Festival Bay, inside out

Last month I was in my hometown of Orlando, Florida for a friend’s wedding. Wendy’s cousin threw Wendy a baby shower the day after the wedding, so my dad, my brother and I hit the road looking to have some male bonding time away from all the ooooohing, awwwwwing and assorted fluffery (Wendy would have happily joined us, but alas, brides and mothers-to-be have no choice in these matters).
We decided on glow-in-the-dark miniature golf and the latest James Bond flick at Festival Bay Mall, which sits at the corner of West Oak Ridge Road and International Drive. I-Drive is the tourist shopping and eating destination in Orlando. It is aptly named as the tourists who go shopping on their days off from Disney, Universal Studios and Sea World are more often international than national, visiting from places where a pair of Levi’s are either twice the price or altogether unattainable.

In the midst of the I-Drive strip mall chaos, Festival Bay has been a shimmering beacon of bright colors and clean floors and retro Florida style since it opened in 2002. The Cinemark theater was our go-to spot for movie watching when we lived in Orlando and my friend Chris worked at the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World there for years while taking EMT and nursing classes. Wendy and I used to go watch the skateboarders at the Vans Skatepark and I remember buying Christmas gifts one year at the mall’s Ron Jon Surf Shop.

I arrived ahead of my dad and brother, so I walked around to see whether any new stores had opened. The weird thing about Festival Bay is, ever since it opened it has been half empty. Outdoor World and Cinemark have been anchors since early days, and the Ron Jon, Vans and Sheplers each added their own strong presence, but all the smaller stores you expect to see in an American mall never showed up or didn’t last if they did. No Gap, no Hot Topic, no PacSun, no Victoria’s Secret, no Gamestop, no Bath & Bodyworks, no KB Toys, definitely no Apple store. Never even a decent food court. At some point a Fuddruckers showed up which, considering the alternatives of Subway and a handful of generic eatery stalls is really your only worthwhile food option.

What I always loved about Festival Bay was its look and feel. You walk under tin roof ceilings full of skylights, surrounded by bright pastel colors and you feel like you’re walking the streets of Key West. It feels so open, especially the area in what should be the hub of the mall, where there is a big pool with fountains, and a bridge-spanned stream which runs under a giant glass wall into an outdoor pond where turtles sun themselves. And the circular, winding layout feels more whimsical and natural than the grid layout of most malls.

As I walked around I realized the mall had shrunk even more in recent years. There were barriers set up blocking off whole wings of the mall. Where before there had been halls of empty storefronts, now the halls were completely inaccessible. And even with sections of the mall closed, there were still empty storefronts in the open areas. When I got to the spot where I expected to find the Vans Skatepark and saw it too had disappeared, I couldn’t help but stop and wonder what had gone wrong with this mall. There was so much potential here.

It could have been the opening of The Mall at Millenia the same year and about ten minutes away. That mall immediately filled up with upscale stores and restaurants, even causing a huge influx of additional stores, homes and businesses to be built in the area around it, an area that used to be a little less than not much at all. Just for fun, compare the websites of the two malls (Festival Bay, Mall at Millenia) and tell me if you notice any difference.

Personally, as flash as Millenia is, I much prefer the beachy, vintage Florida style of Festival Bay. I even like the name better. But here’s the lesson I took away from walking around the ghost town mall a month ago. You can spend all kinds of time and money and energy creating just the right atmosphere and ambience, even make sure to set up in a ‘can’t-fail’ location, but if you don’t have the substance, the stuff underneath the style that people actually want or need, man you ain’t got nothing. In fact, you’ve got less than nothing if the little bit of substance you do have doesn’t pay for itself.

For me, standing in the mall taking photos for what could be an interesting little essay for OCSPLORA, I recognized my own failures in the grand ambitions and lackluster results all around me. I have made that mistake – many times – of putting hour after hour into developing just the right style and letting substance take a backseat. As someone who claims to be a strong believer in the rule of ‘form follows function’, it’s a little ironic how often I do just the opposite.

They are supposed to be reopening the skatepark at Festival Bay soon under a different brand, and there have been talks of major renovations for the mall, but only time will tell whether Festival Bay will ever live up to all its untapped potential. The same goes for me and OCSPLORA. Hopefully I’ll learn my lessons quicker than the previous and current Festival Bay owners have learned theirs, or not learned as the case may be.

What about you? Do you put so much emphasis on the style and presentation of your creative projects and entrepreneurial pursuits that you forget about the ultimately more important substance underneath?

Turtles sunning by the pond

Turtles sunning by the pond