Summer guide 2001

With all apologies to Spalding Gray, Orlando in the summertime is a case study in the terrors of pleasure. Go ahead and kid yourself that you should be having a good time; then come hurtling back to the harsh reality that precious few activities are very much fun -- or even fun's underachieving cousin, "endurable" -- when performed at temperatures of 95 degrees or worse. And that's not factoring in the humidity, which frequently lives up to the ideals of corporate America by giving 110 percent.

To cope with this seasonal holocaust, we recommend a bold social strategy: Don't leave the house before sundown. (That's how Hugh Hefner's living, and doesn't he look happy?) Though lesser leisure gurus will try to con you into fully baked undertakings like day hikes, tailgate picnics and the dreaded g-o-l-f, we're holding fast to the philosophy that the nighttime is the right time. Our 2001 Summer Guide emphasizes places to go and things to do after dusk, when the party lights have been turned on and the mercury has mercifully fallen out of the triple digits.

No, we haven't made mention of every public facility with an operative air-conditioning unit. By those lazy criteria, even your Aunt Edna's sitting room might qualify as a viable locale. We've been a bit more selective, restricting our sphere of inquiry largely to destination spots where cool air is most often associated with cool sights, cool sounds and cool people. A number of these establishments, you'll notice, claim the dispensation of beverages as their business model, but this does not indicate some thinly veiled dipsomania on our part. (That's our story, anyway.) It's merely that imbibing a tall, cold glass of something-or-other remains Central Florida's official modus operandi when even the evenings start to swelter. To balance the liquids with the solids, you'll find a companion list of after-hours eateries where you can load up on carbs to go with all that hard lemonade you'll be quaffing.

As a bonus, we've tossed in a handful of recommendations for out-of-town trips you can take at night -- junkets to neighboring communities where the excitement level rises with the moon, but which rest close enough to Orlando on the map to keep motel-room rental out of your entertainment budget. Again, backpacks are recommended solely as fashion statements.

A final note about the fine print: Our supplementary calendar of summer happenings, you'll notice, breaks from the motif by including daytime events right along with the after-dark options. Well, what can we say? Though sound judgment plainly dictates otherwise, some people keep planning get-togethers for the morning and afternoon hours, and we figured you'd want to know about those, too. To each his own. But remember that we warned you before you ask us to pitch in for a bottle of smelling salts. -- Steve Schneider


Out for blood:
;Tampa's Goth scene delivers a dark night of the soul


Old-school rivalries be damned, the Tampa/Ybor City Goth scene really does beat Orlando's six ways to black Sunday. If you're in the mood for a tour of Florida's heart of funereal entertainment and commerce (and you don't mind driving back in the wee hours), you can make the required rounds in a single evening, providing you know exactly where you're going before gassing up.

But first, a word of warning: To reveal to any self-respecting Goth that you're using a cheap newspaper article as a road map into their lair is to court being burned alive like the supporting cast of "Interview With the Vampire." So do us both a favor and eat this page after you're finished reading but before a match can be struck.

The first thing you're going to need on your excursion to Dark Florida is a suitable mascot to place atop your dashboard. You wouldn't think of hauling out tired old Jesus, would you? The obvious choice is Raven the Nodding Goth Girl ($7.95 at Nyte Mere's, 100 E. Central Blvd.; 407-316-0306). A delightfully doomy spin on the classic nodder toy, Raven stands 7.5-inches tall and has skin whiter than Johnny Thunders' in his prime. Throughout your drive, this not-quite-living doll will stare back at you with a reliably wide-eyed, faintly accusatory expression, the engine-induced bobbing of her noggin' only slightly undercutting her aura of cartoonish ennui. Misery loves company, and here's yours.

Plastic pal in place, now's the time to make like our own Internet stalker and ask yourself this salient question: What are you wearing? Hopefully, your visit to Nyte Mere's saw you picking out something suitably dark and rubberized from among the racks of clubgoing costumery. But if you just plum forgot, and a quick glance at your nether regions reminds you that you're dressed in -- shudder -- Dockers, don't automatically turn the car around and resign yourself to another evening of watching "The Lost Boys" at home on VHS. Keep going until you reach Eccentricities (935-1/2 S. Howard Ave., Tampa; 813-254-8080), an extreme-fashion retailer that devotes a moderate amount of square footage to Goth-friendly items. For a paltry $120, you can pick up a mesh fetish skirt that incorporates two belts, 10 rows of laces and 62 hook-and-eye fasteners. You weren't planning on sitting down, anyway.

