Orlando — A little more than a decade ago, Orlando was largely an agricultural center that even many Americans had a hard time locating on a map. Most Europeans coming through it were probably lost.
Today, hundreds of thousands of Europeans are saving their money to visit Orlando and Walt Disney World. A provincial, sleepy Southern town has become an international attraction.
And now Orlando residents and businesses have to learn how to deal with people who don't speak their language.
''We are trying to get the message across to area residents that if they take care of the foreign tourists while they are here, they'll take care of us by helping boost our economy,'' said Bonnie Manjura, international tourism specialist for the Orlando Chamber of Commerce. ''We tell them that if they can't give an answer, at least give a smile.''
Of the 9 million people coming to Orlando last year, 2 million were foreign tourists, according to chamber of commerce figures. That was up from 500,000 two years ago as Europeans, Latin Americans, and Canadians took advantage of the changing value of the dollar, lower air fares, new international air routes to Tampa, Miami, and Atlanta, and increased marketing pressure.
At Disney World, the destination for most international visitors to the area, spokesman John Dreyer said that most of the foreign visitors are from Canada.
But he said the 625,000 Canadians are now joined by 410,000 Europeans, 165, 000 South Americans, 20,000 Central Americans, and 74,000 Mexicans.
Among Europeans, he said, Britons top the list with 229,000, followed by the West Germans with 64,000.
But Latin Americans interest central Florida businessmen most.
''The trend is changing,'' said Mrs. Manjura. ''More tourists are coming from Latin America, and Latins by their very nature tend to spend more money. We figure a Latin American will spend between 20 percent and 30 percent more than a European.''
The stories circulating about Latin tourists arriving with empty suitcases and spending thousands of dollars to fill them are true, she said. Buses pull up to shopping malls and factory outlets and streams of Latin Americans pour out and into the stores to buy clothing, electronic gadgets, and small appliances.
They also tend to spend more money on entertainment than Europeans, she said. Where an English tourist may have an early dinner and spend a quiet evening, a Latin American may dine late and hit the night spots.
To take care of its international visitors, Orlando has had to make a few changes, such as putting up signs in different languages or in internationally recognized pictograms.
A hospitality committee for international visitors meets regularly to devise ways to ease the foreign tourist from the airport into ground transportation and to hotels and attractions.
Foreign currency can now be exchanged in 65 to 70 places throughout the Orlando area, and at least one department store chain maintains a foreign currency exchange at each of its branches.
Many of the major tourist attractions are hiring employees who speak languages other than English, and Disney World boasts that through its computerized language bank, it can find at least one of its 15,000 employees who can speak the language of just about anyone who arrives at the park.
The foreign tourists didn't just appear in Orlando. The tourist attractions, the Orlando Chamber of Commerce, the state Division of Tourism, and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority have been spending a lot of money to attract them.
Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh are sent forth to woo travel agents from Stockholm to Caracas. Trade groups head out from central Florida not only because they know how much they rely on the tourist industry, but also because they know that the people who travel as tourists are often businessmen who may be seeking investments.
''They see what's here, and then they invest in it,'' said Margie Varney, director of the Orlando World Trade Council. ''There's been a lot of foreign investment in property and existing structures. Foreign businesses are beginning to open offices here. The next step will be for foreign manufacturers to move in with production plants.''
The Orlando area's exports have grown from practically nothing to about $1 billion a year in 10 years, she said, and the World Trade Council, which opened in 1979 with 10 members, now has almost 200.
But with the strengthening of the dollar and the demise of Sir Freddie Laker's economy flights from England, some tourism officials are wary about the future.
Orlando is concentrating its marketing efforts in Europe, Ms. Varney said, to try to keep the travelers coming. And Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh will be on the road again to lure more families to their central Florida kingdom.