Life is good in Florida
It’s 30 degrees Celsius and humid, but the baby American alligator doesn’t seem to mind the heat. He’s as relaxed as his skin is rubbery, even though his jaws are clamped shut for safety’s sake. Dedicated to rehabilitating injured or orphaned reptiles and exotic wildlife, the outdoor reptile exhibit in Sawgrass Recreation Park about an hour southwest of Palm Beach, Florida adjoins the Everglades grasslands.
My mission is simple: live “the good life” in the Sunshine State. What better place to fine-tune one’s philosophy?
Zooming around the Everglades in an airboat powered by a fuel-injected V-8 motor and a fan and piloted by Captain Trey over shallow waters at up to 65 kilometers (40 miles) per hour, you feel the exhilaration hit you like the hot wind in your face. A three-meter-long male alligator’s aggressive body language warns us to steer clear of his female companion 15 meters away.
“Alligators aren’t the mindless eating machines everybody makes them out to be,” Trey says. Then again, the cheerful, goateed zookeeper points out, they’re no geniuses, either. “Cannibal,” the park’s largest gator, is 56 years old, measuring almost four meters long and weighing 360 kilograms. Yet his brain is the size of a man’s thumbnail.
Philosopher Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” but cognitive ability isn’t the only path to the good life in Florida. In fact, it’s easy for anyone to become a bit of a mindless eating machine in America’s mecca for laid-back indulgence.
Home to nearly 20 million people, this greenery-blessed peninsula between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean offers more than 170,000 square kilometers to explore. In the oceanside town of Delray Beach, after checking out the elegant 25-year-old Centre for the Arts, the funky Second Avenue fashion district, and beaches chock-a-block with surfers and snorkelers, it’s time to take a page out of the Epicurean playbook of hedonism and head over to Atlantic Avenue and its more than 50 restaurants.
Lunch at the Smoke BBQ, which has a massive bar and darkwood counters, becomes an “Oink and Moo” sandwich with pulled pork and beef brisket, plus sides of coleslaw, baked beans, and potato salad. Dinner at the chic Meat Market, which opened in 2014, is a stacked kale Caesar salad, crispy Brussels sprouts, and medium-rare buffalo tenderloin.
My horizons, and my waistline, are expanding. But I feel good.
The English poet John Donne said, “No man is an island unto himself.” However, when I bunk down at the Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort, I can’t help thinking it’s nice to have this island, across the Blue Heron Bridge from Palm Beach, to myself (kind of). Room 1208 includes two bedrooms, a walk-in glass shower, a full kitchen with a black marble bar, a washer and dryer, and a captivating view of the Atlantic.
The temptation to go for a morning swim is irresistible, as is the temptation to lie on the award-winning hotel spa’s warm stone bed, to watch a “dive-in” movie at the Lagoon Pool, or to participate in a beach treasure hunt with metal detectors.
But after breakfast it’s time to drive off to the Flagler Museum, the former Gilded Age home of hotelier and railroad baron Henry Flagler. Built in 1902 and christened Whitehall, the opulent 75-room estate was described by The New York Herald as “more wonderful than any palace in Europe, grander and more magnificent than any other private dwelling in the world.”
It definitely attests to a fervent belief in Adam Smith’s philosophy of capitalism.
The Grand Foyer incorporates seven different types of marble. The music room has an organ with 1,249 pipes, making it the biggest such instrument in a private American residence. (Flagler actually had an organist living on site.) There’s a portrait of Flagler’s wife Mary wearing a string of pearls – worth $1 million in those days. The Grand Ballroom is modeled on the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and once hosted nightly parties with a who’s who of Palm Beach society.
Impressive for sure, but even a peek inside the mustachioed multimillionaire’s luxurious private railway carriage isn’t enough to convince me to follow the same track. Instead, I hop back in my rented Nissan Versa and drive two and a half hours northwest for another type of escapism: theme parks.
Orlando, Florida’s third-largest city, set a record last year with 62 million visitors. Most visitors, like me, emulate the famous (paid-for) cry of a victorious National Football League player after winning the Super Bowl: “I’m going to Disney World!”
