You can't truly understand Orlando without finding out how it came to be a tourism behemoth in the first place. Orlando may have begun life as a sleepy little Southern town, but it sure didn't stay that way for long. Over the years, the city has dramatically transformed itself into an international vacation destination and the theme-park capital of the world. Orlando welcomes nearly 50 million visitors annually from all over the globe. What began with plantations, cattle ranches, and orange groves now boasts the world's greatest collection of thrill rides, fine dining, luxury accommodations, and superior shopping -- not to mention an array of cultural and natural attractions. This, however, did not all happen overnight. Over the years, Orlando has felt its fair share of growing pains, even during its earliest days.
Settlers vs. Seminoles: the Road to Statehood
Florida history dates to 1513 -- more than a century before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock -- when Ponce de León, a sometimes misguided explorer, spied the shoreline and lush greenery of Florida's Atlantic coast while looking for "the fountain of youth." He named it La Florida -- "the place of flowers." After years of alternating Spanish, French, and British rule, the territory was ceded (by Spain) to the United States in 1821. Lost in the international shuffle were the Seminole Indians. After migrating from Georgia and the Carolinas in the late 18th century to some of Florida's richest farmlands, they were viewed by the new Americans as an obstacle to white settlement. A series of compromise treaties and violent clashes between settlers and the Seminoles continued through 1832, when a young warrior named Osceola strode up to the bargaining table, slammed his knife into the papers on it, and, pointing to the quivering blade, proclaimed, "The only treaty I will ever make is this!"
With that dramatic statement, the hostilities worsened. The Seminoles' guerrilla-style warfare thwarted the U.S. Army's attempt to remove them for almost 8 years, during which time many of the resisters drifted south into the interior of Central Florida. In what today is the Orlando area, the white settlers built Fort Gatlin in 1838 to offer protection to pioneer homesteaders. The Seminoles kept up a fierce rebellion until 1842, when, undefeated, they accepted a treaty whereby their remaining numbers (about 300) were given land and promised peace. The same year, the Armed Occupation Act offered 160 acres to any pioneer willing to settle in the area for a minimum of 5 years. The land was fertile: Wild turkeys and deer abounded in the woods, grazing land for cattle was equally plentiful, and dozens of lakes provided fish for settlers and water for livestock. In 1843, what had been Mosquito County was more invitingly renamed Orange County. And with the Seminoles more or less out of the picture (though sporadic uprisings still occurred), the Territorial General Legislature petitioned Congress for statehood. On March 3, 1845, President John Tyler signed a bill making Florida the 27th state.
Settlements and statehood notwithstanding, at the middle of the 19th century, the Orlando area (then named Jernigan for one of its first settlers) consisted largely of pristine lakes and pine-forested wilderness. There were no roads, and you could ride all day (if you could find a trail) without meeting a soul. The Jernigans successfully raised cattle, and their homestead was given a post office in 1850. It became a way stop for travelers and the seat of future development. In 1856, the boundaries of Orange County were revised, and, thanks to the manipulations of resident James Gamble Speer, a member of the Indian Removal Commission, Fort Gatlin (Jernigan) became its official seat.
How the fledgling town came to be named Orlando is a matter of some speculation. Some say Speer renamed the town after a dearly loved friend, whereas other sources say it was named after a Shakespearean character in As You Like It. But the most accepted version is that the town was named for plantation owner Orlando Reeves (or Rees), whose homestead had been burned out in a skirmish. For years, it was thought a marker discovered near the shores of Lake Eola, in what is now downtown, marked his grave. But Reeves died later, in South Carolina. It's assumed the name carved in the tree was a marker for others who were on the Indians' trail. Whatever the origin, Orlando was officially recognized by the U.S. postmaster in 1857.
The 1860's: Civil War/Cattle Wars
Throughout the early 1860s, cotton plantations and cattle ranches became the hallmarks of Central Florida. A cotton empire ringed Orlando. Log cabins went up along the lakes, and the pioneers eked out a somewhat lonely existence, separated from each other by miles of farmland. But there were troubles brewing in the 31-state nation that soon devastated Orlando's planters. By 1859, it was obvious that only a war would resolve the slavery issue. In 1861, Florida became the third state to secede from the Union, and the modest progress it had achieved came to a standstill. The Stars and Bars flew from every flagpole, and local men enlisted in the Confederate army, leaving the fledgling town of Orlando in poverty. A federal blockade made it difficult to obtain necessities, and many slaves fled. In 1866, the Confederate troops of Florida surrendered, the remaining slaves were freed, and a ragtag group of defeated soldiers returned to Orlando. They found a dying cotton industry, unable to function without slave labor. In 1868, Florida was readmitted to the Union.
