time: c. 2004
At the end of the line for the I-Ride Trolley, we reach our destination for the day. Here we are at the Orlando Premium Outlet, just off International Drive and Interstate 4. Look across the parking lot and wave to the tourists speeding along en route to the Walt Disney World resort area. Or maybe they're headed to Old Town in Kissimmee. Or they missed an exit and are meant to be speeding along to Cocoa Beach to embark on a Caribbean cruise. Two of those cars just missed the exit to come to this very outlet mall. If only they'd taken the Trolley.
Despite being local to the area, we arrive here by the I-Ride Trolley, which stops not too far from my apartment complex. It's a bright green vehicle outfitted with wooden seating and brass handrails for a quaint olde tyme atmosphere. The onboard radio is often tuned into the local lite jazz station or popular hits station, depending on the season. The trolley is designed for tourist use, sticking to the main tourist drag. With a multi-day pass, visitors can hop on and off the trolley while doing a tacky tourist trap crawl. It supposedly reduces traffic in the area but the road is still congested with frustrated workers trying to get from one resort job to the other stuck behind lost visitors in rental cars trying to figure out the air-con controls while scootching over two lanes of traffic to turn left onto Sand Lake Road. But the traffic lurches by as the trolley driver stops to pick up scads of tourists, each with their own unique and wrong way to swipe their multi-day pass through the card reader. This strip is not the place to come for a relaxing summer holiday.
The Orlando Premium Outlet mall mustn't be confused with the Belz Factory Outlet mall, all the way at the north end of International Drive, the other end of the line for the I-Ride Trolley. The Factory Outlet is a hodgepodge of buildings out of the 1970s touting discount merchandise from popular brands. It's situated in the over-developed discount tourist district, home to budget motels, gaudy souvenir shops, and dinky amusement parks where divorced dads bring their kids when they can't make good on their Mickey Mouse promises. Come to Orlando for the thrill rides, stay for the rag tag assortment of irregular overstock and factory reject garments. Shopping is a form of amusement, right?
That's why we are here at the Orlando Premium Outlet, for sheer amusement on a sunny Wednesday morning. This posh outdoor mall calls itself an outlet but the emphasis is really on the “premium.” The single-storey peach stucco buildings with pitched red gable roofs are in keeping with the Spanish Colonial Revival styles of some of the neighbouring resorts. And why not? Shopping on vacation should feel like a vacation. Seems dumb to go to a regular mall like the one back home, with its droopy potted plants and regional anchor stores. This is a browsing oasis with giant palm trees growing straight from the ground and stretching almost as high as the open-air roof that provides protection along the pathways from the inevitable two o'clock rainstorms. Large tiled fountains in the courtyards glimmering with reclaimed water and foreign coins — the exchange rate on wishes is not very good here. Multiple strands of warm white string lights define open walkways, offering necessary illumination from dusk to closing. Decorative towers are adorned with large three-dimensional logos of everyone's favourite international luxury brands. Right next door is the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, several doors up is Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede. For Catholics in the year 2004 AD who love shopping and rodeos, there's hardly any need to venture beyond this little nook of Lake Buena Vista. Theme park what?
We start our visit at around 11am on a mid-autumn Wednesday. In a world where everyone lives for the weekend and loves the nightlife, midday of the midweek is the golden time for going places and avoiding people. Living in a tourist heavy area, it’s rare having a place completely to oneself. But if you were completely alone, who would ring up your purchases?
Sometimes we come here for a change in scenery. Today we are here on a quest. There is an object I've been remiss in purchasing and my existence feels hollow without it. I do not know what that object is but when I clap eyes on it, I will know at once that it is divine providence delivering me to the one thing to fill the void in my heart, closet, or bathroom counter. I know tagging along on someone's shopping quest can get dull, especially when the quest and destination are undefined. What are we looking for? Can we search together in an efficient way that gets this task done quicker and without tears? Do I have to stick around or can I wander off and maybe listen to the beefcake harpist playing along with his CDs out in front of the Food Court? I understand. I've been the sidekick on many retail quests only to empty-handed and sometimes in tears.Which is why today, as with most days, I do most of my shopping alone. You may skip ahead to the Food Court or take a seat on one of the empty metal benches exposed to the Central Florida elements or withdraw entirely as I know that you are somewhere in a time and place inaccessible to this time and place. If you are furtively peering around for another member of our party to arrive, please put your eyes and mind at ease. Let us try to enjoy the journey, together and separately, and at our own paces.
