This year's Best of Orlando issue was written, edited, tallied, combined and compiled with the blood, sweat and tears of Marcus Griggs, Holly V. Kapherr, Faiyaz Kara, Seth Kubersky, Bao Le-Huu, Billy Manes, Dave Plotkin, Eleanor Roy, Justin Strout, Erin Sullivan, Aimee Vitek, Katie Westfall and Jessica Bryce Young. Rob Bartlett of bartlettimage.com was our lead photographer for this issue, and our cover model is the wonderful Jose Melendez, better known as the Diamond Exchange's Mr. Gold Orlando. Thanks to all of our readers who submitted more than 6,000 (!) ballots in this year's Readers Poll, making it our most popular Best of Orlando Readers Poll yet. We couldn't have done it without you.
1st The Geek Easy, 114 S. Semoran Blvd., Winter Park, 407-332-9636, acomicshop.com/geekeasy
2nd Central Florida Stamp and Sign, 139 E. Pine St., 407-423-2500, centralfloridastampandsign.com
3rd Al Fresco, 146 W. Plant St., Winter Garden, 407-654-5889, alfrescowintergarden.com
1st Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, 3319 Maguire Blvd., 407-898-0733, lls.org
2nd The Mustard Seed, 12 Mustard Seed Lane, 407-875-2040, mustardseedfla.org
3rd (tie) Second Harvest Food Bank, 3522 Mercy Drive, 407-295-1066, foodbankcentralflorida.org
3rd (tie) Give Kids the World, 210 S. Bass Road, Kissimmee, 407-396-1144, gktw.org
1st Jeffrey Pfaff
2nd Mark Baratelli
3rd Buddy Dyer
1st Martha Sugalski, WESH 2
2nd Lauren Rowe, WKMG
3rd Tom Terry, WFTV
1st Tri-Force Mike (Pandel), Triforcemike.com
2nd Jim Philips, realradio.fm/pages/phile.html
3rd John Morgan, forthepeople.com
1st Lawson Lamar
2nd Buddy Dyer
3rd Jeff Ashton
1st Rick Scott
2nd Buddy Dyer
3rd Alan Grayson
1st Orlando Weekly
2nd A Comic Book
3rd Wake Journal
1st Jim Philips, Real Radio 104.1 FM
2nd Johnny Magic, XL 106.7 FM
3rd SBK, Real Radio 104.1 FM
1st Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel
2nd Billy Manes, Orlando Weekly
3rd Lindsay Hitchcock, lindsayhitchcock.weebly.com
1st Walt Disney World
2nd Park Avenue in Winter Park
3rd A Comic Shop,
114 S. Semoran Blvd., Winter Park, 407-332-9636, acomicshop.com
1st The weather
2nd A Comic Shop
3rd Walt Disney World
1st The weather
1st Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
2nd Amway Center
3rd Lake Eola Fountain improvements
1st Amway Center
2nd Citrus Bowl improvements
3rd Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
1st The Barter Network,
2nd Lake Eola
3rd A Comic Shop
Jose Melendez, Orlando's Mr. Gold
Gracing the cover of Orlando Weekly's 2012 Best of Orlando issue is no sweat, when you're Jose Melendez. Better known as Orlando's Mr. Gold, Melendez is the man in the gold lamé Elvis suit, dancing at the corner of Colonial Drive and Maguire Boulevard. His job is to get your attention, and then to get you inside the Diamond Exchange, where they trade (what else?) cash for gold.
As thermostats inch higher, and another cruel July makes us rethink why we live in Central Florida, Melendez will still be working outside, top hat and gold mask glinting in the sunlight. So how much is he hating his job right now? Not at all, it turns out.
"I don't like it, I love it," Melendez says. "One hundred percent."
In fact, he says he works better in the hot air. Melendez, 35, was a "house dad" for a couple of years before taking on the gig two years ago. An Orlando resident of 25 years, Melendez attended Oak Ridge High School before getting into trouble with the law.
"Being an ex-con, cause I am, I'm an ex-felon, it was hard for a while, yeah," he says, recalling a less gilded chapter in his life. "But I was given a chance to work."
That chance came from Jim and Virginia Ann Rodriguez, the owners of Diamond Exchange, who were already trying out a Mr. Gold character. But the role called for a more dazzling personality.