Its untended cotton fields having gone to seed, Orlando concentrated on cattle ranching, a business heavily taxed by the government, and one that ushered in an era of lawlessness and violence. A famous battle involving two families, the Barbers and the Mizells, left at least nine men dead in 2 months in a Florida version of the Hatfields and McCoys.
Like frontier cattle towns out West, post-Civil War Orlando was short on civilized behavior. Gunfights, brawls, and murders were commonplace. But as the 1860s came to an end, large-herd owners from other parts of the state moved into the area and began organizing the industry in a less chaotic fashion. Branding and penning greatly reduced rustling, though they didn't totally eliminate the problem. Even a century later -- as recently as 1973 -- soaring beef prices caused a rash of cattle thievery. Some traditions die hard. Even today, there are a number of rustling complaints each year.
An Orange Tree Grows in Orlando
In the 1870s, articles in national magazines began luring large numbers of Americans to Central Florida with promises of fertile land and a warm climate. In Orlando, public roads, schools, and churches sprang up to serve the newcomers, many of whom replanted defunct cotton fields with citrus groves. Orlando was incorporated under state law in 1875, and boundaries and a city government were established.
New settlers poured in from all over the country, businesses flourished, and by the end of the year the town had its first newspaper, the Orange County Reporter. The first locomotive of the South Florida Railroad chugged into town in 1880, sparking a building and land boom -- the first of many. Orlando got sidewalks and its first bank in 1883, the same year the town voted itself dry in hopes of averting the fistfights and brawls that ensued when cowboys crowded into local saloons every Saturday night for some rowdy R&R. For many years, the city continued to vote itself alternately wet and dry, but it made little difference. Legal or not, liquor was always readily available.
Fire & Ice
In January 1884, a grocery fire that started at 4am wiped out blocks of businesses, including the Orange County Reporter. But 19th-century Orlando was a bit like a Frank Capra movie. The town rallied, providing a new location for the paper and presenting its publisher, Mahlon Gore, with $1,200 in cash to help defray losses and $300 in new subscriptions. The paper not only survived, it flourished. And the city, realizing the need, created its first fire brigade. By August 1884, a census revealed a population of 1,666. That same year, 600,000 boxes of oranges were shipped from Florida to points north -- most of those boxes originating in Orlando. By 1885, Orlando was a viable town, boasting as many as 50 businesses. This isn't to say it was New York. Razorback hogs roamed the streets and alligator wrestling was major entertainment.
Disaster struck a week after Christmas in 1894, when the temperature plummeted to an unseasonable 24°F (-4°C). Water pipes burst and orange blossoms froze, blackened, and died. The freeze continued for 3 days, wrecking the citrus crop for the year.
Many grove owners went bust, and those who remained were hit with a second devastating freeze the following year. Tens of thousands of trees died in the killing frost. Small growers were wiped out, but large conglomerates that could afford to buy up the small growers' properties at bargain prices and wait for new groves to mature assured the survival of the industry.
Speculation Fever: Good Deals, Bad Deals...
As Orlando entered the 20th century, citrus and agriculture surpassed cattle ranching as the mainstays of the local economy. Stray cows no longer had to be shooed from the railway tracks. Streets were being paved and electricity and telephone service installed. The population at the turn of the 20th century was 2,481. In 1902, the city passed its first automobile laws, which included an in-town speed limit of 5 mph. In 1904, the city flooded. And in 1905, it suffered a drought that ended -- miraculously or coincidentally -- on a day when all faiths united at the local First Baptist Church to pray for rain. By 1910, prosperity returned, and Orlando, with a population of nearly 4,000, was in a small way becoming a tourism and convention center. World War I brought further industrial growth and a real-estate boom, not just to Orlando, but to all of Florida. Millions of immigrants, speculators, and builders descended on the state in search of a quick buck. As land speculation reached a fever pitch and property was bought and resold almost overnight, many citrus groves gave way to urbanization. Preeminent Orlando builder and promoter Carl Dann described the action: "It finally became nothing more than a gambling machine, each man buying on a shoestring, betting dollars a bigger fool would come along and buy his option."
Quite suddenly, the bubble burst. A July 1926 issue of the Nation provided the obituary for the Florida land boom: "The world's greatest poker game, played with lots instead of chips, is over. And the players are now . . . paying up." Construction slowed to a trickle, and many newcomers who came to Florida to jump on the bandwagon fled to their homes in the North. Though Orlando wasn't quite as hard hit as Miami -- scene of the greediest land grabs -- some belt-tightening was in order. Nevertheless, the city managed to build a municipal airport in 1928. Then came a Mediterranean fruit-fly infestation that crippled the citrus industry. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land in quarantined areas had to be cleared of fruit, and vast quantities of boxed fruit were destroyed. The 1929 stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression added an exclamation point to Florida's ruined economy.
