Catch ‘Em While You Can
by Dave Mitchell
I‘ve used up a few bytes here in the past to decry the vanishment of the sleazy old Florida roadside attraction, but I’ve given a lot of thought lately to the similar disappearance of the little community landmarks, especially here in the Greater Orlando Tri-County Tourist Axis. A couple of imminent closures of places as familiar as the ol’ hand-back especially: Ben White Raceway and Tinker Field. The former is a city-owned quarter-horse training facility of national reknown that may soon be closed due to steady financial losses. The latter has been allowed to slide into disrepair and, with the move in 2000 to the Disney baseball facility by the AA Orlando Rays, will likely be razed to provide parking for football fans attending games at the neighboring Citrus Bowl. Both sites have quite a bit of history: Ben White has trained scores of champion horses, and actually hosted an early NASCAR Grand National event. There has been pro baseball on Tinker Field’s site since the teens. The Cubs, Dodgers, Senators and Twins all held spring training there, and future stars from Rod Carew and Frank Viola to Chuck Knoblauch and Kerry Wood honed their craft in the minors there. It’s where I became a baseball junkie, so I obviously have a lot of sentiment tied to it, much like one loves a stinky old dog who’s no longer the adorable puppy of years past.
This got me in a real nostalgia jag for a lot of other vanished CentFla culture: all the drive-in theaters, oversized oranges and lumberjacks, the enormous finger-wagging Art Grindle on Colonial Drive, the missiles that were out in front of the Sentinel-Star building, animated neon signage … stuff that said “I’m home” when we headed back on childhood road trips.
So I decided to list a few of the still-extant area landmarks that could someday fall victim to retirement, rising property values, or no sense of history (I have excluded the local libraries and museums, as they are less likely to go blotto … though people who remember the defunct Florida Symphony Orchestra may disagree.)
Beefy King and Old Dixie Fried Chicken: These two old-school junk food joints are as true to their menus as they were when I was in high school a quarter of a century ago. Beefy King, near Colonial Plaza on Bumby Avenue, was a chain joint whose private owner kept the name and signage when the chain folded. Serves real roast beef sandwiches (among other items) and tater tots instead of fries. Mmmm … prefab potatoes. Old Dixie is all crinkle-cut fries, slaw, and down-home fried bird, all served up under the gaze of a huge redneck chicken in a Confederate kepi. The sign has seen some unrepaired wind damage, but the leeering, drooling chicken head still stands tall over Edgewood. (Note: Edgewood, an island in Orange Avenue south of Orlando near Oak Ridge Road, is a notorious speed trap. Make sure your lights and signals work and watch the speedometer. SERIOUSLY!) The ultimate appeal of these joints isn’t the food (especially if you’re not into meat or grease) but the signage, which has hung around long enough to become retro (if not exactly PC).
Monument of States: In what was once the heart of downtown Kissimmee but is now just a block of unrented business suites sits this cement-and-stone monolith. It’s rocks from most of the continental states and some foreign climes, all stuck in cement and painted in unspeakable pastels and primaries. In a similar if more hoity-toity vein is the Walk of Fame at Rollins College in Winter Park, where stones along the walkway honor the gamut of People of Letters from Lord Byron to Mister Rogers.
Silver Spurs: Adjoining Osceola County Stadium (at 15 years old already an archaic building by local standards), Kissimmee’s Silver Spurs Arena hosts several rodeos, recalling the time when Kissimmee-St. Cloud were famed as the heart of Florida’s cattle country instead of the Host Community to Disney. PETA-types may decry this as abuse and exploitation of animals for entertainment purposes, but the complex also hosts ECW wrestling events, so I figure it all balances out.
Lake Eola Fountain: Okay, so it’s The Landmark of Orlando proper. But I bet the City Parents would sink it in a second if Disney or Universal wanted to stick some godawful piece of promotional poop in its place. Anyway, Eola Park has really been fixed up nice in the past few years (thank you, oh City Parents!) and is a pleasant green space in a city and county that doesn’t seem to value pretty green spaces much.
The Frosted Mug: I haven’t been to the yuppified Thornton Park neighborhood east of Lake Eola in months, so it might have been gentrifiedby now, but the Frosted Mug is a little touch of Bithlo amidst all the stylists and wine bars. Formica, naugahyde, a jukebox full of country tunes, Bud or Bud Light on tap, and everything is deep fried for extra arterial clottage (hey, just drink more beer ‘n’ rinse them veins out!) I’ve taken friends there who’ve FEARED FOR THEIR LIVES, so you know it’s gotta rock.
Big Trees: Two tubs of timber vie for the local title of The Big Tree. The Senator, a huge and ancient cypress, stands in Big Tree Park near Sanford and is damned impressive. But Big Tree Park near College Park in Orlando features a sprawling old oak, which, while not matching the Senator’s girth or height, allows you to climb on it like a chimp! Big monkey fun!
Famous Houses: While the local media likes to shill this as the home of horrible pop acts or relocated tax exile athletes, there are a few genuine Cool Homes and Buildings in the area. Buddy Ebsen’s old home in Thornton Park was at one time an acting school, and may still be. Ebsen, of course, starred in the Beverly Hillbillies, THE GREATEST TELEVISION SHOW OF ALL TIME. I base my whole life on the teachings of Jethro Bodine. But I digress. The house Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road at still stands in College Park, and I believe it’s being turned into a writer’s studio or some damn thing. And on Pine Street downtown is the Tinker Building, where Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Tinker opened Orlando’s first pool hall and saloon (though this is overlooked on the historical plaque). Bonus points if you’ve deduced that the aforementioned Tinker Field was also named after Joe.
How to get there: What? You want me to do all the work? Later!