Home to “The Most Magical Place on Earth,” Orlando has long been one of the top tourist destinations in America. With a vast array of theme parks and year-round sunshine, it’s easy to understand why. So when I was looking for an escape following the release of Haunted Lansing and a hectic tour season at Demented Mitten Tours, the choice was a no-brainer. Resort-style living is the ultimate respite from a busy life. To make matters even more uncomplicated, we have family that owns a timeshare in the Sunshine State, just miles from Disney World.
It is not uncommon for me to seek out the weird when planning a family trip- we’ve stayed in the most haunted room at Chicago’s most haunted hotel. We’ve visited abandoned theme parks and gone on haunted tours. But this was not that. I chose cheery sunshine over the macabre (for once). I promised myself and my children NO WORK ON VACATION. We would be touristy beach bums, spend hours at the pool, drink pina coladas (virgin, of course, what kind of mother do you think I am?!) and pig out on seafood. We would sleep with the windows open, stay in bed past noon, and spend way too much money on souvenirs. And we did all of those things. But…
Here’s the thing: anyone who’s into true crime knows that Florida is the mecca of depravity. It’s known for the most insane news stories in America, possibly the world. And I’m not saying this to be unkind, it’s honestly quite impressive. Here are a few examples: “Woman Dressed as Turkey Arrested for Shoplifting” / “Man Runs Naked Through Woman’s Home, Stops to Try on Her Clothes” / “Charter School Teacher Throws Penis Party in Her Classroom.” And those are all just from 2017. (Source: thrillist.com) As I’m sure you can understand, I simply could not travel to the craziest state in the country without doing a bit of research about where we were staying. So when we arrived at our gated resort and were winding through the palm trees past endless rows of identical adobe villas and my son said, “Aaah, it’s so peaceful here,” of course I knew exactly how to ruin it for him, and, as it turns out, for all of us.
“You know,” I said, “a little girl died here several years back in a freak miniature golf accident.” Both of my children laughed. Not out of callousness, but because of the way I presented the story. I’m always going for maximum shock value. I could have told them all of the awful details, but I refrained and left it rather vague. NO WORK ON VACATION. It was after 8pm by the time we arrived at our villa, so we just unpacked, ordered room service, opened all of the windows, and had a chill night in. I didn’t sleep well that first night, but I chalked it up to being in a new place, and to residual anxiety from our flight. (I was petrified of airplanes until my first flight at the age of 31, and am still a nervous flier.) I tossed and turned for hours, but must have eventually drifted off, because I awoke in the middle of the night with my heart racing. I was shaking, took a minute to catch my breath, and felt very panicky. I didn’t remember having a bad dream, and as the shakiness continued, I began to fear I was getting sick. I got up, turned on the lights, got a glass of water, and then watched Netflix until I fell back asleep. (Thanks for the assist, Ron Swanson.) I didn’t wake up again until long after the sun had risen, and was relieved to find that I wasn’t sick after all. I was fine.
As the kids and I were getting ready for our first full day in paradise, my oldest son made a mention of how tired he was. “I had the craziest dreams all night,” he said. Without mentioning my own restless night, I asked him to elaborate. “I had this dream that some serial killer was murdering little girls and turning them all to ash.” The murderino in me was acutely aware that we were just a few miles from where the trial of serial killer Ted Bundy was held for the murder of his last victim, a 12 year old girl. While that was a strange coincidence, to be sure, it wasn’t as strange as the last part. Little girls turned to ash. The young girl who’d died at our resort, the only death there that I’d been able to find record of, had been electrocuted. Turned to ash. The conversation was unsettling, but we were on vacation, dammit, and NO WORK ON VACATION. We went to Disney Springs, did some shopping, got some Dole Whip, and blew half of our spending money. It was fabulous. We returned to our home away from home exhausted. But once again, I had a very difficult time sleeping, and woke up in the middle of the night in the throes of another unprovoked anxiety attack. The following morning, things really got weird.
