Orlando airport: new gateway to Southern region?

The overhead tram skims above the carefully landscaped terrain. Tourists ogle lakes, orange groves, palm trees, alligators, and deer. Another ride at Disney World? Not at all, it's part of Orlando's new airport.

The airport terminal facilities cost $300 million, suffered the pains of airline deregulation, and opened months behind schedule last September. But Orlando International Airport now rivals Tampa International in state-of-the-art design.

Orlando International was built to handle the millions of tourists who visit Disney World and the theme parks that have grown up around it in central Florida. And now the airport itself -- its motto, ''Gateway to the Worlds'' -- has become an attraction.

''It's pretty nice to be able to brag about our airport and to show it off,'' said Jack Gillooly, director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. ''We are trying to bring the marketmakers here to see it and to see central Florida.''

Orlando really did need a new airport. The terminal in use for the last couple of decades was little more than a glorified hangar. With the number of passengers using the airport climbing from 1 million in 1970 to 6.5 million in 1980, Orlando's terminal was packed even during the off-season.

Construction started on the new terminal in 1978, but after work was under way, Congress deregulated the airline industry, and the aviation authority found itself building with plans that were already out of date. Instead of the four airlines that served the airport when work began, Orlando found itself host to 11 airlines, with more likely.

Work stopped, plans were redrawn, and the aviation authority had to raise an additional $138 million to finance construction.

The basic concept for Orlando International -- the ''airside terminals'' where aircraft pick up and discharge passengers, and the shuttle service to a ''landside terminal'' where tickets are bought and taxis caught - came from Tampa International.

But the Tampa plan was modified to reflect the fact that tourist passengers predominate in Orlando. More space was given to rental cars, and two bus terminals were built into the complex.

''We were trying to create a beautiful terminal,'' said John Meacham, who was the authority's director during construction, ''and since we're a tourist community, we want our visitors to see Florida immediately - or at least what they think Florida is.''

If a tourist expects to see palm trees in Florida, then palm trees will be what he sees at the airport, even though they do not grow naturally in Orlando. Hundreds were planted within sight of the tramways between the airside and landside terminals. Drainage ditches were graded into lakes with palm-covered islands, and a grove of 50 orange trees was planted to honor each of the 50 states.

In the terminal, skylights illuminate the third floor, and there are so many shops and restaurants that it looks like a shopping mall. The terminal has a high-tech design with a Key West flavor.

But what does all this mean for Orlando? It means expansion. With 48 gates built into the new terminal and room for another 48, the airport can grow with the community well into the next century.

Five new airlines have already begun flying into Orlando since the terminal opened. And now the authority is turning its attention to attracting international flights. Even though the airport bears the name ''international, '' it has no regular foreign service from any country. Aviation officials say they hope that a reputation for being a great airport will help spur interest in Orlando around the world.

The Orlando Aviation Authority has begun marketing campaigns in Europe, Canada, and South America, Mr. Gillooly said, and the expansion of a free-trade zone on the airport's property should help lure more international business travel.

''We want to develop a great onward routing from Orlando so we can become the international gateway to such cities as New Orleans and Houston,'' Mr. Gillooly said.

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