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July 20, 2009

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Before the Theme Parks: Orlando Celebrated Proud Roots in Cattle, Citrus and Space

Although Orlando’s amazing theme parks are what put the city on the map for millions of visitors throughout the world, it existed long before the first roller coaster or castle was ever built.

Over the course of more than 150 years, the area has had several names and seen many different industries come and go. What was a rustic wartime fort in the mid-1800s has emerged as one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations. No, it’s not a fairy tale, but it certainly has a happy ending.

Welcome to Jernigan?
The city of Orlando came into existence in 1857, but its origins can be traced to the Armed Occupation Act of 1842. Fort Gatlin was established during the Second Seminole War in 1838 and, when the war ended in 1842, the government offered land to homesteaders willing to live near the forts. Brothers Aaron and Isaac Jernigan settled near Fort Gatlin in 1843; in 1850, a post office opened in the settlement then known as Jernigan.

The population soon spread northward from Jernigan, beyond the fort, leaving the exact location of the community in question. But a gift to the county of land for a courthouse near Lake Eola soon settled disputes and led to the creation of a new town called Orlando.

Many different versions exist concerning the origin of the city’s name. One story says the name honors soldier Orlando Reeves, who died near what is now Lake Eola in downtown Orlando during the Second Seminole War: according to the legend, he warned sleeping soldiers of a coming attack before falling himself. One other popular theory credits early settler Judge Speer as suggesting Orlando, the name of the romantic hero in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It.

Squeezing the Citrus Market
Orlando’s early economy centered around the cattle industry, but the city’s greatest growth occurred during several economic booms, the first following the 1881 arrival of the South Florida Railroad, which made travel to the area easier. Businesses appeared and hotels opened to accommodate the first wave of tourists. The railroad, renamed the Atlantic Coast Line in 1902, enabled citrus growers to ship fresh fruit to northern markets, making Orlando a major citrus producing center by 1890.

The nation’s growing demand for grapefruit, tangerines, and oranges, coupled with the extension of the South Florida Railroad into central Florida, helped the citrus industry to flourish. The two-square-mile city of Orlando was officially incorporated on July 21, 1875, by a vote of 22 men from the 85 residents.

In 1894 and 1895, hard freezes struck central Florida, destroying 95 percent of the citrus trees and severely damaging the citrus industry. It took 15 years for the industry to recover, but then citrus remained a major agricultural industry in Orlando throughout most of the first half of the 20th century. At its peak in the 1950s, the industry accounted for more than 80,000 acres of citrus trees in the region.

Orlando’s second boom paralleled national prosperity and progress. Orlando expanded in the early 20th century as many homes received electrical power. Cars appeared in Orlando in 1903. (The speed limit was 5 mph.) The automobile and improved highways brought increased tourism, the growth of business and construction, and the beginnings of suburbanization. The city saw its population increase from about 9,000 in 1920 to more than 27,000 by 1930.

Flying High
Capitalizing on Orlando’s near-perfect, year-round flying weather, aviation brought another economic boom to the region. The city opened its first airport, to haul cargo, in 1922.

Orlando’s Municipal Airport, built in 1928, became the Orlando Army Air Base and quietly contributed to the war efforts both before and during World War II as one of the first places to train bomber pilots. The military built a second airfield near Pine Castle in 1941, which later became McCoy Air Force Base and is now the Orlando International Airport.

At the end of the Second World War, Pine Castle Air Base served as the site for top secret X-1 tests and as home to a Strategic Air Command unit in the 1950s.

In 1956, the Glenn L. Martin Company of Baltimore purchased 10.6 square miles of southern Orange County land and announced plans to build a missile factory, leading to major development.

The U.S. Missile Test Center, established at Cape Canaveral in 1955, brought the aerospace industry to Orlando. The Martin Company opened a plant in 1956 and quickly became the area’s leading employer. Orlando’s population, almost 37,000 in 1940, reached about 52,000 by 1950. Today the company operates under the name of Lockheed Martin and serves as the backbone of the area’s technology industry.

Orlando is now home to a number of major technological and digital media companies including Electronic Arts, House of Moves, and Blue Orb Inc. Special schooling programs for this field are offered at the University of Central Florida’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy and Full Sail.

Tourism Takes Off
Along with the population, tourism steadily grew in central Florida. Cypress Gardens opened its doors in 1936 and soon became second only to the Grand Canyon in popularity among U.S. attractions. This established Orlando as one of the top vacation destinations in the world.

Weeki Wachee Springs, famous for underwater performances by “mermaids,” put on its first show in 1947. The Florida Wildlife Institute opened in 1949 and became Gatorland in 1954.

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom opened its gates in 1971, followed by SeaWorld Orlando in 1973. Over the years, Walt Disney World Resort continued to expand with the opening of Epcot in 1982, Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 1989, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park in 1998, as well as resorts, water parks, golf courses, and entertainment complexes.

In 1990, Universal Studios Florida came onto the scene. In 1999, Universal Orlando Resort opened a second park, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, followed by the addition of an entertainment complex and three hotels.

Discovery Cove opened in 2000 with a unique dolphin-swim experience and, in late 2004, Cypress Gardens Adventure Park reopened its extensive gardens along with new rides and a water park. Aquatica, SeaWorld’s Waterpark, opened in March 2008.

Meet Me in Orlando
While Orlando’s tourism industry has grown exponentially with the rapid development of renowned theme parks, the city is also quickly becoming one of the country’s leaders in the meetings and conventions industry.

Growing Bigger…and Stronger
Orlando continues to grow, offering nearly 100 attractions, 113,000 hotel rooms, and more than 5,300 restaurants, as well as the second largest convention center in the nation.

Tourism has become the leading industry for central Florida with more than 48 million visitors annually and an economic impact of 31.1 billion. More than 1.9 million people now reside in greater Orlando, which consists of Orange, Osceola, Seminole, and Lake counties.

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