The last time I drove on Orlando’s International Drive, profanity was involved. I was trying to go from the Aquatica water park to a restaurant on Sand Lake Road on the opposite side of Interstate 4.
Foolishly, like a fresh-off-the-plane tourist, I thought I’d just ramble up I-Drive and cut over. Long traffic lights, dashing pedestrians, convention-center confusion and sudden lane switchers almost made me lose my religion.
But last week, I stood on an I-Drive sidewalk and heard birds singing. I walked across the four-lane street (plus grassy median) without breaking stride. I enjoyed a nice breeze, the gentle hum of air-conditioning units and no cussing.
I felt … lonely.
Welcome to International Drive, pandemic style. A street known for constant motion – unless you’re in a car – is remarkably, eerily still. The Orlando StarFlyer’s swings hang limply from its 400-foot tower, and the neighboring Wheel at Icon Park is not turning. No helicopters are hovering. Shopping-center parking lots in the heart of I-Drive are completely empty.
Businesses deemed nonessential are shut down by governmental mandate, leaving mostly convenience stores, pharmacies and restaurants in operation, and those eateries are selling only take-out meals.
The open restaurants, primarily national chains, try to grab the attention of passersby with new signs, painted windows (sometimes garish and a little desperate) and offers of half-price beer to go, a new option in these parts. At a TGIF Fridays, party music blares above a deserted patio, conjuring good times from the past. But customers must ring a doorbell to get service. Bar Louie’s gigantic windows are wide open, and there’s more music, but no one can be seated inside. Hooters installed an enormous sign that reads “curbside now open” and another one that announces food discounts for first responders.
At several restaurants, there are two cars in the lot at midday. It’s not hard to imagine that the vehicles belong to the cook and to the cashier.
Appropriately enough, no one is parked at Zombie Outbreak, a closed attraction next to Titanic: The Exhibition.
It’s what happens when tourist attractions can’t host tourists and stop being attractive.
Yet it’s not a ghost town, entirely. A pack of cars passes once the traffic light finally turns green. Masked pedestrians occasionally appear. A woman and a little boy feed ducks waddling near a miniature golf course. Two guys rush toward a Subway shop, only to see that it’s closed. A worker gives Red Lobster a new coat of beige paint.
Some I-Drive constants remain. A car travels for blocks with its turn signal blinking. Billboards for Disney and Universal compete on opposite sides of the street. Landscapers mow away. Decorative fountains prance. A man plays chicken trying to cross at the Sand Lake Road intersection, where, yes, there’s construction.
A line of six cars queues up at the McDonald’s on the retail-heavy north end of I-Drive. It’s surrounded by shuttered perfume outlets, shoe stores and gift shops.
On the opposite end of International Drive, it’s more populated. There are apartments and time-shares. People are exercising, walking dogs, rollerblading, wandering. There are more masks. SeaWorld’s Kraken and Mako coasters are quiet, but the stillness is interrupted by a maintenance truck driving by inside the theme park’s fence. The lights are on at a Golden Corral, but no one is there.
Orange cones and law enforcement officers guide drivers to COVID-19 testing at the darkened Orange County Convention Center.
Some hotel parking lots are blocked off. At others, it’s difficult to tell if there are guests inside.
A sign tries to clear it up: “We are open.”