With just one day to frolic at the flagship resort, which includes four parks, I elect to skip the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in favor of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I love a good show, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote, “Behold the superman,” comes to mind while watching the live extravaganzas here.
Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show reveals the secrets behind filming an over-the-top car chase. The set depicts a small French town. The hero burns rubber in his souped-up red sports car, pulling doughnuts and executing a backwards ramp jump with black-clad, gun-toting villains in hot pursuit. Movie cameras capture all the antics, and the stunt coordinator explains the visual trickery, repeatedly cautioning, “Don’t try any of this at home.”
I continue to delight my inner 12-year-old at the live Indiana Jones show, which reimagines scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Axe-wielding idols, dramatic rooftop plunges, and the giant rolling stone that pursues Harrison Ford in the opening sequence keep the adrenalin high.
Amid movie set-style facades depicting New York and San Francisco, I rock out with the Mulch, Sweat, & Shears rock band. Performing in front of a truck festooned with plants and flowers, the cowboy-hat-wearing cover band delivers on its promise to “rock your face off” with driving renditions of Van Halen’s “Jump” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”
I climax my Disney day by dashing through a warm tropical thundershower to ride the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. Never mind the apocalyptic conditions outside – I love the indoor coaster, looping upside-down in the dark and emerging with a smile and “Love in an Elevator” still ringing in my ears.
In keeping with Canadian rock philosopher Neil Young’s maxim that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” the relentless pace continues at Universal Studios Orlando’s Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster. Mötley Crüe’s “Kickstart My Heart” is the soundtrack for the 51-meter ascent of the opening hill and the subsequent high-tempo madness, surrounded by a chorus of screaming Brazilian high school students.
A different kind of fantasy awaits at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You can easily spend hours exploring this lavish tribute to the legendary movie series, and when you enter Diagon Alley through a brick wall, you’re suddenly immersed in Harry’s world, gaping at the huge fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts Bank.
Magic wand shops do a roaring trade at $45 per wand, and the new owners stroll around waving them to trigger fountains or assemble suits of armor. As I’m not quite ready to drop $110 on a Hufflepuff robe, I just enjoy an $8.50 pint of Dragon Scale amber lager at the Leaky Cauldron tavern.
The immersive Escape from Gringotts ride abounds with state-of-the-art special effects, including a face-to-face confrontation with villainous Voldemort. The Forbidden Journey ride in the neighboring Islands of Adventure park, accessible by the Hogwarts Express train from a brilliant mock-up of London’s King’s Cross station, is arguably even more thrilling, highlighted by a soaring simulation of a Quidditch match.
Kennedy Space Center
I chill out that night at the Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando, swimming in the rooftop pool. The stylish 247-room downtown property’s corridors burgeon with contemporary American art that invites further scrutiny.
But the Kennedy Space Center beckons me onward and upward in the morning. Time to observe Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity in action. It’s an hour’s drive from Orlando.
The site of the Apollo missions and countless space shuttle launches is not a theme park. In July, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasted off to deliver cargo to the International Space Station via a Dragon spacecraft, with a little tongue of fire racing into the infinite blue.
The Kennedy Space Center nicely balances its tribute to the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s with its patriotic quest to restore America’s leadership in space. The outdoor Rocket Garden preserves artifacts like the Mercury Atlas rocket for the February 20, 1962 flight of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, and inside you can attend fascinating Q&A sessions with astronauts.
Tom Jones (no relation to the pop singer) tells the audience about being rejected twice by NASA before getting into astronaut school, and wide-eyed kids are in awe when he says, “Twenty-five years from now we could be on Mars.”
Even if you’re more earthbound by nature, you can still get your interstellar kicks by boarding the realistic shuttle launch simulator. The 8.5-minute experience gives you a face-bending but family-friendly taste of what it was like to travel on Atlantis at up to 28,000 kilometers per hour.
At home, I ponder which philosopher now best embodies my notion of the “good life” and decide it’s the German Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who believed in the supremacy of the state. Because after this trip, I know one thing: the state of Florida rules.
Text: Lucas Aykroyd
Published: September 1, 2015