With its perma-sunshine and breaks for all budgets, Florida isn’t exactly difficult when it comes to planning a holiday. Indeed, some 1.1 million Brits escape to the Sunshine State every year. But could some be about to face a new hurdle when it comes to their getaway?
Last week, one of Florida’s two Republican senators – former governor Rick Scott – took to Twitter to issue a rather baffling travel advisory video, warning “socialists” and fans of “big government” to think twice about visiting his state. It seemed that one of America’s biggest tourist destinations might be adopting a new policy: not for the woke.
As you might expect, the Senator’s social media freelancing hasn’t gone down well with everyone. “This kind of rhetoric is sad and pathetic,” blasted Anna V. Eskamani, a Democrat politician representing the theme-park wonderland of Orlando. “It completely ignores the fact that Florida needs out-of-state visitors to generate revenue.”
Still, there’s no denying that America’s third most populous state has undergone somewhat of a political makeover in recent years. After breaking for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, the state swung dramatically to the right, voting for Donald Trump twice and awarding a landslide re-election victory to its proudly anti-woke governor Ron DeSantis.
While this rightward shift won’t feature in the Thomas Cook brochures, it is increasingly affecting daily life on the ground. Take the Covid pandemic, for example, where Florida became an international outlier for its defiant lack of restrictions. DeSantis’s pro-business and pro-freedom approach was blasted by many prominent Democrats – one of whom (Alexandra Ocasio Cortez) was later seen partying maskless on her Miami vacation.
Having stared down Washington’s public health establishment, an emboldened DeSantis went on to pick a new fight. But rather than government bureaucrats, this second stand would drag one of Florida’s most iconic and oldest residents – a certain Mr Michael Mouse – into one of America’s most bitter culture wars. And unlike the now closed Covid years, it might well affect your next holiday.
Here’s a potted summary of the relevant facts. Following a backlash against the teaching of critical race theory and gender ideology in schools, the DeSantis administration passed a pair of controversial bills – the Individual Freedom Act (commonly known as the Stop WOKE Act) and the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act (dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) – restricting what can be taught in state-funded schools. When Disney’s then-chief executive criticised the legislation, DeSantis retaliated by attempting to remove some of the Disney World’s special tax protections.
While no-one anticipates the theme park closing its doors any time soon, is there a chance the spat could leave holidaymakers paying higher prices? Florida resident and veteran columnist Craig Pittman is doubtful. He says the view on the ground is that the street-fighting governor has picked a losing battle. “It looks like Disney can afford much smarter lawyers,” he told me over the phone from St. Petersburg, near Tampa.
That said, Disney-addicts shouldn’t rule out more commotion in the coming months. Back in April, DeSantis even mooted the possibility of building a prison next to Disney World. An audacious piece of off-the-cuff trolling? Perhaps. But don’t forget this is the man who paid to airlift 50 undocumented migrants to the elite pastures of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
And of course DeSantis isn’t Florida’s only resident provocateur. Famously, the state is also home to Mar-a-Lago: the sprawling private club which now serves as the court of one Donald Trump. Since the 2020 election, the estate has played host to a veritable Mount Rushmore of controversial right-wing figures, including Nigel Farage, Jair Bolsonaro and Roger Stone. (It’s just south of Palm Beach if you fancy a pilgrimage).
So could Florida’s new MAGA image hit the all-important tourism industry? So far, the numbers suggest the opposite. Last year, overall visitors topped 130 million – an increase not just on 2021 but, more impressively, on pre-pandemic levels. “Our city has always been a diverse, welcoming and inclusive community,” reassured the Orlando tourism board.
When it comes to British visitors, the big travel brands remain tight-lipped. Although Virgin Atlantic points out that, rather than seeing a drop-off in numbers, it’s been opening new routes to the Sunshine State – most recently to the historic cigar city of Tampa. As for Orlando, Virgin is currently operating 28 flights per week from three airports (Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh).
Yet Florida expert Craig Pittman said he has observed a slight shift in attitudes to tourism amongst Floridians. “Historically our approach was basically to give the tourists whatever they want,” he explained. “But I’m not sure that’s the case so much anymore.” And at least some of that can be attributed to the Republicans’ more divisive style of politics.
Even so, a less deferential attitude to tourists is still a million miles away from active hostility to certain groups. Indeed on my last visit to Orlando (in March), there was no shortage of rainbow flags flying. And even in less metropolitan areas of the state, you will find that famous American openness. Traditionally, flag-waving, right-wing types don’t care about how you exercise your freedoms; as long as you’re not lecturing them about theirs.
These days, though, there are some exceptions. Like other Republican-led states, Florida has become a major flashpoint for an increasingly bitter – and often decidedly bizarre – row about whether children should be allowed to attend events featuring drag queens. While it might sound niche, it is sucking up a lot of political oxygen and generating a lot of heat and commotion.
Earlier this year, Florida followed Tennessee in passing new legislation outlawing businesses admitting under-18s to anything classed as an “adult live performance”. Though Florida’s bill has been temporarily suspended, after a legal challenge from an Orlando restaurant – and purveyor of drag brunches – which argued it was too vague. You can probably expect the governor to strike back before long, triggering more protests.
Like most big American states, though, Florida is far from a monoculture (and thank goodness for that). Indeed in this case there’s even a handy – if slightly counterintuitive – maxim to go by: the further north you go, the more southern it feels. After all, there’s a whopping 500 miles between Jacksonville and Key West, and my goodness does it feel like it.
How to enjoy Florida like a big state liberal
Woke liberals fear not. Despite what the Senator says, you won’t be short of options.
The bustling megacity of Miami has long been a favourite of America’s coastal elites. And you don’t get much more elite than its plush wellness resorts, which combine physical, mental and spiritual treatments.
Miami’s Cuban-inspired music festivals have become legendary for their carnival-like atmosphere. Although Corbynista-types should be warned that the emigre communities of Little Havana are fervently anti-communist.
For a sunny city break with a refreshingly European feel, try the relatively undiscovered gem of Tampa. The historic district is well pedestrianised with a great tapestry of cuisines. Just try not to tut at the cigar smokers too much.
How to enjoy Florida like a gun-totin’ Republican
Good news: if you’re on the hunt for an all-American adventure, the wilds of Florida can give Texas a run for their money.
Forget alligator spotting in family-friend Kissimmee, instead head to the swampy Panhandle for something more thrilling. After all, Florida is the only US state with a native python population.
If guns are your thing, you’ll be spoilt for choice – even in the big cities. Generally, it’s worth going the extra mile to find an outdoor range. And brush up on your gun lingo: NRA types tend to bristle at the common mistakes.
For extreme people-watching, consider the famous Daytona Bike Week – perhaps the rowdiest motorcycle rally in America – which takes place in early March. Though just a 45-minute drive from Orlando, it’s the full MAGA experience.