Orlando travel notes: On International Drive

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As I mentioned in my column, I was in Orlando, Florida, recently for a job-related workshop. The conference center and my hotel were out on the famous International Drive, the heart of Orlando's tourist district. It's strange to be here as a visitor but a non-tourist.

The workshop is an annual one, always held here in Orlando not because of the tourist amenities but because long ago, when Orlando was just a sleepy southern city, the Army and Navy established a couple of offices here, near the old airfield on the east side of town, to manage training and simulation contracts. Those offices attracted consultants and contractors in the same line of work. (In some cases those companies were started by retirees from the government offices.) So there's a critical mass of people in the immediate area interested in the issues under discussion and able to attend without busting their office's travel budgets.

The hotel, the Holiday Inn International Drive, is pretty nicely set up. My room had all my requirements, beyond the basics of cleanliness and comfort: high speed Internet, microwave, refrigerator, and full basic cable TV. There was a hair dryer, ironing board and iron, a small safe (enter your own PIN). A particularly nice surprise: Eight pillows for the two double beds. That means better odds for finding a comfortable one for my head, plus I need more to prop myself comfortably if the bed is too firm for sleeping comfortably on my back.

My only complaints: The outlets were few and inconveniently located, and there wasn't a desk. And the elevators were showing their age.

The free Wi-Fi worked flawlessly all over the hotel: In my room, in all the conference rooms, in the bar/cafe, in the conference center lobby. I had to reconnect each time I moved into range of a new router, but that just meant clicking the "I agree to terms and conditions" button. When a downpour hit on Sunday after the tutorial, I holed up in the smoke-free bar, ordered dinner, found a table with a nearby outlet and got some work done.

I wonder if this would be generally true of conference hotels that offer free Wi-Fi to their guests and conferees: Unlike Hampton Inn, where you have to enter that week's authentication code at least once a day, here there was no authentication for access. They really couldn't have used authentication, as the conference would include hotel guests, people staying at other hotels, and locals just attending the meetings for the day. Something to keep in mind when I'm on the road and desperate for a Wi-Fi connection.

There was a mixture of guests at the hotel: Conferees wearing collared shirts, long pants, and toting laptops, and British families dressed rather more casually.

If you're picturing Terry-Thomas in pith helmet and plus fours, forget it. The British gents here seemed to have a uniform: A football shirt (usually Premier League, sometimes Real Madrid, where Beckham used to play) or a sleeveless shirt with a crew neck (not a "wife-beater" -- the fabric went from the base of the neck all the way across the shoulder). If the fellow had any hair loss at all, the whole head would be shaved or trimmed down to stubble, for that skinhead look. Tattoos and earrings were frequently observed. Coloring: Pasty white or steamed-lobster red. They tended to be built like a high school (American) football lineman at his twenty-year reunion: solid but gone to seed. One older fellow in the lobby displayed the most impressive Dunlap I have ever seen, as he lifted his tank top slightly to scratch himself. Not only would his gut not have passed the pencil test, I don't think it would have passed the big-city phonebook test.

I should say at this point that while these people looked like football hooligans, I never observed any of them behave in an angry, violent, or anti-social way.

It seems to be a popular time of year for British tourists to the US. It's after American schools start back, but, I'm told, before British kids are back in school. Virgin Holidays, the package tour branch of Richard Branson's empire, has an office at the hotel. Virgin runs buses from the hotel to St. Petersburg and Miami, for day trips presumably.

There are plenty of places along this stretch of I-Drive catering to British tastes. My first morning there I went across the street for the Ponderosa's $4 breakfast buffet. There were baked beans and stewed tomatoes on the buffet, along with the usual cheap breakfast fare. The waiter asked me if I wanted toast and brought me a basket of it, already buttered and cut on the diagonal. There were little tubs of orange marmalade on the table.

Shortly after leaving the Ponderosa, I discovered a British pub just to the north called the George and Dragon. They advertised a full English breakfast from 9 to noon. They also have a fish and chips takeaway right on the sidewalk.

I went there for breakfast during a long break on the second morning of the workshop. Bacon (back bacon, aka Canadian bacon), eggs (sunnyside up), sausage (a big link), and tomato, plus baked beans and a few chips. A sign on the table advised that, as in any British pub, you had to order at the bar, but unlike the pubs back home, the servers here expect a tip of 15 to 20 percent.

Good breakfast, but there was one major disappointment: The only mustard on offer was French's. What kind of an English pub doesn't have Colman's?

I didn't make it back there for dinner, but you could get mushy peas with your fish and chips.

For the most part, I stayed away from tourist land during my off-hours, but here are a few other notes from that part of the world:

Sushiology: A tiny, but good, and reasonably priced sushi place on I-Drive, tucked back behind the lobster feast place next to the Ponderosa. I had the Harmony combo (California roll, tuna, and salmon) one day and the Salmon CC the next, with the spinach and mushroom appetizer both times.

Mama Nems' Soul Food: This is away from, but not far from, the main tourist corridor. It's about four miles north of I-4 on Kirkman Road, at the corner of Westgate Drive. The stark, modern decor might lead you to expect a tiny bit of frou-frou food on a great big plate, but rest assured you will walk away with a full belly. They were out of the pork shoulder, so I had the fried chicken, with collard greens, candied yams, and cole slaw. The smell when I forked over a bit of the greens and let the steam escape -- just heavenly.

Prime Outlets: Head north on I-Drive and you'll run right into it. There's another segment further south on the west side of the street. They seem to have taken over the old Belz Factory Outlet Space, with plans to consolidate all their stores here.

Dixie Crossroads: The famed Titusville shrimp restaurants has a much less crowded Orlando location next to Bass Pro Shops in the Festival Bay shopping center, southeast of International Drive and Oakridge. Good dinner, but the menu didn't match what was on the website -- a shrimp, stuffed crab, and scallops combo that I saw on the web wasn't on the menu. But I got a dozen and a half gulf white shrimp, a sweet potato, and steamed veggies, and was well pleased. Corn fritters -- like hush puppies, but with corn kernels embedded and dusted in powdered sugar -- are served when you sit down.

One evening I headed over to Universal City Walk, right across I-4 from International Drive. I arrived about 9:20, by which time the parking garage was free. There's no admission charge to Universal City Walk, but there are plenty of places to spend money: Nightclubs, themed restaurants, clothing shops, and a Universal Studios souvenir shop, all arrayed around a lake, along with the entrances to Universal Studios Orlando, Universal's Islands of Adventure, and the Blue Man Group's theater. There's also a multiplex theater, and they seem to always have one screen devoted to an Alfred Hitchcock classic; last week it was Vertigo, closer to Halloween they'll be showing The Birds. You can buy various package deals: an all-club pass, dinner and a movie, dinner and a pass to all the clubs. They've done a nice job of creating loud places and quieter places around the lake. It stays open until 2 a.m.

Having experienced the hassles of getting into and out of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom (well worth the trouble), I appreciate the way Universal has things set up. You park your car in the garage, take the escalators and a moving walkway to Universal City Walk. You pass through and walk straight to the entrance to the two theme parks. You don't have to get in line for a monorail or wait for a boat to get between your car and the park. It's also nice that you can park in a garage and have a covered walkway all the way from the car to the entrance to City Walk.

The garage areas are themed: E.g., E.T., Cat in the Hat, with music from the movie playing in the background to reinforce the location. There's a three digit row number, too, to help you find your car.

Some reports of Orlando off the beaten path in a later entry.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 22, 2007 9:37 PM.

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