History of Orlando

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Florida's 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, Orlando's 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.

Orlando's three C's
In those days, the three C's 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 rough-and-tumble spot.

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.

Alllll aboard!
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.

Orlando's 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, Orlando's first entertainment center!

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 (it's the area's 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 company's first theme park outside California. Thus was born Walt Disney World's 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 Mouse's 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).

Growing, growing...
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 region's economy, but it is tourism that is the pile-driving force of Orlando's finances, contributing more than $17 billion to the economy annually. Today's Orlando is a fantasyland of fairytales, of neon and nightlife, of Cinderella and Snow White, the occasional floppy-eared puppy and a Very Important Mouse.

Orlando is unquestionably the epicenter of the state's 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.