I was committed to sleeping with the window in my room open every night, despite the fact that said window was actually a sliding door to a first-floor, unenclosed patio that backed up to Florida swampland. Admittedly not one of my better life choices, but I lived to tell the tale, and got plenty of fresh air in the process. Due to the wide-openness of my room, I was up pretty early most mornings. I took the opportunity to sit outside on the patio and write (okay, so maybe a little work on vacation.) I watched lizards race across the lawn, looking for safe basking spots. I watched sand hill cranes dance around the putting green. (Did I mention we were also on a golf course? How Florida can you get?) And I watched the weird little Florida squirrels scurrying through the trees, looking for food. I guess when you don’t have to hibernate during the winter, you don’t have to pack on the pounds. A Michigan squirrel could seriously eat a Florida squirrel as a snack. Although, that would be cannibalism, and I don’t think squirrels are cannibals. In addition to the lizards and cranes and miniature squirrels, I’m always on the lookout for alligators. They’re supposedly everywhere in Florida, but of all the times we’ve been there, we’ve only ever seen one in the wild. An alligator I would have been prepared for (somewhat.) The crows, I was not. It started with one. One big, black crow all alone in the Spanish moss draped tree just beyond my patio. The resort was so quiet, the crow’s cawing felt almost ominous. Every few seconds or so, just as I was starting to get back into my writing groove, it would caw again and startle me. After a couple of minutes, other crows started cawing back. And then, all of a sudden, hundreds of crows descended upon my little tree. A murder of crows diving at me, beckoning to me, watching me. It was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie. And they were only in that one tree. My tree. (Not really my tree, but the one nearest my villa.) I took a couple of videos as proof of the strange encounter, but I needed real witnesses. I went and woke my kids up. When my youngest son stepped out onto the patio with me, the crows fell silent. And then just as quickly as they’d come, they left. The sudden, coordinated movement sounded like a clap of thunder as they all flapped their wings at once. I was freaked out, but they were gone, and we were on vacation, and NO WORK ON VACATION, so we went about our day.
That night, it happened again. I awoke suddenly, and in a panic. But this time there was a reason. Someone was knocking. My immediate thought/fear was that some Florida swamp psycho was tapping on my (WIDE OPEN) sliding door, and that when I turned the patio light on, I would see him standing there smiling, watching me. I grabbed my phone, had the 9 and the first 1 pressed, and then flipped on the light. There was nobody there. I ran to the sliding door, slammed it shut, locked it, and then bolted it closed. But the knocking continued. I opened my bedroom door, afraid that maybe I’d left the other slider open, the one off the living room. There was no one outside my bedroom door, and the second slider was closed and locked. I turned on the nearest lamp and looked to make sure the front door was locked. Both the handle and deadbolt were latched tight. Nevertheless, my heart was racing as I approached the peephole and looked out. Nothing. I opened the door to the boys’ room. They were both fast asleep. Out of sheer paranoia, I checked their bathroom and their closet to make sure we didn’t have a stow-away. Once I was satisfied that no one had snuck into our room through the door I left open all night (on purpose) like an idiot, I returned to my room. I went to the bathroom, took a drink of water, and sat down on the bed. And then I heard it again. And this time, I could tell where it was coming from. MY CLOSET. I’d checked the boys’ closet, but not my own. So this was it. This was how I would die. At least it would make a good story. And a Florida story nonetheless. Those are the best kind. I again readied my phone to call 911, took a deep breath, and opened my closet door. Nothing. But as I was standing there, I heard it again. Closer this time. I turned on my flashlight, and what did I see? Another door INSIDE MY CLOSET. What the fuck, Florida? I tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Was someone on the other side holding it closed? I started to panic, but then the strangest feeling came over me. I pressed my hand to the door and let out a long, slow breath. “It’s okay,” I whispered. (Yes, I actually whispered aloud.) Little girls turned to ash. “It’s okay,” I said again. I returned to my bed as an eerie state of calm enveloped me. And I never heard the knocking again. (Full disclosure: in the light of day, I determined that the closet inside my closet actually housed the furnace and central air unit for our villa. Here’s the thing though- I turned the heating/cooling system off every night before bed so that I could hear the creatures of the swamp more clearly. Therefore, there should have been no knocking or banging coming from the furnace or air conditioner.)
