Fortunately the lions had just fed so they didn’t give us much chase, not that it really mattered since I already put my life on the line multiple times this trip. Chased by living monsters in broad daylight, and narrowly avoiding complete destruction in an epic ride that seemed right out of a movie. In the 20-plus-years I’ve dedicated to traveling I have visited some of the darkest, most dangerous and distant parts of this planet, but this is one place I never thought I’d find myself in the center of, and it completely took my breath away. Of course I’m talking about Orlando, Florida. 

Most of my friends hate me and for good reason. My job is a vacation for the most part and provokes a decent amount of disgust from most of my friends, so much so that I’ve had to stop posting pictures on Instagram because I was losing family members during Thanksgiving. This time when I was reluctantly asked “where are you off to next Roberto” I was met with surprise rather than contempt when I said “Orlando”. 

“Orlando? Like…” long pause and heavy confusion, “Orlando Florida?” 

“Yes.” I said.

“Like…” more pause and more confusion, “like Disney and Universal Studios Orlando?”

“And Gatorland. Must not forget Gatorland.” and we must not forget Gatorland or the other 33 amusement parks and attractions that this family destination boasts. I think most people have a very succinct view of what Orlando is; basically an all inclusive cruise that doesn’t float. It’s family entertainment at its best with its inclusive parks, cavernous eateries and pools so expansive you need a map to find your way back to the bar. Being relatively family-less I had not yet had a real reason to visit this epic city, but was invited for the 2022 IPW having been nominated for Travel Writer of the Year. This was of course the best way to experience the city, since entire theme parks were shut down just for our amusement so we could shotgun rides in rapid succession, the dream of any 13 year old, then be wined and dined in epic fashion at some of the best restaurants in town. Hell, Third Eye Blind even played a set just for us at lunch, I mean, Orlando … you’re crushing the competition. 

At night we would all gather at some swank club or bar and swap stories of epic travel adventures over craft cocktails. It’s a unique group of people, those who call the travel industry their home, and the stories always inspire me to go farther and reach deeper into unknown culture. That’s when it hit me. Even though I had been shown the best of what Orlando offered,  I had no idea what Orlando actually was. 

Orlando is a big city, and while its existence might be on the surface for the traveler, there must, like all cities, have a native culture. 300 thousand people live here, and these people must do things, and I wanted to know what that was exactly. Fortunately, even though I was surrounded by foreigners at the moment, I only had to walk to the bar to start my adventure into the unknown Orlando.

“Corona please and thank you.” If I’ve learned anything it’s if you’re going to ask a favor of someone, never make their life harder by ordering a complicated drink or a beer that requires some special pour. “Here you go, keep the change.” The second thing I learned is to always pay your informants, you get better intel, even if they don’t know they are working for you. The bartender was surprised by the tip given that it was an open bar, so asking him for some advice came with a smile.

“Where do you go after work? What’s your favorite bar?”  As a journalist asking questions is 98% of my job. Learning to ask the right ones takes pretty much a lifetime.

“Oh, well,” he thought for a moment.  Already a bad sign. Everyone knows the name of their favorite bar off the top of their head. “I would hit up the Monkey Bar, but I wouldn’t go before 10pm, it will be dead.” 

“What about day drinking?” Again, knowing the right questions is everything.

“Oh, well that’s Wally’s. But be careful. It’s a dump.”

And there you have it. The Uber came quickly and before I knew it I was slicing through the expanse of Orlando on their large, well paved 8 lane avenues that looked like manicured freeways to me. Heading north up Mills, the polished downtown started to crumble into a well lived-in patina. This was looking right, like where the people really lived and breathed. 

As I reached for the door to the dive I looked back and noticed that the driver didn’t drive away yet. She sat there looking out the window expressionless over a mask. It definitely made me feel like I was in the right wrong place. 

I hoped it to be rougher but Wally’s was pretty buttoned up by dive bar standards. There was e-darts and shuffle board. Tacky art and a sad, beat up bar. Best of all there were locals, all sitting around minding their own business. 