"They had one, but not one like me," Melendez says. "They used to have someone out there just waving."
Melendez, a single dad, knew he could do it better – and he does. He tips his gold top hat with a distinctive flick of his wrist, he engages people driving along Colonial, dancing nonstop the whole time he's out there. Maybe he's so good at his job because he's inspired by faith. He listens to gospel music while he's working, and he describes his job as a religious experience.
"It's more like praise and worship all day long," he says. "I don't call it routine ... it's worship."
When Melendez isn't working for the Diamond Exchange, he likes to spend time with his 7-year-old son, Elliott, who already exhibits his father's confidence and charm. When asked if he's currently single, Melendez responds carefully, "I got my eyes on this special woman. ...
She's a very special, godly woman. And she know who she is."
In a steaming, sweltering city full of sign twirlers who look like they're one step up from rock-bottom, Melendez has made a bona fide career out of what is arguably one of the worst jobs in town. But Melendez doesn't see it that way – as unemployment continues to crush the spirits of thousands of Floridians, Melendez considers himself lucky.
"I said, 'I'm gonna turn this job into a career,' and I did." he says.
That's why we chose him to represent us in this issue – he embodies the spirit of the Best of Orlando.
Orlando and Orange County Domestic-Partner Registries
Last year, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer made it clear that he would move forward with a domestic-partner registry by the end of 2011, inspiring slightly more conservative Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs to wink that she might consider doing the same. But then something strange happened – Jacobs got all vague and general on the terms of such an ordinance, suggesting that people shouldn't even have to live together to register as domestic partners, and she gave the appearance of flaking. Meanwhile, the city went ahead and passed its ordinance in December. Immediately, the Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee sprung into action, pressuring Jacobs on her talking points and raising the public profile of the issue in the media. Eventually the committee pushed Jacobs away from her "you can be partners with your neighbor" stance and she finally agreed to sign an ordinance that offered the same scant rights to gay couples that the city's ordinance offers. Everybody wins! Eventually.
United Arts of Central Florida CEO Margot Knight, Planned Parenthood CEO Sue Idtensohn and Fringe Festival producing artistic director Beth Marshall ... all step down
It's hard not to suspect a bathroom-stall smoking conspiracy when three of the region's most powerful – and outspoken – women make the choice to exit their vaunted posts within the stretch of just a few months. You can almost hear the cackles over the hand dryer! The first sign something was up came when bawdy Beth Marshall announced she would be leaving her forever job as Fringe ringleader following last year's successful shenanigans in May (she went on to start Beth Marshall Presents). Then, in September, United Arts queen Margot Knight shocked the arts world with her announcement that she would be leaving town for a hippie-writing-commune gig way out West at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, Calif. Finally, Planned Parenthood powerhouse Sue Idtensohn revealed that she would be retiring in January of this year. All three women have been huge contributors to the landscape of this town; all three also inspired their share of booster acrimony by speaking their minds. They will all – save Marshall, who's still noodling around town, albeit in a quieter context – be sorely missed. Lock the bathroom. No one else can leave.
Trinity Broadcasting Network gets sued
It's hard to escape the hairspray stench emanating from the Holy Land Experience ever since Trinity Broadcasting Network's Paul and Jan Crouch bought the holy mess of our own tax-free Jesus theme park in 2007. In March, a whistleblower within the company filed a suit of biblical proportions against the company alleging financial misdeeds and extravagance that included a $50 million jet for Mr. Crouch and $100,000 motor home for the puffy puppies belonging to the missus. The allegations of embezzlement wouldn't be religiously complete without reference to hush money for sexual misdeeds, so they were thrown in, too. Remember that next time you're watching Jesus doing his daily crucifixion out at the park. It's like a prayer.
Disney's Orange Bird
The adorably primitive Orange Bird, originally conceived by the Florida Citrus Growers association as part of their sponsorship of the newly opened Walt Disney World, was last seen in 1981 – just another victim of the park's constant re-Imagineering. In its original incarnation, a "life-sized" Orange Bird character bobbled its awkward way through a musical revue and walked about greeting visitors; now it's merely the overpriced (and adorable) pebbly-skinned plastic receptacle of artificial citrus drink. There's just something about that face, though, that made the Orange Bird the sweetest and most-tweeted WDW trophy of 2012.
