I have fond memories of visiting Church Street Station as a tourist in the 1980s and early '90s, before Bob Snow's groundbreaking grown-up theme park was grounded by competition from Disney and Universal. But as a resident, I confess to barely visiting the block since the long-gone days of Terror on Church Street and Rosie O'Grady's Good Time Emporium. Currently, Lincoln Property Co.'s 34-story mixed-use tower and rebranding of the Orchid Garden as the "Bumby Arcade" looks to reinvigorate the district. But right across the SunRail tracks, another venue is being revived by some familiar faces from the Orlando theater community. And based on my recent preview of their under-construction Floridabilt and upcoming Orlando's Eve party, they may have what it takes to lure me back to Church Street again.
If you attended an ASL-interpreted show at the last Orlando Fringe, you probably enjoyed the expressive performance of Mandy Longo, whose work with Signing Shadows won a well-deserved Fabby award at the 2019 Orlando Fringe Festival's closing ceremony as well as a Best of Orlando Writer's Pick from Orlando Weekly. But when she isn't in a theater translating for the hearing-impaired, the former speech pathologist is also owner of Around Orlando Tours and now, co-owner of the Floridabilt.
Around Orlando Tours, formerly known as Mosquito County Tours (after Orange County's original name) was founded a year ago, offering walking tours of downtown and Winter Park highlighting the food, drink and history of each city. The Floridabilt, located in the historic train station that most recently housed the short-lived Ferg's Depot sports bar, will serve as both the headquarters of Around Orlando Tours and as a bar with live entertainment, once its doors open later this month. And if you can't wait until the yet-unannounced grand opening, this Saturday's Orlando's Eve event includes a teaser of what Longo and her team have been toiling on.
At the moment, the Floridabilt – whose name is a nod to the nearby Wells' Built Museum and Angebilt building – is still a construction zone, but last week I got to sneak behind the chain link fence with Timothy Williams, who is Around Orlando's tour manager, and the writer/director of Orlando's Eve. Williams is well-known in Orlando as an actor and director (having done both for the just-completed Playfest at Orlando Shakes), and is an adjunct professor of theater at Valencia College, as well as acting coach for Opera Orlando's Youth Company.
With such a full plate already, I'm surprised Williams found time to take on these new titles, but he sounded energized by this project's potential while showing me around the unexpectedly spacious property. Shortly before I arrived, plaster tiles covering one wall had been removed, revealing the original brick fireplace beneath; Williams and director of operations Rob Soviero (previously executive director of the Milk District) excitedly shared the discovery and discussed using it as a backdrop for the corner's cabaret-sized stage.
That fireplace will be only one of many vintage elements around the handsome space – which will also include an expansive patio and outdoor performance area – that hearkens back to the historic building's roots.
"[Longo] wanted to restore it to what it might have been at the turn of the century," Williams says. "We'd like to provide a venue that is as much about atmosphere as it is about hanging out and having a good time. The backbone is the historical aspect of it, and that's why we chose this building to house it all."
On Saturday, Nov. 16, Floridabilt's team is hosting Orlando's Eve, an immersive site-specific adventure through downtown inspired by historian Eve Bacon, whose seminal centennial books about Orlando form the company's tours. The event begins at the Orange County Regional History Center and ends with a 1920s speakeasy-themed soiree at an undisclosed location, where Tymisha Harris (as Josephine Baker) and the Brown Bag Brass Band will entertain during dinner. In between, guests will interact with live characters while decoding a secret map, which may lead to a look inside the Floridabilt itself.
Orlando's Eve "really encapsulates what Around Orlando tours is all about," says Williams, explaining that "not only are the guests being entertained, they're also being educated." General admission to the event costs $75; $95 VIP tickets include a pre-party performance featuring Tod Kimbro and open bar. Visit mosquitocountytours.com for details.
"All of the districts of Orlando are starting to have identities of their own," notes Williams, referencing Ivanhoe and College Park, "developing this sense of community that Orlando hasn't had in a long time. And in my opinion the one district that hasn't caught up with the others is downtown."
With plans to participate in a street-wide holiday celebration this winter and seemingly limitless possibilities for bringing intimate art forms into the venue, Longo's and Williams' ambitions for Around Orlando to play a role in reversing that trend feels infectious, especially when standing with him atop the Floridabilt's second-story ramparts, surveying the brick-lined streets below.
"We want to see it have a neighborhood-friendly vibe, where the thousands of people who live here can come and relax and learn about the history of their city, which is actually diverse and exciting," Williams proclaims. "We want downtown Orlando to have a truly unique historical vibe."
– This story appears in the Nov. 13, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.