But Eccentricities serves best as a resource for spooky jewelry and accessories. Consider the coffin-shaped brass pill box ($12) that comes complete with a crucifix embossed on its lid. Now all you have to do is devise a legal reason to be carrying around a pill box. (Got allergies? Get some!)

Should you wish to take your flirtation with over-the-counter evil to another level -- like, say, skin deep -- stop by Blue Devil Tattoo Gallery (1717 E. Seventh Ave., Ybor City; 813-241-OUCH), where you can have a small bat-shaped design affixed to your epidermis in about 20 minutes. The mammalian body art will set you back $50-$75, depending on the desired area of coverage. (The further from the sun's rays, the more you pays .. er, pay.) Blue Devil is open until 2 a.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, so there's plenty of opportunity to build up your courage over shots of Jäegermeister at a nearby tavern before you go under the needle. Goldschläger gets you a sleeve.

Get marked early enough and you'll have time to shop for eerie home furnishings next door at The Spitting Gargoyle (also 1717 E. Seventh Ave.; 813-247-7877). The store's wonderfully pagan inventory of sculptures, figurines, wall sconces and fountains includes some unexpected sights -- like a winged demon who's been crafted in the act of poring over a laptop computer ($26.95). Some of the ostensibly medieval creatures look suspiciously like frisky household pets with added-on fangs, wings and glowing eyes ($26.95-$59.95). Take one of these suckers home and watch your dog Buttons pack his bags.

But for now, stow the stone booty in your trunk and join the line outside The Castle (2004 16th St., Ybor City; 813-247-7547), the nighttime Mecca of Gothic dancing, drinking and mingling. Don't be perturbed that the place looks like a Lego (Legoth?) palace from the outside, or that the doors might not open exactly on time. Once you're inside, the two floors' worth of immaculate, high-glamour gloom will exert an immediate pull on your latent occult leanings. Mind your billowing attire around the red candles that are set out in multi-rowed defiance of drunken accidents, then take your place in front of one of the stained-glass windows that are the best backdrops a fanged poser could desire.

The DJs' playlists cover the spectrum from bass-heavy, ominous dance tracks to tinny hits of the '80s to harsher industrial sounds. There's no need to fret about instantly being perceived as an outsider: The club's proximity to the Centro Ybor shopping plaza -- a sort of still-functioning Church Street Market -- ensures the presence of tourist types among the dyed-in-the-wool ghouls. On a recent visit, we spotted a white polo shirt cutting incongruously through the darkness, followed by a tortoise-shaped fellow whose ill-advised attempt to fit in had him looking like one of the Sopranos in black lipstick.

Diehards will scoff that the travelogue offered here merely skims the surface of the experience. They're absolutely correct. There is a more sinister side to the scene, as evidenced by a gift-shop staffer who told us that some simple asking around would put us on the trail of a second stratus that's "very underground ... kind of like 'Fight Club.'"

Our reporterly dedication, we decided, didn't extend to having the crap beaten out of us. But if you're game for the assignment, we'll be eager to hear what you can dig up. Just watch out for your writing hand. -- Steve Schneider


Before night falls:
;Acquire an air of adventure with a trapeze or a faux skydive


There are plenty of ways to die in this world. Recreation shouldn't be one of them. While certain people relish the idea of recreation that holds the potential for death and dismemberment, the rest of us prefer our fun to be exhilarating yet ultimately safe.

Fortunately, Orlando has some ultimate sports geared for the closet wuss. These attractions give you the rush of skydiving, bungee jumping and trapezing, yet you don't have to worry about the gruesome death angle that accompanies these activities. Best of all, this stuff has the prestige factor: Your friends will be impressed and amazed if you tell them that you did one of these (pointlessly) courageous activities.

The Orlando Watersports Complex is a specially designed park for wakeboarding and waterskiing. Recently, however, the owners decided that these sports weren't daring enough, so they developed a water trapeze that would scare the living daylights out of any sane person.