. . . & New Deals
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal helped the state climb back on its feet. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) put 40,000 unemployed Floridians back to work -- work that included hundreds of public projects in Orlando. Of these, the most important was the expansion and resurfacing of the city's airport. By 1936, the tourist trade had revived somewhat, construction was up once again, and the state began attracting a broader range of visitors. But the event that finally lifted Florida -- and the nation -- out of the Depression was World War II.
Orlando had weathered the Great Depression. Now it prepared for war with the construction of army bases, housing for servicemen, and training facilities. Enlisted men poured into the city. The airport was again enlarged and equipped with barracks, a military hospital, administration buildings, and mess halls. By 1944, Orlando had a second airport and was known as "Florida's Air Capital," home to major aircraft and aviation-parts manufacturers. Thousands of servicemen did part of their hitch in Orlando, and, when the war ended, many returned to settle here.
By 1950, Orlando, with a population of 51,826, was the financial and transportation hub of Central Florida. The city shared the bullish economy of the 1950s with the rest of the nation. In the face of the Cold War, the Orlando air base remained and grew, funneling millions of dollars into the local economy. Florida's population increased by a whopping 79% during the decade -- making it America's 10th-most-populated state -- and tourists came in droves, nearly 4.5 million in 1950.
One reason for the influx was the advent of the air-conditioner, which made life in Florida infinitely more pleasant. Also fueling Orlando's economy was a brand-new industry arriving in nearby Cape Canaveral in 1955 -- the government-run space program. Cape Canaveral became NASA's headquarters, including the Apollo rocket program that eventually blasted Neil Armstrong toward his "giant leap for mankind." During the same decade, the Glenn L. Martin Company (later Martin Marietta), builder of the Matador Missile, purchased 10 square miles for a plant 4 miles south of Orlando. Its advent sparked further industrial growth, and property values soared. More than 60 new industries moved to the area in 1959. But even the most optimistic Orlando boosters couldn't foresee the glorious future that was the city's ultimate destiny.
The Disney Decades
In 1964, Walt Disney began secretly buying millions of dollars worth of Central Florida farmland. As vast areas of land were purchased in lots of 5,000 acres here, 20,000 there -- at remarkably high prices -- rumors flew as to who needed so much land and had the money to acquire it. Some thought it was Howard Hughes; others, the space program. Speculation was rife almost to the very day, November 15, 1965 ("D" Day for Orlando), when Uncle Walt arrived in town and announced his plans to build the world's most spectacular theme park ("bigger and better than Disneyland"). In a 2-year construction effort, Disney employed 9,000 people. Land speculation reached unprecedented heights, as hotel chains and restaurateurs grabbed up property near the proposed park. Mere swampland sold for millions. The total cost of the project by its October 1971 opening was $400 million. Mickey Mouse escorted the first visitor into the Magic Kingdom, and numerous celebrities, from Bob Hope to Julie Andrews, took part in the opening ceremonies. In Walt Disney World's first 2 years, the attraction drew 20 million visitors and employed 13,000 people. The sleepy citrus-growing town of Orlando had become the "Action Center of Florida," and the fastest-growing city in the state.
Additional attractions multiplied faster than fruit flies, and hundreds of firms relocated their businesses to the area. SeaWorld, a major theme park, came to town in 1973. All the while, Walt Disney World continued to grow and expand, adding Epcot in 1982 and Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney's Hollywood Studios) in 1989, along with water parks; more than a dozen "official" resorts; a shopping, dining, and entertainment district; campgrounds; a vast array of recreational facilities; and several other adjuncts that are thoroughly described in this guide. In 1998, Disney opened yet another theme park, this one dedicated to zoological entertainment and aptly called Animal Kingdom.
Universal Orlando, whose Universal Studios Florida park opened in 1990, continues to expand and keep the stakes high. In late 1998, it unveiled a new entertainment district, CityWalk, and in 1999, it opened Islands of Adventure, a second theme park including attractions dedicated to Dr. Seuss, Marvel Comics, and Jurassic Park. Also in 1999, it opened the Portofino Bay Hotel, a 750-room Loews property. In 2001, the curtain went up on the Hard Rock Hotel, and in summer 2002, the Royal Pacific resort opened as Universal announced plans to add two more hotels to the property in the next decade (plans that have thus far gone nowhere).
SeaWorld, too, got in on the action when it opened its $100-million sister park, Discovery Cove, in 2000. Now visitors have the chance to swim with dolphins even in landlocked Orlando.
While the tourist economy suffered for almost 2 years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and took a battering after a trio of hurricanes touched down in Central Florida in the summer of 2004, the industry has regained much of its strength as the years have passed. Indeed, one unfortunate casualty of the economic slowdown, Cypress Gardens, closed its doors in 2003 (and again, albeit only briefly, in 2008), reopened under new management with a new lineup of attractions, only to close its doors for good in 2009. Taking its place is the world's largest LEGOLAND (which at press time was preparing to open).
Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld, as usual, are in a building mode, albeit not quite as enthusiastically as they were during the late 1990s. All the parks have added new attractions, ranging from Soarin' at Epcot to Universal's Fear Factor Live to SeaWorld's new entertainment and dining district, the Waterfront. In 2005, in honor of California sibling Disneyland's 50th anniversary, Disney World unveiled new shows, services, rides, and attractions. The year 2006 brought with it the addition of Expedition Everest, Animal Kingdom's first real thrill ride. And in 2007, the Cinderella Castle Suite (where lucky visitors can actually stay overnight inside the Magic Kingdom) was unveiled as part of Disney's Year of a Million Dreams celebration. New shows, attractions, and an after-hours Pirate and Princess Party debuted at the parks. Universal Orlando created a permanent home for the Blue Man Group at Universal Studios Florida. In 2008, Disney's Year of a Million Dreams continued, Disney-MGM Studios became Disney's Hollywood Studios, and even more new shows and attractions (including Toy Story Mania and a Disneyesque version of American Idol) debuted. Disney also closed its clubs on Pleasure Island in order to "re-imagine" the district. Aquatica (SeaWorld's eco-themed water park) became the first new park to open in over 8 years.
The year 2009 brought with it an economic upheaval that took a huge toll on tourism in Orlando, leaving the hotels, restaurants, and parks scrambling for business. Despite the slowdown, two new mega-coasters still managed to emerge: Manta, an undersea-themed thriller, debuted at SeaWorld, while up the road at Universal Studios, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a combination rock concert, music video, and coaster ride, opened. Disney kicked off a new year-long celebration aptly named What Will You Celebrate, with free admission (to a single Disney park) as the bonus for guests visiting on their actual birthday. Downtown Disney began adding new shops, restaurants, and smaller attractions, slowly filling the "re-imagined" space where Pleasure Island's clubs once stood. New resorts continued to spring up in and around Orlando (including Disney's Treehouse Villas, Disney's Bay Lake Tower, and the nearby Waldorf Astoria, among others), but a slowdown in construction is expected in upcoming years.
Amid the continuing economic slump, Universal Orlando completed a massive expansion in 2010 as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter made its debut at Islands of Adventure. Disney inspired visitors to give back to the community with the Give a Day Get a Disney Day program, rewarding volunteers with a free day at a Disney theme park for their efforts. Disney's Wide World of Sports became the ESPN Wide World of Sports; the Electrical Parade returned, lighting up Main Street (in the Magic Kingdom) for the first time in almost 10 years; and dining options at Epcot expanded to include a Neapolitan Pizzeria (at the Italy Pavilion) and a Mexican Cantina (at the Mexico Pavilion). New resorts continue to open (the Holiday Inn in the Walt Disney World Resort, Marriott's Lakeshore Reserve at Grande Lakes, the Coco Key Hotel, Element Orlando Convention Center, and the Peabody Tower among them); however, as projected, construction has now slowed to a snail's pace, with not a single resort opening in 2011. Only two resorts, Disney's Art of Animation Resort and the Drury Inn & Suites (on Sand Lake Road), are slated to open this year. The Four Seasons at the Walt Disney World Resort, originally set to open in 2012, remains on the books, but with an opening date "TBD."
With 2011 came signs of a slight upswing in the economy, tourism exhibiting the most visible signs of life. Hotels began filling rooms at a rate not seen in several years (with significant increases over the last year alone). Airport traffic and attraction attendance was on the rise, with tourists (and the theme parks) beginning to once again spend money. Disney began construction at levels almost unheard of in recent years. A major expansion began at the Magic Kingdom -- with the size of Fantasyland to be doubled by the end of this year -- and detailed plans were revealed for a re-imagined Pleasure Island, the abandoned clubs (standing empty since 2008) demolished to make way for what will soon become Hyperion Wharf. Also revealed were details regarding Disney's secretive billion-dollar investment in next-gen technology and experiences -- though sketchy (and slated to roll out over the next several years), plans include bypassing hotel check-in, reserving ride times right from your computer, and a slew of personalized interactive experiences yet to be revealed. In addition, Disney kicked off Let the Memories Begin, the resorts' latest year-long celebration that has park-goers taking center stage, their images projected on Cinderella Castle each night for all to see. Also in 2011, Discovery Cove opened the Grand Reef, expanding its lineup of underwater attractions -- including a walking tour that takes guests (donning diving helmets) along a series of underwater pathways. Even Gatorland got in on the expansion action, debuting a wild zipline experience that takes adventurous guests zipping across the park's preservelike grounds, high above the crocs and gators that lurk in the marshes below.
Regardless, the pace of progress in this ever-changing city continues to move forward -- albeit more slowly than in the past -- and it's a sure bet that these newcomers will be joined by even newer rides, resorts, and shopping and dining experiences in the coming years.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.