We did not go to Orlando this year

Orlando expected 88,000 frum Jews—mostly from the northeast—to descend upon this central Florida town for Pesach. Not our family. Op-ed.

Larry Gordon ,

Florida
Florida
iStock

It was not really what you can call a proper survey. Let’s say for our purposes that it was unofficial, casual—perhaps even inaccurate—but, still, it might have been on the mark.

The only question in the survey we ran before Pesach was: What are your Pesach plans this year? Fortunately, this year it was a question that can have a variety of responses. As you well know, last year the question was irrelevant because everyone was forced to do basically the same thing—that is, stay home.

While there were manifold possible answers to the question, it seems that, around here anyway, many of the responses were the same. Almost everyone you asked said the same thing: they are going to Orlando, Florida, for Pesach this year.

I can say this: I was in Orlando at least two times that I can remember over the years, but I never could have imagined that Orlando is big enough to house so many Orthodox Jewish families over these ten or so days.

Once again, I have to qualify this analysis by saying that the estimation is that only a small percentage of Jewish families are going to places like Orlando or Miami Beach for Pesach. Travel this year is still limited, though it is, thankfully, gradually and cautiously opening as pandemic statistics come down around the world.

The beneficiary of this year’s restrictions seems to be Orlando. According to organizers of this year’s Orlando Pesach escapades, they were expecting 88,000 frum Jews—mostly from the northeast—to descend upon this central Florida town. And depending when one planned this yom tov junket, the cost and the way to celebrate the chag varies from group to group and even family to family.

People were willing to discuss the details of their Orlando plans, but the more details they shared the more convinced they became that they wanted to remain anonymous. One guy from the Five Towns insisted on anonymity after he shared with me that he is traveling to Florida with some of his siblings and their families and is renting two homes for yom tov. The first ten-bedroom home with a pool is for his family and siblings and their families, and the second home (which is about $12,000) is for the chef they hired, along with the chef’s family and the waiters who will be doing the food service.

On the matter of whether he had booked tickets for the Epcot theme park and other Orlando attractions, he said he was willing to pay his kids if they agreed not to go to those semi-exciting sites. It seems that saying you are going to Epcot or, upon your return, being able to say that, yes, you were indeed there, is basically very different than actually being there. Walking through the huge parks and waiting on the winding lines is rather difficult and obviously quite dull for many.

If you booked your flight to Orlando months ago, before the airlines had a hint about the massive ten-day migration, then you bought very inexpensive tickets. If you’re a last-minute type of person then you were out of luck in the bargain department.

Another representative of another family shared with me that while they are spending $15,000 on a house for two weeks and thousands more on food, they drew the line when it came to the constantly increasing price of plane tickets to Orlando. They said that on top of airline tickets, which can run $700 and up for round-trip fare, additional fees are assessed for luggage.

This family discovered that they can fly into Tampa instead of Orlando with Southwest Airlines, and that carrier allows two free bags per traveler. At $30 per suitcase, a family of five people can rack up an additional $200–300. So what if the distance from Tampa to Orlando is 84 miles or about a 90-minute drive? It sounds a little odd and even silly, but saving money is saving money.

For those of you like me, who observed this unfolding from a distance, you can rest assured that not too many families were hiring private chefs and renting a home for them and their staff and having them do all the food purchasing needed for a ten-day (or more) stay.

Many people planned to go down south early, as much as a week prior to yom tov, to do some cooking. Others planned on doing all their shopping here in the Five Towns and having it shipped to Orlando. In Gourmet Glatt in the Five Towns, according to CEO Yoeli Steinberg, over 120 families signed up with their favorite and most trusted store to fill their orders for yom tov. The great kosher food chain contracted with a shipping company to run tractor-trailer trucks down to Florida to several drop-off points in Orlando where Pesach home renters could to pick up their orders.

Batya Kahn of Batya’s Kitchen also planned on sending a refrigerated 18-wheeler down to Orlando where she would provide hundreds of families with every morsel of food they consume over the chag. While this Florida ciity attracted the most visitors and attention this year, Batya said that she was shipping Pesach to more than 50 cities and towns around the country, including Los Angeles, Lakewood, Teaneck, Boca Raton, Baltimore, and Beachwood, Ohio.

She added that because Pesach this year includes two Shabbosos, an immense amount of standard Shabbos food had been ordered. That means an unusual quantity of chicken soup, meatballs, sesame chicken, poppers, chicken nuggets, and potato kugel.

As it turns out, the tens of thousands who headed for Orlando may be folks who have previously spent Pesach at some of the leading hotels up north, down south, and perhaps even on the west coast. Even though the strict restrictions in many states are being eased, people are still fearful that something might go wrong and a local health department might show up in the middle of yom tov and shut down a facility. In places like Orlando where people rentied private homes that will not occur.

Until a few days before Pesach, Shimmy Werner, the world-class Pesach program impresario, was not sure where—in which hotel and in which state—he would be setting up his program for the coming yom tov.

Werner, the founder of the upscale KMR (Kosher Mountain Retreat), says that finding the right venue this year was like riding a roller coaster. He was almost in contract with at least two hotels, in Orlando and in Las Vegas, but he had to withdraw from those deals when conditions changed that were not agreeable to him.

He signed a contract with the Saddlebrook Resort and Spa in Tampa. We all know that under the leadership and vision of Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida, along with several other states, have led the way on how to effectively deal with the virus without inflicting excessive non-COVID damage on industries, as has been the case in states like New York and California.

For those of you in other parts of Florida, Werner said he was planning a blowout concert for chol ha’moed featuring Avraham Fried, Benny Friedman, and Mordechai Ben David. I reminded him that Tampa is about a 90-minute drive from Orlando and he responded, “That’s not too bad.” Maybe it is and maybe it’s not; I guess we will all find out after Pesach.

Still, once again, it is important to present all this in context. The overwhelming majority of people stayed home for yom tov. By that, I mean either in their own home or in someone else’s home, like parents, siblings, relatives, or friends. But while that is a great way to spend yom tov it does not have the same dynamic as flying into Tampa on your way to Orlando for a $40,000 yom tov so that you can save $30 on an airline luggage fee.

You may not have participated in that adventure this year, but whether or not you did, you just gotta love it.

Larry Gordon is editor-in-chief of the 5TJT.com.



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