The setup consists of four sets of trapezes, each nearly three stories off the water. Riders swing on the trapeze without a net. If they make a mistake, they plunge into the water.

"It's perfectly safe," explains manager Jillian Fraser. "And it's a lot of fun."

And the fun is almost nonstop. For the summer months, Orlando Watersports is opening up its attraction until midnight on Saturday nights. The "ride all night" promotion gives the customer unlimited wakeboarding and waterskiing times, but the trapeze closes shortly after sundown. For reservations, call (407) 251-3100.

The people at SkyVenture are brilliant. They have come up with a way that you can feel like you're skydiving when you're actually just 12 feet off the ground.

It uses a sophisticated system of big fans and 120-mile-an-hour winds. They suit you up in actual skydiving suits and teach you how to "free fall" on massive puffs of air. In other words, if you close your eyes, your really do feel like you're plunging to your death.

The SkyVenture air tunnel is so similar to actual skydiving that professional teams use it to learn the art of jumping out of planes. SkyVenture has wisely chosen to allow "regular" people to use the simulator, so that we know what it feels like to free fall but we don't know what it feels like to panic when your parachute won't open.

For roughly $30, you get an orientation class and two jumps. Compared to the costs of skydiving, the price is a real bargain. And you don't have to worry about, oh, life insurance. The last orientation class is at 11:30 p.m, and reservations are requested. Call (407) 903-1150 for details.

Owned by the same company is Skycoaster, one of the more recognizable landmarks on Highway 192 in Kissimmee. This 300-foot tower offers a thrill for those unafraid of heights. Located next to OldeTown, the SkyCoaster is part bungee-jumping, part skydiving -- with more safety features than either of them.

The concept is simple: A harness and cable are attached to the thrill-seeker. When the "flier" jumps off the tower, he hurtles 120 feet toward the ground. Just before he passes out from fright, the cable and harness swing him gently over a beautiful lake.

The video on their website looks absolutely terrifying, but it's comforting to know that a 91-year-old woman and her 80-something husband have ridden it and survived. "Everyone's scared at first," explains Jay Boggs, general manager of Skycoaster. "But after they're done, they all want to do it again."

Actually, the SkyCoaster's design eliminates any danger. "It's as safe as being on the ground," insists Boggs. "Each cable that holds you up can handle 9,800 pounds -- and you're held up by two of them."

The SkyCoaster operates until the wee hours of the morning. Call (407) 397-2509. (They don't take reservations.) It's a perfect nightcap for an evening of thrills. -- Steve Helling


On the water's front:
;There's more to Cocoa Beach than "I Dream of Jeannie" reruns


Ever since the days of "I Dream of Jeannie," Cocoa Beach has had the reputation of being a sleepy beach town full of stodgy NASA types who were too stupid to realize that something was very, very strange in Major Nelson's household. In TV Land, Cocoa Beach didn't have much going for it. Once Jeannie retired to her bottle for the night, the town went to sleep. Everyone just closed their doors and waited for Jeannie to wake up in the morning.

In reality, Cocoa has a surprising number of options. With good time-management skills, a savvy visitor can extract an interesting melange of evening events in this oceanside burg.

Any trip to Cocoa must begin at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp (8199 Highway 520, 321-632-4199), an unspectacular-looking yet rustically quaint building. From the outside, the restaurant looks like a bait-and-tackle shop. Inside, however, you have a beautiful, unobstructed view of the St. Johns River.

For bragging rights, order something exotic -- gator tail and frog legs are two items that will impress your friends or disgust your date. That's a fine line, so be careful. Of course, Lone Cabbage offers traditional foods, too, with a wide variety of fish and shrimp, as well as land-based foods like hamburgers and sandwiches.

If you get to Lone Cabbage early enough, you might take advantage of their airboat rides, where you'll search for alligators and stun them by shining bright lights in their faces. It's more fun than it sounds, we promise. Keep in mind, however, that you have a lot more things to see than gators, either "au natural" or deep-fried.

After dinner, a turtle walk is a wonderfully unexpected way to get closer to nature. Brevard County is the largest nesting area in the United States for endangered sea turtles, and they put on quite a show -- that is, for anyone patient enough to watch.

