Orlando, Fla. — Now that Donald Duck, who celebrated his 50th birthday in June, is settling into middle age, one would suppose life could return to normal in central Florida. No chance. Orlando is a boom town like almost no other, and this winter big changes will continue to overtake the surrounding flatlands that Walt Disney wrought from orange groves and pine barrens in 1971. For one thing, there is a new attraction in town that seems to have enough appeal of its own to bring visitors from afar, Disney World or not. It's the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress -- a hotel, but in name only. Too, Circus World has an ambitious new owner with plans for improvement and expansion under way; the sharks of Sea World and water-skiers of Cypress Gardens are churning up the central Florida lake country; the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is on a Bee Line (the very name of the tollway) to the east, and if peace and raw beauty are the aim, a canoeist's escape called the Wekiva River lies close to the northwest.
Disney World and EPCOT Center are still far and away the big magnets -- too big for the wise and wary traveler who knows that the holiday season and the midwinter stretch from Feb. 15 to the end of March can be like a, well, zoo.
``Our busiest week of the year is Christmas to New Year's,'' a Disney World advance man conceded the other day. ``The best time is January. You may not be able to swim every day, but the air is crystal clear and the crowds are small.''
Crowds I have learned to gauge and sidestep from years spent in Manhattan, but on my first look at EPCOT on a bright afternoon in March I threw up my hands and walked away from the lines massed before the high-tech attractions. ``Today is just a medium-heavy day, 60,000 to 70,000 people instead of a topheavy 125,000,'' I was told. ``The waits are 20 to 45 minutes, but they can be longer.''
I escaped from the Future World to the World Showcase, an adjacent mingling of exotic foreign pavilions set around a man-made lake. To the Mexican, Chinese, German, Italian, American, Japanese, French, British, and Canadian settlements I prowled, EPCOT has since added the Kingdom of Morocco -- from all reports an instant hit. Moroccan artisans were brought in to help build the hand-carved plaster walls and intricate tiling. Restaurant Marrakesh has proved one of the World Showcase's cleverest and briskest enterprises, serving such Moroccan staples as couscous and bastila (a spicy beef covered with pastry) and putting on a native floor show featuring family approved belly dancers.
Among the ongoing stars of this Disney-style United Nations are the Renaissance Players, a group recruited from the Sak Theater in Minneapolis who work the cobbled streets of the British village pulling onlookers into their skits. This season a World Fest will salute a different country each month with national entertainment and food carts.
Orlando, core of this booming barren land, had its first surge of activity in 1880 with the coming of the railroad from Sanford to the Northeast, a second with the establishment of the Kennedy Space Center, and a third 13 years ago with arrival of Donald, Mickey, and their friends. Since Disney World, the number of hotel rooms has jumped from 6,000 to 42,000 with another 9,000 in the works, and downtown has been tarted up with Church Street Station, an upbeat historic preservation.
Not everyone is enjoying the boom. Young people have descended on Orlando to reap the dividends sown by the Magic Kingdom, but often are working for less than they'd imagined and at jobs perhaps beneath them. ``Unfortunately the wages have stayed down while the costs have gone up,'' an obviously miscast and overqualified woman limousine chauffeur told me en route to Orlando's space-age international airport.
Nothing on the piny horizon is about to threaten Disney World's primacy in central Florida, but the brassy, bubbly Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is out to prove people will build a visit around the right hotel. Outside, it's a pyramid, inside a jungle. The lobby is all pools and statues and a seated gilded Buddha that greets you at the door after bellboys in white jackets and pith helmets have conducted you from the curb. Some $2 million in art objects have been set in strategic spots, most of them of Southeast Asia origin such as a jade dragon boat (ca. 1900), held in a glass case (and bought for $100,000).
The hotel's free-form design and overflowing cheerfulness (a telephone operator brightly answers, ``Responsibly yours, this is Jackie'') are reminiscent of the Hyatt at Kaanapali, Maui, but as a Grand Cypress official said: ``Our problem is that they have an ocean, and we don't, but we feel we are enough of an attraction. We want the guests to use Disney, but they don't need to go anywhere if they don't want.''
There is a day-care center and nursery, built around the biggest sandbox I've seen, 60 by 60 feet with a wooden jungle gym. Best of all perhaps is the outdoor swimming pool, a rumbling waterway set off by a series of stonelike grottoes strongly suggestive of ersatz Disney caves. A suspension bridge of rope and wood connects two crags, and one of three Jacuzzis catches the froth of a waterfall. A restaurant, Hemingway's, inspired by the writer's adventurous spirit, looks onto the always-active pool. I don't know if Hemingway ever got to Orlando, but it doesn't matter: Fact and fiction are somewhat interchangeable in these parts.