Leading Article: In Florida, escapist fantasy can swamp reality

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Eastbourne with alligators: why is Florida the place to escape to? Tracey Whalin and her son's 14-year-old friend are not the first runaways to seek to get away from humdrum reality in this fantasy paradise of permanent sunshine. But why should this particular swamp serve as the Never-Never Land of so much of the world's collective dreams?

Mrs Whalin was following the rather more arduous journey made by Juan Ponce de Len in 1513, in his quest for the Fountain of Youth. He did not find it, unsurprisingly, and died in the attempt. At least her quest only ended in leg-irons at Monroe County Detention Centre.

Escapism is a strong human impulse. Most people nurture dreams of being somewhere else. We tend not to say to ourselves: "Always remember that the grass is equally green on both sides of the fence." We need an imaginary place in our minds where the sun always shines and things are better, and we call it ... Florida. (All right, some people call it Provence, or Tuscany, or Zanzibar, but across most of America and Europe, Florida is the most popular daydream.)

The Sunshine State is where people want to go if they win the Lottery, or get a building society windfall, or simply want to splash out. It was the unseen star of Midnight Cowboy. Set in the mean streets of New York, the film was driven by the longing of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight to live in the clean, wealthy sunlight of Florida.

Throughout America, the middle class aspire to retire there. Throughout Europe, they want to go on holiday there. And for Mrs Whalin it seems it was the ultimate "get away from it all" destination (although no American would go to Florida in July: it is far too hot). The same sunshine and the same escapism attract the global rich and the Caribbean poor to Miami. Gianni Versace and Cuban emigres made their homes there (or third home in Versace's case, after Milan and Lake Como). Floridians, it is said, are born Puerto Rican and die Caucasian.

Part of the attraction of Florida is the timeless sun, sand and sea formula - although until the invention of air-conditioning and the draining of the swamps it was a rather inhospitable place. At the time of her arrest, Mrs Whalin was, we are told, enjoying the luxury of Room 1404 at the plush Ocean Point resort on Plantation Key, one of the string of islands which stretches from the southern tip of the state. The Florida Keys are described in the brochures as one of America's "most beautiful unspoilt wildlife havens" - which no doubt they were before Ocean Point was built. But that is the trouble with earthly paradises: they are fine until people get there.

And Florida, being America, is a paradise open to the masses. The history of the state is the history of escapism brought back to reality. After the indigenous population was deported to Oklahoma (no, really) and Florida became the 27th state in 1846, there began a huge migration from the rest of the US. The original inhabitants were descendants of native Americans and escaped slaves - slaves who had fled Caribbean islands to freedom, only to find themselves struggling to survive in the disease-ridden, reptile- infested swamps. The growth of 20th-century Florida was described as "frantic to the point of chaos", and it inevitably became the place - Cape Kennedy - from where America reached for the stars. But it also inevitably created in Miami one of the largest areas of urban deprivation in America, with a television police serial to match.

Then in 1971, the fantasy was made plastic, wood and concrete, a theme park the size of Manchester called Disney World. Now it employs 40,000 people and attracts 25million visitors a year, more than the whole of Spain. It was conceived by Walt Disney himself as a utopian "Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow". It is the last word in making mass fantasies real, a place where smoking, chewing gum and facial hair are outlawed (for the staff - or Cast Members - at least). A place where everyone wears Mickey Mouse ears but still genuinely has a good time. A place where class distinctions are suppressed: even Princess Diana took Princes William and Harry there four years ago (although they did stay in the pounds 1,000-a- night Grand Floridian Beach Resort Hotel).

It is a fantasy which exerts a strong gravitational pull across the Atlantic, a powerful combination of cheap package flights, sunshine and child-led demand. But the whole point of Disney's experimental prototype is that it is not a community and you could not live there for long. For one thing, you would spend half your life queuing. And then outside Disney World, Florida is just like the rest of America, only hotter and with more old people. Dreaming of escaping there is like looking forward to retiring to the south coast of England only to find that all the B&Bs do social security claimants and the place is clogged with junkies.

Tracey Whalin is only the latest of millions to have discovered that escaping to Florida cannot suspend the laws of inevitable disappointment. What makes her story so compelling is the contrast between the idea of disappearing in a "clean break" and the reality of being charged with assault on an under-age boy. As summer begins in earnest, it is only human to dream of escape. But it is only real life to wake up in leg-irons.

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