I've come to this attractive outdoor mall without a list of necessities. Often, going on any shopping errand with specific products in mind results in definite disappointment when the elusive thing is nowhere to be found in anyone's dusty stockroom. Anyway, what if the stores *have* stocked something brand new that we've not even seen on TV? We must keep our minds and eyes open to possibilities. And besides, this premium outlet mall is not designed for necessities. This is a place for indulging impulses and pretending we've done a deal, as if we are cliché TV sitcom wives from the 1950s.
"A mink stole for $300?!" our husbands exclaim.
"Why yes, but it's normally marked $850, so it's a bargain. Practically a steal!" we reply, employing the sound logic of Gracie Allen.
"I'll say!" he Burns, fumingly.
Look at us gabbing in front of the mall map when we could be browsing. What an impressive directory of designer fashions! Prada! Coach! Tommy Hilfiger! Juicy Couture! Izod! I've seen all of these things mentioned on television! This must be very exciting for people who care about such things. Ooh — they've got Tommy Bahama for all your vacation dad needs. An Ann Taylor boutique for your mom. And two Sunglass Hut, convenient for when you’ve lost the pair you just bought at the other one.
Where should we begin? I suppose we could consult the mall map to plot our route. The Orlando Premium Outlet is laid out in a gentle spiral circuit, with a shortcut through the Food Court building. Speedy shoppers can do a quick loop around the main circuit while sanguine shoppers can do a sort of figure eight around the property. Or we can start at the beginning of the side path that hooks into the main circuit and wind our way around. The prospect of walking the entire length of the mall sounds exhausting and it would be were we the types to pop in and out of every shop, carefully inspecting all the merchandise around every rack and up and down every aisle. Felicitously, we are not the types. In fact, we can altogether skip the Gymboree Outlet and OshKosh B'gosh, as our quest does not — and never does — involve children. We'll bypass the men's shoe shops as well as we've not reached the era of peak novelty sock and men's shoes, like ladies' lingerie, should be purchased based on knowledge and not guesstimation.
Since our primary goal is to waste time, the best place to accomplish that goal is in the nondescript CD/DVD outlet store. Let's shift into browse mode as we move along the aisles, flipping through the mixture of classic and contemporary greatest hits albums, the click-clicking of the CD jewel cases that are alphabetized but not categorized. Never have Debussy and the Doors been in such close proximity. Have that, hate that, like that, don't know that, should know that, $24.99 for *that*?! Music — a soothing balm for any existential crisis! Perhaps our quest is to find a CD that will be muse and catalyst for the future, providing motivation and fulfillment in 12 breezy tracks. Hmm, who did that song from that movie? Maybe that was a cover of an old standard. Which recording would I want? Do they have soundtracks here? Yes — but not from that movie. Am I sure that was the movie I'm thinking of? Let's go check out the DVDs; maybe I'll recognize the cover. Boy, there's a lot of frat boy comedies and action flicks here. Somewhere lives a 24-year-old guy who is really pleased with his collection of DVDs of movies that air every weekend on TBS. Do you think this Bruce Willis completionist is peeved that he can't find the boxset of Moonlighting or does he not even care? Oh, here are a bunch of old movies from the 1930s. A collection of the Thin Man movies for $4.99. Well, there's a deal! Five episodes of the Jerry Lewis show for $1.99. Seems fair. How many episodes could one tolerate of Jerry Lewis anyway? But no sign of the movie I'm looking for. Oops, disappointment is creeping in and this is only the first store. It is the only CD/DVD store at this mall, and our sole chance to fill our void with music. Unless Starbucks has some jazz CDs on display.
