Pokémon Go captures Orlando’s heart and makes a brutal summer a little sweeter

On the go

Pokémon Go captures Orlando’s heart and makes a brutal summer a little sweeter

I'm walking through Lake Eola Park this July afternoon, and, like most summer days after 3 p.m., it's raining.

It's a slight drizzle, but it's raining nonetheless. Last year, even a flurry like this would send pedestrians scrambling into the restaurants and bars dotting Central Boulevard. This July's different. Dozens of teens and young adults stride through the mist, phones out, swiping at their screens.

"Do you know where's good to eat around here?" a young woman hoisting an umbrella asks. She and her boyfriend, whose eyes are fixed on his Samsung Galaxy, drove here from Kissimmee. They've heard that rare Pokémon would be roaming the park tonight. So have I.

"Looks like Dragonair's this way," the 20-something says, pointing at the Google Maps-like display on his phone. I open the app, and sure enough, that elusive dragon Pokémon is lounging by Lake Eola's red pagoda. "We've gotta go," he says.

click to enlarge Organized group outings immediately became popular in the wake of the game’s release.
Organized group outings immediately became popular in the wake of the game’s release.

Getting someplace dry, grabbing dinner: Those trifles can wait. It's summer 2016. These Pokémon aren't going to catch themselves.

Pokémon Go, Nintendo and Niantic's augmented reality mobile game, didn't "launch" on July 6. It dropped like a surprise Beyoncé album, like a gift from heaven or like gravity. Internet-analysis company SimilarWeb reported that, in two days, Pokémon Go surpassed Tinder in total Android phone downloads and matched Twitter's daily active user count. The promise of the popular "pocket monsters" appearing in the wild via users' smartphones to capture and train has turned the internet ­– and everyday life – upside down.

Go is the latest entry in Nintendo's portable handheld franchise, which first launched its seminal Red and Blue versions on the handheld Game Boy in 1998. Back then, kids dawdled the days away catching and training 150 creatures, then traded and battled with their friends through the use of a Game Boy-to-Game Boy cable. Over 20 years, the property has spawned 67 video games, 19 animated films, a trading card game, 19 animated television seasons and countless lunch periods debating the best starter Pokémon (it's Squirtle).

Pokémon already belonged in the pantheon of prestigious and profitable mega-franchises before Go happened. The Atlantic's Bourree Lam reports the property's all-time revenue exceeds $40 billion. Only the Star Wars franchise has earned more, with its 23-year head start. Then Pokémon Go increased Nintendo's net worth by $7.5 billion and became iTunes' most downloaded app in less than a week.

click to enlarge Players wait for a rare Pokémon to respawn in Lake Eola Park..
Players wait for a rare Pokémon to respawn in Lake Eola Park..

Go developer Niantic sought to push people off their duffs and into their surroundings, and spots like Lake Eola Park are their masterstrokes. Fourteen Pokéstops (landmarks and businesses where players collect free in-game items) and three Pokémon Gyms (where players pit their strongest Pokémon against opponents') surround the lake. The Lake Eola fountain itself is a Pokémon Gym, accessible only by rental swan boat. Hundreds of trainers circle that confounding, lovably teal-tinted lake every night, and they're finding that Go entices more than Ivysaurs and Snorlaxes out of hiding.

"It's getting people out of their shells," Rebecca Austin says. "As dumb as it sounds, it's bringing people together."

Austin is a server at World of Beer's downtown location, where I've finally sought refuge from the rain. WOB neighbors a Pokéstop maybe 50 feet from Austin's bar. A passing trainer had deployed a "lure," attracting wild Pokémon to this location (and Austin's thirsty trainers) for 30 minutes. Austin jokes that Go's the best thing to happen to bars and restaurants since team sports. She doesn't play, but she, like much of my generation, has fond memories of battling and trading the original 150 on her Game Boy Color.

"Whether people are playing or not, it gives people something nice and fun to talk about these days," Austin says. "You have people our age who grew up with the game, teens who never played the originals, and people in their 40s and 50s who are playing a Pokémon game for the first time. Everyone has something to say about it."

General manager Andrew Dawson confirms that he's seen an uptick in business since Go launched.

"I don't know what's next for this or whether its popularity will hold up," Dawson says, "but if it continues to drive traffic, I'm all for it."

More than a few faces at WOB's horseshoe bar bask in a blue-green glow – the telltale sign of Pokémon trainers on the hunt.

"What team are you?" a young guy by the bar asks. He's referencing the three virtual guilds trainers can join once they reach Level Five.

"Team Instinct," I answer. "And you?"

"Team Valor," he responds. "My friend," he says, nudging the man to his right, "is Team Mystic." The young man smiles. "So the whole gang's here," he says.

You see the City Beautiful, and the trainers who call it home, differently after playing Pokémon Go, through a more intimate, wondrous lens. Last year, the swan boats were just an innocuous swatch of downtown Orlando's cultural wallpaper. Now I'm Googling "swan boat rentals" on my lunch break. When someone strikes up conversation at a bar, I don't fumble for a reply: I ask what they've caught today.

Orlandoans needed this game. Given the hellish summer Orlando has endured – a barrage of deranged gunmen locally and public executions by and of policemen nationally – it would be insulting to declare Pokémon Go part of the zeitgeist. But Niantic's little phenomenon gives trainers a staycation from a month's worth of abominable push notifications and Facebook newsfeeds. We couldn't have asked for a sweeter reprieve, or a better reminder that we share so much in common.

A Pokémon Go event at Cranes Roost Park on Sunday, July 10, attracted more than 1,200 trainers. A Lake Eola Park meet-up scheduled for Saturday, July 30 [UPDATED: The event organizer contacted us July 24 to say that this meet-up has been rescheduled to Sept. 24], is expected to draw more than 1,300 people – all to play a far-from-perfect (if not glitch-ridden) mobile game together. Pokémon Go's server crashes, battery drain and finicky GPS have become memes in their own right. Tech bloggers like Adam Reeve have raised concerns about Go's protections against cybercriminals, branding the mobile game "a huge security risk." The Buzzfeed News article "You Should Probably Check Your Pokémon Go Privacy Settings" posits that Niantic could read – and write! – Go players' emails, Google docs and more. And that doesn't even touch the public safety hazards a game like Go creates.

"I can't tell you how many people I've run into because they've stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to catch something," Austin says.

An overzealous trainer in Auburn, Alabama, slammed his car into a tree while catching and driving, according to USA Today. Two San Diego hikers went viral when they fell 50 feet off a cliff while playing Pokémon Go. The game's inherent risks and pitfalls are as exhaustive as a well-stocked Pokédex, but millions of people in our tumultuous world have spoken: We need this simple, saccharine thing for a while.

I leave the bar after hurling Pokéballs at a feisty Pikachu for a few minutes, taking a moment to watch a flock of pedal-powered swans glide toward the fountain. One of them slowly turns in my direction, its occupants obscured by the setting Florida sun, but the swan head-shaped bow locks eyes with me as if to say, "Life's a gift, love your neighbor, and you've gotta catch 'em all. Never forget that."

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