A Florida Heart Grows Fonder

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, an ex-Orlandoan dedicates a love letter to a special someone­—the city of her youth.

Growing up as an Orlando native, I was constantly spoiled by the simple luxuries of life in the City Beautiful.  While other kids across the country were stuck indoors all winter, I basked in sunny December days, perfect for playing barefoot in the cool grass.  I spent my childhood years in the early ’90s eating real ice cream on bike rides home from Twistee Treat, and astronaut ice cream on field trips to Cape Canaveral. My first job wasn’t shoveling snow from a neighbor’s driveway, but mucking stalls in exchange for free horseback rides — which I took often through the then-bountiful orange groves of Gotha and MetroWest.

Even the more challenging aspects of life in a tropical climate were fun, thanks to that signature Florida magic. One of my fondest childhood memories is of playing cards by candlelight with my family while the winds of a hurricane howled at the door.  And though there were thunderstorms daily, when the rain passed, the world outside seemed clean and new, more inviting than before.

Little did I know then what gifts these moments were — didn’t all children spend long afternoons on horseback, sucking the juice from an orange plucked fresh from the branch?

There were other perks to spending my pre-teen years in the place that was single-handedly pumping out 1990s pop culture.  Residing now in Los Angeles I’m no stranger to celebrity sightings, but in my younger years I was smitten by chance encounters with my favorite Nickelodeon stars. I raved to my friends about spotting Clarissa Darling at Burger King and Kenan Thompson at Fashion Square Mall.  Like any American girl circa 1999, I swooned over the Backstreet Boys posters lining my bedroom walls.  But only we Orlando girls knew exactly where the guys lived, and on more than one occasion, my friends and I left home-baked brownies on their front porch—then ran away shrieking.

Making the most of my adolescence in Orlando was as effortless as falling in love. No one forgets the thrill of a first kiss… especially when it was in the blue bucket seat of Spaceship Earth, the air thick with the manufactured scent of burning Rome.

While other 16-year-olds had never seen a beach, I employed my newly minted driver’s license to venture to both of Florida’s coasts in one day, just to see the sun rise and set on the water. And while  high schoolers in other climates trudged through snow, I was serenaded by screams of delight echoing from nearby Islands of Adventure roller coasters as I entered the halls of Dr. Phillips High.

My friends and I spent our senior year sneaking into bars on I-Drive because they were less likely to card. Little did I know I was also receiving a world-class education by people-watching tourists from across the globe. To this day I can guess which country a European stranger is from based  solely on the length of his pant leg, or the particular shade of red he turns in the sun.

When I graduated from high school in 2004 the world seemed a scary place: post-9/11, mid-recession—heck, pre-iPhone. But I received a scholarship to Rollins College and the Orlando area provided a safe haven for four more years, which I spent studying beside Lake Virginia. While my head was floating off to the distant times and places my textbooks revealed, my feet were firmly rooted in the sandy Florida soil.

When I was 22, grad school lured me to Savannah, Georgia, and soon career opportunities beckoned farther and farther from home. Having lost both of my parents too soon, I found myself drifting away from Orlando with no excuse to go back. Unlike my old friends who returned for holidays with family and complained about their parents’ creaky old houses, I would never have the chance to step foot in my childhood bedroom again.

But it was my childhood in Orlando that made me who I am today, and I have nothing but gratitude for the city that holds my younger years serene and safe —floating through my memories like a swan boat perched atop the glassy waters of Lake Eola.

Landed now in sunny SoCal, I feel at home once more.  I’m at peace among the rocky cliffs of Santa Monica…but I still remember the sugary sands of the Florida coast, the water the exact temperature of bathwater. I make good use of my annual pass to Disneyland, even if my friends find my never-ending incantation of “But everything’s bigger at Walt Disney World” a bit insufferable.  And when I pluck an orange from the crate at one of L.A.’s ubiquitous artisanal groceries (oh, what I would give for a Publix!), I still reach for the ones that were Florida-grown—just like me.

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