From May until November, the Sea Turtle Preservation Society (407-676-1701) takes visitors on a guide of the turtles' nesting process. Participants hide along 40-foot sand dunes to witness these creatures -- which weigh as much as 300 pounds -- as they lay their eggs and retreat to the sea. The walks begin at 9 p.m., preceded by a 30-minute slide presentation. Walks can last until 1 a.m., so bring a jacket for the chilly night air.

When you're done with the turtle walk, before you head back to Orlando, be sure to stop at the 24-hour Ron Jon Surf Shop on A1A (4151 N. Atlantic Ave., Cocoa, 321-799-8888). With more than 52,000 square feet of shopping space, this Ron Jon features its own waterfall and glass elevator, as well as the largest selection of surfboards, bikinis and surf brand clothing in the Central Florida area. Buy a T-shirt for a friend. It might make him think that you live a much cooler life than he does. -- Steve Helling


Sunset, sunrise:
;Swifly passes the right when you travel from coast to coast


Oh, we've all heard it: the great Orlando love thrush of "what I really like about this place is that you're so close to everything!" Well, if you're like most people, you'd rather ferment in your brick-street bungalow than test the ambitious leisure credo. It's just nice to know that it's there, right?

Well, frankly, no. But if you have a craving for the not nice, the seedy goings-on of Florida's midsection make for an interesting, if backward, revisit to the sentimental "Fiddler on the Roof" theme. And if summer brings the longest days, it also brings the shortest nights. Sunset to sunrise then, racing from the west coast to the east, offers the ideal exploration of peninsular possibilities.

To test our tolerance for "fun" intentions, my companion and I hit the road in an Earth's-rotation-challenging journey through the Sunshine State's darkest hours, gripping our sanity and our cynicism in the same hands that would usually cover our eyes and wish for the time to simply pass. Hang on to your garter belts; it's time for the night to fall.

The journey begins with the requisite sand-toed glimpse at the falling ball of fire from the water's edge of St. Petersburg. It's lovely, but more lovely are the ladies working the poles at our first twilight destination, the peculiarly named Velvet Underground (6121 Fourth St. North, St. Petersburg; 727-527-9762). Nico be damned -- Misti, Gabrielle and Sierra twist their appendages around beats provided by Tupac and Creed ("With Arms Wide Open" -- and legs, too!) in between sit-downs with us. It's all quite charming, especially when the owner's gal, Morgan, details the trials of strip life, including the doily fringes they've recently been ordered to staple to the back of their thongs. Apparently the boys at Benders (the gay strip place) were all arrested the night before for showing too much cheek -- although I've been to Benders, and cheeks were merely the appetizer. All right, then.

Stilettos (4502 Dale Mabry Highway South; 813-831-9980) is a less friendly, more "happening" Viagra vacation, where we're greeted at the door by some skinny trixie pawning blue kamikaze shots. We accept, as the rest of the view is far more harrowing. On stage, some Susan Powter is rocking all pudgy and shorthaired when she catches my eye -- and my timepiece. "Your watch matches your shirt!" she gruffs as I slip a dollar in her garter. Your carpet matches your curtains! We're instant friends. But not friendly enough for us to stay for the pending macho fight club.

A side trip to the more familial Ybor City strip finds us pounding back potables in the presence of Pac Man. No strippers at GameWorkz (813-241-9675), just the sad feeling that you may never grow up. Madonna's oozing "American Pie" on the giant vid screen, and we're getting heartburn, so it's off to the next white-bread Tampa trap, Frankie's Patio (1920 E. Seventh Ave., Tampa; 813-248-3337), where we're assured they have "some really big shows." Our quizzical follow-up glance produces a flimsy example: "I worked out with Eve 6 last week -- they're really cool." Maybe. But not cool enough for us to stick around. It's time for a gay bar.

