There's no telling what will turn up in life's random gas stations. Even so, finding a British grocery at a Shell station on the outskirts of Clermont came as a surprise.
Searching for a soda after an afternoon with my English-bred mother-in-law and other visiting relatives, I encounter shelves of PG Tips tea, copies of the Daily Mail and a row of imported candy bars.
"There are a lot of Brits with vacation homes around here," explains store manager John Lodge, who looks and sounds every bit the gentrified English chap that he is.
Spurred by an aggressive international marketing campaign, a wave of reality TV shows glamorizing overseas travel and a compelling urge to rub shoulders with a famous cartoon rodent, 1 million visitors from the United Kingdom are expected to flock to Central Florida in 2004.
Instead of settling into hotel rooms, roughly 20 percent of these British guests a contingent equaling the city of Orlando's population will stay for weeks or months in spacious private vacation homes scattered within a dozen miles of Disney World. Hundreds of these upscale houses are owned by fellow Englishmen and new models are selling faster than Michael Eisner can raise park-admission prices.
Although some prospective buyers go home feeling confused, thousands of Brits have decided to stick around for good.
"This was originally our country until we taxed you too much and you gave us the boot," recounts Lodge, who moved to the United States five years ago. "Now we're coming back."
Bus banners and reality TV
Every day planes packed with U.K. tourists touch down at the Sanford airport and Orlando International after an eight-hour trek over the Atlantic. More flights are being added to Central Florida by British charter companies and airlines.
The sound of those jets is music to the ears of Jose Estorino, senior vice president of marketing with the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"We are a great vacation option for them," Estorino says confidently. The numbers back him up: It's estimated that English visitors spend more than $1 billion in the Sunshine state annually.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the number of British visitors in Central Florida plunged more than 30 percent. But the totals have been rebounding steadily ever since, thanks to zealous promotional efforts. As part of a $1.7 million media blitz launched in December, for instance, ads touting Florida tourism were plastered on 100 buses in central London and at 75 train stations. The campaign also included inserts in major daily newspapers and TV advertising.
In response, Estorino says his staff has already received 47,000 inquiries from the United Kingdom.
Reality TV in Great Britain is making Estorino's job somewhat easier. At least three series have focused on what apparently must be every English viewer's dream owning a second home in an exotic locale like Central Florida.
One episode of the British Broadcasting Co. series Escape to the Sun highlights the story of a man and woman, Tony and June, who meet and fall in love in Celebration. They buy a house in Disney's faux-village and open a tea shop called Sherlock's. (The couple has since sold the tea shop to another Brit named Penny Thornhill. "I love it," says Thornhill, who enjoyed a handful of vacations before deciding to relocate permanently. "It is so much better here, especially the weather.")
I stumbled across another mention of Escape to the Sun that's worth sharing. The following entry shows up on a website listing of least-liked TV shows.
"It is a programme about British nobodies who have gone to Florida to live there Ã?" the unnamed critic writes.
"Perhaps it is because I find the whole idea of America nauseating but I actually sit there cringing while watching this programme. They even put Jaws-like music to someone going around with a can of fly spray the other day to make it look interesting. It is so bad that you have to watch it."
Low prices and the mouse
Business is booming at Alexander Holiday Homes, which is among a handful of area real- estate firms that cater primarily to British clients.
"It's unbelievable at the moment," says ex-Londoner Mark Alexander. "I've been here for 11 years and business has always been very steady. But in the last 12 months, things have gotten pretty manic."
Alexander and other brokers say several factors are contributing to the surge in sales. A favorable exchange rate is one of the biggest keys. The British pound is currently worth about $1.75.
Skyrocketing housing costs in the United Kingdom also figure into the equation.
For 100,000 pounds or a wee bit more, someone from Great Britain can buy a new or almost new four-bedroom, three-bathroom home near Kissimmee. We're talking 2,000 square feet with high ceilings, perhaps a fireplace and without question a heated swimming pool and screened deck a virtual manor in the eyes of many English visitors who reside in cramped townhouses.
"In some parts of London, you wouldn't even get a kennel for that amount," Alexander scoffs.
While relatively reasonable real estate prices are a drawing point, the allure of our weather to sun-starved Brits cannot be exaggerated.
"The weather at the moment is atrocious in the U.K.," says Kati Hughes, a real estate broker with New World International in Celebration. "It's cold, gray and the sun doesn't shine."
Being a responsible journalist, I checked for myself. Sure enough, the weeklong outlook for London at the Weather Channel's website called for partly cloudy skies and rain with highs in the 60s. Yuck.
Still, the sun also shines in other parts of Florida, and elsewhere for that matter. Why are the Brits infatuated with Central Florida?
To be sure, a goodly number of English tourists do take holidays in South Florida and in communities along the state's Gulf Coast, as well as in France and Spain. But we remain their premier destination. Hughes says Central Florida's greatest attraction for the British can be summed up in one word: Disney.
"Everybody knows about Disney World."
Pressure and confusion
Never ones to miss out on a trend, two of my wife's English aunts flew across the pond a few weeks ago to look at vacation homes in Florida.
After spending a few days on the Gulf Coast, the refined-yet-savvy Pat Bond and Brenda Miles arrived at a Comfort Inn in Kissimmee. Their initial impressions were less than favorable: The accommodations appeared to be generally lacking and the barrage of hotels, dinner theaters, gift shops and miniature golf courses along U.S. Highway 192 was quickly deemed "a tad overwhelming."
