What makes Central Florida a wakeboarding mecca? Smooth water, warm weather and an influx of the best talent in the world
Admit it: Orlando has an identity crisis. Melbourne, Cocoa and New Smyrna have their surfers. Miami has its South Beach. Us, we've got nothing -- at least nothing to hang our collective backward baseball hats on. Sure, we had a fleeting bout of identity when Rolling Stone recognized the house music scene, but all it took was a new Shamu at Sea World to once-again remind the world that Orlando is tourism central.
Certainly Florida has never been the focus of any board sport. Aside from a few standouts like Kelly Slater, it seems all the rad participants in the X-Games were Californians.
That's about to change. Since wakeboarding's humble beginnings in the early '90s to its lofty current status as the fastest-growing watersport in the world, Orlando has been the unquestionable mecca of the sport. Orlando is to wakeboarding what the North Shore of Oahu is for surfers, Southern California is for skaters and Seattle is for flannel -- and all rolled up into one.
Of course, Orlando surfers have been towing their surfboards behind boats for a long time, even though the first "official" wakeboards were made and marketed in the late '80s out of San Diego. These plastic yellow "Skurfers" (check your garage rafters; you probably own one) were crude, bulky predecessors of today's wakeboard, in that they did have footstraps and allowed the rider to control his board on wake jumps.
In 1991, water ski manufacturer and guru Herb O'Brien produced the first of the modern-era wakeboards using water ski-style construction. These "compression molded" boards were thinner, lighter and easier to ride, and ultimately started the wakeboarding craze we're currently enjoying. O'Brien's boards, called "Hyperlites," are still the leading brand in the industry.
Strangely enough, the water ski industry is centered around Seattle, and most of the boards from the biggest companies are all built there. But perhaps 90 percent of the world's best riders now live here, and the other 10 percent are in Central Florida for at least one month each year. This creates a vicious cycle; the more the top riders move here, the more they push each other, and the more that riders who aren't living here need to be here to keep up. (At the risk of self-promotion, Winter Park also is the base of Wake Boarding magazine, the world's leading wakeboarding publication.)
Another benefit to living in Orlando is that many of the sport's premier competitions are staged here. The past three years, the World Championships have been held at Crane's Roost Lake, behind the Altamonte Mall. And May 29-31 will see the first leg of the G/Shock Pro Vans Triple Crown of Wakeboarding, one of the sport's richest events, with a $25,000 purse.
So what makes Orlando so perfect for wakeboarding? Well, you've flown in, you've seen all the lakes, you know the climate -- it doesn't take a brain surgeon to see the potential. Orlando isn't a city with a few lakes sprinkled about; it's more like lakes with a city sprinkled about. Almost everyone either lives on or knows someone who lives on a lake. And it's not just the rich. There are lakes surrounded by mansions, middle-income houses, cheap apartments and even trailer parks. Add hundreds of public boat launches, and Orlando may have more ride-able water than any populated area in the world. You're thinking: "What about Minnesota -- land of 10,000 lakes?" Those aren't lakes. Those are ice-skating rinks for most of the year.
Orlando's many small bodies of water are much better than one large one like say, Tampa Bay, because the smaller the body, the better chance it will have good (read: smooth) water. Orlando has long been a water ski capital, and a lot of water skiers means a lot of great boats; lots of great ski boats means lots of potentially great wakeboarding boats. You get the picture. It's not like Southern California or even South Florida, where you have to find somewhere good to ride; here, you have to choose which killer lake, whose killer boat, and with which insane wakeboard star you want to ride.
Cobe Mikacich, one of the top guys in the world for the last three years, says he moved to Orlando from Northern California mainly because of access. "Where I come from back home, there's a few big, huge lakes and they are totally crowded. Plus, with the magazine being here in Orlando and the ability to ride all year round, in my -- and most everyone's -- opinion, Orlando is the best spot in the world for wakeboarding."
You can be an elite wakeboarder and not live in Orlando, he says, "but it makes your life a lot easier living in Florida. For me to do what I do from California would be almost impossible. I always look at it from convenience. This is where the sport's happening.
"Here, it's like I see motivation daily. When you ride with good guys, it inspires you; you totally grow off the energy. I know I wouldn't be at this level if I lived at home all year around."
You can learn wakeboarding through any shop in town but your best bet is to hook up with a ski school. The Wakeboard Camp: P.J. Marks' killer setup in Clermont is the cream of the camp crop; (352) 394-8899. Ski Away Ski School: Highly respected and led by top instructor and former pro competitor Dave Briscoe in Winter Haven; (941) 326-1754. Wakeboard Paradise: Operated by former world champ Eric Perez; 654-3294. Peterson's Ski School: Ride with up-and-coming pro Kyle Peterson; 876-5966. Benzel's Ski School: Primarily skiing, but world champ Shaun Murray got his start here in Groveland; (352) 429-3574.
Where to find the best
Orlando's hottest riders are sprinkled all over, but here's an insider's guide on where to see the best wakeboarders in the world:
Out east in Chuluota on Lake Pickett, you will find former world champ and widely acclaimed top freerider in the world Scott Byerly, and winner of last year's Wake Boarding magazine Reader's Poll and big-air hero "Gator" Lutgert.
Possibly the best all-around rider in the world right now, Shaun Murray, just picked up a styling pad out on Lake Whippoorwill down by Orlando International Airport. Australia's top export, Shannon Best, is also "fishing around" for real estate down on Whippoorwill.
1995 World Champ and video favorite Mike Weddington lives and rides on the Butler chain of lakes with Chris Bischoff. Cobe Mikacich and Charley Patterson, both having graced recent covers of Wake Boarding, live and ride on the Conway chain.
Farrah Dawson rides out of Rollins College on the Winter Park chain -- usually on Lake Mizell or Lake Virginia -- while Chase Heavener and Matt Staker "own" Lake Maitland. Odds-on favorite for the women's title this year, Dana Preble, is the sole, and soul, rider on Lake Sue. And Gregg Necrasson and Tina Bessinger live and ride Lake Killarney. That means you can dine at Houston's and gaze out across the water at two of the world's best over a two-martini lunch.