Updated: Oct 17, 2019
Most people who grew up in tourist destinations are quick to adopt the slogan “we live where you vacation,” so they're typically surprised when I tell them that I had to learn to love my hometown of Orlando. Here's how growing up in a tourist town can affect your sense of identity.
Picture Source: Flickr/Mark Deffenbaugh
“No great movies start in Florida” is what I might have told you a year ago if you’d asked me why I decided to break the bank for the chance to attend college 1,500 miles away from home. There are plenty of movies about Miami, but Miami is a cultural force at odds with the rest of the Floridian identity. It’s called New York’s sixth borough for good reason: Miami maintains the same swagger without being as dirty, crowded, or expensive. It boasts pristine beaches, gleaming skyscrapers, and colorful houses wrapped in a tidy bow of Latin flair.
The Florida I grew up in is nowhere near as glamorous, but I remember Orlando fondly. It was waking up at the crack of dawn to squeeze myself into an itchy school uniform that would undoubtedly stain underneath the armpits by the end of the day. It was sipping on Polar Pops on the curb of Circle K and getting scolded by my parents for the amount of sugar in them when they found the empty styrofoam in the trash later. It was piling into my friend’s car to go to Chick-fil-a hours before Hurricane Irma hit. It was dressing up nicely to take pictures in Winter Park and laughing at how obscenely expensive everything is.
It’s easy for those who grew up in tourist destinations to puff their chests and adopt the mantle “we live where you vacation” when given the opportunity to speak on the merits of their hometown, so people are generally surprised to hear that I had to learn to love where I lived. But while places like Charlottesville remain authentic for their small-town charm and others like New York City for their glamour and grit, Orlando falls somewhere in the cracks. Take a trip down US 192 and you’ll see what I mean: gaudy souvenir shops, garishly painted motels, strip clubs, and strip malls melt and seem to sway underneath the relentless Floridian heat as Cinderella’s Castle looms in the distance. Growing up in the shadow of “the happiest place on Earth” meant that I quickly became disillusioned with the magic that ran deep through the roots of my hometown. When the time came for me to go to college, I was eager to leave.
I went to a school up north where nearly everyone was from either New Jersey or Massachusetts. Despite my eagerness to separate myself from the past, saying that I was from Orlando filled me with a small sense of satisfaction for the simple reason that it meant I was slightly different from the rest of my peers. In those first few weeks, I noticed that the reaction I got was generally the same each time: a surprised “oh!” followed by an inquiry into how often I visit the so-and-so theme park. People were surprised to hear that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to Disney World, never mind that an Orlando native taking the time to go to Disney is basically comparable to a New Yorker visiting the Statue of Liberty. But when push came to shove, I couldn’t vouch for why my hometown was special beyond its glittering facade.
As melodramatic as it sounds, this realization sent me into a small spiral. An article published in the Atlantic in 2011 about the psychology of home makes the perhaps obvious point that there’s a reason that the first thing we ask someone after learning their name is where they are from: we feel that the answer will tell us something important about who they are. If I’m from a city whose defining traits are the product of commercialization, then what does that say about me?
This wasn’t the first time I felt at odds with my hometown. My father recently unearthed a poem I wrote for my seventh grade English class in which we were instructed to write about where we were from. I wrote mine about New York City, which is interesting considering I only lived there until I was four. The only thing I remember from that time in my life is dislocating my elbow in preschool (I’d climbed up a stack of chairs to get away from my teacher during nap time).
“I am from bright lights and big city, from second-story apartments on ever slated streets,” I wrote, “I am from stuffy subway rides and the smell of smoke and exhaust.” Obvious poetic ability aside, I was not from any of these things. I don’t even think I’d ridden the subway until a year prior when my family and I went back for a brief visit. Real New Yorkers like my parents don’t see their hometown through the same rose-tinted glasses I did; they hate and love the city in the way only those who have lived there for years can.
The same Atlantic article from earlier cites environmental psychologist Susan Clayton’s assertion that as much as humans seek a place to belong, we also want that place to be special, a criterion that sometimes takes precedence over the truth. “You might choose to identify as a person who used to live somewhere else, because it makes you distinctive," Clayton says.
