The showman Walt Disney’s extraordinary success with animation brought great fortune. Disney’s vision saw creation of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. The theme park opened in 1955. With its success Disney planned another park in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. His company purchased some 25,000 acres of what was then swamp and citrus groves. Walt Disney did not live to see the park open. On October 1, 1971, Disney World brought immediate prosperity to what was once only a pastoral county. As a result, Orlando became a boom town.
Article and photos by John Christopher Fine
Walt Disney would turn over in his grave at the report of one family man that took his wife and daughter to Disney World. Admission was $180 each not including parking. No food or beverages were allowed inside the park. High priced food and drinks had to be purchased from Disney vendors. The father stated they stood in long lines in Florida’s hot sun for hours. At the end of their five-hour day they were only able to get on two rides. They did not buy the $50 additional band that allowed priority on rides. He will never go again.
With prosperity from many theme parks came all manner of other exploitive venues. The Orlando Orange County Convention Center was new at one time. Skyscraper hotels, veritable concrete jungles, appeared to take advantage of America’s fascination with ‘conventions’ that provide employee perks, get aways and some business. Why not take the family, go to a tax deductible convention then theme park themselves to augment their vacation.
Orlando’s hotel towers are over-priced, charge some $24 additional per day parking, $20 for the poolside shower and fitness amenities, and an equal fortune for any extras like Internet in the room without providing the free breakfast most gracious hotels offer guests that pay one-third their tariff.
The convention center itself is getting old. Plaster fell from ceilings, carpets needed replacement its overall venue drab. Parking cost $17 per day with no in-and-out allowed. Without exaggeration there were long walks to occasional shuttles then long long walks to get to the hall where events took place.
DEMA itself was extraordinary. It went off without a hitch. A large heated swimming pool in the middle of the exhibit hall must have required imaginative engineering to set up then take down after the event. A happy mood prevailed as hundreds of exhibitors set up their booths and prepared to meet old customers and make new contacts.
The DEMA event is more than a trade show. Educational organizations and dive training agencies conduct seminars. Non-Profit environmental and conservation agencies offered insight into their work. Ocean nations around the world sent representatives to interest people in dive tourism.
The growing popularity of dive-tourism is often not appreciated by some land-locked cities like Orlando. Their tourism officials figure 75 million visitors a year do them well enough. Dive tourism supports whole nations. Divers vacation with their families, stay in hotels, frequent restaurants, seek entertainment and dive. The activity puts these travelers on a higher economic level than most other activities. Diving is not inexpensive, certainly more costly than golf and other leisure time activities.
That said there are hidden gems in and around Orlando. One is the Dr. Phillips House. This 1893 mansion is set in a circle right in the inner city. The mansion, once the home of Dr. Phillip Phillips a Columbia Medical School graduate and successful citrus grower and real estate entrepreneur, now offers luxury lodgings in original family rooms.
Prices at Dr. Phillips House are far less than what one would expect, far less than an ordinary room in an impersonal hotel tower. Each guest room has a large separate bath room with modern stand up showers and amazing large whirlpool tubs. Rooms in the Dr. Phillips House are lighted with chandeliers, have ornate fire places, modern comfort designed mattresses in dark wood four posters. WiFi is free and a convenience nook provides coffee and beverage service as well as muffins and assorted snacks.
The garden at Dr. Phillips House attests to its use as a venue for weddings and parties. Nestled inside a web of roadways that were built around this landmark, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, are live oak trees hung with Spanish moss. Luxuriant plantings accent a quaint gazebo. Parking is free in the circle that forms entrance to the mansion.
There is nothing like an Irish pub for friendly service and grand hospitality. Renown for its food under the direction of Executive Chef Joe McFadden, direct from Ireland, ‘An Tobar’ is such a place located just north of Orlando inside the Sheraton Orlando North Hotel. Parking is included. The hotel embarked on a total modernization program. Room rates are more than reasonable. Their club level offers snacks and business work station adjustable tables as well as hot free breakfasts.
The bar at ‘An Tobar’ is reminiscent of Dublin’s pubs. All manner of Irish libations as well as other drinks are available. Chef McFadden and his team offer a shepherd’s pie that is as perfect as any country pub would serve on the Emerald Isle. It is a bit of Ireland in Orange County. Rooms in the hotel are named for places and events in Irish literature.
