Put on a smiley face

You wouldn't think that a seasoned travel writer would be such an easy sell. Especially Martin Hintz, the current head of the 1300-member Society of American Travel Writers, who -- in a one-day visit to Orlando -- bought hook, line and sinker into Mayor Glenda Hood's vision of an arts district (which, after five years of trying, is still only a vision).

On a recent quickie tour guided in part by the Downtown Development Board, Hintz saw the Orlando Museum of Art, City Hall's gallery, the Orlando Science Center, the apartments going up south of Lake Eola and a few other cultural gems. He walked away talking up how the town has rallied behind Hood's arts agenda.

"You've got an infrastructure that you don't recognize," Hintz said in an interview before hopping a flight back to his native Milwaukee. "That's where writers come in."

Those words are music to Hood's ears, though the rest of us may scratch our heads. At a luncheon to announce next summer's Institute for Travel and Guide-book Writing, Hood was in her patented cheerleader mode, flashing warm smiles and bubbling with optimism for the city's future. Next year, she promises, will be the "year of the arts. Orlando has a brand name around the globe. We want to broaden that." When pressed for details about the "year of the arts," Hood said her formal announcement would come at the LizArt auction in January.

The city, says Institute head Herbert Hiller, should try to push its cultural attractions now, while the getting's good. In fact, he says, it has "90 to 120 days to bust through this theme-park umbrella. There's more to Orlando than just that."

In the tourism flux since the terrorist attacks, would-be travelers are avoiding airlines. That, the travel writers say, opens the door for Orlando to bring in nearby visitors, those who have tired of the Mouse and I-Drive and want something new. Once the economy picks up and fear subsides, O-town's golden chance may fade. Indeed, the mayor has already stumped for tourism in Atlanta, pumping the city's cultural assets on local TV.

The Institute, which is entering the third year of a five-year deal with the DDB, lures between 15 and 50 travel writers to Orlando every June. The DDB's hope is that the writers will leave brimming with story ideas, selling articles and pictures to magazines across the country -- publicity that will bring people to Orlando, and not just the theme parks.

The key, however, is for the city to convince the writers there's something of importance here. And surely the DDB won't give all of them the Hood-endorsed tour. The writers will most likely see Orlando for what it really is: a city with a lot of work ahead of it.

Hiller suggests that, if the city can get more people to live downtown and develop a stake in the community, that will solve most of the other problems, including empty storefronts and a lack of concern for the homegrown arts.

Even before he saw the mayor's dog and pony show, Hintz had a skewed vision of Orlando: He had expected "a sleepy, small town `with` a retirement feel to it."

Now he sees through Glenda goggles: "I think it's gonna be a marvelous draw," Hintz, glowing from his tour, told the mayor. "But you gotta be patient."

Easy for him to say. It's his first day here.

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