Randy Ross and Chase Smith both lose Orange County Commission race
The local gay gossip machine was anticipating some heavy scratching when it came to light that not one but two local gay men would be trying out for the City of Orlando District 1 commission seat. Also, what would first gay commissioner Patty Sheehan think? Well, she barely muttered a word in support of her former assistant Chase Smith, himself relatively mum until the final qualifying day, probably because he dumped her for a job with the county. Newcomer Randy Ross – he of the gay reality-show ambitions, pop-up flashmobs and Linda Stewart sidekickery – exhibited admirable effort, but in the end, it wouldn't matter. Ross received just 11 percent of the vote and Smith 28 percent; non-gay Jim Gray got 54 percent, meaning there wouldn't even be a run-off. Oh, well. No gay takeover … for now!
We have to admit that we were rooting for our favorite City Council squinter when he announced last spring that he intended to go after Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer for his diamond-encrusted civic crown, but those diamonds would eventually (and inevitably) elude this soft-spoken Diamond in the rough. Why? Because being a shy person who errs on the logical side of bloated development and fiscal issues does not a dynamic campaign make, and drowned out by the glitz and cocktail parties fueling Buddy's love parade, most people hardly took a chance to look at the guy, much less get to know him. Still, Diamond has an admirable three terms as commissioner to look back on and a political career in which he was, more often than not, the only guy who knew how to say the word "no."
The Orlando Sentinel's resident Grumbly McGrumblepants, columnist Mike Thomas, caused quite a stir late last year when he jumped from the paper of record into the world of civic flackery. First, he took a gig with the school board (while keeping his writing toes wet in the your living room is awesome world of Orlando Home & Leisure). Then in April came the big surprise. Thomas, an outspoken critic of just about everything involving the county, was hired on in a "top policy adviser" capacity by none other than Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. When pressured for comment on how it felt to ditch scrutiny in favor of becoming the agenda, Thomas emailed that he wanted to shrink into obscurity. Ironically, shrinking into obscurity pays better than screaming from the top of a mountain. He now makes $87,500 a year. Smart move, Mike!
Come Out With Pride Orlando
We couldn't have been more ready for this year's Pride festivities. We wrote a glowing cover story detailing what we adore about Orlando's LGBT community, we listed the complete roundup of Come Out With Pride events in our pages, and OW's staff was totally prepared to strut our stuff in the annual Pride parade around Lake Eola. And then the skies opened up with a massive downpour the day of the event, soaking everyone's high spirits. Everything was cancelled, and the event was postponed until a month later. The rain date was fun, but it just wasn't the same. Here's hoping the sunshine returns for 2012.
The Amway Arena
On March 25, civic elites and hipsters alike gathered around the windows of downtown high-rises clutching 7 a.m. mimosas to witness the end of an arena era. After a period of stalling, the city finally laced the dynamite throughout the abandoned, old (well, not really old, unless you consider 23 old) Amway Arena and let her rip. Though there were allegedly some unexpected mistakes – a passerby got hit by some rebar, a Channel 13 News reporter was covered in dust when the debris took an unexpected turn in the wind – the whole event was celebrated as a successful new beginning to the Creative Village development that will eventually be built here. Meanwhile, we're left with the a giant wound in the middle of downtown that bears more than a slight resemblance to New York's own Ground Zero post 9/11. Really. It does.
It may not get great grades for getting things accomplished, or for coming to consensus on what, exactly, the movement was about. But Occupy Orlando certainly gets an A for effort for exceeding our expectations when it comes to persistence and staying power. The ragtag bunch of activists began their Occupy Wall Street-style protest in October 2011 in Senator Beth Johnson Park. Over the course of weeks, then months, they were ridiculed, arrested, had their stuff taken away by police, were kicked out of the park, then kicked out of a spot they'd adopted outside the Orange County Administration building. Here at OW HQ – where everybody loves a good old-fashioned angry protest mob – we were feeling pretty skeptical about how long these kids could sustain the effort. Months went by and they kept at it, all through the spring. Far longer than anyone would have expected. We haven't seen or heard much from Occupy Orlando lately – their Facebook page is updated sporadically, and last we checked in early July, their website was experiencing a "database error" – but it was a good run while it lasted.
