World's premier tourist stop: more than Mickey Mouse
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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.
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.