It's time to move on before discouragement settles. Forcing a search mid-browse is almost as bad as arriving with intent. Back out on Plaza de la Luna — the mall is divided on the map into six different colour-coded zones. Useful perhaps if you need to return the replacement pair of RayBans you bought at the Sunglass Hut in Plaza de Las Fuentes when you find the original pair you bought earlier at the Sunglass Hut in Plaza de Las Palmas tucked in your new Kate Spade handbag.
Coming up is a long stretch of stores dedicated to denim and footwear and, because this is 2004, denim footwear. One could spend hours cozied up in a changing room in the designer denim outlet wriggling in and out of all the jean styles to find the right pair. Bootcut, flare, skinny, boyfriend, farmer, mom, button-fly, distressed — I'm distressed just thinking about it. Denim is not on the agenda today.
Footwear similarly gets the boot. How does such a vital wardrobe component so often fail in form and function? All I want is a comfortable, versatile shoe that doesn't fall apart when it gets manhandled through airport security. Instead, it's a battle over gender and age — strappy stilettos or tasselled loafers, heels or sneakers, motorcycle boots or platform sandals or non-slip slip-ons. Settling on ladies' footwear — what's the most fashionable style to get toe blisters: Moccasin, mule, or Mary Jane? My kingdom for a personal shopping concierge.
How about a pair of hip, unisex sneakers from the sports shoe store? Look at all the possible colour combinations they've managed to get onto one shoe! Rhinestone Reebox! Limited edition Nike with a diamond-studded swoosh! Glow-in-the-dark Adidas!You've seen one gaudy shoe, you've seen 'em all. Or perhaps more kindly, I haven't learned how to appreciate modern casual footwear. Ah, so much for staying open to possibilities.
Perhaps Le Gourmet Chef is stocked with some delicious distractions. The kitchenware outlet is one of several stores here that betrays the cool vacation shopping vibe. Towards the front of the store, Le Gourmet Chef has displays for upscale whiz-bang kitchen gadgetry — portable barbecue grills, stainless steel cappuccino machines, novelty cotton candy machines, popcorn poppers, choppers, grinders, waffle irons. Hardly anything a traveller might deem a relevant keepsake worth loading into the luggage and hauling onto the flight home. On the other hand, a cotton candy machine is slightly more practical than an oversized Goofy hat ludicrously adorned with Mickey Mouse ears that hang on the heads of weary, seared tourists awaiting their flight home. The deeper we get into Le Gourmet Chef, the closer we inch towards necessities one might seek out for the kitchenettes in vacation homes and hotel suites, the measuring cups and spatulas and potholders. Ooh! — whimsical cocktail napkins and magnets printed with witticisms about wives and housework and the appropriate time for imbibing spirits. My own unopened package of Dorothy Parker cocktail napkins has been collecting dust alongside my martini glasses since they were given to me many months ago. In the rear of the store, there are aisles of gourmet foodstuffs that exist solely to stock gourmet kitchen stores and maybe Frasier Crane's pantry. The products range from taro crisps to carob brownie mix to extra virgin olive oil in packaging featuring script lettering and illustrations of European architecture with brand names like Haute Gourmand and Petit Manger. What do you give the person who has everything? Some weird-ass food from a novelty gourmet outlet store. Duh.
We circle back towards the front of the store and at last we light on Le Gourmet Chef's raison d'être. Atop one shelving unit is a display of open jars alongside pretzels and crackers for easy sampling. Take a taste of Stonewall Kitchen's apple butter, sun-dried tomato salsa, cranberry relish, fig tapenade or pesto Genovese. Apple butter makes a solid argument for coming home with me, but I remain unconvinced that $8.95 is a reasonable price for something that I will either consume in its entirety once we're home or leave to join the Dorothy Parker napkins under that cozy blanket of dust.
