For at least one resident of Orlando, Fla., and his family, there is someplace even more magical than Magic Kingdom itself: Covington, Georgia. Move over, Disney World. Covington has a lot to offer as well…at least if one is a fan of any of the TV shows and movies that have filmed in this area.
In 2010, Henry Esposito, along with his sister Dorothy and two nieces (then 17 and 19) packed up the car and headed to Covington. Their mission was to explore filming sites from the top-rated TV show "In the Heat of the Night," which filmed here from the late 1980s until the mid ’90s.
With the family dog in tow, the group had a list of destinations including the Sparta Police Station, the Magnolia Café, the home that belonged to Detective Virgil Tibbs, Sparta High School and the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers (which served as a location filming site in various episodes).
The family also planned to drive down backroads, hoping to stumble upon other locations that had been used in the series. It was a happy adventure for the family whose only disappointment was that Esposito’s wife could not join them due to her having given birth to a baby boy before the trip.
"I was already familiar with Conyers," said Esposito. "I am Catholic and had been there several years before to see the apparitions of The Virgin Mary (which made national news) at the home of Kathy Fowler."
He said he had no idea Covington was the location for "Heat" filming when he visited Conyers on several trips between 1993 and 1994.
Had he known, he said, he would have been able to visit Covington as well and witness some of the filming.
Instead, he found out in 2010 while doing an Internet search for the filming locations of "Heat."
When he saw it was Covington, just a few exits from Conyers, he nearly jumped out of his chair.
"I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, we were right there,’ and I had no idea," he said.
It was at that point that he decided to visit Covington even though the filming had ended years ago.
He said he chose to stay at the Best Western Motel because it, too, had served as a filming location on the TV show.
"It was called White Columns Inn on the show," he said. "I’ll never forget pulling into town that first night because I could see the courthouse illuminated from the road."
Esposito said the sight was almost intoxicating, because the courthouse looked exactly like it had on the TV series. The family arrived on a Friday night and stayed through the following Wednesday, walking around the downtown area and driving the backroads.
They also made a few visits to Conyers for meals and shopping.
"Covington is beautiful," he said. "I couldn’t believe how pretty it was."
He referred to Covington as a "piece of history" and said it was apparent why filming companies would choose it for location shooting. He said what struck him as a bit odd was the fact "In the Heat of the Night" portrayed Covington as simply "Sparta, Mississippi," showing only the places needed for the storylines of specific episodes.
He said it struck his funnybone that there were actually fast food restaurants, strip malls and a Walmart. He had been expecting a much smaller atmosphere.
"I thought it was going to be a little town with mom and pop stores," he said. "But it turned out to have all that plus more."
Esposito said Covington was a modern and nice community mixed with lots of history.
He chuckled, saying that he had not even expected to see a big grocery store.
For at least three days of the visit, the Espositos walked around Covington and stopped to visit the more popular filming sites from the show.
He said the man who owned the building used as "The Magnolia Café" was in real estate and spent a great deal of time talking to the family about how crew members would cover the signs of local businesses and add new signs while filming.
The "home" (actually an older home renovated into business offices) located across the street from the First Methodist Church, owned by the TV show’s Detective Tibbs, was for sale at the time.
Esposito was able to sit on the front porch and have his photograph taken with his Pomeranian. The Espositos also liked the statue on the square and were photographed in front of that as well.
"I had no idea any of the stores on the square sold any ‘Heat’ memorabilia," he said. "But I do have Carroll O’Connor’s badges from the show."
Esposito said he bought those from one of the men who worked in the props department on the show, whom he had contacted via the Internet after seeing his name in an online article. The two exchanged a few emails, and then Esposito asked if he could purchase any of the badges. The props guy happily obliged.
Esposito was always a huge fan of "In the Heat of the Night" and is now a huge fan of Covington itself. After he returned to Orlando, he started a Facebook page called "In the Heat of the Night Fans."
It currently has about 350 members, and it is open to anyone who would like to join. The page contains tons of pictures of Covington, the filming, along with stories and tidbits of information members want to share with other fans.
"I wish more people knew about Covington," said Esposito. "They ought to advertise it more, because it is a wonderful place."