I've been back to Florida many times - for work, for residencies at UT and then my MFA graduation, for vacation, when my stepdad got sick and my parents had to move back to the states, and again when he passed. But I hadn't been back to Winter Garden.
I'd left WG one time before. My mom moved my sister and I away to Gainesville the summer between my junior and senior year. At the time, I was devastated as only a teenage girl can be, but new environments create new opportunities. I went to art school in New York, worked some interesting jobs while attending UF, and even did a semester out in Arizona. But then I came back and rather than settle in Gainesville, I got an apartment with two high school friends in Winter Garden. I started at Disney, which for those who grew up in the area, feels like joining the family business. And then Disney becomes your family. As young cast members, we worked wacky hours, holidays, and often second jobs to make the rent. We bonded over Friendsgiving, third shift projects, kick-ass parties, and navigating the rocky path to adulthood. I went back to school part time and then grad school. Fifteen years passed, wearing me down like water smoothing down rock. Highs and lows. I finished my BA and then my Master's and as it seemed that my career was in a valley, I made a fresh start in the state where I was born. It snows here. We enjoy "fall" complete with apple cider donuts, spectacular leaves, and sweaters. I learned to shovel snow and to drive in sleet. I hate both.
Now my mom lives in Florida again, in a nice community with stuff for her to do, easy access to what she needs, and a golf cart to putter around the neighborhood. Coincidentally, my boyfriend's dad lives just down US1 about 15 minutes, so we came down for the holidays. I knew that I wanted to visit friends in Winter Garden while we were down, so I looked for a place to stay. Renovations at the old Edgewater Hotel had started before I moved up to Maryland, but in the years that passed, the entirety of Plant Street has undergone a transformation. Layer Christmas on top of that, and it's magic.
High school friend and expert on all things WG, Amy Q told me to book at the Edgewater early to avoid disappointment, so I reserved a nice corner king room with a view of the tree, smack in the middle of downtown.
The view from my room:
It rained a bit the first night, because - Florida, but the lights along the West Orange Trail which runs right through the center of town - literally - combined with background music (BGM to us Disney folks) and the holiday crowd made for a merry atmosphere indeed.
When I was a kid, Winter Garden was - forgive me - shabbier. This is orange grove country, emphasis on country. I was a poor kid, going to school with other poor kids and a few less-poor from nearby Windermere. Later, during my Disney days, WG was the little town with grit, steadily rebuilding itself. The old train tracks were removed for the West Orange Trail, a paved fitness path winding through downtown and another twenty-some miles. The weekends bring cyclists, joggers, and people who stroll along with dogs, and even the occasional cat-on-a-leash as I saw this trip.
The trail became a reason to visit downtown when I lived here last. I bought a bike. And roller blades, which turned out not to be one of my better ideas. I walked for the exercise and then rewarded my efforts with pizza at Winter Garden Pizza Company or an ice cream from Downtown Brown's. The latter spot is gone now, but the Edgewater has a scoop shop right in the lobby. I swear, it's like they knew I was coming.
Other cafes and shops crept in, and even the weekend farmer's market started before I departed for the wintry north. But still, I was unprepared for the renaissance that happened while I was away. My school pal Sherri and I explored after a hearty barbecue lunch at one of the stalls inside Crooked Can - the new brewery and gathering spot on the west end of Plant Street.
Christmas photo op spots sprinkle the downtown area, immediately reminding me of my theme park days. We checked out all the shops along Plant Street, finding some really cool stuff, particularly in an eclectic store called Apostrophe. (They had a t-shirt with "Moody" emblazoned across the chest and cool architectural salvage type things that would not fit into my suitcase.)
Here's a view of The Edgewater:
They gave us a pass to show that we were guests and could leave my car in the lot next door and I noticed something cool about it:
The drawing of the building was done by my high school art teacher Rod Reeves! Apparently, he has drawings of many WG landmarks around town, particularly in the Heritage Museum. I had a weird impulse to track him down and tell him I got into Pratt and SCAD and Ringling and MICA and he was partially responsible. I didn't though.
In the sketch, you can see the side of the building on the left side. That last door at the back was once the dance studio where I started ballet many, many years ago before the business moved to a larger space. I feel connected to this building, even now. When I lived here before, there was a barbecue restaurant (Choctaw Willie's I think) in the first floor space on the right. It now is home to a Thai restaurant where my BF got some take out yellow curry which he slurped happily in our room. The other corner on the left was once a family style restaurant with fried chicken and incredible meatloaf that came with an array of sides for sharing. Now, there are two fine dining options there - The Chef's Table where one can get prix fixe dinners of three or five courses, or the Tasting Room which has shareable plates and a wide selection. They also have vihno verde which is my current favorite wine. We dined here the first night in town. It was delicious, but I had trouble doing it justice after the late afternoon pulled pork sandwich. I managed a scoop of salted caramel cookies and cream from Scoops though.