As we continue along Plaza de Las Palmas to Plaza de Las Flores, we pass some fellow browsers on their own quests, likely for bargains on suitcases or souvenirs. Or perhaps looking for a cheap way to pass the final days of their vacation, having run out of theme park money. All of us, the aimless wanderers and purpose-filled shoppers alike, betray the ambience that the developers had in mind for this mall. The adverts for Orlando Premium Outlets feature what I imagine to be their target demographic — well-heeled 30-something housewives with chic bob hairdos in cardigan sets and crisp capri pants, accessorized with sensible rattan sandals and matching handbags, going for a leisurely shop while their husbands putter around the nearby golf course. Instead, it's a confused jumble of frumpy tourists in ill-fitting shorts and sundresses, sweaty strands of hair matted to their necks and foreheads, skin pinking from too much fun in the sun, looking to escape the oppressive October heat. But maybe this is just typical for a Wednesday. Maybe the weekends attract the snazzy jet-setters who came into Orlando on a whim and need to pick up some Versace and Armani before jetting down to the islands.
The centre of the pathways are lined with palm trees, benches, and assorted kiosks. We mustn't make eye contact with the kiosk operators, lest we become the stars of our own personal infomercial. The kiosk operators are smooth and charming and eager to make those sales. It's tempting, on days like this, to engage with them. A little idle chitchat seems harmless. Quick as you can say howdy, the kioskers are squirting lotion onto your arm and rubbing it in while extolling the many benefits of this product and the whole line. Tired from your travels? The kiosker offers to ease those tensions with a wire head massager. But what if one of these kiosks holds the object of my indeterminate desire?
A spoiler alert, dear friend — we rarely find that elusive life-improving thingamajig. I thought it unfair to leave that tension looming over us, now at the halfway point of our journey. What are we looking for? Are we going to find it? Will dramatic complications ever arise? I'm afraid you're left holding the purse whilst I pontificate about the Happy Bunny character inside this Claire's Accessories.
Say, what's that cacophony of aromas clambering over one another to assault our nasal passages? It's Perfumania, one of several fragrance shops cluttered with bottles of designer perfumes and aerosol cans of Designer Imposters. Spritz a little, dab a little, cough a little, gag a little. Wouldn't you like to smell like Exotic Waterfall? How about Orlando — a blend of sandalwood and jasmine, vanilla musk and tonka beans, orange blossoms and coconut shrimp? You, too, can smell like a star with body fragrances by Britney and J. Lo and Luciano Pavarotti. Where do these celebs find the time to make music and concoct signature scents when I can barely make my own dinner?
Shall we see what all the fuss is about over these luxury designer brands? The legitimate merits of the designers and their labels were never explained to me, down in the lower class of society. What is it about Ralph Lauren's shirts that makes them more desirable than the ones at Target? I heard something about quality stitching on a fancy handbag once. How long can we browse the Ralph Lauren outlet store before peeking at a price tag or being asked if we need assistance? Forty-five seconds. The floor walker was giving me the side-eye so I took at gander at the tag for what turned out to be a $75 orange-and-pink-striped golf shirt. Seventy-five dollars. For a shirt designated for golfing. If it is $75 at the outlet mall, what was the original suggested retail price? Arguably, one could get more use out of mink stole — or at least be able to pawn it for divorce-in-Reno money. To disguise my shock and outrage, I'll nudge at some of the other shirts on the rack. I'm not a classless rube who cannot afford these clothes; the clothes simply bore and displease me. Why, $75 is mere pocket change! Let us leave this place, having learned nothing about the appeal of highfalutin' designers. Au revoir, Ralph Lauren. And good riddance.
The Food Court in Plaza del Sol sounds like it should have upscale Latin and Mediterranean cuisine. Not even a Taco Bell. The Food Court eschews the "premium" premise with fast food fare that aims to sate the families and the unadventurous with sandwiches and burgers and pizza. At least it's cheap. The air conditioned building offers ample seating. Somehow, though, every empty table is adjacent to tables filled with young families and small children in various stages of tantrums. You would be livid too if you'd travelled hundreds of miles from home and were promised a meeting with your favourite animated star of the big and small screen only to be stuck at the mall while Mommy shops. Doesn't she go shopping enough at home? They don't have Dior at Mommy's regular mall, Timmy.
