Osceola County residents Ray Parsons and Mike Wynn boarded a northbound SunRail train from downtown Kissimmee late Tuesday afternoon wondering if seats were still available at President Donald Trump’s re-election kick-off rally in Orlando.
“Our friend out there says the line to get in is a mile long,” said Parsons. “They stood through all that rain earlier, too.”
Seats remained available all night, but Parsons and Wynn still got off work early to brave crowds, protesters and turbulent thunderstorms forecasted by local press.
The trek to the Amway didn’t feel like a hassle to Parsons and Wynn – both small business owners - but instead, a chance to be part of something big.
“It’s a national event,” Parsons said. “We want to see what it’s all about.”
The event also seemed like a way to celebrate four more years to a president they believe is directly responsible for a thriving economy.
Wynn and Parsons both told grim tales of layoffs and hiring freezes during the recession a decade ago that hit the construction industry they work in especially hard in Central Florida.
“When you’re the one writing people’s checks, the economy is a big deal for you,” Wynn said. “You want to see people employed. You want to make sure their families are OK.”
Wynn admitted that core pieces of someone’s past and profession could influence their political ideology.
“This is what makes sense for us and our industry,” he said. “We think Trump is bringing results.”
Plastic folding tables stacked with five-dollar Keep America Great hats and red, white and blue bald eagles screened T-shirts lined the sides of Church Street’s brick-paved road as the SunRail pulled in just before 5 p.m.
Security guards and police waved lighted batons - the sort used by air traffic controllers to land jets - to direct strings of curious on-lookers west to the Amway Center.
But not all followed the winding maze buffered by temporary fences and a wall of Lynx buses. Some, like Lee Wright, were already enjoying a beer half a mile away at the Broken Strings Brewery, and later, Stonewall Bar, where the liberal-leaning Win with Love Rally was taking place.
Wright is a Kissimmee public school teacher and president of the newly formed Osceola Young Democrats group. Like Parsons and Wynn, Wright said his political ideology is shaped by his profession and personal experiences. As a middle school teacher, he’s witnessed how a lack of government funding can impact the daily lives of his students.
“We always seem to have plenty of money for testing supplies and we test constantly,” said Wright, a St. Cloud resident. “But I run out of money for paper, pencils, stuff the kids really need two months in. I think education needs to be a bigger priority for government.”
Wright and other Democrats mingled among the infamous 20-foot tall Baby Trump balloon affixed with diaper and orange peel-colored vinyl skin.
The helium-filled Trump caricature first appeared last year in the United Kingdom and gained so much attention that six replicas were created in the United States. Miniature versions bobbed on strings above the crowd on Tuesday.
A nearby stage rotated guest speakers from the LGBTQ community, recent immigrants and fresh high school graduates still energized by the March for Our Lives movement. Rainbow flags fluttered like capes on people’s backs. Homemade signs advocating a myriad of social causes were displayed and complimented like trading cards among protesters.
Debbie Gale, president of the Osceola County Democratic Party chapter, admired the passion and felt encouraged by the event’s positive, festival-like atmosphere.
But Gale also admitted that the path to a 2020 win runs through Florida, a critical swing state. She thinks that a strong candidate who focuses on blue collar workers to match blue party values of inclusivity will be crucial to a White House win.
Gale, a retiree from St. Cloud, said registering voters from every demographic will be a top priority for Osceola County Democrats moving forward.
“We’re fired up to flip this state blue, and we plan to work hard to make that happen,” she said.
In the moments leading up to Trump’s 8 p.m. rally kick-off, a trickle of last-minute attendees streamed past a small mountain of unpermitted water bottles and umbrellas abandoned outside the Amway Center entrance.
The 20,000-seat venue filled close to capacity and boomed as Vice President Mike Pence introduced the 45 th president of the United States.
Osceola County resident Zane Matter stood body-to-body on the ground floor, blanketed by a roar of excitement usually reserved for headline pop star acts.
It wasn’t Matter’s first Trump rally, but the St. Cloud resident said it didn’t disappoint.
“I can say this was the most energetic of all the rallies I have attended,” he said. “Lots of cheers and applause from the crowd.”
Matter, 22, is running as a Republican candidate for State House Seat 42 and cites Trump’s bombastic, unapologetic delivery as admirable political traits. Matter campaigned for Trump in 2016 and said he plans to take a few notes from the president’s playbook during his own campaign.
“Trump did lots of grassroots campaigning all around the country and that’s what I’m doing,” Matter said. “It’s the best way to engage with voters and show that you care about them.”
Detours and traffic made getting out of downtown Orlando Tuesday a headache for drivers – but not SunRail riders. The commuter train ran three special late-night departures to accommodate passengers from the rally. Overall ridership was two-in-a-half times higher than an average Tuesday, said a SunRail spokesperson.