While touring properties, the sales pitches followed the same basic scheme: Put 25 percent down on a vacation home and hire a management company to rent it to other U.K. tourists up to 35 weeks a year. The rental income will cover the mortgage and management costs i.e., the house pays for itself and the owners get a free place to stay on their future Central Florida vacations.
Brenda, who had attended three exhibitions on foreign vacation homes before making the trip, was approaching the deal from a different perspective. She wanted to pay the full cost up front, creating a stream of income from rental checks that would supplement her pension when she retires in two years.
She found an appealing condo, but wound up going home without closing the deal.
"I'm known for my indecision and right now I can't seem to make up my mind," Brenda told me before a Sunday-afternoon family feast. "There's too much pressure and it's all too confusing."
The agent selling the condo wanted to close the deal in two weeks, but Brenda would have had to sell her house immediately and then find another place to live to cover the purchase price. She also had nagging concerns about the management fees, which can add up to $9,000 yearly.
On the final day of their visit, Brenda said she was leaning toward renting a vacation home here for a week or two as a trial run. In the meantime, she'll keep looking at property in England.
"This was just a feasibility study," Pat added in a calm tone.
"This is home"
According to census figures, more than 7,000 U.K. citizens live in Central Florida, making them the region's eighth largest group of immigrants. Many more would probably come if they could, but the immigration laws are a bitch and it's hard to sneak across the Atlantic on a makeshift raft.
Despite the British flag flying over the swimming pool at their Longwood home, Graham Barker, his wife and their two daughters have no desire to return to England.
"This is home," Barker says. "It's where we want to be."
The family came to Central Florida to visit Disney World for the first time in 1988. They immediately fell head over heels for the destination. A few years later, Barker and his wife decided to move here a goal they finally managed to accomplish in 1995.
Barker runs a successful business installing computer networks on cruise ships. In addition to offering consulting services to would-be British expats, he has authored a guide chronicling his slow, costly and often frustrating journey through the immigration process. Entitled Would You Like to Live in Florida?, Barker's book contains some candid insights about his new neighbors.
"Coming from the much faster-paced England, it almost seems that Floridians run in slow motion," Barker writes.
"We have come to the conclusion that most of the people who live here have very little knowledge of the outside world. Don't get me wrong the people here are very nice, they just don't seem to have any clue about anything."
Barker thinks that might just be a Florida trait.
"People we have talked to tell us that it's not like this in the northern part of the United States and say that most Americans have a bit more about them the further north that you go. It must be the hot weather down here."
When they first arrived in Central Florida, Barker's family bought annual passes to the parks at Disney, but they've overcome that addiction. Both of the couple's daughters graduated from public high schools in Seminole County, adapting easily to American culture.
"When they are with their friends, I can't understand a thing they're going on about," Barker confesses.
Asked about regrets, he mentions only one: "I wish we could have moved over here sooner."
One unhappy island
A recent poll found that 39 percent of English residents would leave their proud island nation "if they had the chance." It isn't simply a lack of sunny weather that has Brits grumbling these days. During their recent visit, my wife's aunts had no shortage of complaints about the current state of affairs back in the United Kingdom.
Pensions aren't sufficient. Too much public assistance is going to asylum-seekers. And why do broadcasters now insist on giving the temperature in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit?
"We're fed up with the influence of the European Parliament," Pat groused. "We're being absorbed into Europe."
Brenda's voice brimmed with venom when she referred to the "pukes" in Spain and France.
"We hate the French why do they have to be so close to us anyway?"
Both women strenuously agreed that they would rather associate with like-minded Americans than European riffraff.
British visitors can stay in the United States for as long as 90 days or up to six months if they obtain a tourist visa. But as Barker and others have learned firsthand, getting the green light to stay for a longer period can prove to be far more difficult.
English entrepreneurs, highly skilled professionals and wealthy retirees typically have the best chance of eventually getting a green card, Barker says. But the odds are long for blue-collar chaps from the United Kingdom seeking work visas in the United States.
Ironically, the Bush administration is pushing a quasi-amnesty program benefiting 8 million undocumented immigrants who are already here. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans will illegally cross the border into the United States this year.
The dizzying droves of U.K. tourists and a slowly growing British immigrant population are beginning to make their mark.
At last count, there were more than 100 British owned and operated pubs in the state, with well over a dozen in Central Florida. Our area also is home to a handful of British grocers, including Union Jack British Goods in Kissimmee's ultratacky Old Town attraction. I found the storefront business a few doors up from the wax museum featuring The Tower of London Experience, not far from the mechanical bull.
Glenda Gregory is behind the cash register. She came to Central Florida from Worcestershire last May and she's been working at Union Jack for about a month. She says a majority of the customers are English.
"But we get a lot of Americans, too," Gregory points out. "They get hooked on the candy."
With a sudden craving and a sense of loyalty, I drive back to the Shell station where this story began.
Studying the impressive array of sweets, I pick out a Crunchie bar for my wife and a Cadbury's milk chocolate for myself. At the counter, I strike up another brief conversation with the store manager.
Lodge says the real estate broker next door is selling 95 percent of its vacation homes to Brits. He's heard that home prices near Disney have ticked up 10 percent in six months.
But now that he's lived in Central Florida for a few years, Lodge is starting to see drawbacks from the rampant growth that his countrymen are helping to fuel.
"When I first moved here, there were orange groves for as far as the eye can see with two or three housing developments sprinkled in," he recalls. "It's sort of sad now there's only two or three orange groves left."
Welcome to paradise.