The A&W is the only eatery with its own dine-in booth seating. On a blistering autumn Wednesday, it is suspiciously, yet thankfully, gloriously empty. We can guiltlessly claim a booth far from the squalling tots, reflect on our findings and chart the course for the remainder of the day over root beer and burgers. What would this burger be like with apple butter, I wonder. Someday, some enterprising chef type will put apple butter and pretzel sticks on a burger and sell it for $21 at their gastrolounge and the foodies will rejoice over this innovation of mixing sweet with savoury with salty crunchiness.
The combination of air conditioning, 1960s rock 'n' roll playing on the sound system, the onion rings in their deep fried slimy glory, and the free refills on diet root beer have quieted that low hum of vague dissatisfaction and disgruntlement of the morning. With a bonus refill of sweet carbonation to propel us, we can continue our tour. There are still Yankee Candles to smell and ironic t-shirts to read and souvenirs to check out for the folks back home. We must, as the Pleasure Island billboards say, "Carpe P.M."
If it's mid-afternoon and no rain showers rolling in, the strapping blonde harpist sets up his amplified harps to provide some lite entertainment for the wandering travellers. Women with no ordinary interest in classical new age music gather round to watch this hunky high class busker rock out on his harp, accompanied by his own CDs. After his brief performance, a few new groupies converge on his merch table to buy his album and get a little face time before their sour-faced hubbies pull them away to "get on the road to beat the traffic." The ladies go home with a new fantasy and a CD that will go unlistened in their car console. The international award-winning harpist lives to pluck another day.
A warm autumn breeze rustles the palm trees. Two little lizards scramble up the shady side of a decorative concrete planter.
We have not yet considered fashions in our pursuit of fulfillment. Fashion trendsetters understand the gnawing sense of incompletion, and they prey on it. Check out the hottest hemlines! Cool seasonal colour palettes! Don't miss the latest in ladies' accessories! Get preppy with plaid and pearls! Go from day to night with this reversible wrap dress and matching clutch purse! Skinny scarves! Sunglasses with tiny purple lenses! How about a belt to go with that dress you never wear? An argyle cardigan in case you need a sleeve? Pantyhose!
The Orlando Premium Outlet mall has, scattered amongst the upscale luxe boutiques, several cheap 'n' cheerful clothing outlets. We could burn a few calories in the changing room with an armload of lightweight polyester and spandex — one-shoulder tops, ruffled sundresses, beaded blouses with plunging necklines, sequin miniskirts, sheer crop tops, and low-rider bellbottoms — the stuff of party girls and hoochie mamas. Who wants to confirm that form-fitting doesn't mean form-flattering? Who needs to waste time worrying about muffin top and camel toe — arguably the worst vaudeville team in the Orpheum Circuit? We could follow up with a frump fest at Dressbarn, trying on floral church dresses and skirt suits on the off-chance we want to pop into the Mary Queen of the Universe Shrine before heading home. I cannot even handle Wet Seal and its perky teen girl energy.
Rounding the corner towards Plaza de Las Luces, we'll admire the Brooks Brothers window display full of headless mannequins suited up for a big day at the courthouse or in their corner offices plotting how to take over the world and sacrifice human rights to serve their economy. How dare they be so dapper yet so dastardly, with their matching socks and pocket squares, tiny embroidered whales swimming along on their neckties, and cheeky addition of a knit sweater vest to the suit to soften their image like Republicans gabbing it up with late night liberal comedy show hosts. "We're all friends and everything is fine," the tiny whales sing.
"Has this ever happened to you?" cries out the display television from the As Seen on TV outlet. A million plastic containers avalanche onto a flailing lady's head. A man settles into a recliner with a platter of chips and salsa and dumps the contents onto his lap and floor. A man becomes exasperated with chopping celery. Surely, there will be some gadget or gizmo that promises solve one of my life's little annoyances. Like little Timmy, wide-eyed with hope and anticipation over seeing his favourite Disney character in the three o'clock parade, I'm eagerly eyeing the shelves for the products from my favourite late night infomercials. Come on, Magic Bullet! How about the great Hairdini? Wonder Steamer? Keep on wondering. My kingdom for Time-Life's Dean Martin Roasts on DVD! Denied. Just a bunch of coin sorters and Pocket Sockets, novelty singing fish, and a topical breast enhancement cream whose packaging leaves me doubtful of its ability to improve my bust and my takes on current events.
