05 January 2010

A week in the sun in Orlando

Disney World ... a world away from reality, but the reality behind Orlando’s boom

Patrick Comerford

I’m in Florida at the moment, spending a week in Orlando. This is the main city in Orange County and the fifth largest city in Florida, with a population of over 230,000, and the wider metropolitan area has over 2 million people. Orlando is also home to the University of Central Florida, one of the largest universities in the US.

Originally, Orlando was the centre of a major citrus-growing region, but since the 1970s it has been home of world-famous amusement attractions, including the Walt Disney World Resort, the Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld. These destinations make Orlando the third most visited tourist destination in the US.

I should be here as a tourist, enjoying the sun at this time of the year, thinking it might do some good for my sarcoidosis, and enjoying the theme parks. Obviosuly, though, I wasn't erxpecting the unusually cold weather they’re having in what should be the Sunshine State.

On the other hand, though, I wasn’t expecting mediaeval cathedrals, archaeological digs, or classical sites. And yet I found Saint Luke’s Episcopal Cathedral a fascinating place to worship in on Sunday morning, and it would be difficult for me after that not to go in search of the history of this area or at least not to ask why this city is called Orlando.

A local legend says Orlando is named after one of the main characters in Shakespeare’s As You like It, which may explais why one of the main streets in downtown Orlando is called Rosalind Avenue – it is also known as Lando Costa.

At one stage, Orlando was populated by the Creek and Seminole people. But there are few if any archaeological sites today to tell their story, and the US took control of the area in 1821, carving out Mosquito County in 1824. Undeterred, European settlers started arriving in the unattractively-named Mosquito County around 1836 or 1837.

One local legend says the place was named Orlando after Orlando Reeves, a soldier said to have died in the area during the Second Seminole War. Legend aside, it seems that Orlando Reeves or Rees ran a sugar mill and a plantation about 50 km north at Spring Garden in Volusia County.

When the first pioneer settlers arrived, they found the words “Orlando Acosta” carved into a tree, assumed this marked the grave of the first settler, and referred to the area as “Orlando Acosta’s grave” or simply as Orlando. But Orlando Acosta was a soldier most of whose life remains uncertain.

In fact, Orlando was first known as Jernigan, and was so named after the first permanent settler, Aaron Jernigan, a cattleman who acquired land along Lake Holden in 1842. Most of the pioneer settlers did not arrive until the 1850s. Many of the early residents made their living by cattle ranching. Mosquito County was divided in 1845, and Orlando became the county seat of the new Orange County in 1856.

This area remained a rural backwater throughout the American Civil War in the 1860s. Post-bellum reconstruction brought new prosperity and Orlando was incorporated first as a town in 1875, when the place had a total population of 85, and then as a city in 1885.

From 1875 to 1895 Orlando was the hub of Florida’s citrus production, but the Great Freeze of 1894-1895 forced many owners to give up their independent groves, allowing a few “citrus barons” to consolidate their holdings and shift production further south.

Orlando became a popular resort during in the first two decades of the last century, and in the 1920s the place went through a housing boom. But the real boom came after 1965, when Walt Disney decided to build Walt Disney World in Orlando, having rejected plans for a park in either Miami or Tampa.

Disney World opened in 1971, and brought with it an explosion in population and economic growth as tourism became the lynchpin of the local economy.

And that, in part, explains to some degree why I’m here this week. But more about the Diocese of Central Florida later in the week.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

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