COVER

MY CANADA INCLUDES FLORIDA...

Millions of winter-weary Canadians flock to the sun

BOB LEVIN January 25 1993
COVER

MY CANADA INCLUDES FLORIDA...

Millions of winter-weary Canadians flock to the sun

BOB LEVIN January 25 1993

MY CANADA INCLUDES FLORIDA...

COVER

Millions of winter-weary Canadians flock to the sun

BOB LEVIN

The seat backs and tray tables are in their original upright positions. All seat belts have been securely fastened; all carry-on luggage has been safely stowed. The jet taxis down the runway, waits its turn, and then, with a stirring roar—the escape signal for a planeload of pent-up Canadians— lifts off into the chalky winter skies. On board, the passengers—

The seat backs and tray tables are in their original upright positions. All seat belts have been securely fastened; all carry-on luggage has been safely stowed. The jet taxis down the runway, waits its turn, and then, with a stirring roar—the escape signal for a planeload of pent-up Canadians— lifts off into the chalky winter skies. On board, the passengers— some already in brightly colored polo shirts or sweat suits—stare down at the shrinking city below, the tiny cars moving indifferently through the gray-white streets, the surrounding snow soiled as oil rags. And then it is gone, the roads and buildings buried beneath puffy clouds, and the passengers settle back. It will not be long now: a few hours, a couple of drinks, maybe a movie, soothers or pocket video games for the kids. The next time the plane touches earth, it will enter a land of palms and pastels and sun-bathed parking lots, of Donald and Mickey, key lime pies, bare-butt postcards, white shoes and blue rinse, shuffleboard and golf and great sandy beaches strewn with baking bodies and sweet with suntan oil.

Florida.

It is a national mantra, a mental bumper sticker: My Canada Includes Florida. And not only Florida but the Caribbean, Mexico, Venezuela, Arizona (page 43), Texas, Southern California, Hawaii (page 42)—any place where the air is warm, the drinks are cool and the only shovelling is to build sand castles. Millions flee to the southern sun each winter, delighting Canadian travel companies and distant tourism officials and returning with the obligatory conch shells, straw hats and tan lines. And tour operators say that, while the recession has driven people to seek the best possible travel deals, the exodus has continued unabated. “Once it was thought of as a luxury, but now it’s becoming more of an annual rite,” says Bryan Wolfenden, spokesman for Canadian Holidays, a Toronto-based charter company. “We’ve often had customers say, ‘So much for the new car, when’s the next flight to Honolulu?’ ”

For Canadians, Florida is by far the hot spot of choice. Nearly 2.4 million of them flocked to the Sunshine State in 1991— compared with 638,000 to all Caribbean islands combined—and about 600,000 snowbirds stayed in Florida for up to six months. More than half fly, while the rest barrel down interstates 95 or 75, some steering recreational vehicles or pulling trailers to a place where the food is familiar, the water is safe and the flamingos are real. French-speakers tend to congregate on the Atlantic Coast, English-speakers on the Gulf Coast, and both enjoy newspapers and TV and radio news programs geared directly to them. All are drawn to the inland city of Orlando, the onetime orange-and-grapefruit centre that is now home to Disney World and other theme parks.

Florida is a democratic destination. The Canadians, who include Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien and other prominent politicians, range from the mega-wealthy to the budget-bound, from solid families to spring break singles. “There’s a little piece of Florida for every Canadian,” boasts Ellis Webber, director of Canadian marketing for the Florida division of tourism. Canadians, meanwhile, leave a sizable piece of Canada behind: more than $2 billion in tourist dollars annually.

Of course, every sun spot has its clouds. Canadian critics contend that the country’s leaders set a bad example by spending their travel dollars on foreign sand. And some visitors maintain that, far from paradise, Florida is a state of crime, congestion, drugs, endless shopping malls and a blight of billboards advertising everything from gasoline to gator wrestling. But such complaints are lost on Florida’s Canadian faithful—on residents of a northern nation who view a bit of southern exposure as a basic birthright. “Why am I here?” says Dennis Maurice, a 47-year-old sales representative from Collingwood, Ont., lounging at a beachside bar in ritzy Longboat Key. “I’m sitting by the beach, relaxing with a beer after a game of tennis. How can it get any better than this?”

BOB LEVIN