Main | Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The City Beautiful (And Big)

Orlando, Florida, where I moved in 1971 (on the day that Disney World opened!), has as its motto The City Beautiful, which I used to find annoyingly corny as a teenager. But now, 35 years later, I have to admit that Orlando really is rather lovely, with broad clean streets, gorgeous parks, and one of the nicest downtown residential neighborhoods I've seen.

The last entry in my sixth grade diary, written in the summer of '71, while still living in rural North Carolina, says, "Tomorrow my dad finds out whether the Marine Corps is transferring us to Orlando (?), or San Francisco. PLEASE GOD let it be San Francisco, because I LOVE WILLIE MAYS!!!" True story.

But San Francisco would have to wait another 24 years before I'd darken the doorways of its sex clubs. In '71, we joined the bumper to bumper traffic streaming to Orlando, never realizing that the little seat of Orange County would soon be razing its miles of citrus groves for untold numbers of suburban McMansion developments with names like The Arbors At Lake Ivanhoe and The Fountains Of Dover Shores. Back then Orlando boasted a mere 70,000 inhabitants, but today an almost unimaginable 2 million folks crowd the "Orlando-Kissimee Metropolitan Statistical Area".

By the time I began attending Colonial High School in the fall of '74, Orlando was already bursting at the seams and the school system was greviously overloaded. A fleet of portable classrooms were parked in the fields around the school and I think I was in 11th grade before I had an actual "inside class". Today Colonial is still massive, pushing 4000 students, 75% minorities, as opposed to my day, in which the one Puerto Rican student that I can recall was considered so "exotic" by the girls, that he was voted Mr. Colonial. (I voted for him too. He was really hot.)

And back when I started at the University Of Central Florida, it was still called Florida Tech, as it was originally built in 1963 to serve as a research school to support Cape Canaveral. FTU was built in the boonies east of Orlando, as city planners expected the city to grow east, towards the Space Center. But the year after the school opened, NASA moved Mission Control to Houston, rendering the Cape as little more than a launching pad. For years, FTU languished out in the swamps, while Orlando exploded in the other direction, towards Disney World.

It's only been in the last ten years or so that the area around UCF (renamed in my sophomore year) finally built up. Today UCF is the SIXTH largest university in the United States, and is expected to be the largest within a decade, a fact which just blows my mind. Today, UCF's football team is NCAA Division 1 and plays football powerhouses like Auburn. Back when I was a student there, our team faced opponents like Fort Lauderdale Art College.

So after all the incredible growth in Orlando that I've just mentioned, you'd think that the gay scene would be just crazy, Fort Lauderdale-style almost. But it's not. The Parliament House, now in its 4th decade, is still pretty much "the" place to go. (And actually, it's still pretty fun on most days.) There's a handful of other new places, the Lava Lounge, for example. But it always amazes me that so many of the places I used to haunt decades ago are still going. Hank's. Southern Nights. Studz / Cactus Club / Silver Hammer. I may no longer be able to find my way around the new superhighways that ring The City Beautiful, but I still know where to find the homos.

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