This year in Orlando

For one week a year, the theme park capital of America becomes the country’s Passover hotspot

Janet Zuckerman will not be spending Passover at home, but she has already thoroughly cleaned and kashered her kitchen, and done her cooking for the weeklong holiday.

“I am cooking all the mains, and I’m gonna vacuum-seal and freeze them,” said Zuckerman, who later this week will drive with her husband from their home in Potomac, Md., to Orlando, Fla., where they will celebrate Passover with their children and grandchildren. They will pack up their car with enough frozen, home-cooked food to feed 13 people at two Seders and during several days of festive lunches. 

Zuckerman has no relatives in Orlando or any particular connection to the city. But this year, she will join tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews making the pilgrimage to Central Florida for Passover, which begins Friday at sundown. 

“It’s become a real destination,” said Menachem Lubinsky, who operates a website called Kosher Today that reports on kosher food around the U.S. He estimates that some 55,000 Orthodox Jews will visit Orlando during Passover this year, which is more than Orlando’s year-round Jewish population of 51,000. (Messages circulating in WhatsApp groups for people going to Orlando have estimated the numbers will be even higher, somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 people.)

In recent years, Orlando’s popularity as a Passover destination has exploded, even as there have been a number of highly publicized incidents of scams and double-bookings. Some families with young children or grandchildren will visit Disney World over the holiday, but the theme parks alone do not explain the massive growth of the city’s Passover scene. Orlando does not have a large Orthodox community; most of the people who go will form pop-up communities of their own, with makeshift minyans meeting in people’s rental homes. 

“Because these communities are all these residential areas, it’s almost become mini Jewish towns, but only for a short period of time,” said Dani Klein, a marketing professional who runs the website Yeah That’s Kosher

Unlike more established “Passover programs,” which are generally all-inclusive affairs at resorts, Orlando is more of a do-it-yourself experience. Central Florida is less built up and thus less expensive than cities further south like Boca Raton and Miami, so visitors can rent large homes (“villas,” as renters call them) for their entire extended family — villas with up to a dozen bedrooms, game rooms, swimming pools and other warm-weather amenities like grills and hot tubs. But that doesn’t mean Passover in Orlando is cheap. 

“We’ve done a couple of programs before, but I had never seen anything like this in my life. It is such a racket,” said Zuckerman. She’s in a WhatsApp group with several hundred other people who are heading to Orlando for Passover, and the group is bombarded with ads for different culinary options, such as caterers bringing food down from New York or personal chefs for hire. 

Travel agents with names like “Vacation Shadchan” — shadchan is Yiddish for matchmaker — help families find houses for the holiday, which often amounts to nine or even 10 days of lodging, due to the lead time for prepping food and making sure the home is kosher.

Orlando’s Orthodox infrastructure pales in comparison to the places where most Passover attendees live year round. One message circulating in Orlando WhatsApp groups informed women of nearby mikvehs, or ritual baths; the closest ones are 40 minutes to an hour from the neighborhoods popular with Passover guests. 

“It’s a very small mikvah that gets swamped on Pesach,” one woman said of a Maitland, Fla.-based mikveh. “Appointments went till around 2 in the morning” last year, she wrote, so women should call in advance to schedule. 

Local Jewish institutions in Orlando help out where they can. Orlando Torah Academy, a local Orthodox day school, is offering kashering as a school fundraiser: For a minimum of $800, someone will come to inspect and deep-clean your refrigerator, stovetops and ovens, according to a message posted on WhatsApp on Sunday. 

The origin of the Passover-in-Orlando phenomenon is grassroots and relatively modest: Before it became the scene that it is now, rentals were cheap. Finding a large home in sprawling Central Florida during a non-spring break week, when Jewish visitors did not have to compete with families flocking to Disney World, was easy. Over the last two years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, private rental homes presented an appealing option to people who wanted to get away during the holiday without being around strangers. 

But as Orlando has become more of a destination during Passover, prices have risen, leading to frustration and, at times, chaos. Last year, hundreds of people showed up to rental homes to find that they had been double-booked, leaving many without a place to spend the holiday. Other guests were evicted from some villas in 2019 after the villas’ owner failed to pay all necessary operating expenses.

Owners or brokers would rent out the homes “let’s say six months in advance, because they could. And then as it got closer to the holiday, they recognized that they could probably make a lot more money,” said Klein. The brokers would then cancel the original reservation and re-list the home at a much higher price, realizing they could “make 50% or 100% more than they were making on the previous reservation.”

It wasn’t clear who was responsible for the mix-ups — the homeowners or rental agents — and whether renters had simply not seen cancellation notices or if there really was a scam afoot. But given the number of people expected in Orlando this year, last year’s mayhem clearly did not have a lasting impact. 

Steve Cohn, a retiree who lives in Delray Beach, has been going to Orlando for years, rather than having his children and grandchildren come to his home in Palm Beach County. 

“We have a big Jewish population down here and the Orthodox [community] — it’s pretty good,” Cohn said of the Jewish community in Palm Beach County. “But it’s good in Orlando. Let’s go there instead. They have a lot more to do with children up there. Remember, these Orthodox families have a lot of little kids.” 

Cohn’s son-in-law is a kosher caterer on Long Island, and he cooks the family’s Passover meals ahead of time and transports them with him. He “puts that on the truck with the dishes and the silverware and the glasses, and the wine and everything,” said Cohn. 

For those who are not blessed with a caterer in the family, or those who do not want to transport crates of food on long car rides, many Jewish caterers and kosher markets transport their food to Orlando. The food comes south from the New York tri-state area and north from Boca Raton and Miami. People order in advance and choose a pick-up time, saving themselves from the hectic, crowded kosher supermarkets in the days before the holiday. 

“It becomes, like, this really easy place to go, almost easier than Miami or Boca in some ways, because they have these huge delivery services,” said Danielle Wild, who lives in Cleveland and will be at an Orlando hotel during Passover. “If you were going to go to Boca, you’d have to go to the Grove and Aroma” — the two main kosher supermarkets in Boca Raton — “and make your order. Even if you place your order in advance, you’ve got to go pick it up with the hordes of people.” 

The Rebbe’s Choice, a direct-to-consumer kosher herring company based in Queens, is arranging a pick-up spot in Orlando this year for the first time. 

“We shipped many orders down there last year, and because of that volume, we decided it would be worthwhile for our customers to put together a pallet of goods that would be going down to Orlando, and have a central pickup point,” said Naftali Engel, who founded the company eight years ago while studying at a yeshiva in Israel. 

Engel, who will be spending the holiday at home in New York, pointed out the irony of going away for the holiday but still having to plan and cook for several festive meals. “It is funny to see that it’s become so popular because there is a level of hard work that still needs to be put in,” he said. “But I think people enjoy it because it’s a change of scenery and there’s a lot more space than you would have in New York,” not to mention the weather — it was 50 degrees and raining in New York that day, he pointed out.

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