Thursday, November 19, 2015

How to Be a New York Basketball Fan In Orlando -- 2015-16 Edition

Want to spend Thanksgiving at Disney World? Probably not. But the New York Knicks will be playing the Orlando Magic in Orlando next Wednesday night, the day before Thanksgiving. Want to spend New Year's at Disney World? The Brooklyn Nets will visit on December 30.

Before You Go. Florida must be where the saying, "It's not the heat that's so bad, it's the humidity" was first used. Indeed, when Miami got its expansion baseball team in 1991, someone joked that, since they already had the Heat, a basketball team that was then so bad, the baseball team should be named the Miami Humidity. (It was named the Florida Marlins instead, and is now the Miami Marlins.)

Orlando isn't as far south as Miami, but I've been there in November, and the place simply doesn't recognize what the calendar says for the Northeast. It can be 85 degrees and 100 percent humidity. It can be unbearable. The Orlando Sentinel website currently has (at this writing) temperatures ranging from 81 to 89 throughout the metro area.

For Thanksgiving weekend -- Wednesday through Sunday -- the temperature is expected to range from the mid-60s to the low 80s during daylight, and from the high 50s to the low 70s at night. Plus, it's expected to rain on Wednesday (the night of the game in question) and again on Saturday. So don't dress as you would for a chilly, blustery Turkey Day weekend in N'Yawk or N'Jersey: Prepare for summer, maybe early autumn.

Orlando is in the Eastern Time Zone, so you won't have to fool with your timepieces. Florida was part of the Confederate States of America, and Central Florida (outside of Disney World itself, which is its own fiefdom under "Uncle Walt," who was very conservative) is still very much Southern, but you won't need to bring your passport or change your money (although Disney World does use "Disney Dollars" as coupons).

Tickets. The Magic averaged 16,785 fans per home game last season, only about 89 percent of capacity. It is possible that, despite the growth of the Central Florida market, Orlando simply can't support a major league team in any sport. (The soccer team Orlando City SC did well at the box office this year, but that may be due to the novelty of having an expansion team, and some people don't count MLS as "major league" anyway.)

It's why Tampa Bay got a baseball team in 1998 and a hockey team in 1992, and Jacksonville got an NFL team in 1995, and Orlando got none of those. Most of the single-team markets have an NBA team. (Jacksonville is the only one with only an NFL team.)

Seats in the lower level, the 100 sections, are $166 between the baskets and $64 behind them. In the upper level, the 200 sections, they're $90 between and $55 behind, with the last few rows being perhaps the cheapest ticket in the NBA at $10.25 a seat.

Getting There. It's 1,080 miles from Times Square to downtown Orlando. Reading this, your first thought is going to be to fly.

Except that the Knicks-Magic game is being played during Thanksgiving week, when all transportation services will be mostly booked up, and you'll be lucky if prices aren't at the level of "Whatever we (be we the airlines, Amtrak or Greyhound) think we can get away with charging."

Amazingly, you can get a round-trip nonstop flight on United Airlines, going down on next Wednesday, the day of the game, and coming back on either Thursday (Thanksgiving) or Friday, for just $357. This turns out to be a bargain by anyone's standards, especially when you see the Orlando airport and its fantastic monorail. The only problem is, you've got to start at Newark Airport. At least they've finally built their monorail.

(Orlando International Airport's airport code of MCY comes from its former status, up until 1975, as McCoy Air Force Base, named for Colonel Michael Norman Wright McCoy, a hero pilot of World War II who was killed in a crash at what was then named Pinecastle Air Force Base in 1957.)

Amtrak's Silver Meteor leaves New York's Penn Station at 3:15 PM, and arrives in Orlando at 12:49 the following afternoon, a 21-and-a-half hour trip. It's $542 round-trip. Be advised that the Florida trains, the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star, are notoriously late on their returns to the Northeast Corridor. So flying is the better option. The Amtrak station is on Slight Blvd. at Copleand Drive, downtown.

Greyhound runs 5 buses a day from New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal to Orlando, with a round-trip fare of $483, but it can drop to $298 with advanced purchase. This trip takes 25 hours, with a change of buses and an hour-and-a-half layover in Richmond, which is not fun. So far, flying remains the better option, which is a rarity on these Trip Guides. The Greyhound station is at 555 N. John Young Parkway. 2 miles west of downtown. Number 25 bus.