“Bud light and shot of Jameson please.” I don’t like Bud Light and can tolerate Jameson but the order was not for me but really everyone else. I’m sure it’s not true but I always feel like everyone is listening in, probably because I’m always listening around me, so I wanted to send the right signals. What I really wanted was a Campari tonic, but that wasn’t going to match my outfit at Willy’s. Hopefully this drink would fool the natives and let them believe I was one of their own.

“Cheers.” Before the last drop of my Jameson filled the shot glass, the kid next to me raised his glass. Apparently this would be easy. 

His name was Ty and he couldn’t have weighed more than 130 lbs wet. For a town that sees the sun most of the year he was iridescent white, with a shaved head and built entirely out of tendons. Ty was originally from Jacksonville but came to Orlando for “better prospects”. As far as I could ascertain he worked in pool construction, which I thought was probably a good business to be in down here. We started talking and I started asking what he did down here for fun.

“What’s your feeling on guns?”

After 2 and a half beers and just as many shots I found myself in Ty’s Prius that hadn’t been washed in a very long time. The catalytic converter had been stolen no less than 4 times, and probably by someone Ty knew which made it even worse he said. Before we could settle the conversation we pulled up on EJR gun club. We were going to shoot some guns. 

Entering I was face to face with a lion again. This time it was stuffed, not roaming around like at Animal Kingdom, but no less frightening. After showing my driver’s license and signing a waiver, Ty and I donned some headphones and goggles and walked into the lanes. I placed my silhouette on the holder, sent it down range, and unleashed 9 shots in a tight group out of a Glock 9mm.

“Damn. Ok.” I had impressed Ty. Years and years of playing Paintball and Call of Duty had apparently given me real world abilities. While exhilarating to fire a weapon, there are only so many times you can do it before it becomes rote, which is fine because I really wanted to know where locals go to eat. 

Alligator, conch, Cuban Sandwiches, sure. They are all interesting and super Florida. I was told however that the only thing I needed to try was actually a taco at a place called Pig Floyd’s.

Piggies as the locals lovingly call it is also located on Mills in Colonialtown North. It’s a nondescript area but a cute little building that proudly boasts in hand painted goodness “smoked meats, cold beer, and free air conditioning” the trifecta when it comes to solid local joint. While others will tell you the ribs or brisket are to die for, my new friend Ty said not to be fooled and go straight in for the taco. 

“It’s called the Cheeseburger. But trust me. It’s a taco, not a Cheeseburger.. And it’s good. I’ve been to Texas, and this is better here.” The Cheeseburger was indeed a taco, with smoked brisket, greens, cheddar cheese, sesame seeds and something called drive in sauce that apparently was fancy sauce with relish. Whatever it was, the combination of BBQ in a taco format was extremely appealing, so much so I had two orders. 

At this point, sobering up and full, I had known Ty for a few hours, and we were simpatico, especially since I bought him dinner as a thank you for showing me around. At this point I felt I could ask him some more personal questions to get to the heart of what Orlando is really about. 

“I don’t mind the tourists,” he said looking into his tray playing with a well soiled napkin, “I mean, if they didn’t come here then I doubt any of this would be here. But it’s like two different worlds. I don’t go to the parks and things, I like to stay on this side of town and hang with my friends. I never really run into tourists unless we go to Citywalk or something. For like Karaoke.”

It was strange to think of Ty singing karaoke. I asked him what his favorite song was and he said American Badass by Kid Rock, which tracked. He told me that he was glad he left Jacksonville because Orlando had better people, more opportunity, and of course Piggies which was pretty much near perfect. I asked if he thought he’d ever move and to where and all he said was no. Orlando was home, it felt right to him. 

He invited me to some club on the other side of town to meet up with his friends, but I declined. While it sounded like a good time, the long week of talking travel at the conference felt like I had physically gone around the world several times, and the four smoked brisket tacos were working better than two bars of Xanax. I shook Ty’s hand and thanked him for showing me around and told him if he was ever in NYC to look me up.

“Oh I doubt I’d see ya. Not a huge fan of New York. But you’re ok I guess.”

You’re ok too I guess Ty.  Thanks for showing me the other side of Orlando.