Drive along Interstate 4 near Polk City, in between Orlando and Tampa, and you’ll see it: a small green and white sign that reads: “Thank you DOT for paving the way to Orlampa’s future.”
Pull off Exit 44, and you’ll see placid green fields, fake oil wells and, until recently, rows of rotting orange trees with roots ripped from the ground. Sunlight bounces off a water tower covered in a peeling “Orlampa Citrus” logo. Down the road lies a white hangar with a shiny silver sign: the Orlampa Conference Center.
Welcome to the gift shop for the place that doesn't exist.
Before guests can see the 20 vintage aircraft inside the hangar, they must enter through an Orlampa merchandise mecca.
On a Sunday morning in November, a few dozen guests peruse the planes. The store, about the size of a museum gift shop, is quiet. There are Orlampa polo shirts and decals and postcards. All for sale, cash only. Behind the counter, an elderly cashier fiddles with a broken credit card reader.
Kermit Weeks, 66, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Orlampa,” is here, too, at least in spirit. This is where he sells autographed bottles of his own “Naked in Jamaica” spiced rum (slogan: "Don’t worry ... Be naked”) alongside his line of children’s books. A cardboard cutout of his mustached face floats near shelves of earrings, wooden Kermit Christmas ornaments and aviation-themed piggy banks. His toothy grin is available in signed prints. It’s even on the DVD box for a self-produced documentary called Wizard of Orlampa.
Who is this man who calls Tampa and Orlando “future suburbs of Orlampa”? And what is Orlampa supposed to be, anyway?
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It all started with the song Snoopy v. the Red Baron.
Before he was an international pilot with a flowing gray ponytail and mustache, Kermit was a kid, growing up in Miami. That is when he heard the 1966 tune by Florida band the Royal Guardsmen on the radio.
The song, which happened to be recorded in Tampa, tells an epic saga: Snoopy, the beloved beagle from the Peanuts comic strip, hops into a WWI plane and battles the German pilot Manfred von Richthofen.
An aviation obsession was born.
Kermit was 8 when he cobbled together his first toy plane out of pieces of wood and wagon wheels. He started building model planes, then radio control airplanes, before spending his senior year of high school constructing a replica World War I Der Jager D-IX biplane. Later in life, he’d tell a reporter at the Lakeland Ledger that he didn’t go to senior prom “because he couldn’t get a dress on his airplane.”
Kermit dropped out of the University of Florida after his freshman year to focus on planes, then spent a year taking electives at Miami-Dade Junior College before enrolling to study aeronautical engineering at Purdue. Oilfield royalties from his grandfather, petroleum geologist Lewis Weeks, gave him the cash he needed to buy an aerobatic airplane that year. Kermit dropped out again, instead becoming known for the medals he won competing in international flight championships with the U.S. Aerobatic Team.
Kermit was determined to design and fly his own planes. He scouted air shows and combed classified ads. In a few decades, Kermit built the world’s largest private collection of vintage airplanes.
In 1985, Kermit opened the Weeks Air Museum in Miami, showing off his collectibles inside a hangar at the Tamiami Airport. But after Hurricane Andrew destroyed much of the museum, picking up his beloved planes and tossing them around like toys, he had to start over.
“It was like life kicking me in the butt saying, ‘You’re done with Miami. You need to focus on Central Florida,’" Kermit said.
Before he’d even opened the Miami museum, Kermit purchased about 160 acres of pastureland in Central Florida, right between the Tampa and Orlando airports. Polk County, about 26 miles south of Walt Disney World, seemed like the right spot for him to launch his next endeavor.
“Walt Disney has always been somebody that I've looked up to,” Kermit said. “I strongly feel that he has given me an unbelievable opportunity to stand on the shoulders of what he created.”
Kermit would later stick a sign in the ground so drivers coming south from Orlando could see it: “Future Site of Downtown Orlampa.” He imagined a sprawling tourist center around his new aviation attraction, with hotels and shops similar to Universal CityWalk. It would be bigger than Busch Gardens, or even Disney. To secure the surrounding area, he told the press he was prepared to spend $100 million.
“I don’t want partners,” he once told the Lakeland Ledger. “I want to control the development so that I can be sure it will complement Fantasy of Flight.”
In 1995, Fantasy of Flight opened to the public as a towering ochre building. Guests meandered through the 100,000-square-foot first floor, learning aviation history through Kermit’s collection.
Kermit showed off some of his 160 planes in two hangars, storing hundreds more antique engines in the Fantasy of Flight workshop. There were biplane rides and airshows outside, plus the Compass Rose Restaurant reminiscent of 1930s airports.
Kermit was an icon. He had assembled a following in the aviation community while flying with the U.S. Aerobatic Team. But even those who have never visited his museum might recognize the DC-3 plane that still hovers at the side of I-4.
Now upright with “Fantasy of Flight” painted under the wings, the plane was originally positioned nose-down. For months, alarmed motorists called 911 thinking it was a real crash.