If you do prefer to drive, see if you can get someone to split the duties with you. Essentially, you’ll be taking Interstate 95 almost all the way down. At Exit 260, take Interstate 4 West, and Exit 82B for downtown Orlando.

It should take about 2 hours to get through New Jersey, 20 minutes in Delaware, an hour and a half in Maryland, 3 hours in Virginia, 3 hours in North Carolina, 3 hours in South Carolina, 2 hours in Georgia, and about 2 hours and 45 minutes in Florida. Given proper 45-minute rest stops – I recommend doing one in Delaware, and then, once you’re through the Washington, D.C. area, doing one when you enter each new State, and then another around Orlando, for a total of 7 – and taking into account city traffic at each end, your entire trip should take about 23 hours -- faster than Greyhound, but not faster than Amtrak.

Once In the City. Founded as Jernigan in 1875, and home to about 255,000 people with a metropolitan area of just under 3 million, Orlando was named for Orlando Reeves, an American soldier who was killed within what is now the city limits during the Second Seminole War in 1835.

There's just one problem: It never happened. There was no fighting in said war in what's now the Orlando area, and the only Orlando Reeves who lived nearby owned a plantation with a sugar mill on it. He carved his name in a tree, and somebody presumed later on that he must have been buried there. How he became a war hero, who knows. Maybe it was Southern pride, something the locals tried to cling to after General Sherman kicked the Confederacy's redneck ass.

The sales tax in Florida is 6 percent, and an additional 6 percent is placed on all hotel rooms. Central Blvd. divides city addresses into North and South, and Orange Avenue divides them into East and West.

Lynx is the local bus service. A single ride is $2.00. Orlando recently began their SunRail commuter service, which, by sometime next year, will extend, north-to-south, from DeLand in the north to Poinciana in the south. (For the moment, it runs from DeBary to Sand Lake Road.) They also want to expand to the airport, and to Daytona Beach; the former will happen next year, but the later remains only a plan.
A SunRail train in downtown Orlando

Going In. The official address of the Amway Center is 400 W. Church Street. It is bordered by Church Street, Hughey Avenue, South Street and Division Avenue. Parking can be as little as $5.00.
The arena opened in 2010, with a concert by Vicente Fernandez, "the King of Ranchero Music." Within the last year, it has hosted concerts by James Taylor, the Black Keys, Linkin Park, Fleetwood Mac, Arian Grande, Janet Jackson, and the tour of Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas. It is also home to the Orlando Solar Bears of minor-league hockey, and the Orlando Predators of arena football.

The court is laid out north-to-south. Like the Boston Celtics, the Magic use a "parquet" floor.
Food. Florida is Southeastern Conference territory, where tailgating is a holy rite. Unfortunately, I had trouble accessing the arena website to get details. Here's the link, and you can check for yourself. According to Google Maps, Magic Grill is in the northwest corner of the arena.

Team History Displays. The Magic's history is short: They've only been playing since 1989. (Oddly, they're already on their 2nd arena.) They won the Eastern Conference Championship in 1995, but after getting beaten by the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals and the Chicago Bulls in the next season's Eastern Conference Finals, they were broken up. The dynasty that Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway and Scott Skiles (now their head coach) were supposed to build never happened.

History repeated itself in the late 2000s: The Magic reached the Finals again, but lost to the Los Angeles Lakers, didn't get back in 2010, and the team of Dwight Howard and J.J. Redick was soon broken up.

The Magic hang banners for their 1995 and 2009 Conference titles, and for their Division titles of 1995, 1996, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
The Magic have retired just 1 number. It's not 32 for Shaquille O'Neal. (Guard C.J. Watson currently wears that number.) It's not 1 for Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway. (That number is currently vacant.) It's 6, for the fans, as "The Sixth Man."

There aren't a whole lot of options. Until Shaq gets in, the only Hall-of-Famers they've got are Dominique Wilkins and Patrick Ewing, each of whom played just 1 season for the Magic, at the ends of their careers. Ewing and O'Neal are the only members of the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players to have played for the Magic.

