Monday, April 14, 2014

Hot Florida Action

Earlier this month I took a weeklong driving tour of the Sunshine State. As I’ve done each year over the last decade, this trip was again motivated by my desire to see major-league ballgames in as many different stadiums as possible. Florida's two -- the Rays’ Tropicana Field and the Marlins' Marlins Park -- are the only ones that remain (not counting a 2009 Wrigley rainout). And, with this new season’s opening weeks overlapping with the final weeks of the NHL’s regular season (along with Florida's not-yet-brutal spring weather), this was the ideal time to go.

Tuesday April 1

On April Fool’s afternoon I touched down in Orlando and picked up my rental car, embarking on my counter-clockwise spin around the state. I first poked around downtown Orlando a bit and then headed over to the Citrus Bowl, where I was surprised to find some serious remodeling underway -- the lower bowl is completely gone, while the upper decks are being preserved (see above -- has this ever been done before?). Afterwards I drove past the bananas-looking Holy Land Experience (I’m an unabashed TBN fan, but there wasn't time to go inside) to the Best Western. Following a constitutional through Downtown Disney, I called it a night.

Wednesday April 2

My first full day started with monorail rides around Epcot Center and the Magic Kingdom, and through the Contemporary Resort hotel. As a kid I was fascinated by my 1973 edition of The Art of Walt Disney, particularly its photo of the monorail passing through the hotel's lobby -- above is my re-creation. Really, the monorail is the only thing I was particularly interested in seeing in Orlando -- I actually once did a monorail zine (scroll to the bottom of that link), so I was excited to finally experience it firsthand. And I was delighted that it was free, ‘cause I didn’t wanna pay the crazy admission fees to any of the Disney theme parks. Still, I couldn’t help but feel like a creepy weirdo -- a middle-aged man visiting Disney World alone, riding the monorail around in circles...

Anyway, I got my kids a Goofy doll, though their favorite toy at the moment we call Duck Duck. So it was an amusing coincidence that I came across Duck Duck Express as I arrived in Tampa that afternoon...

Lunch was a deep-fried alligator tail sandwich at Skipper's Smokehouse, a combination restaurant/caterer/music venue/talent agency. The little fried gator chunks satisfied my hunger for offbeat local cuisine, tho' it was nuthin' special... Next stop was Steinbrenner Field, the Yankees' spring training home, which I found bigger and nicer than most Triple-A minor-league parks I’ve seen. (I snapped a photo of some Ichiro jerseys for my other blog.) From there I drove past Raymond James Stadium (home of the NFL’s Buccaneers) and through historic Ybor City before crossing Tampa Bay into St. Petersburg. I’m not the gambling type, but I put $5 down on Flying Thor to win the 14th race at the Derby Lane dog track. Both of us lost.

After checking in at the Ponce de Leon, I met my old Portland pal Jay outside Tropicana Field, where we attended that evening’s Tampa Bay Rays/Toronto Blue Jays game. No, Jay didn't root for the Jays, as he's fairly indifferent about sports in general. He was far more impressed by the rays petting tank, which I enjoyed as well -- they’re slimy! As for the domed, fake-grass "field," well, it wasn’t that horrible, certainly better than the ghastly Kingdome I grew up with. For the record, the Jays won, 3-0.

Thursday April 3

After morning stroll around downtown St. Pete and along its pier, I drove across town to the church that looks like a chicken. I saw it on some blog somewhere like a year ago, and made a note to check it out. Sure enough...

I headed south across the beautiful Sunshine Skyway Bridge to Bradenton (where I was unable to finish a fantastic, big-ass pork sandwich at Jose's Real Cuban), then further south to Sarasota to meet up with Jay again, along with his gf Laura. They took me to their favorite local dive, then we carpooled back up to Tampa for a Lightning/Flames game. Jay dug the hockey more than the baseball, probably 'cause of the cool tesla coil that they fire up whenever the home team scores (it happened just once that night). For the record, the Flames won, 4-1.

Friday April 4

We discussed a longish drive north to see the Weeki Wachee mermaids, but decided it was too far away. Instead, Jay and Laura took me to Siesta Key Beach. It claims to be the best beach in America because its cool white sand doesn’t scorch bare feet. (In fact, it was rated #1 by Dr. Beach in 2011!) Lunch follwed at Marina Jack, a waterfront restaurant where I had the grouper sandwich (good call, Jay!). After saying our goodbyes, I hit the road for the four-hour trek through Alligator Alley to Miami. I made my way to my hotel, situated in an industrial area on the Miami River between the airport and a jai-alai arena -- more on that later. For the record, there were no sports balls games tonight.