Kermit dressed up a mannequin, named G. Willie, in a parachute outfit and dangled it from the tail of the plane. On holidays, Willie would become Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Uncle Sam.
Kermit trademarked G. Willie, plus the name Fantasy of Flight, the phrase “Where East Meets West” and dozens of other slogans. The sign went up on southbound I-4. Orlampa, too, got the trademark treatment.
For Kermit, Orlampa encompassed his dream to build a vast tourism center. But for others, the term Orlampa was used to describe a super region.
Newspaper articles from two decades ago used the term to predict a “Tampa-Orlando” area flourishing, like Phoenix and Tucson, or Dallas and Fort Worth.
Orlando’s airport and Tampa’s seaport would be powerful together, argued urban planner Robert Lang. Lang even dreamed about a day “when the U.S. Census Bureau recognizes Tampa and Orlando as a single economically linked region rather than two separate metropolitan areas.”
The Tampa Bay Partnership and Central Florida Partnership spent two years brainstorming ways to bolster the I-4 corridor. A 170 mph high-speed rail would connect Orlando’s airport and Tampa’s seaport, while construction of apartments and office buildings would usher in thousands of jobs.
But in 2011, then-Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion from the federal government to build a high-speed rail. He said the Obama administration’s vision for nationwide transportation would be too expensive for Florida taxpayers. The dream for an Orlampa super region died.
Kermit’s Fantasy of Flight? That dream started to fade, too.
There just weren’t enough visitors to keep the museum going. Kermit tried setting his I-4 roadside plane upright to bring in more people.
“Maybe by changing the energy, the business will take off instead of crash,” he thought.
By 2014, there wasn’t enough money to maintain Fantasy of Flight in its original form. The old museum became a storage facility for Kermit’s plane collection.
One hangar of planes, separate from the grand former museum, remains open seasonally for the public to tour and shop for Orlampa merch. At least, it did before the coronavirus pandemic temporarily closed it. Three employees worked inside, checking in the trickle of guests and leading tours around about 20 planes for $12 admission.
“We call that the Fantasy of Flight Museum Lite,” Kermit said. “L-i-t-e, like the beer.”
Just outside the hangar, a couple uses the airfield to offer biplane rides. Jill Manka, a longtime friend of Kermit and manager of Waldo Wright’s Flying Service, said the area has its own “mystical center.” Storms seem to go around the airfield.
“It’s Orlampa,” she said. “It brings people together.”
She added, “We’re just grateful he didn’t call it Tampando.”
Back in 2007 when Fantasy of Flight was still up and running, employee Phil Zizza filmed around the museum for five days. The footage was intended to be used as a pitch for a possible reality TV show. Now the documentary is just another piece of Orlampa merchandise in the gift shop.
“Who is Kermit Weeks?” reads the description on the DVD box. “Try combining the creativity, dedication and vision of a Walt Disney, the passion for flight and the daring of a Howard Hughes, the laid back lifestyle of a Jimmy Buffett with the spiritual balance and inner focus of a Dalai Lama and you’d be close!”
Kermit clings onto items like this while his dream is in limbo. He says his only reason to keep Fantasy of Flight Lite running is to ensure the gift shop stays open. If he stopped selling merchandise, he could lose his trademarks. He fears the state would make him take the Orlampa signs down.
And he doesn’t want to do that, because his next reinvention is imminent. He refers to the Weeks Air Museum as Act I. Fantasy of Flight was Act II.
“I'm telling everybody,” he said. “Go get a hot dog, get a coke, take a bathroom break because Act III is about to begin.”
So what is he actually planning for this in-between place that is still no more than rented out fields and a few scattered buildings?
Kermit’s attraction of the future is not about history, he says, or even planes. His dream for Orlampa involves three parks, representing the past, present and future. It’s supposed to be a place where you enter one person and come out another. It is supposed to make you a better version of yourself.
His third children’s book, Ostynn the Ostrich and the Fantasy of Flight, stars an ostrich character Kermit hopes to be the Mickey Mouse of his future park. The character himself is a metaphor that tells the message of Orlampa.
Kermit plans to use the aircraft in his collection for interactive storytelling experiences that bring the guests along for the ride. Along the way, they will be motivated. Uplifted. Changed.
“We all see reality with our heads in the sand,” Kermit said. “But at some level, we all have the potential to think ‘Oh my God, I got some wings. Maybe I can fly beyond what I perceive myself to be.’ ”
Before the coronavirus, Kermit promised Act III was coming in three or four years.
For now, the mini version of his old museum will have to do.
"That's just, gag me, boring,” he said.
“That is not what I want to be. That is what I'm forced to be when I'm in the development of what I'm about to create."
Orlando audio journalist Nicholas D’Alessandro contributed to this report. D’Alessandro writes, hosts and produces the “Wait Five Minutes” podcast, where you can listen to his companion piece about Orlampa and Kermit. Information from Times archives was used in this report.