By the next morning, my calm had evaporated. I thought and thought about all of the things we’d experienced in just a couple of days, and I became convinced that we were being haunted by the ghost of the little girl who died there. Possibly because spirits seem drawn to me these days, given my line of work. Possibly because my son had laughed when I first told him about the girl. (Again, my fault, not his.) I was exhausted, so we spent much of that day lounging at our villa, watching Netflix, eating junk food. It was the first solid stretch of time we’d spent there. I cleaned, organized, did laundry, did dishes- you know, “Mom stuff.” Every time I went to go into my room, the door was closed, even though I distinctly remembered leaving it wide open. It annoyed me enough that I said something to the boys. “Who keeps going into my room?” I demanded. They both insisted that they hadn’t gone into my room at all. Next I tested the door. It was solid. I opened it all the way, then pushed it lightly to see if it would swing the rest of the way closed. It barely moved. Yes, I had the windows open, but it wasn’t a windy day, and where the door was located, there was no cross-breeze at all. I would expect that if the wind was strong enough to close the door, we would hear it slam. But I never heard anything. I was confident that the only way to open or close my bedroom door was to do so deliberately. Just to be sure, I closed all of the windows. I pushed the door all the way open and left the room. I listened intently as I cut up fruit in the kitchen. When I was done, I returned to my room. THE DOOR WAS CLOSED. I opened it, my pulse racing. I noticed that aside from the door closing itself again, some of my belongings were on the floor. A pillow from my bed and the squishy airplane I’d gotten at the Grand Rapids airport before our flight. This time I was positive neither of the boys had been in the room, as I’d been paying attention. And since the windows were closed, wind was a non-factor.
I don’t scare easily. I may get freaked out momentarily once in a while, but I always recover quickly. This, however, had me shook. I felt close to tears as I sat on the edge of my bed and did the thing I promised myself I wouldn’t do. I opened up my ghost hunting app, which mimics a piece of equipment that paranormal investigators use called an Ovilus. An Ovilus is essentially a speak and spell for spirits. The devices are uploaded with every word in the English dictionary and then some. Spirits are believed to be able to use their energy to choose words from the Ovilus to communicate with the living. With the Ovilus app running, I set my phone down on my bed. Now, I know how this thing works. I’ve been using it on our tours for years. Sometimes you go several minutes without any words popping up. And when you do get responses, they’re often of a macabre nature. Murder. Evil. Blood. Those are all things I expect a ghost app to say. It’s supposed to scare you, right? I’ve attempted to use it for q&a sessions before, with no results. I will ask a question and often get no response at all, or, after a minute or so, one that makes zero sense. My voice shaking, I asked, “Is there anyone here with me?” Immediately, and I mean IMMEDIATELY, the name Erin popped up. (This is not the name of the little girl who died at the resort, or the little girl Ted Bundy killed near Orlando.) Freaked out, I closed the app and left my room, then promptly suggested to the boys that we go spend some time at the pool.
I didn’t get one solid night of sleep the entire time we were on vacation. I was anxious and afraid, and had several panic attacks. The boys complained of nightmares the whole week, but laughed at me when I tried to talk to them about the strange things that were happening in our villa, even though they saw some of it with their own eyes. My fingers itched to sit down and write this story, to do some in-depth research into the area, but I stuck to my promise- NO WORK ON VACATION. At the end of our week in the sun, we packed our bags and left Orlando, leaving whoever or whatever was tormenting us behind. (I hope.)
If you visit the Congress Hotel in Chicago, they say to stay in Room 441 if you want a terrifying paranormal experience. I did it, and I got nothin’ besides the best night of sleep I’d had in years. What I will say is- if you ever stay at the Orange Lake Resort in Orlando and want to see some truly spooky shit, ask to stay in Villa 3003. But beware of the crows. And the little girls turned to ash. Wait- did I forget to mention- the name of the little girl killed at the resort was ASHton Jojo. ASH. I can’t. I stuck to my promise (mostly) of not working on vacation, so I didn’t begin to really dig into my experience until I got home. (Hi, Michigan. Thanks for being gray and cold as hell.) Here’s what I know:
Orange Lake Resort is essentially its own city. It’s HUGE. There are several pools, water slides, playgrounds, shops, restaurants, and yes, there’s still a miniature golf course. You could visit and not leave the resort the entire time, there’s so much to do. But there’s also a ton to do in and around Orlando, so people are constantly coming and going, adding to the chaos. It was on one of those chaotic days in June 2012 that 11-year-old Ashton Jojo and her family arrived from Latham, New York to celebrate Ashton’s birthday, which was just a few days before. On June 27th, Ashton was playing a game of mini-golf when she hit her ball into a shallow pond. She stepped into the pond to retrieve the ball, but would never step back out. Witnesses said the little girl screamed, fell, and began to convulse in the water. A man jumped in to save her, but he, too, was electrocuted. While the man survived his injuries, Ashton did not. An investigation would determine that a water pump had been connected to the wrong circuit breaker, one that was not properly grounded, which caused the pond to fill with a deadly electrical current. Ashton’s family returned to New York and later sued Orange Lake Resort for $27 million. Ashton Jojo was buried at the Albany Rural Cemetery, and an all-access path to her favorite playground was dedicated in her honor. While her body returned home to New York with her family, did her spirit? I’m not so sure.