Saturday April 5

I wheeled through Little Havana to Marine Stadium (above), a rad-looking grandstand once used for viewing water sports. As it's now abandoned and crumbling, I had to sneak through a hole in a chain-link fence to get inside. The place smelled like piss and trash and decomposing flesh, partly due to a giant dead seabird rotting in the seats. Along with the garbage and broken glass, it was plastered with graffiti, some of which was being applied during my visit. Sadly, I couldn't see the entire amazing structure from a distance, ‘cause it’s surrounded by overgrown foliage and water. Still, the vandalism was unexpectedly impressive...

Then I hit Miami Beach, where all kinds of folks were hanging out, frolicking in the waves, getting tans/burns/cancer/etc. I’m not big on beaches, but I enjoyed wading through the surf.

Later I used Decobike (pretty much the same smart bike-rental system I’ve used in Minneapolis, Washington and Toronto) to pedal north to the historic Fontainebleau Hotel (as seen in Goldfinger and Scarface) and back down to the southern end of the beach, checking out the cool art-deco buildings all along. The best meal I had on the trip was at the iconic Joe's Stone Crab – their signature item was far too expensive, so I settled for a crab roll and key lime pie -- dee-lish.

That evening I visited Marlins Park for a game against the Padres. It's the newest MLB stadium, and the final one of 30 current ballparks that I’ve now visited. The venue is huge, ultra-modern, and frankly, a little sterile. The big tropical fish tank behind home plate looks cool, but unfortunately it's only accessible to that section's ticket holders. For the record, the Marlins won, 5-0.

Sunday April 6

I had a little extra time this morning before stuff opened, so I took an unscheduled trip on the Metromover. It’s a free shuttle, whose rubber-tired cars run on a short, narrow circuit a few stories above downtown Miami. Then I made it back to Casino Miami Jai Alai for the matinee program. What I imagine was once a classy gambling palace in the ‘60s now seemed kinda run-down and seedy. The actual sport is something I’d always been curious about, and it comes up on about every fifth crossword I do. So I read up on the sport on my phone while the action played in front of me -- it seems somewhat like raquetball, only with a far bigger court, helmets, and no fourth wall. If Seattle had jai-alai, I'd become a fan.

After an hour I headed north, past Sun Life Stadium (home of the NFL's Dolphins), to Sunrise, home of the NHL's Panthers. It seems insane to have a major-league hockey in subtropical suburbia, just a slap shot away from the vast Everglades swamp. But hockey is cool anywhere, and this game (vs. Dallas) brought my hockey-arena count to seven. (I have no immediate plans to hit all 30 NHL arenas, but it’s as good an excuse to travel as any.) For the record, the Panthers won, 3-2.

Monday April 7

First I drove into the Everglades to the Sawgrass Recreation Park, where noisy airboats zip tourists around to gawk at alligators. Sadly, none were spotted on my half-hour ride, but as a consolation prize, they have some gators in captivity in their little zoo. (That's where I photographed the totem pole detail at the top of this post.) They even let you hold baby gators, which I would’ve loved, but time was tight and I had to scoot...

Then I had a gyro lunch at Bigfoot outside Fort Lauderdale, though the only reason for this stop was getting a picture for my Bigfoot is Real page...

The gyro fortified me for the three-hour drive up to Kennedy Space Center, where I saw the Space Shuttle Atlantis, along with a bunch of cool-looking rockets in the "rocket garden." I tried my best to replicate the cover photo of Cats and Dogs, my favorite Royal Trux album. A few steps to my right (plus a fisheye lens) would've nailed it.

Finally, it was back to the Orlando airport and a bumpy flight home, taking with me blistered feet and a sunburn as souvenirs.

Florida isn’t as fucked up as you’d think, but I was only there for one week – Jay thinks all that sun makes people there insane. Still, I saw some obnoxious truck accessories, like Ben-Hur chariot spikes and Confederate flags. On the other hand, I didn't see any flamingoes, manatees, or cocaine.

Whatever. It'll all be underwater in a few decades.

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