David Robbins: The man-made allure of the state Mickey built and Brazilians bought
Outside, it was just another perfect day in Florida. About 80 degrees. Thunderstorm regular as clockwork at 4pm. People walking around, window-shopping, complaining about the heat.
But inside the Polo Ralph Lauren shop in the Premium Outlet Mall on Vineland Avenue in Orlando, it was like the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or maybe the fall of Saigon.
It was no place for restraint, politeness or standing aside to let someone pass. It was every man for himself. It was a localised tornado of shopping, a frenzy.
I asked the security guard what was going on. "Brazilians," he said. "It's like this every day."
The aisles were full of the newly rich middle classes of Brazil. And they weren't standing on ceremony. They bought shirts by the armful. They bought chinos, and tops and skirts and jackets. Basically, if it had a logo on it, they bought it.
They didn't bother to try anything on. The changing rooms were for wimps. There was none of that "could-I-see-that-in-a-34?" nonsense.
I counted 20 tills, all going full blast. They couldn't get the security tags off quickly enough. People stood in line to pay, weighed down in clothes. Family members, still scavenging in the aisles, came up to add to their pile.
The world-weary Floridians have seen it before, but it was new to me. Brazil has just overtaken the UK as the number one overseas tourism market for Florida. More than 1.5 million Brazilians came to Orlando last year.
The invasion from Brazil is all the more surprising, given the hoops they have to go through to get a visa. There are only four US processing centres in Brazil, so families have to travel for days to apply.
Why they come, however, is another matter.
They don't come to play golf, or to see Mickey Mouse. They come to shop. They buy extra luggage when they're here -- great hold-alls and haversacks -- and pack the garments in tight.
Some people reckon they're black marketeers in all but name, selling the clothes at a hefty mark-up when they get home. Others think it's just that they take a lot of orders from friends and family before they leave.
In Florida, where three out of every four jobs is in the tourism industry, businesses have been quick to react. Staff are being taught Portuguese and tour operators are organising private shopping evenings.
"Oh, we see them all right," a retailer said, "they come in waves. Mom, dad, a line of kids, all dressed in the same coloured T-shirts. We find them pretty rude."
"Brazil is not an emerging market," one tour operator told me. "It's emerged. And the Argentinians, Columbians and Venezuelans aren't far behind."
Things are changing in Florida alright. And it's not just the tourists. For starters, that 4pm thunderstorm that you could set your watch by, well, it doesn't come at 4pm any more. Sometimes it doesn't come at all.
Last week was the first rain in the Orlando area for four months. The climate is changing. And the economy is stagnant, despite the fact that the state had a record 55 million visitors last year.
The housing market is a mess. They had a property bubble like we had, and prices still haven't bottomed out. The salesman I met had just bought a four-bedroomed house with a pool for $70,000. "It was a foreclosure sale," he said, matter-of-factly.
To get a perspective on Orlando, and on Florida in general, you have to get up high. That's not easy, because the state is pancake flat. Disney's Space Mountain is the second-highest peak in the state, and that's made out of papier-maché or something.
When you see it from the air, arriving or departing on your Aer Lingus flight, you realise that, basically, it's a swamp. Or a jungle. It's steamy and humid, and, if it wasn't for air conditioning, it wouldn't be fit for humans at all.
The fact that it's teeming with theme parks, golf courses, convention centres, and the other ephemera of the global tourism business is a tribute to human ingenuity.
There is something mad and magnificent about Orlando; old Walt and the people who followed him have built a shining city in a swamp, and they're not about to let a little old recession keep them down. After all, there are an awful lot of Brazilians in Brazil.