Full Sail University partners with WWE
We're not exactly sure why we're so tickled about the fact that Full Sail University announced in May that it was partnering with World Wrestling Entertainment to have the school's students tape the wrestling empire's NXT series, in which the newest superstars of wrestling cut their teeth in the sport. Maybe it's the idea of a bunch of tech guys and hipster students working side by side with wrestling badasses like Triple H. Or maybe that WWE execs were quoted by the Orlando Sentinel calling Full Sail a "crazy little university in Orlando." Full Sail tried really hard to pull out all the professional PR moves in its marketing of the partnership – the initial press release made much of the fact that the school was partnering with WWE, an "integrated media organization and recognized leader in global entertainment," but didn't even mention that what we're really talking about here is professional wrestling – the kind of global entertainment in which burly men dress in skimpy singlets and create bizarre characters and storylines about themselves so they can become famous for pummeling other men's faces into the ring. Come on, Full Sail, that's nothing to be afraid of. Own that shit! We can't wait to go to a taping!
If you've ever randomly typed in the call letters for local NPR affiliate, WMFE 90.7 FM, into your web browser without the appropriate suffix, you probably already know what we're talking about. Apparently when WMFE was setting up its web presence, it was able to purchase the .org but didn't get the .com. Instead, the "MEGA SITE of Bible prophecy information" scarfed it up and uses it to educate the liberal heathens who accidently stumble across it while trying to find a podcast of "This American Life" or "Fresh Air." "God loves you and is not willing that any should perish," the site kindly informs confused visitors. "You may have typed in a wrong domain name. If so, please retype the domain."
Dave Matthews Tribute Band comes to Orlando, steals and sinks Lake Eola swan boat
This hilariously mediocre crime could only happen here. In April, members of the Dave Matthews Tribute Band – that is to say, a band that makes its living touring and covering the Dave Matthews Band, under the moniker the Dave Matthews Tribute Band (get it?) – commandeered an irresistible Lake Eola swan boat at 2 in the morning and sunk it in the lake. Apparently, they sunk it pretty good, too – the next morning, the boat was seen upside down in the lake, with its head stuck in the mud. The swan boat was apparently worth anywhere from $2,700 to $10,000, depending on who you talked to, so the city charged the jam-band members with grand theft (!) for the swan boat heist.
What is it about this town that makes Halloween the most eagerly anticipated holiday on the calendar? Every year, as soon as the calendar flips to October, it's like Halloween vomits on Orlando – and not just in a trick-or-treat, all-about-the-kids sort of way. We've got haunted walks in the woods, genuinely frightening haunted houses, dress-up pub crawls, big-money costume contests and zombies. Always with the zombies. If you find downtown Orlando blood-curdling any other time of year, you're sure to find some really scary shit trolling Orange Avenue in the weeks leading up to everyone's favorite pagan celebration.
Audubon Park Garden District
If you enjoy torturing yourself by lusting after unattainable houses in really great neighborhoods, get ready for the Audubon Park Garden District to break your heart. If you lived here – and it's really too bad about that credit score of yours – you could begin your mornings with coffee at Stardust Video & Coffee and a muffin from Blue Bird Bake Shop. Then you'd spend your midday browsing the book selection at Park Ave CDs, noshing on a rainbow roll from Sushi Lola's and buying potted plants at Palmer's Garden & Goods. Then you could pick up flowers for your sweetheart at Flower No. 5 before heading over to the Monday night Audubon Park Community Market for a locally farmed dinner. With newcomers like Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour and a permanent farmers market moving into a building on Corrine Drive later this year, the neighborhood will soon be more livable – but probably less affordable – than ever.
Even in the best of circumstances, it's a huge pain in the ass to run for office. When you're homeless, it's practically impossible. Local homeless advocate Bruce Shawen knows. He tried to file to run for city office earlier this year but ended up having to pull out of the race after spending a considerable amount of time trying to fundraise, get signatures on a petition to support his candidacy and find a way to pay the filing fees associated with running a campaign. One thing Shawen didn't take into account when he decided to run was how hard it would be to convince the city that he was actually a city resident – without a permanent address, he wasn't able to prove that he was, and when he tried to get homeless shelters he stayed at to give him proof of residency, he was turned down because of privacy laws that make it illegal for many service agencies to provide any information at all about their clients. Shawen ended up throwing in the towel on his campaign, but before he did, he made sure the local media (and his fellow candidates) were well aware of this new twist on the frustrations and powerlessness of being homelessness.