|Floridas history stretches back to the 1500s. On
Easter Day in 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon came
ashore at what is now St. Augustine in the northeast corner of
the state. What Ponce de Leon and the early settlers found in
the Sunshine State?mosquitoes, swamps, and native tribes with
little interest in sharing the land?was sufficiently daunting to
discourage the growth of other settlements.
As so often happened in the Americas, the Seminoles who settled
in Florida weren't thrilled with the bands of newcomers. In two
decades in the early 1800s, they fought two bitter wars to
retain their land. When the second of those ended in 1842,
Orlandos history began. Settlers followed soldiers into Central
Florida, and a settlement grew around an old Army post known as
Fort Gatlin, located at what is now Lake Eola Park in downtown
Orlando. Originally named Jernigan after an early settler,
Orlando changed its name in 1857 to honor soldier Orlando
Reeves, who, while on sentinel duty at the fort, was felled in
1835 by an Indian arrow as he raced to warn of an oncoming raid.
Orlando was born on July 21, 1875, population 85.
Orlandos three Cs
In those days, the three Cs drove commerce in Orlando: cattle,
cotton and citrus. As Cuban demand for Florida beef grew, cattle
ranches spread across the flatlands, cattle rustlers fought
gunfights in the streets, and little Orlando became a
Soon, tired settlers turned to cotton, a considerably less
threatening crop, and the town became the center of a thriving
cotton industry. When the U.S. Civil War began, however, workers
moved away to pick cotton throughout the South, replacing
soldiers away at war. In 1871, a hurricane roared through town,
destroying most of the crop.
Until air conditioning was invented?in Florida, by the way?life
in the Sunshine State was no picnic. Summer heat, sandy soil and
sporadic torrential rainfall made for tough living, but it also
proved to be the conditions that citrus trees love best. Orange,
grapefruit, tangerines and limes all thrived in the sandy soil.
By 1870, orange fever had struck Central Florida, and the citrus
industry grew rapidly.
When Henry Flagler and, later, Henry Plante pounded spikes into
railroad tracks that extended down the east and west coasts of
Florida, orange fever reached its peak. Although stymied for a
decade or so by the Great Freeze of 1894-1895, which destroyed
nearly all the citrus crop in the region, by the 1950s Florida
had more than 80,000 acres of citrus trees spread across the
flatlands and rolling hills, stretching to the horizon.
Orlandos fascination with entertainment stretches as far back as
1895. Proving that it really is possible for a little creative
thinking to turn lemons into lemonade?or, oranges into orange
juice?citrus grower John B. Steinmentz watched the freeze turn
his crop into worthless mush and started working on a comeback.
He turned his packing house into a skating rink, set up some
picnic tables and a bathhouse, and built a toboggan slide that
whooshed visitors into a cool spring. Voila?Orlandos first
Central Florida acquired electricity in 1900, then telephones
and, in 1903, cars that chugged around at the terrifying speed
of 5 mph. In 1922, the first airport opened as a cargo center;
in 1928, the Orlando Municipal Airport opened. Today, that
facility is the Orlando International Airport, welcoming
hundreds of thousands of travelers each year.
A major economic force in the region, the Martin Marietta
missile factory?now known as Lockheed Martin?arrived in 1922
with its facilities spread over 10.6 miles of Central Florida
and staffed with thousands (its the areas largest employer).
And that has made all the difference...
But 1971 was the seminal year in Orlando. After looking at many
Florida sites, including Miami, Walt Disney and company decided
that the vast acreage and accommodating local leaders were just
what they needed to build the companys first theme park outside
California. Thus was born Walt Disney Worlds Magic Kingdom,
which welcomed its first visitors in 1971 and has since
celebrated its 25th anniversary?and the 75th birthday of its
icon, Mickey Mouse.
As the Mouses fame grew, others saw the possibilities inherent
in thousands of visiting tourists. Sea World was the next to
arrive, bringing its black-and-white Shamu "killer"
whale and its leaping dolphins to Orlando in 1973. That touched
off a flurry of other new attractions as the visitor numbers
grew...and grew...and grew.
In 1990, Universal Studios arrived to add still more
competition, more visitors and more entertainment. In 1999, it
grew again with the addition of Islands of Adventure, featuring
a host of thrill rides guaranteed to knock your socks off
(whether or not you're wearing any).
Meanwhile, Orlando just keeps on growing'there are now 90
attractions, 3,800 restaurants, and 99,000 rooms, topping
100,000 even as you read this.
You'll still see citrus groves, although many have been usurped
by sprawling housing developments. A host of other entertainment
facilities and high-tech industries continue to play a major
role in the regions economy, but it is tourism that is the
pile-driving force of Orlandos finances, contributing more than
$17 billion to the economy annually. Todays Orlando is a
fantasyland of fairytales?of neon and nightlife, of Cinderella
and Snow White, the occasional floppy-eared puppy and a Very
Orlando is unquestionably the epicenter of the states tourism
industry and a place where billions of dollars change hands
every day, making it a significant center for business activity
that, as deadly serious as it may be, is inextricably tied to
fantasy and to fun, fun, fun.