UPDATE: In 2016, Shaq was elected to the Hall. Whether the Magic pack 32 away for him remains to be seen.

Stuff. The Magic Team Shop is in the northeast corner of the arena. The usual NBA team paraphernalia can be found there.

With a short and weak history, there aren't many books written about the Magic. Pat Williams' the team's 1st general manager, wrote Making Magic: How Orlando Won an NBA Team, published in 1989, a few weeks before the team played its 1st regular-season game.

But plug "Orlando Magic" into the Books section of Amazon.com, and the only other book you'll get (not counting team calendars) is Brian Schmitz' tale of the 2008-10 team that didn't quite make it falling apart, Dwightmare: Dwight Howard, the Orlando Magic, and the Season of Dysfunction. Part of the problem is the reason the team is named the Magic: Disney World is known as the Magic Kingdom, and that's how the team got its name. Aside from Believe: The Remarkable Run of the 1995 Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic, there aren't any worthwhile vidoes about the team, either.

During the Game. A November 13, 2014 article on DailyRotoHelp ranked the NBA teams' fan bases, and listed the Magic's fans as 26th -- 5th from the bottom. It says the arena is "as quiet as a golf course," cites a senior-citizen fan base (ex-New Yorkers hoping to find the new Clyde & Pearl, and their hopes aren't realized?), and tourists to Central Florida not being able to squeeze in a pro basketball game.

This is the South, but it's not football. And it's not the Miami Heat: There is no rivalry between the Knicks and the Magic. Or the Nets and the Magic. You're not going to be in physical danger unless you provoke someone. So don't do that.

The Magic's mascot has (sort of) a magic theme: Stuff the Magic Dragon. They hold auditions for singing the National Anthem, instead of using a regular singer. Their theme song is "We Will" by Team Takeoff. The fans' main chant is a takeoff on a Florida State chant: "O-R-L-A-N-D-O M-A-G-I-C (WHAT WHAT) MAGIC! MAGIC! MAGIC! WOOOO!"
After the Game. Orlando is not known as a high-crime city. You should be safe going out, and, if you drove to the game, you car should be in one piece.

A block west of the arena, at Church Street and Terry Avenue, there are 3 restaurants that should be open after the game: Chef Eddie's, Johnson's Diner, and Flamingo's Coffee Shop. But I was not able to find any place to eat or drink that is known to cater to New York teams' fans.

If you visit Orlando during the European soccer season, unless you're a fan of a very big club, you're probably out of luck. Aces, at 825 Courtland Street, about 6 miles north of downtown, is an Arsenal pub. Two possibilities for other English clubs are The Harp and Celt, 25 S. Magnolia Avenue, downtown, both known to cater to the Merseyside clubs, Liverpool and Everton; and The George & Dragon, 6314 International Drive, about 9 miles southwest of downtown, across from Universal's theme parks. Dewey's Sports Bar also touts its soccer match showings. 7720 Turkey Lake Road, 9 miles southwest of downtown, near Universal Orlando.

Sidelights. Orlando doesn't have much of a sports history. And if you're not interesting in going to the nearby theme parks, there's not a whole lot to do there except experience serious humidity in late November.

* Site of Orlando Arena. "The O-rena" was the Magic's home from their 1989 beginnings until 2010, and also hosted the Solar Bears, the Predators, and, from 1999 to 2002, the Orlando Miracle of the WNBA. (The team moved to become the Connecticut Sun. Funny how they became the Sun after moving from Florida to New England, instead of the other way around.)
The Magic played the 1995 and 2009 NBA Finals at this building, later renamed the TD Waterhouse Center and the Amway Arena (the Magic are owned by Amway chairman Rich DeVos, hence his company's name on arenas old and new). It was a major venue for Arena Football, hosting the ArenaBowl in 1992, 1994 and 2000. The Orlando Predators won the ArenaBowl in 1998 and 2000.

But it opened right before the design of Baltimore's Camden Yards rewrote the rules for sports venues. The skyboxes had the worst sightlines in the arena, and many of them went unleased, denying the Magic precious megarevenues.

As early as 2000, DeVos started whining to the City of Orlando about building him a new arena, even though he's worth $6 billion and could have funded building the $480 million arena he eventually got all by himself -- 12 times over. The O-rena was imploded in 2012, and the site is being redeveloped for both residential and office space. 600 W. Amelia Street at Alexander Place, downtown, about 7 blocks north of its replacement.