Despite staying in a haunted villa, I made sure that all of our vacation activities were of an upbeat nature. However. There is some really cool, macabre stuff to do in the Orlando area. I wasn’t able to test any of it out for you, but I can tell you about it!
GO HANG OUT WITH TED BUNDY’S GHOST. Located just 25 miles from Cinderella’s Castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom is a museum rumored to be haunted by the ghost of serial killer Ted Bundy. Just three weeks after his grisly rampage through the Chi Omega Sorority House at Florida State University, Ted Bundy broke from his tried and true pattern- abducting and killing pretty girls in their 20s with long brown hair parted down the middle- and set his sites on a child. On February 8, 1978, 7th grader Kimberly Leach was called out of first-period P.E. at Lake City Junior High to return to her homeroom class, where she’d left her pocketbook. Kimberly’s homeroom and first hour classes were in separate buildings on the campus. She retrieved her pocketbook, but never returned to P.E. By the time school officials realized she was missing, she was long gone. She’d been abducted by a handsome man in a white van who’d been lingering about school grounds that morning. Kimberly Leach was never seen alive again. Nearly two months passed before her body was found in an abandoned hog shed near Suwannee River State Park, about 35 miles from where she was abducted. Bundy’s trial for Kimberly Leach’s murder was held at the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando. He was convicted and sentenced to death by electric chair, and was executed on January 24, 1989 at the Florida State Prison. Since his death, rumors abound that his ghost haunts the former courthouse where his final trial was held. That courthouse is now a functioning museum called The Orange County Regional History Center. It hosts special events, houses a number of exhibits, and has regular visiting hours. Oh, and on the third floor, in the restored courtroom, there is a massive wooden table with plexiglass protecting one corner. Take a closer look, and under that plexiglass you will see a name carved into the wood- TED BUNDY. Whether or not Bundy actually carved his own name into the table is up for debate, but the museum chose to protect the possible historical artifact just in case. Plan your trip to The Orange County Regional History Center HERE.
WALK AMONG THE COUNTRY’S OLDEST SPIRITS. A mere two hour drive from Disney World’s Space Mountain is St. Augustine, the oldest city in America. The coastal town was claimed by the Spanish Crown in 1565, and has been occupied ever since. The Spanish faced opposition from both the Native Americans and Europeans, and St. Augustine was the site of many bloody battles over the years. It changed hands between Spanish and British rule multiple times before becoming part of the United States in 1822. Today, St. Augustine is a popular tourist destination, known for its beaches and rich history. And its ghosts. While the entire town is said to be haunted, here are a couple points of interest:
The St. Augustine Lighthouse is said to be haunted by the ghosts of three children who died in a tragic accident there in 1873. Several children were playing on a rail car used by construction workers when the brakes of the rail car failed and sent the children plunging into the ocean. Only two of the five children survived. Those lost are said to haunt the lighthouse and the nearby playground to this day.
Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest and largest masonry structure in North America, and was once a military fortress that guarded the city of St. Augustine from invasion. The fort sits on the Matanzas River, which, translated, means “slaughter.” The river was given its name because it once ran red with the blood of French Protestants who were slaughtered by the hundreds on the banks of the river. The fort is said to be haunted by the spirits of Native American, British, and Spanish soldiers who died in battle.
TAKE AN OFFICIAL GHOST TOUR. This is something I strive to do in every city I visit, as most tourist towns offer ghost tours of some sort. The only reason I didn’t partake in an Orlando tour is because they all appear to be walking tours, and two hours of walking does not say rest and relaxation to me. But if your desire to seek out the undead outweighs your love of naps, check out American Ghost Adventures in Downtown Orlando.
DEFY GRAVITY. The theme parks in Orlando are full of rides and attractions that test the laws of physics. But an hour outside of Disney’s Magic Kingdom is a ride of a different kind. Spook Hill in Lake Wales is a phenomenon known as a gravity hill- a naturally occurring optical illusion that makes your vehicle appear to roll uphill on its own. I’m not sure if this alone is worth the drive (traffic in Orlando is the WORST), but if you’re passing through Lake Wales, it might be worth checking out.
Theme parks. Resorts. Amusement parks. Beaches. Water parks. There is so much to do and see in Orlando, the city is constantly bustling with activity. That only makes it that much easier to hide its secrets. But there is a dark side to the most popular region of the Sunshine State. Next time you visit, spend some time exploring it. I know I will.