Ting Rappa has seen ghosts her entire life, but her fears kept her from communicating with them for years. It wasn’t until she started working with an Orlando-based ghost tour company in the early 2000s that her fear of the paranormal changed to her passion.
“As I did the tours, I found that ghosts are not as they are portrayed in Hollywood,” she says. “In Hollywood it’s mean, nasty, trying to get you. As I’m doing these tours, they’re trying to relay messages most of the time – most of them are friendly.”
Rappa eventually bought out the tour company, changed its name to American Ghost Adventures, and has been leading public investigations of local haunts in downtown Orlando, Winter Garden, Sanford and Mount Dora for over 10 years. Typically, guests will go inside at least one building to investigate, depending on the availability of the venues.
So who exactly are the ghosts that Rappa has discovered along the way?
Haunting at Harry Buffalo
The historic Church Street building that houses Harry Buffalo was formerly a hotel and a dried goods store, and a fair amount of spirits still call it home. Rappa considers it one of the most haunted buildings in downtown Orlando.
One active resident who communicates on a nightly basis is a 15-year-old boy named Aaron. Through the tours, Rappa has not only discovered his name but she has also learned that he comes from one of Orlando’s original families and he likes dogs. Rappa says guides will bring a stuffed dog on tours that stop at this venue because it reminds the spirit of his family pet.
During one particular tour, guests were taking pictures in a room where he is often seen. While no one captured his image, the guide returned to the room and saw Aaron standing right there in the doorway. The guide reported being able to see right through this full-body apparition and that the spirit looked like he was ready for his photo to be taken. He was described as looking like a child from “The Little Rascals,” wearing a pinstripe suit that was too big for him.
Spirits Found at Ferg’s Depot
Another haunted downtown Orlando venue is Ferg’s Depot. The building used to be the Old Orlando Railroad Depot, a hub for livestock and grain transportation that eventually opened to passenger traffic. Rappa believes an old train conductor named Ernest Mills still haunts the building.
A chef was flipped off of a couch on the second floor, with witnesses describing him as being “flipped like a pancake.” People have seen shadows go through the walls and an apparition go down the staircase. Employees have even reported seeing Ernest on the balcony looking out onto Church Street.
Then there’s a female spirit named Annabelle who is often seen walking in front of the kitchen area on the ground floor. People seem to be able to feel this spirit more than anything. Guests report a queasy feeling with stomach pains when she is in the room, which is why guides believe she died of a stomach ailment. Rappa says Annabelle prefers male tour guides and some of those guides have reported similar stomach pains at home – a sign that Annabelle may have followed them. However, if they ask her to leave then she will, and the stomach pains go away.
A Presence at Harp and Celt
Rappa says there is a protective spirit named Maximilian at Harp and Celt. While there is no documentation, she was told that the Irish bar used to be a neighborhood brothel, so it is thought that Maximilian ran the place.
When Rappa was hiring a new tour guide, she brought in a man who was about 6 feet two inches with a construction build. When he was walking toward her, he tripped, saying that someone pushed him. She thought it was strange since no one was there, so she performed a background check and found the man was wanted for domestic violence. Rappa took the shove as a sign from Maximilian.
He came to the rescue again when a female tour guide felt that a man on her tour was getting too close and invading her space. The man taunted, saying there were no ghosts at the venue. At that moment, he said he felt a hand on his shoulder. He was standing in the same place that the spirit was seen.
Rappa feels that he’s watching over everyone.
Garden Theatre Ghosts
The Garden Theatre is just one stop on the Winter Garden walking tour, which also includes investigations of the Central Florida Railroad Museum and The Heritage Museum. The theatre also extends an invitation to American Ghost Adventures on special nights for a full investigation that teaches the background of this historic building. Upcoming dates are Oct. 15 and Nov. 4.
According to Rappa, the Garden Theatre is quite haunted and has “embraced their ghosts.”
One that she knows by name is Hoyle Pounds. A Winter Garden founder, he ran Pounds Motor Company in the 1920s, where he made a living by outfitting tractors with rubber tires. It’s said that a piece of heavy machinery cut off his thumb one day as he worked. Instead of going to the emergency room as his colleagues suggested, because he didn’t want to upset his wife, Pounds placed the thumb in a cigar box and buried it by a tree in the field near his store. That field is now housing the theatre.
“So when you talk about it the meters go off,” Rappa says of the accident. “People feel like there’s a presence in the room. It’s kind of neat to experience.”
Rappa believes another Garden Theatre spirit is a former patron. A woman is often seen sitting in different seats throughout the theatre with her gaze on the stage. Her name hasn’t been revealed yet in the investigations, but the woman has appeared to many people, both employees and patrons.
There are also reports of noises even when the theatre is empty. “Employees hear footsteps going up and down the staircases so distinctively that they think someone has broken into the theatre and call the cops, but nobody is there,” Rappa says.
Spirits in Winter Garden Museums
The Central Florida Railroad Museum is home to an extensive exhibition of railroad memorabilia from the area. Rappa says she hasn’t been able to pinpoint a resident spirit there because the building used to be a train station that saw many people going in and out on a daily basis. Instead, there is a fluctuation of different spirits, meaning no two tours are the same.
To understand the spirits in Winter Garden’s museums, you must first understand two types of paranormal activity. A residual haunting involves energy related to an event that happened in a specific place. There can be footsteps, or even apparitions, but spirits aren’t typically involved. It’s more like the playback of a “recording” of something that left an impression on a location. The moving of spirits in and out of the Central Florida Railroad Museum, just as they moved in and out of the train station, is an example of a residual haunting.
Then there’s an object haunt. Rappa explains, “An object haunt is something that was very important to a person at one point in time, and their energy is absorbed into the object. Where the object goes, they go.”
The Winter Garden Heritage Museum offers several examples of this type of haunting. Rappa believes a sports coat and a rocking chair are bringing spirits to the museum, but she won’t say for certain if ghosts have actually claimed the items.
“We would have to get a consistent hit to say it’s haunted,” she says. And that hasn’t been achieved just yet.
How to Communicate with Spirits
Rappa explains that every tour is simply a gathering of information, referring to guests as “ghost bait” because anything from their features to their personalities can intrigue a spirit.
“Each person brings a different personality in and different personalities bring out different spirits,” she says, noting the ghosts might be drawn to a person’s voice or simply like how they look.
During each tour, Rappa and her guests try to communicate with spirits using ghost hunting equipment that can range from high-tech devices to everyday items found at home. The Ovilus, which includes a database of more than 2,000 words, measures sound waves in the environment. When it finds a speech pattern in those sound waves, the Ovilus says the word. Rappa uses this tool to learn the names and Halloween stories of the spirits at these local venues.
The team also uses K-II meters, which measure electromagnetic fields in the environment, to determine if a spirit is present. Then there’s the everyday flashlight. Ghost hunters loosen the top just a bit and begin asking “yes” or “no” questions in the hopes that spirits will turn the flashlight on and off as a response.
“We’re beyond trying to prove there’s a ghost,” she says. “We want to get to know them. They’re part of our family and friends circle now.”