IT WAS SNOWING. I could hardly believe it, but there it was—first, the excited voice of the woman calling in to the Gainesville radio station (“I used to work in Ohio, and I know a snowflake when I see one!”), and then the thing itself, a dazzling spark of cold adrift against the dark pines.
I was driving a back road in the Florida countryside, past moss-shaded hamlets of weathered houses with tin roofs sloping against the chill rain. Fort McCoy, Citra, Island Grove, Evinston….
Evinston? The highway marker had clearly designated the place as Evanston, yet before me stood an ancient post office and general store, its pinewood aged the color of mahogany, its sign proclaiming “Evinston P.O.” In the pleasant-smelling gloom inside, Mr. Fred Wood was standing by an iron stove, warming his hands. He tilted back the visor of his leather cap and addressed himself carefully to the question.
“There were two brothers,” he said, “who came out from England. My forebears. Their name was Evans, with an ‘a.’ During the war they took opposite sides.” “The Civil War?” I assumed out loud. “Lord, no, man, the Revolution. The colonist got so mad at the loyalist that he changed his name to Evins, with an 1.! No highway department knows much about history, or cares.” A heavy rain began pounding on the roof as a young woman with a small girl came in. “Isn’t this awful, Mr. Fred? Did you hear about the snowflakes?”
“I believe I saw it sleet once,” said Mr. Fred. He examined three red sumac leaves lying on the counter: “Our autumn,” he said. “You draw a line across the center of this state, from New Smyrna to Homosassa, and everything north of it is southern, and everything south of it is northern. The last of what’s really Florida is right here in the middle, and we lose a little bit more of it every day. You go down to Orlando and look around, and see if you don’t come running back here.”
In Search of the Real Florida
I did go down to Orlando’s spreading neonand-plastic landscape, and over to “the Cape,” and into the embattled Big Scrub, and up the primeval St. Johns, and down into the St. Cloud cowboy country. Mr. Fred was proved a prophet. My search skirted but avoided the two urban colossuses of the coasts, Tampa and Daytona Beach, that hold central Florida like huge parentheses. Between them I found both “what’s really Florida” and the most explosive growth in the United States, a tide of development that is (choose a verb: improving, despoiling) central Florida.*
A planner in Orlando told me: “We are much better off than we were a year ago. We are getting a handle on this—the traffic, the refuse, and the rest of it.”
The next day an ecologist said: “The population pressures are so great, and the Florida environment is so fragile, there is not one of us familiar with the facts who is confident that it can be saved.”
At the eye of the hurricane stands the least probable of all symbols, the serene Cinderella Castle that towers over 43-square-mile Walt Disney World affordable. Last year it beckoned more than 12 million people to a real Somewhere Else, far from the hassle of modern life, at an average daily cost of $85 for a family of four.
I stayed with my own family at the lovely Polynesian Village hotel, on a man-made lagoon circled by the zooming monorail and crossed by steamboats ferrying the crowds to the Magic Kingdom. Inside the gates of that kingdom, wonders rewarded those with the patience to wait under a hot sun.
We descended in a submarine to a world of shimmering mermaids and drowned civilizations; rode with Peter Pan high over London’s twinkling lights; cruised a jungle river past frowning natives and bathing elephants. We hummed along with the Mickey Mouse Revue, laughed at the soulful bears having a jamboree, and listened to the nation’s Presidents as they gestured and chatted.
Did my children know how little was real? That the ocean was inside a building, and that the bears and Presidents were computer-controlled robots? Alyson gave the answer one warm evening as we watched the Admiral Joe Fowler, a stern-wheeler, coming in to dock. Alyson gazed into the Florida sky and said, “I didn’t know they had a moon here.”
Later that same pale moon was easing through a pearl sky, with the proper streak of romantic mist drawn across its face. With special permission, I climbed alone into that huge steel-and-fiberglass tree the Swiss Family Robinson once inhabited in somebody else’s dream.
I explored my domain in the sky by candlelight along wooden paths that led to rooms set square and secure in the huge arms of the tree. My bedroom had a thatched roof. Beyond Victorian porcelain that had survived the wreck, two volumes of Thackeray shared a shelf with a sewing box. Far below, torches flared along the jungled banks of a stream, and huge black shadows leaped toward the dome of a distant temple.
In the small hours of the morning, the tree came rhythmically alive with the wind and waving moss, and I felt as remote as the castaways in Shakespeare’s Tempest. And what was it Prospero says in that play?
We are such stye
As dreams are made on….
Dreams. The Florida muck was made for them. But never, in Florida’s long history of boom and bust, had dreams of profit been more aroused than when Mr. Disney’s certifiably magic mouse appeared with a … Boom! It was 110 acres a few miles from Orlando, for sale at $4,500 an acre. A buyer put down a $25,000 deposit and tried to enlist others in the venture. They laughed. The discouraged speculator forfeited the deposit. Three years later the owner sold 54 acres at $10,000 an acre. Boom! Then five acres for $400,000. Boom! Another four for $400,000. Boom! Now he had $1,365,000 in the bank, with 47 acres to go!