Our room, while quite charming, posed a few minor challenges (we couldn't figure out how to open the roman shades and it was a little weird to come out of the bathroom and brush teeth or wash hands in the open room) but the bed and pillows were divine. Not only because they were soft and comfortable, but the sheets and pillowcases smelled clean and fresh which automatically relaxes me. Fresh from the dryer. Heaven.
Breakfast was impressive. Not because it was super fancy, but because of how comprehensive the common room is.
There was fresh brewed coffee and nice ceramic mugs with all the coffee fixings. Breads and bagels were available with a toaster and a variety of cereals. Guests can choose from a menu with staples such as eggs, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, pancakes, and French toast which was my choice both mornings. Delicious and unpretentious. This is orange country, so get the OJ. It comes in a chilled goblet and is AMAZING. They also leave out dishes of candy, bags of chips, and other snacks for the guests, refrigerators for guest use, and bottles of water - a necessary thing as even in winter, the humidity is no joke. Hydrate!
The guests can sit together or not, chat or keep to themselves and Max who runs the place is on hand for any questions or needs. The staff are super-polite, whether you need a ride up or down the ancient staff-operated elevator or would care for a second goblet of juice. I kept hearing a noise during breakfast which I assumed was a guest's cell ring tone as a bird call, but no - they have a pair of birds that call the hotel home.
The hallways are filled with paintings, some quite good, and thick carpet runners. We stayed on the second floor, though I understand that the third floor has even better views. The lobby has an enormous fireplace which was not on as it was a balmy 75 degrees during my visit and an intriguing old safe behind the desk.
If that's a bit too open, there's a hidden patio in the back:
It looked like an excellent place to read a book, but alas - no time for that. On the way out, I noticed that the hotel was built the same year as my house in Baltimore. I feel for you Max, with all those renovations! I've been there. I'm told that tours can be arranged. Go check the place out. Nearly everyone I met during my visit asked about how it looked inside, including people who have lived in WG all their lives.
Here is the Winter Garden Pizza Company, a familiar spot, though it appears to have expanded into the adjacent building. The "Roper" building in this case, a name all over town. The Roper family was all about the citrus industry when I was a kid and I went to school with the Roper twins, Cam and Matt, though I've not kept up. I think many of the groves have made way for housing developments these days. WG seems to have undergone a bit of a building boom in my absence.
The trail bisecting the two traffic lanes right through the center of town.
The fountain - temporary home to the tree - has mosaics of some of the original crate labels and sculptural oranges around the base.
And swings under an arbor. It's lovely.
I met up with a longtime friend from Disney in the local coffee shop, Axum, which he uses as a writing space. I hadn't been there five minutes before running into an old supervisor from my Epcot days. Judy recognized me after all this time - around 25 years or so. It definitely made me feel at home. Darryl, my writer friend and former fellow Imagineer, was typing away on his laptop at a table in the back. I sipped my iced coffee and distracted him for at least an hour jawing away about everything and everyone. Turns out, he had a story published in the previous issue of Storyteller Magazine, a local quarterly print publication and our mutual friend Gabriel has a story in the current issue! Hooray for published stories! (You can get copies via the link or at Axum)
I left Darryl to his work and visited the Farmer's Market (open year round, a feat unheard of in Maryland) and then to another lunch back at Crooked Can, this time, Coal Fired Pizza. It turns out that one of the founders of this little culinary paradise was another Disney colleague from the way, way back, Jared C. Well done, sir! Well done indeed. I was back that evening for a gathering of fellow high school friends, arranged by the aforementioned WG resident expert - Amy Q. Most of these people have been just pictures in the yearbooks for thirty-some years. Some haven't changed at all really and some were unrecognizable, though not in a bad way. The beautiful thing about time is that we get to meet each other again as grown ups - grown ups with memories that can't recall any adolescent insecurities anymore, free to enjoy each other as practically new acquaintances.
I definitely felt at home. The tendrils of connection and memory, friendships formed, careers, and all the paths of life build a web in a place like this. It's a collected history - a shared experience of love, loss, growth, (in some cases, the lack of growth), and a new and evolving appreciation for each other as we are and not as we perceived ourselves to be as kids. I enjoyed it more than I could have imagined and I'm grateful.