World's premier tourist stop: more than Mickey Mouse

By , Business correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Welcome to Orlando World!

This is a city growing on America's craving for leisure activities. The 15 million tourists anticipated here this year are expected to make it the world's No. 1 tourist destination.

Orlando has been transformed in the past 10 years from a citrus and cattle economy into a national leisure center.

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This change will accelerate even more this fall when Disney World opens up its $800 million Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (EPCOT). An additional 30,000 tourists a day are expected to visit the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center, as the new Disney project will be called.

With construction at Disney whistling along, the city can brag that last year 80 percent of all the investment dollars in Florida was shuffled into the Orlando area.

Some $2.5 billion worth of construction is scheduled for this central Florida area over the next five years. A local billboard has announced, ''Orlando was invited to the Recession, but declined the invitation.''

Well, almost. Tourism did decline in 1981 by about 7 percent, and Hans Tews, president of Sun Bank, says 1982 could be slightly below last year. But by 1983, Orlando, like the Space Shuttle in nearby Cape Canaveral, will be in orbit, he says.

The growth, however, is not all just in fun land. Major corporations are finding that there is more than Mickey Mouse in the neighborhood, and they are putting up factories to build some of the high-technology devices EPCOT will celebrate.

Even when Exxon closed a Qwip Systems factory and General Electric shut down a flashbulb factory, laid-off workers quickly found jobs, according to Chamber of Commerce economist Margie Varney. Unemployment in the area sits at 7.9 percent; nationally it is 9 percent.

As Orlando's youthful mayor, Bill Frederick, notes, ''This economic diversification is good for the community.''

Real estate developers have also taken note of the area's potential. Arnold Palmer, Andy Gibb of the Bee Gees, Italian film producer Carlo Ponti (Sophia Loren's husband), and William DuPont of the Delaware DuPonts, have all made real-estate investments in central Florida. Housing starts, in spite of record interest rates, continue to some extent. Unfortunately, the development is squeezing the orange groves out of the county into cheaper and warmer land in southwestern Florida.

There are other changes in Orlando, too. Downtown, cranes stand like giant metal herons helping to alter the skyline of the city. There is Barnett Bank Plaza, developed by a Saudi Arabian investment company named Jamel. On another block, Lincoln Properties, a Dallas company, will build a 24-story building. And , a choice, undeveloped 10-acre site is owned by Mr.DuPont. Florida companies, such as Atlantic Bank, are also erecting steel and glass structures.

But downtown Orlando will not turn totally into a ''Tomorrowland.'' Some of the historic late-Victorian buildings have been renovated.

And city planners want to keep Orlando's easy charm, says Tom Kohler, executive director of the Downtown Development Board.

As he drives around with a visitor, he points to the newly renovated Mayor Bob Carr Centre for the Performing Arts. The old facade of the building has been incorporated into a handsome new design. Another older building is being renovated to serve as an exposition center for Orlando.

There is no doubt that Orlando has a certain charm. From the air it looks as if Minnesota, land of 10,000 thousand lakes, has been moved out of its refrigerator. Up close, it becomes apparent that the city has been built up around the lakes, including Lake Eola with its unusual fountain.

The black neighborhoods have lakes, too. Charles Hawkins, president of Washington Shores Federal Savings and Loan asks, ''In how many cities around the country do blacks have homes on lakes?''

Orlando has its tacky side too. There is a profusion of billboards on the interstate highway heading to Disney World.

The International Drive section, part within city limits and part outside, looks as though it has been moved there from Los Angeles. Franchise eateries compete with tourist attractions for space for neon signs. And there is a profusion of topless bars along Orange Blossom Trail.

The downtown area also has its low points. Panhandlers lounge around the Angebilt Hotel looking for handouts. But that is expected to change when the hotel is converted to condominiums and offices, as is expected shortly. The move should upgrade that stretch of Orange Avenue, the main street in Orlando.

Mayor Frederick likes to describe Orlando as still having a small-town feeling with a frontier spirit. And Jerry Chicone Jr., a major citrus grower in Orlando, points out that the community's churches have always played a strong role.

There is another dimension to Orlando's growth, too. Unlike much of the rest of Florida, Orlando is not particularly a retirement haven. Ms. Varney of the Chamber of Commerce points out that retirees in Orlando make up only 11 percent of the population.

Cindy Grubbs, a stockbroker at Dean Witter Reynolds Inc., says the constant influx of young professionals gives the area a sense of excitement. ''There are a lot of doctors and lawyers in the Orlando area,'' she says.

Mayor Frederick observes: ''It used to be that you rolled up the sidewalks at night, but that is changing.''

In fact, Orlando proudly points to its ballet, symphony, and theater. Rock stars as well as the Florida Symphony Orchestra perform in the renovated Mayor Bob Carr facility.

With its emphasis on growth, Orlando has its share of growing pains. It must cope with a sewage and water-supply crisis. The mayor, who previously was chairman of the state Environmental Regulation Commission, has raised the price of sewer hookups by 400 percent in an attempt to make developers bear a larger share of the cost of services. Conservationists still maintain the city must take a breather on development before it becomes a quagmire of environmental problems.

As the population has swelled, traffic jams have become more common than alligators. As cars slow to a crawl on the expressways dissecting the city, the mayor says he hopes residents think about the need for new funding to solve the transportation crunch. So far, Florida voters have resolutely refused to increase taxation to solve some of their transportation problems.

Criminals have also caught up with Orlando. In 1980 the FBI reported the city had the sixth-highest crime rate in the nation. Although many of those crimes are committed by transients -- the city's population swells considerably during the peak tourist season -- it is a problem the city must solve. A civic group is trying to marshal support among community groups to help reduce crime.

If the city is able to solve its problems and control its growth, Orlando may just be able to put up another billboard: ''Welcome to Orlando World: Fantasyland Come True.''

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