First: Mills 50, mills50.org
Second: Winter Park, winterpark.org
Third: Downtown Sanford, historicdowntownsanford.com
Brendan O'Connor is the editor-in-chief of Bungalower Media and a former editorial staffer of Orlando Weekly. He came to Orlando from Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario, and graduated from Rollins College. (He paid his way through school by working in Disney's International Program, "saying 'Eh?' to tourists while serving them steak" in Epcot's World Showcase.) Brendan is the co-host of the weekly radio show "Bungalower and The Bus" on Real Radio 104.1-FM, a practicing artist, and will play the role of "Dumpster Merman" in this year's Immerse festival in downtown Orlando.
2020 saw small business owners across the nation being forced to pivot, not just to save their businesses but to support their communities. Restaurants that once didn't even have websites were forced to modernize and digitize, and to look at their operations through new lenses of pandemic-colored glasses.
So let's shout it out to some local pivot pioneers who went the extra mile during the pandemic to make an impact AND make a living, and have really set themselves up as the best of the best of Orlando.
4 Rivers Smokehouse, a local chain and arguably one of the most successful barbecue restaurants in the southeast, transformed its parking lots into pop-up drive-through and pick-up lanes for not just doctrinal brisket sandwiches, but also hard-to-find items like toilet paper, milk and eggs very early in the pandemic. They transitioned from restaurant to crisis centers for their devotees and cemented their role as a community leader. Now their 4Roots Foundation has expanded state-wide with government contracts to feed the food insecure and their restaurants are spreading like locusts.
The New Standard's to-go meal kits were welcome, but they were also one of the only venues in the region to continue to employ live musicians during the pandemic via their near-nightly streaming concerts.
The City of Winter Park set the pace for local municipalities to get creative in supporting their downtown businesses with mindful, socially distanced outdoor events, designated curbside pickup locations with concierge services, and a recovery task force that lived that #OhanaLife and left no business behind.
The City of Orlando's parklet program was great, albeit curiously limited to Thornton Park, but the creativity shown by businesses like Maxine's on Shine to completely transform their parking lot into an outdoor dining room, complete with pop-up wooden scaffolding, was much more impressive than picnic tables and planters in a parking space, and deserves all the slow claps we can muster.
And lastly, let's hear it for all of our pop-up foodies who made delicious, decadent feasts from kitchens, tents, and the backs of broken down cars to keep us fat and complacent at home with special nods to Soseki, the Foreigner Experience, Yugiri Ramen Project, Orlando Meats, Brad's Underground Pizza, Jeff's Bagel Run and Meng's Kitchen.
No need for a hashtag; if you know, you know. There's a third mayor in this town. And his name is Lulu. (Yes, his.) He doesn't swing left, nor does he swing right (though his tail often does); politics aren't his concern. A Thornton Park resident, he's out daily mixing with his constituents, shaking hands and kissing babies. Snacks, pets and water breaks at the bars? Yes, please. Chats and naps at the local salons? Don't mind if he does. Hiding under the Falcon's picnic tables after his curfew just to hang out and listen to Sonic Youth? Sittin' like a kitty. He's hip and he's got my vote! Lulu doesn't put up with bullying from ruffian ferals, he yawns at the logic of crosswalks, and most people in Thornton Park think he's actually human ... and can probably beat you at Scrabble. He's Lulu "Unleashed." Rock the vote. (Lulu Unleashed)
One of Orlando's newest pieces of public art is a bright yellow sculpture that needs to know one thing and it needs to know it now: Are you down to Orlando? Orlando's Downtown Development Board unveiled the new sculpture in May to commemorate their 50th anniversary — and it immediately raised text-savvy eyebrows around the city. Ostensibly, the letters DTO are meant to signify "downtown Orlando." (But ... "downtown" is one word ... oh, never mind.) Still, we can't help feeling like the sculpture belongs on a Readers Digest list of "cellular text message slang that you might find if you pick up your teen's phone." The giant lexical sculpture sits outside the Discover Downtown visitor center on Orange Avenue, easily visible all day and brightly lit up at night. Because if you're Down to Orlando, you're DTO 24/7. Meanwhile, the less said about the awkward patch job on the O, the better. (Discover Downtown™)
Look, it's life or death right now with this pandemic and we understand that fully and it's our daily reality. But sometimes, while watching Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings' coronavirus briefings, we've started to see hints of the same existential despair found in the old "Steve Harvey Doesn't Want to Host Family Feud Anymore" mashup videos. Maybe it's just our quarantine-addled brains, but it seemed like every time a reporter asked about the coronavirus strike teams, or what dickheaded move Gov. Ron DeSantis made to put this entire county in jeopardy this week, Demings would stare quietly off into the distance for a brief second that stretched into an eternity, perhaps mentally going to his happy place, then compose himself, purposefully not break into a primal scream, and instead matter-of-factly state something like, "There is nothing unprecedented about local governments trying to provide for and protect residents during a pandemic" (March 2021) or "I really don't feel like I have to go to the governor to ask permission to be the mayor of Orange County" (Dec. 2020) or just mildly suggest yet again that, hey, maybe everyone needs to get vaccinated sooner rather than later. Sometimes a man's face communicates more than his words ever could. (ocfl.com)
Orlando Weekly readers really came through this year in the Local Color section, with a majority voting for ending racial inequality as the most important use of public budgets.
Springing from an outpouring of grief and outrage over the killings of so many POC by police, Black Lives Matter protests launched all over the United States, and all over the world, fostering a sense that this was a systemic breaking point. And Orlando joined in soon enough. For weeks in downtown Orlando — also in Kissimmee, and Sanford, and Winter Park — diverse crowds of hundreds and, a few times, thousands of people rallied. These were actions organized not by a political party but by young adults, most if not all Black, working on a grass-roots level with mutual aid resources and organizations. One couldn't help but be inspired by the energy, the determination, the commitment and the peaceful nature of these gatherings. And, for the naysayers in the back: No, there was no spike in COVID-19 cases from these demonstrations.
And these organizations were savvy enough not to be assuaged by good PR moves. Few would claim that Orlando city leaders had anything but the best intentions when they painted the words "Black Lives Matter" in 30-foot letters on the surface of Rosalind Avenue, following the lead of Washington, D.C., and other American cities. But many residents, Black and white alike, questioned the utility of the gesture. Almost before the paint was dry, the horizontal mural was marked up — defaced, in some people's opinion; legitimately criticized (albeit in spray paint under cover of darkness), felt others — with graffiti saying "Defund OPD" and "Not enough," among other phrases. A significant segment of the city rejected the easy narrative of "mural good, graffiti bad" and called out the mural as "meaningless and empty," adding that legislative protections for Black people from police abuse and reparations to all descendants of American slaves would mean more than any mural ever could. It remains to be seen if the Defund movement — which is, in fact, a poorly monikered drive to move budgets away from armed response and into beefing up mental health resources and diversion programs — will take root in Orlando, but it seems a majority of our voters would love to see it.
First: Winter Park Boat Tour, scenicboattours.com
Second: Gatorland, gatorland.com
Third: Eola General, eolageneral.com