ORLANDO — Gnawing on a pricey stogie, knocking back even pricier booze, Calvin Simmons rocks in a chair and watches Orange Avenue get thick with Saturday nightlife: hoops fans and hoodied hipsters, coaster fiends and college girls whose heels grow higher as the night grows longer.
"This is nothing now," Simmons says. "Just you wait. It's only 8. It's too early, man."
He warns that soon the Amway Center, the new home of the NBA's Magic, will unload its postgame foot traffic like an adrenaline shot to the heart of the party. Police will shut down surrounding roads and allow thousands of all-walks-of-life revelers to swamp Church and Pine streets, Court and Orange avenues.
To an outsider — say, a Tampa Bay dad who rarely makes it past Disney Exit 62 on Interstate 4 — this already looks like a Cecil B. DeMille movie shot infused with 2-for-1 kamikaze shots and tan thighs.
To Simmons, sitting out front of the Corona Cigar Co., a Cuban-themed bastion of whiskey and smoke, the mayhem here is just another night — the locals' alternative to Downtown Disney and Universal's CityWalk.
"Orlando doesn't have a true identity," says the 41-year-old, who has lived here 20 years. "We have the Magic, that's cool. But we don't have football, we don't have baseball. This is basically a tourist town." And yet, along with that persistent transience, he says, comes a party-at-the-oasis vibe, a multicultural holding station for all-out hedonism.
"Give it an hour or so," Simmons says. "Then you're really going to see something."
Tonight's mission is excess: to experience as many bars and restaurants and dance clubs and pool halls as possible. To take downtown Orlando — or the catchall "Church Street" and myriad connecting red-bricked roads — in one yeehaw gulp. We're staying at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, which is walking distance to everything.
Somewhere along the way, as we hit more than 15 establishments — from posh drinkeries to charming grit-flecked dives — we will come to a finer understanding of this alien landscape.
Or we will throw up.
The beloved Magic (this town lovvves its NBA team, something b-ball-less Tampa Bay might find hard to believe) play the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Amway Center. That means around 9:30 p.m., the steady procession of pretty peeps looking for a good time will become an unfightable jet stream. It's Friday, but the scene replays on weeknights, too. My date is wearing gold heels, but she slipped silver flats into her purse. That will prove a key decision, although it should be noted that all of the action is within a convenient four-block-or-so radius.
First, fuel: We start at Pine Twenty2, an organic build-your-own burger joint that sprouted a couple of years back. In lieu of neon cheese or ketchup squirts, you pile a natural beef patty high with herbed goat cheese, roasted garlic aioli, charred onions and roasted green chiles. There are craft beers and indie wines, too, making for a communal hang.
Now, drink: On to the Native Social Bar, just a few weeks old but a clue as to what the new Church Street area is trying to become: slightly upscale, buckets of cheap beer replaced by cosmos and architecturally savvy design. In this particular case, exposed brick contrasts with white-tile floors, red-leather banquette booths and dimmed-low birdcage lanterns. Call it shabby chic, hipster rustic; whatever the case, it's a GREAT bar, my Orlando fave. We order two tall vodka Red Bulls, $20 with tip, not bad at all.
Next door to the Native Social Bar, however, is a beer-musty emblem of old "Church Street," a classically dumb-fun hookup place, stacked three stories high with a trio of bars: Chillers, Big Belly Brewery and Latitudes, the last a rooftop tiki joint with torches, palms and a view of the Amway Center. If we were single, buzzed and open to a night of lifelong regret, this place would rock! But alas, two more voddy Reds and back onto the street. Down the way, a trickle of people is starting to leave the Amway Center.
Here we go . . .
"This is the revitalization of Church Street," says Vito Badalamenti, motioning to the glossy insides of his slick, South Beach-style Loft 55, a much-ballyhooed tapas-style restaurant (serving popcorn truffle shrimp) that later morphs into a club. "Buildings are starting to fill up around here. It's changing."
Badalamenti is only 35, but he has been in the nightclub biz for years, even doing business with boy-band impresario Lou Pearlman before the 'N Sync founder went to prison for money laundering, among other transgressions. Badalamenti says Orlando is actually "in between identities right now" but that the new downtown is focusing on attracting well-dressed grownups as well as randy college kids. The Amway Center is a huge part of the turnaround: "So I won't turn anyone away in a Magic jersey!"
Good thing, too. When we leave Loft 55, it's a mob scene. Magic fans bump into Mickey Mousers in town for teacup spins who mingle with presumably all of the 60,000-plus students attending the University of Central Florida (the second-largest university in the United States) who intertwine with the off-duty nametags who run rides at Universal and Disney. Shaquille O'Neal wasn't kidding when he told Florida Trend this month that the nightlife here "is the best it has been in 20 years."
As we walk back down Church Street (the line to get into the three fratty bars now looks like the Space Mountain queue), the crowd on the sidewalk is so thick, so steady, we're caught in the current. I make eye contact with a bouncer at Vintage, who deadpans, "You're on the list" and pulls us into his dark bastion, the sort of blood-hued vampire haunt you find dotting the bawdy Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. It's not quite a club, but not a bar either; that said, it's tamer than it's next-door naughty-twin-sister Vixen.
After a few Crowns on the rocks, we decide that our defenses have been compromised enough that we can boldly enter the Tier Nightclub. This a strobing, thrusting, awesomely desperate nightclub where young women wearing just enough minidress move in tight circles while heavily eyebrowed mooks in Ed Hardy lurk on the periphery and scope out their buy-you-an-appletini conquests.
The Tier has bouncers the size of Andre the Giant and wallet-gobbling salutes to Grey Goose that come with sparklers and half-naked servers.
Not that I'm judging.
At this point in the reporting, my notes get a little abstract. Not quite sure why I was so excited by "DJ Moon! DJ Moon!!!" but in cross-examining my iPhone, there is in fact a DJ at Hooch XXX who spins in front of a giant lunar wall hanging. Hooch XXX is one of the newest — and best — bars in Wall Street Plaza, a conglomeration of casual, cool college joints, all of which empty out into the same courtyard that gets as packed as the places themselves. One free wristband with ID gets you access to everything. Hooch is a blast (we danced to a remix of Michael Jackson's Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough) and looks like Tim Burton's idea of a Wild West saloon. Not as welcoming was the slightly predatory Slingapour's. But if one place doesn't suit you, just head back out to the courtyard, where we found ourselves in the midst of a mass dance-along to Sir Mix-a-Lot's Baby Got Back. Good times, good times.
A few steps from Wall Street Plaza, Cleo's Lounge is the kind of lovable dump where a feted bride-to-be can barf gallons of fun into the corner and barflies will barely glance her way before shooting eight-ball-in-corner-pocket. It's a dive in the best sense of the word — and it provides a nice microcosm of the downtown Orlando crowd: young, black and white and Asian and more. Everyone winds up at Cleo's, where every ounce of pretension is stripped. It might be one of the most "real" places in Orlando I've ever been.
After a few games of darts and a quick stop at Gino's Pizza and Brew, the drunk food of choice here, we head back to the Grand Bohemian, valiantly trying to muster courage for one more drink at the hotel's mahogany-fortified Bosendorfer Lounge. She kicks off her flats, puts her head on the bar — done. I start to order another Crown but, foreseeing the problems of sunrise, order a water and lemon. Outside, the streets remain packed, the denizens of downtown Orlando showing off.
I wonder if there's anywhere in the whole state of Florida, Ybor City included, that has such a massive regular influx of nightlife like downtown Orlando. I ponder this for a while — and then rest my head on the bar, too.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypolife on Twitter.