Between Halloween Horror Nights and Epcot's Food & Wine Festival – not to mention the relatively non-brutal weather – September is by far my favorite time in Orlando. But for the first time in almost 20 years, I've missed out on the entire month in order to take a six-nation tour of Europe. While I'm pretty certain no one wants to hear me humblebrag about my Chevy Chase-esque sprint across the continent nor my Mickey-fueled cruise back across the Atlantic, during my travels I encountered dozens of experiences and innovations that I wished I could pack in my suitcase and sneak through customs back to Florida. (And no, I'm not just talking about Amsterdam's legal herbs.) At the risk of writing the worst "white people problems" edition ever of Live Active Cultures, here are a few ideas from across the pond that we should import to Orlando ASAP.
BETTER PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION
With the birth of SunRail and the expansion of downtown's Lymmo service, Orlando's public transportation infrastructure has come a long way in just the last year, but compared to most of Europe we are still in the horse-and-buggy era. Few Orlando tourists are brave or foolhardy enough to rely on the No. 50 bus to voyage to the Magic Kingdom, leaving them captives of Disney's "free" airport shuttles or clogging I-4 with rental cars. In contrast, I experienced the bliss of never getting behind the wheel for four weeks, instead enjoying efficient and inexpensive public transport from the Netherlands to Spain.
Attractive double-decker rail cars whisked me from Montmartre (where I achieved the lifelong dream of drinking wine in Amélie's Two Windmills Café) directly to the front gate of Disneyland Paris for less than the parking fee at Orlando's parks. And the two-hour journey from Amsterdam to Efteling – my new favorite theme park outside Anaheim – was as productive as it was pastoral, thanks to ubiquitous free Wi-Fi on the Netherlands' trains and buses. It wasn't all perfect; in Barcelona, twice-daily labor strikes made traveling anywhere during mealtimes maddening, but even then their system was more reliable than Lynx.
FEWER MOBILE SCREENS
Speaking of Wi-Fi and theme parks, Europeans are just as enamored of their iPhones and iPads as Americans, but their effect seemed far less intrusive at the attractions and in everyday life. In Orlando's parks, it's common to see entire families queuing for a ride or eating in a restaurant, each buried in their own electronic device. In Europe, often it was only I (and the omnipresent crowds of Chinese tour groups) gripping my phone and snapping photos. So what do Europeans do with their spare moments instead of checking their Facebook feed? Believe it or not ... they talk to each other!
Maybe European park-goers don't need to stare at their phones so much because their attractions contain sights far odder – and more interesting – than anything on the Internet. Disneyland Paris exists in a bizarro parallel universe where the world's most beautiful entertainment architecture has been beaten into disrepair by a management team that makes Six Flags look like Tokyo's DisneySea. The far superior Efteling is even stranger, filled with statues of fat children who suck litter into their gaping mouths, and a famous donkey who shits gold coins for kids to gleefully grab. You won't find that one in Epcot.
MORE SIDEWALK CAFÉS
Many of said conversations take place in sidewalk cafés, which I found by the score in every city, big or small. Places to sit outside sipping tiny cups of coffee (and smoking endless cigarettes, an inescapable habit we're probably better off not imitating) aren't a privilege reserved for a handful of pricey restaurants in Winter Park; they are considered an essential contributor to quality of life. In my fantasies, every restaurant owner in downtown Orlando would band together and set out tables and chairs in a mass protest against our restrictive regulations; the cops couldn't arrest them all.
PUBLIC ART EVERYWHERE
With events like Art in Odd Places, the Creative City Project and OW's own Artlando, the arts are increasingly entering Orlando's public square. But in Europe, public art isn't a special event; it's an everyday occurrence. Everywhere I looked were murals, sculptures and street performances, with no artificial distinctions between authorized art and underground graffiti. Some Orlando neighborhoods, like the increasingly colorful Mills 50 district, are starting to get the message, but most of our streets are still stuck in a "whatever isn't permitted is forbidden" aesthetic.
Ironically, at almost the exact same time an AiOP toilet tribute to Duchamp was being removed from downtown's Heritage Square for fear of causing offense, I encountered an artistically adorned commode prominently displayed on a corner in Amsterdam's red light district. Trash or treasure? The sooner we stop asking that, and start appreciating instead, the sooner Orlando will catch up to our European cousins.