KISSIMMEE — Outside Disney World’s main gate, the magic wears off at Celebration’s end.
Along U.S. 192 beyond Mickey’s perfect town, the biggest attractions are a military museum and a place offering fun with machine guns. Fantasy comes in paint cans; fairy tale pastels and garish murals of screaming American eagles.
The layout isn’t Disney pristine but a strip mall sprawl of gift shops, buffets and budget hotels waving down tourists like taxis. Places that don’t pay or tip enough for some workers to buy or rent family housing. Some take shelter in cheap hotels, homeless with a swimming pool and an ice machine down the hall.
They are Kissimmee’s hidden homeless families, but not hidden for long. Not with a critically acclaimed movie about them, now playing in select cities and premiering locally Nov. 3.
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is fiction reflecting fact, a study of homelessness from the perspective of children living hand-to-mouth in a discount hotel near Disney World. The movie was screened to acclaim at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, and has started garnering awards season momentum.
"The Florida project" is what Walt Disney called his Orlando theme park during construction. Poverty wasn’t part of Uncle Walt’s fantasy.
"It’s not just cynical irony," Baker said recently. "We want to show people if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere. Maybe even in your own town, under your nose."
The Florida Project brings an overlooked homelessness to light. Chronically homeless people most often find shelters or share living quarters. The least fortunate live outdoors. But a notable segment rents cut-rate hotel and motel rooms, often struggling to avoid eviction.
Along U.S. 192 where The Florida Project is set, they blend with tourists.
Baker’s screenwriting partner Chris Bergoch found inspiration on 192 while visiting his mother in Orlando. Driving along, Bergoch noticed a school bus picking up students at a motel. He emailed photographs to Baker with the germ of an idea.
"I had a picture of these kids with the backdrop of a motel and told Sean these kids live here," Bergoch said. "They’re about five or 10 minutes away from the Disney magic yet they’ve probably never been there.
"Something about this tells me we have a story to find here."
A big fan of The Little Rascals, Baker imagined a modern version of those comedies set during the Great Depression.
"Most of the kids in The Little Rascals were living in poverty but they focused on the humor and heart that makes childhood universal," he said.
Casting children from the Orlando area was important to Baker for authenticity in accents. He didn’t learn until after filming began that Christopher Rivera, a local child cast as the character Scooty, was actually living in a nearby hotel with his family.
The Florida Project drifts around a 6-year-old girl named Moonee (Orlando native Brooklynn Prince) and her irresponsible mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, a first-time actor Baker discovered on Instagram). They live at the Magic Castle Inn, a lavender place nicer than Baker’s movie makes it look. Dire conditions are filtered through Moonee’s innocence during a joyful summer of having nothing.
Moonee and Halley aren’t real, but their type of family homelessness is. Osceola County counted 888 students living in hotels and motels during the 2016-17 school year. By comparison, Pinellas County had 493 similarly housed students enrolled; 256 in Hillsborough County.
"You don’t see this type of homeless," said Magic Castle Inn owner Debbie Buxton, who hosted Baker’s production for three months in 2016. "You see people standing on the street begging but you don’t see the people living in hotels. It’s a fact of life around here."
A nearby Waffle House also plays a role in The Florida Project when Moonee accepts free meals sneaked out the back door.
"That doesn’t happen," server Tara Fernandez said during a morning shift. Informed about the movie’s homeless theme, Fernandez said that part rings true.
"It’ll make Kissimmee look bad," she said. "But lately, that’s what we’ve got around here."
The economic problems aren’t unnoticed.
"The county is really trying to bring up this area, redevelopment and things like that," Buxton said. "They want these people to move out of hotels... But where do they go? There’s no affordable housing here anymore."
Mary Downey’s Community Hope Center provides holistic support for the hidden homeless along the U.S. 192 corridor. As the agency’s executive director, she assisted Baker’s research, introducing them to discount motel residents and managers; one inspired actor Willem Dafoe’s character in The Florida Project.
"Most of the families that I work with are not like Halley," Downey said. "Most are like Halley’s friend who lived downstairs; a hard-working Mom trying to find daycare for her kid... while also going to work every day, doing everything she can."
Downey believes The Florida Project can raise awareness of homeless issues anywhere. Osceola County commissioner Peggy Choudhry hopes the movie doesn’t label her district unfairly.
"I understand that maybe this is why people are more interested because they’re going to say, ‘Oh, wow. It’s right next to Disney. Oh my god, how could that happen?’" she said. "Well, it happens everywhere, in the best cities and the best towns."
Choudhry, a former hotelier on the U.S. 192 corridor, points to economic development partnerships with Disney, Universal Studios Florida and others. The first grant Downey’s agency received was $500,000 from Disney.
Choudhry also noted that Osceola County’s population was expected to double by 2030 even before recent evacuations from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. Homeless numbers will logically grow as well.
One remarkable movie might not change much.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.