* Citrus Bowl and Tinker Field. This complex includes an old football stadium and an old baseball park. Opened in 1936 as Orlando Stadium, the horseshoe, open at the north end, became the Tangerine Bowl in 1946, and from 1947 onward (with the exception of 1973, when it was held at the University of Florida) hosted the game of the same name, often on New Year's Day, which was renamed the Florida Citrus Bowl in 1983.

It seated a mere 8,900 people at its opening, and just 15,900 as late as 1975. But a major expansion boosted it to 52,000 the next year, and 65,438 in 1989. A 2014 renovation, complete with wider seats, brought the total down to 60,219, which still gives in more seats than 2 current NFL stadiums, the Oakland Coliseum and the Minnesota Vikings' temporary home of TCF Bank Stadium.
The stadium actually hosts 3 bowl games: The Citrus Bowl, the Russell Athletic Bowl, and, starting this year, the AutoNation Cure Bowl, raising money for breast cancer research. Since 1997, it's hosted the Florida Classic, between historically black schools Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman -- a copy of New Orleans' Bayou Classic between Grambling State and Southern University.

Orlando has never had a team in the NFL, unless you count the Orlando Breakers on the sitcom Coach in the 1995 and 1996 seasons. Real pro football teams that have played there include the Orlando Broncos of the Southern Football League (1962-63), the Orlando Panthers of the Continental Football League (1966-70), the Florida Blazers of the World Football League (1974), the Orlando Renegades of the USFL (1985), the Orlando Thunder of the World League of American Football (1991-92), and the Orlando Rage of the XFL (2001).

According to the September 2014 issue of The Atlantic, even though the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 88 miles from downtown Orlando and the Miami Dolphins are 222 miles away, and the Buccaneers won a Super Bowl 13 seasons ago while the Dolphins are now 42 seasons without a title, the Dolphins remain the most popular NFL team in the Orlando area. (The Tampa Bay Lightning, 85 miles away and coming off a Stanley Cup Finals berth, are the closest and most popular NHL team.)

Orlando City Soccer Club has played there since 2011, and got promoted to MLS this year. The Bowl hosted 5 games of the 1994 World Cup, and 8 matches -- 5 men's, 3 women's -- in the 1996 Olympics (mostly based in Atlanta). It hosted the 1998 MLS All-Star Game, and 3 games of the U.S. national team, most recently in 1998, resulting in a win and 2 draws.

Just to the west of the Bowl, Tinker Field opened in 1914. It was the longtime spring training home of the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins franchise, and when the stadium was rebuilt in 1963, seats from Griffith Stadium were added to it, since the Senators had moved to Minnesota and the new Senators had moved into RFK Stadium.
Pennants in the Class A Florida State League were won by the 1921 Orlando Tigers, the 1923 Orlando Bulldogs, the 1927 Orlando Colts, the 1940 and 1946 Orlando Senators, the 1955 Orlando C.B.'s, and the 1968 Orlando Twins. Pennants in the Class AA Southern League were won by the 1981 Orlando Twins, the 1991 Orlando Sun Rays, and the 1999 Orlando Rays. That's 10 Pennants.

The Orlando Rays moved to Alabama after the 2003 season, becoming the Montgomery Biscuits. Despite metropolitan Orlando having a population greater than 8 MLB markets (St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Denver, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Milwaukee), it has been without professional baseball since the Aaron Boone Game.

Rumors of the Tampa Bay Rays moving to Orlando if they can't get a new stadium either in Tampa or St. Petersburg continue to swirl, but if they ever do move, it probably won't be to Orlando, not to the Tinker Field site or to the 9,500-seat Champion Stadium on the Disney World campus.

Unfortunately, the recent renovation of the Citrus Bowl meant that the 100-year-old Tinker Field ballpark would have a right field that was much too short, and it was torn down earlier this year. It seated 5,100 people at the end. 1610 W. Church Street at Rio Grand Avenue, 12 blocks west of the Amway Center.