Since starting college, I noticed that many of the people I’ve met do this on a small scale. Instead of their actual hometown, people name the nearest recognizable city. Whether this has more to do with convenience than a crisis of identity likely varies from person to person, but the principle remains the same: we have no qualms about stretching the truth when it comes to where we’re from. More recently, a classmate of mine had a telling reaction to hearing I’m from Orlando.
“Me too!” He said. “Well, actually, I’m from Clermont.”
“That’s not Orlando,” I said, because it isn’t. It’s 22 miles east of it.
“I know.” He said. “Just let me feel special.”
I was going to poke fun at him when I remembered that I’d done the exact same thing growing up, just on a larger, more ridiculous scale.
I remember watching The Florida Project on a flight home sometime during the tail end of my high school years. It caught my attention for the simple fact that it was about an area very familiar to me. Kissimmee, where the film was shot, is just a stone’s throw from Orlando and shares the same backyard: Disney World. The Florida Project follows single mom Halley and her six-year-old daughter Moonee living in a motel off US 192 as they try to make ends meet. We see the film from the perspective of Moonee, whose childish spirit serves as a point of friction with the very adult actions Halley makes in an attempt to get by.
The squalor of their situation is placed in stark contrast with Disney World, which can be seen looming in the distance in a number of shots.
Needless to say, The Florida Project didn’t receive recognition from any tourist organizations, but that’s only indicative of its cinematic success. Popular media about Florida are few and far between outside of the notorious “Florida man” whose mugshot surfaces on your feed every couple of days. When these destinations are depicted in the film, they are portrayed as transient locations; great as a backdrop for a memorable Spring Break, but not a place where people actually live. While I can’t relate to the experience of poverty or a family on the fringe of society depicted in The Florida Project, I appreciate its acknowledgement of a narrative that is often erased from popular media: what it’s like to live in the penumbra of a commercial giant and how that’s a story worth telling.
The idea that I needed to move to a big city in order to lead a meaningful life was not only an obvious miscalculation (I found my way back to Florida in the end, and my world feels bigger than ever for it) but a coarse offense towards those who choose to stay. The highly esteemed “small town to big city” narrative- a staple of the American Dream- means that staying put is fused with the idea of failure. Although I’m thankful for the experience of spending a year in college in another state, it was a mistake in the end, and I’m still paying for it (literally).
This past summer was one of big transitions. In the last stages of finalizing my transfer to UF, it felt like I was back at square one. Just like a year prior, I was on the verge of moving to a new city where I didn’t know anyone (albeit one only two hours away) with the added bonus of having to worry about paying rent. I’d already done the whole awkward freshman thing and found, but that’s essentially what I’d be doing at my new school.
In preparation for the transition, I wrote 10 summer resolutions on multi-colored post-it notes, sticking them on my closet door so that they were the first thing I saw before getting dressed in the morning. Writing more often was one of the goals I accomplished; losing weight was another. I went on a road trip with my friends to North Carolina in early June and finally got my nose pierced a week or so after my 19th birthday, crossing two more resolutions off of my list.
But the most important resolution I completed, etched in permanent marker and strategically placed at the center of my make-shift vision board was this: to explore Orlando. Considering I spent the majority of my adolescent years dreaming of moving away, it’s no surprise that I never took the time to venture far beyond the route from my house to school (and the nearest movie theater).
So I spent my summer playing catch up with the city I’d never taken the time to get to know. I visited a retro arcade with a childhood friend and discovered that I’m laughably bad at Guitar Hero. I joined the staff at a summer camp and carted upwards of 50 children to various skating rinks, waterparks, and bowling alleys all across central Florida on a daily basis, many of which I was visiting for the first time myself. I bought overpriced donuts and a subpar lavender iced latte at a local farmers market that’s existed for years. I went to an 80s tribute concert with my best friend at the House of Blues and watched middle-aged people get low.
And yes, I might have gone to Disney once or twice.