“This is the 1904,” Orlando Sheraton North Manager Josh Schoggins explained. “The menu describes the origin of its name. It was the year Leopold Bloom, the main character in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses,’ traveled around Dublin and met the woman he would marry.”
Josh showed off the Oscar Wilde Ballroom and other quaint features of the hotel. Renovations included modernizing rooms to include ample plugs everywhere with many at bedside. There is free WiFi in every room and public space. A fine swimming pool and club are perfect amenities without additional charge. Modern mattresses and pillows assure comfortable sleep. Rooms are available with large stand up showers. There are rooms with tubs for those that prefer or for families traveling with children.
Many new products were unveiled at DEMA. Emmanuel Tosi, Manager of Beuchat in Marseille, France, described newly created colorful wetsuits for snorkelers. “The colors and patterns appeal to children as well as many that are not ready to get into Scuba, yet, wish to enjoy snorkeling. We are trying to attract new divers and children to get interested in ocean exploration,” Tosi said.
SeaLife Cameras unveiled their new Sea Dragon lighting and camera innovations. Carl Shuster from SeaLife’s New Jersey headquarters was on hand to explain technical features of the equipment as well as to guide dive shops in selecting inventory.
Dive training agencies were well represented. The National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI) held programs and award ceremonies and brought members together with headquarters staff at a gala party at a pirate themed dinner-theatre. PADI, SSI, IANTD and other diver educational organizations held seminars and programs in continuing education.
Opportunities at DEMA events are unlimited. No one can do it all. No one can see it all. “I love the opportunity to see friends,” Captain Spencer Slate said. Captain Slate had a booth that became a meeting place for divers he took on his ‘creature feature’ experiences over the last forty years teaching diving in Florida’s Keys. “By the end of DEMA my legs ache from standing and walking. It is worth it. I see so many people that I’ve met over the years.” That too is important. Diving has grown in popularity and where once most instructors knew other members of their teaching organizations global expansion has created far reaching memberships.
One of the most sentimental events during the week of DEMA is the presentation of the NOGI awards. Created in 1960 as the result of an award ceremony for spearfishing, the New Orleans Grand Isle (NOGI) is now undertaken by the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences (AUAS). The NOGI is the highest distinction divers, educators, scientists, conservationists and artists can receive. The award is a statuette reminiscent of the Oscar. The NOGI ‘Oscar’ wears fins and a dive mask, however.
Dan Orr, former Director of Divers Alert Network, now president of the Academy, organized the event with officers of the Academy. The formal gala was attended by Zale Parry. Zale co-starred with Lloyd Bridges in the Sea Hunt television series. Many famous people have been inducted into the Academy as fellows. Philippe Tailliez, the father of diving and the man that brought Jacques-Yves Cousteau into diving when he was Cousteau’s senior officer in the French Navy, Cousteau himself, Frederic Dumas, Albert Falco, John Stoneman, Wyland, Guy Harvey, Andre Galerne, Dimitri and Ada Rebikoff to name only a few NOGI recipients.
Non-profit organizations like the History of Diving Museum had booths at the DEMA event. Reef conservation groups, shark protection societies, Florida’s Department of Archaeology were present to guide attendees into areas of interest in hopes of preserving and protecting the marine environment.
There is no reason that an event in Orlando should break a budget. A little advance research, a group renting the Dr. Phillips House for the week to have their parties there or take advantage of modern amenities at places like the Sheraton Orlando North Hotel to savor fine Irish fare in ‘An Tobar’ restaurant and pub are ways of enjoying Orlando without being gouged.
Walt Disney was a visionary. Could he have envisioned the Orlando Airport with its maze and sprawl and traffic? Could he have thought it would take one-and-a-half hours to get to the convention center from the airport? That Orlando’s highways were built to modern specifications only to be overcrowded and rebuilt many times to snarl motorists on their daily commutes? Maybe. What he wouldn’t tolerate was the father’s disaffection with his family’s overall experience. Walt Disney wanted people to laugh, enjoy, play and have fun. To seek out his vision takes a little pre-planning. Do not count on arrogant tourism purveyors to make it easy. You are one in 75 million. Plan for yourself and do it long in advance to make your next DEMA Orlando experience or any visit to Orange County thrilling as well as one that will not break the bank.