The blue cloudless sky is beautiful and brutal in the mall’s exposed courtyards. Quickly, let’s round the corner and take cover from the white hot sun under the roof of Plaza de Las Fuentes.
The afternoon heat is beginning to take its toll on the aged shoppers and the benches have filled up with grandmothers waiting for their families, elderly men waiting for their wives outside the Hanes outlet while she scores a deal on some new undershirts for him, lady retirees who just met chatting away about their children and the weather as if they've been friends for years. One of the dangers of sitting next to a stranger on a bench is the threat of striking up polite conversation and being on the receiving end of their full life story.
We're nearing the end of our circuit. The stores are starting to look the same. Can I be sure that this Sunglass Hut is not the same one from earlier?
What is that glimmering ahead of us? The Swarovski outlet embodying the true spirit of the Premium Outlet mall by teetering along the line between tasteful and tacky. Glass cabinets in the window display shelves of prismatic crystal figurines. Birds and teddy bears and frog princes stare out with their soulless black beady eyes. Intricate crystal replicas of international landmarks shimmer under the built-in LED spotlights. Three variations Mickey Mouse statuettes remind us where we are, just in case Cinderella's crystal castle and carriage and glass slipper were too subtle. The rest of the store is dedicated to the kind of sparkling jewellery and accessories one might pair with evening gowns and mink stoles and the kind of customers for whom $250 for crystal-encrusted sunglasses is a sensible bargain. Sayonara, Swarovski.
As we prepare to leave the Orlando Premium Outlet mall empty-handed, let us respect the tradition of local attractions and exit through the gift shop. Although it's not feasible to actually exit the mall via the Character Warehouse, it is near enough to the exit that we can justify a quick looky-loo before turning tail and climbing aboard the I-Ride Trolley. The Character Warehouse feels more like the Museum of Theme Park Souvenirs. The dated trinkets and t-shirts look like they were unearthed from a time capsule with the original price tags still attached. Postcard racks are filled with faded pictures of orange groves and alligators and Orlando skyline helicopter shots from 1982. The magnet display is overrun with the wooden map of Florida with the thermometer that was on everyone's grandma's fridge in the 1970s. The SeaWorld "department" has Shamu buckets and beach towels and killer whale plushies. The t-shirt racks alternate between stiff tees with "Orlando" or "Florida" embroidered on the front, flimsy tees printed with parody logos mostly unrelated to any of the attractions, and shirts featuring familiar characters with near-imperceptible flaws that rendered them just different enough to avoid licensing fees. This is the place visitors come when they had so much fun doing thrills and sights they forgot to buy presents for people back home. This is the stuff you get for acquaintances and distant relatives who always ask if you brought anything back for them. This is where broke divorced dads buy presents for their kids to make up for not going to the actual parks.
Okay, one last obligatory spin on the keychain rack at the counter to play the personalized keychain name game. There are four different styles — Tiny Sunshine State license plate, carved wooden letters, a metal die-cut flamingo standing on a base when the name is printed in Helvetica. The rules for stocking personalized keychains are unclear. Were the racks loaded with "Mark" and "Jenny" and "Mary" and "John," we could presume they were sticking with safe, basic names. Do they go by the census? Order by the previous year's personalized keychain sales? Who decides to stock "Catherine" and "Kathy" and "Katie" and "Kathryn" but not "Katha—" wait. This wooden block has been carved to spell K A T H A R I N E. Audible gasp. It's a Mary Queen of the Universe miracle. Quest completed.
Yes, now, finally, we can take our leave of this place. My tiny trophy purchased and securing my keys, we mark this day trip down as a success. On the trolley ride home, I’ll retrace our steps, rewriting events so that it feels serendipitous and inevitable, me finding myself on a random keychain rack in the last stop of the day. What are the odds?
The clouds are rolling in. The afternoon showers are late today. Do you have an umbrella?