All attempts at finding Dockside, where perhaps my ship would come in, are painfully foiled by the rural impenetrability of Lakeland's lovely darkside. Instead we settle for the straightest, meanest, most right-wing excuse for a vodka shot we can find, Lakeland City Limits (3070 U.S. Highway 92 East, Lakeland; 863-683-1926). Founded by Vietnam vet Zane Wilson, City Limits' walls display his Republican keepsakes, including letters of thanks from the Drug Enforcement Agency and a signed picture of the always charming Dan Quayle. A haggard wash-up of a bartendress offers bad directions to our bad gay selves in search of bad gay bars, to the tune of an acoustic Def Leppard album. Where'd they get that? I want one.

More wandering leads us to yet another "working-through-college" excuse, Showgirls (4210 U.S. Highway 92 East, Plant City; 813-752-3835), a high-end fellowship hall of a strip club. I'm taken with the one who starts from the ceiling and slides to the floor without ever losing her sexual balance. She offers to shake her ass in my face. I hand her a dollar and say, "That won't be necessary." She kisses me on the cheek. And we're gone.

Luckily, our friends at Will's Pub in Orlando are still doing whatever they do at 4 a.m., so we pull an alcoholic's rest-area maneuver and take pause in our centering spot. A nap at this point would be nice. A beer would be better.

The Atlantic coast would be even better than that, though, so after a toothpick-eyed journey through the flats of the brushy eastward beachtrack -- including a much-needed stop for boiled-protein sustenance at the Peanut Gallery -- we make sunrise in Melbourne. The Oceanview Diner (1 Fifth Ave., Melbourne; 321-723-2270), open 24 hours, sports the largest menu known to man. We offer to sell our livers for one of the more exotic dishes lining the 10-page food list, only no one's taking. Naturally, we have no more livers. Instead, we have only the satisfaction of knowing that we are indeed so close to everything, and after a night of tasteless extension, so far from ourselves. Where is the little boy I carried? -- Billy Manes


The race to the finish:
;Keep track of the cars and bikes jostling for the lead in Bitho


Don't try to impress a Bithloan with redneck jokes. They've heard them all, and they don't think they're very clever. "We're not all rednecks," sighs Jessica Stadler, a lifelong resident of the town. "But we do have a higher concentration than anywhere else in Central Florida."

Perhaps Stadler is correct. It's hard to miss all the Ford F-150s around east Orange County, and Bithlo appears to be the only place nearby where you can mention the "Crash-o-Rama Figure-8 Bus Races" without getting a funny look.

Many Bithloans embrace their redneck reputation, as evidenced by The Bithlo Mullet Revival, a local band with such songs as "I Have No Use of My Legs (But I'm Okay With That)." It's this tongue-in-cheek charm that makes Bithlo the perfect place to decompress after a hard day's work. It's like stepping back in time into a "Dukes of Hazzard" episode.

The hub of Bithlo's social scene is Orlando Speed World, a short track located 17 miles east of Orlando on State Road 50 (19442 E. Colonial Drive; 407-568-5522). With drag races every Wednesday and Friday, and stock-car races every Friday, Speed world is a place to get in touch with your inner NASCAR knockoff. Things often get raucous, with cars going way too fast and weekend-warrior mechanics working away with blowtorches and hacksaws.

Spectator admission hovers between $10 and $20 per night. Unlike most Orlando-area attractions, parking is free.

The three-eighths-mile figure-8 track is also the stage for every type of skidding vehicle imaginable, including motorcycles, trailers and buses. The bus races are highly anticipated novelty acts, with brightly painted full-sized buses swerving gracelessly around each other. Of course, the crowd roars its approval. Someone will say, "Yee haw," because "yee haw" is not a term made up for the movies but something that people do say in real life.

The crowd is always festive. "We're really friendly to newcomers," says Stadler. "I've made all sorts of friends at Speed World. I always strike up a conversation with someone I don't know."

If you prefer the more sedate sport of BMX bike racing, you can stay put. The Speed World site is also the home of the East Orange BMX Complex (407-568-4543), Central Florida's largest dirt course for bike racing. For less than $5, anyone with a BMX bike can practice on the course. Don't have a bike? No problem. Being a spectator is much safer -- and it's free!

"A lot of kids do the BMX thing," explains Stadler. "It's a real family activity. Rednecks are big on family."

And they're apparently also big on things that zoom around tracks. It's a fun diversion, actually -- you can look away, and when you look back, it's all still there, revving away. -- Steve Helling

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