just as frequently unable to understand anyone from Edinburgh as we are to make sense of Serbian.

Orlando is a nightmare to navigate, and you can take this as gospel from someone who is used to driving in major cities. Orlando is designed with a dual purpose:  One, all roads lead to Epcot.  Two, all roads lead to International Drive.  Once caught in the snare of either, you will end up at both, unable to free yourself.  Expect hours of fun on roads that go nowhere but to these two destinations; you can wave goodbye to Epcot only to find yourself at it again ten minutes later.  The highway system is built so that there are no easy exits from Epcot or International Drive.  Roads loop, curl, figure-eight, swivel, and cartwheel like amusement park rides.

It’s best to take Orlando in small doses.  One mall, one discount store.  Adding on a stop at Whole Foods (also not in Gainesville) adds 90 minutes to the already long day.  And unless you take an inveterate shopper with you–a veteran of the discount wars with the walking shoes to prove it–expect reactions ranging from tears to open hostility.  People have collapsed in the shopping veldt, stalked by discounts on Nike, Burberry, Dior, and Apple.

Be warned.  Be wise.  Take a GPS and someone who so hates the retail experience that to expose him or her to one hour more would be exceedingly cruel.  Your wallet and your feet will thank you.

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