Orlando, Florida: Fantasy's Reality

Orlando, the boomtown of the South, is growing on the model of Disney World: a community that imitates an imitation of a community

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It takes people a while to get used to living in Orlando. This is a city where they vacuum the streets at night and disinfect the public telephones with Lysol, where the airport has a moat with live alligators in it, where you can buy your hubcaps at Hubcap World. "At first Orlando weirded me out," says Bob Simonds, 28, a producer from Los Angeles who filmed a movie there. "I saw it as a big Disney production. It seemed like a fraud, a city on overload. Now I love this place. It's like Norman Rockwell's America or Dennis the Menace on acid."

If Simonds seems to be groping for a figure of speech, so is everyone else who passes through Orlando. Yet in one sense, what is happening in central Florida is as old as the nation. Americans have always built new communities in the image of earlier ones -- from New Amsterdam to San Francisco's Chinatown to Miami's Little Havana. In another sense, the phenomenon of Orlando is something new. Orlando, the boomtown of the South, is growing at a staggering pace on the model of Disney World: it is a community that imitates an imitation of a community.

Orlando's destiny was sealed on Disney Day, Oct. 1, 1971, when Disney World opened wide its gates. Since then, the swamp, once called Mosquito County, has become the top commercial tourist destination in the world. Currently it draws 13.3 million people a year, up from 4.6 million in 1980. As a shrine, it is surpassed only by Kyoto, Mecca and the Vatican. The 2,558-sq.-mi. metro area has the largest concentration of hotel rooms in the country (76,300), with the highest occupancy rate (79%). More than 18 million passengers arrive at Orlando International Airport every year, three times the number entering 10 years ago -- and, if the planners are right, half the number who will alight three years from now. Cities from Rio to Frankfurt have direct flights to the Disney doorstep, and airport officials are already preparing for a day in the next century when tourists from San Francisco will hop across the continent in 39 commuting minutes.

Disney World lures them, but Disney World can't keep them. So people who are enthused about Disney's meticulous vision of social order are moving next door to Orlando -- in droves. In the past decade the population of Seminole, Osceola and Orange counties (which cradle Orlando) has swelled by 102 people a day, to slightly more than 1 million, which is as if the entire population of Tulsa had pulled up stakes and moved there. In the same period, the region led the nation in creating new factory jobs -- nearly 2,500 a year -- while employment in the service sector increased 137.9%. Tupperware and Martin Marietta have been in Orlando for 40 years, but they have recently been joined by other bedrock institutions like Westinghouse, the American Automobile Association and AT&T.

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