Burnished Airports Give You So Much More
by Dave Mitchell
When traveling, I obviously prefer to drive, if for no other reason than the wider palette of options for adventure. Circumstances often dictate a less relaxed mode of transportation, however, and this is when I opt to fly. (Actually, I love flying, but that’s a tangent I haven’t the room to pursue here.) In the past couple of years I’ve spent some waiting room time in aiports in Kansas City, Detroit and Traverse City, and was left unimpressed by the relatively Spartan accommodations, especially in comparison to the glimpses of Orlando International Aiport I got while dashing in to catch flights and out to catch rides home.
So I got this wild hair to go check out OIA. Actually, it’s a a hair with a long root. Back in the early 80s, fresh out of college and easily amused, my roommate and I would head out to the airport to ride the monorails back and forth in the wee hours, chanting “Warriors! Come out and plaaa-aay!” like the guy in the movie “Warriors”. Other easily-amused poebuckers park along the fence on Frontage Road facing the Beeline Expressway and watch the planes land and take off (lucrative enough a crowd that a concession stand shows up occasionally). Maybe it’s the aura of second-hand travel thrills. Maybe it’s just the cheapness.
Like all the roads in Central Florida, Orlando International is in a constant state of construction and expansion. This limits the access to the pricey parking lots, so we decided to leave the Davemobile at home and use the bus (the $2 round trip would be cheaper than the parking and we could drink all we pleased without becoming road hazards). The buses don’t run 24-7, so we grabbed a schedule so we wouldn’t get stranded after dark and have to look for an insane cabbie to take us thirty miles out of our way to get home (who says this isn’t a big city?)
The drive into the airport is not unlike entering a theme park – Airliner World. Rolling faux-tropical landscaping passes by your window as you loop around the babylonian parking garages and approach the main terminal. The foyer in front of the in-terminal Hyatt hotel is a huge, airy space with subdued natural lighting. Escalators hum, fountains gurgle, shops becon. That’s when you realize …
You’re at the mall.
Granted, many of the little gift shops, newsstands and pubs are traditional airport stores, especially when you get out to the gates. But here at the epicenter of the airport is a familiar clot of shops – a pseudo-Spencers, a cd store, a Discovery Store. The Big Three attractions have gift shop outlets, and there is a Warner Brothers shop as well. (Surprisingly, the studio stores and the Discovery shop had prices on par with their mall counterparts – I expected a markup for those trapped between flights and jonesing for one last souvenir.) The Universal shop had an especially diverse collection of cool gewgaws, especially those related to comics and Dr. Seuss. I also killed a good hour exploring the Discovery Store’s jarring collection of cool fossils, New Agey hooey and World War II memorabilia.
You can take subway car-type monorails to the outlying gates, where you can get some fast food or an adult beverage and watch the planes and people come and go. We opted instead to check out the Shipyard Brewery in the main Hall of Stores. Billed as the first airport-based microbrewery, the brews were good, the burgers undistinguished, the motif puzzling. Would one name a seaside microbrewery The Hangar and decorate it with model planes and old parachutes? Still, they serve a reasonable brew sampler, so microbrew buffs should be aware and check it out.
There is a minor museum aspect to the terminal, to be fair. Fish tanks abound, and not just at the Sea World shop. A people-mover conveyor belt brings one past a display of NASA artifacts, including moon rocks. The monorail terminals are flanked by monumental pieces of artwork by internationally prominent artists.
I don’t know if I can truly recommend a trip out to OIA as a genuine road trip experience, but if you feel like “mall ratting” but don’t feel like yet another trip to Fascist Square, y’know, what the hell. Watching other people travel is the next best thing to travelling yourself.