According to an April 24, 2014 article in The New York Times, despite being 106 miles away -- or, perhaps, because they aren't much closer -- the Rays only get about 10 percent of MLB fandom in the Orlando area. The Boston Red Sox get about 15 percent. And the Yankees average about 30 percent.

Despite its growing metropolitan area population, Orlando would still rank only 24th in MLB, and 20th in the NFL.

* Orlando City Stadium. Currently under construction, and set to open next Spring, Orlando City SC and their sister club the Orlando Pride will play here. 700 Church Street at Glenn Lane, downtown, between the Amway Center and the Citrus Bowl complex.
Simulation of appearance when completed

* Bright House Networks Stadium. This 44,206-seat stadium opened on the University of Central Florida campus in 2007. The stadium has a flexible seating section that can safely allow students to bounce, similar to the effect of the metal seating in the west end zone at RFK Stadium in Washington, giving it the nicknames the Bounce House and the Trampoline.
4465 Knights Victory Way at Plaza Drive, 16 miles northeast of downtown. Any bus that goes to Lynx Central Station Terminal, then Bus 104.

* Site of Orlando Sports Stadium. Like the Chicago Stadium and the Olympia Stadium in Detroit, this "stadium" was actually an arena, opening in 1967. It was later renamed the Eddie Graham Sports Complex, after a pro wrestler and promoter, since pro wrestling was its main feature. But it was also a major concert venue, hosting Led Zeppelin in 1971, Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976, and, on February 15, 1977, Elvis Presley.

The building was not well maintained, and was demolished in 1995. A housing development named Econ River Estates is now on the site.

* Theme Parks. Disney World is 17 miles southwest of downtown Orlando, and, like its counterpart Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is a bit of a walk from the nearest public transportation. It's definitely a car place, although it does have a monorail on the grounds.

Sea World can be reached by public transit: SunRail from Lynx Central Station Terminal to Bus 50. 7007 Sea World Drive, 14 miles southwest. Universal Orlando Resort (formerly Universal Studios Orlando) can be reached from downtown via Bus 40: 6000 Universal Blvd., 8 miles southwest.

Orlando isn't big on museums, but there are 3 that may be worth a look. The Orange County Regional History Center is at 65 E. Central Blvd. at Court Avenue. The Orlando Science Center and the Mennello Museum of American Art are both in Loch Haven Park, at 777 E. Princeton Street. SunRail to Florida Hospital Health Village.

The Beatles never performed in Orlando, but, as I said, Elvis did, toward the end. Toward the beginning, on May 11, 1955, Elvis did 2 shows at the Municipal Auditorium. He performed there again on July 26 and 27, 1955, and twice on August 8, 1956. The building is now named the Bob Carr Theaer, for the Mayor who desegregated the city in the 1960s. 401 W. Livingston Street at Hughey Avenue, downtown, about 5 blocks north of the Amway Center.

The University of Florida is in Gainesville, 113 miles northwest of downtown Orlando. Florida State University is in the State capital of Tallahassee, 258 miles northwest.

Miami has several skyscrapers. Tampa has a few. Orlando really doesn't. The tallest building in town is the SunTrust Center, 441 feet high, at 200 S. Orange Avenue at Church Street, 3 blocks (counting I-4) east of the Amway Center.

Outside of the Orlando-area theme parks, the biggest tourist attraction in Central Florida is the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, 45 miles east of Orlando, on the Atlantic Coast. You'll have to drive: Public transportation simply isn't available.

Aside from Coach, which used stock footage of the Citrus Bowl (as it had with the University of Iowa, standing in for the fictional Minnesota State) but was filmed in Southern California, there haven't been many TV shows set in Orlando, aside from sitcoms doing the trope of the family going to Disney World for a two-parter. A few movies have been set at Disney World, including the recent George Clooney film Tomorrowland, but the only movie I know of filmed and set in Orlando proper, rather than in Mickeystan, is Ernest Saves Christmas, part of Jim Varney's Ernest P. Worrell ("Hey, Vern!") franchise. Christmas in Orlando? Could be worse: Could be Christmas in Miami. Or Christmas in Vegas.

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So if you're going to Orlando, take in a Knicks vs. Magic, or Nets vs. Magic, game. Who knows, you might have a good time even if you never set foot in "The Happiest Place On Earth."

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