FLORIDA in winter is a good place to figure out whether the American dream still lives. We're happy to report that it does. When times are hard, people tuck in their belts and don't spend on such optional extras as wintertime trips in quest of the sun.
But this year the station wagons full of parents and sticky children are swaying down the highways to Disney World. Orlando, the home of the Magic Kingdom, is a boomtown with more hotel rooms in the area than Los Angeles, or Chicago, or Washington.
The condominium market in Florida is a little soft because of uncertainty about the impact of tax reform on second homes. But visitors and new residents alike continue to flood into the state, and there is a lot of public debate about how Florida's natural resources are to survive all this.
Walk Florida's beaches for a couple of weeks this year and you stumble across all kinds of personalities. Jimmy Carter has been here, and Al Haig, and Vernon Walters, and Joe Sisco -- all overshadowed by the presence of NBC's irrepressible weatherman Willard Scott, who seemed to get more attention than any of them.
Then there are those titans of commerce and industry, guiltily and perhaps restlessly baring their white limbs to the sun, before hastening back to the corporate world of takeovers and quarterly profit-and-loss reports.
Everybody seems bound by a couple of common beliefs:
Don't try eating out without a dinner reservation.
The country is in pretty good shape.
There are, of course, some problems ahead. The United States is in for a pretty messy budget-cutting year. Yet in addition to one's intuitive feel for how people are thinking, the polls indicate that Americans are facing this year with optimism. The Gallup poll, for instance, finds that Americans feel rosier about 1986 than do the citizens of 21 other industrial nations. Even most black Americans, who bear the brunt of economic hardship, think better times are ahead.
President Reagan gets a higher rating from the public after five years in office than even the popular Dwight Eisenhower. Some 63 percent of Americans think he's doing a good job.
At a sprightly 75, Mr. Reagan has triumphed over an assassination attempt and medical problems and has brought the nation through recession and a pretty tough period of confrontation with the Soviet Union. His vigor and optimism seem undimmed. That has apparently communicated itself to the American people with positive results.
Other good signs:
The stock market, which lurched downward like an airliner hitting a sudden air pocket, has apparently had enough power to climb again. This tells us something about confidence in the US economy.
Internationally, there is a little positive movement on arms control. Of course, if the United States and the Soviet Union are to rid themselves of all nuclear weapons, they may do so just around the time Col. Muammar Qaddafi is getting his. Also, if Washington and Moscow go nonnuclear, that would leave Moscow with overwhelming superiority in conventional weaponry. Somebody has to think these problems through. Nevertheless, the atmosphere is a little more promising.
Among the minutiae of existence observed from a vacation vantage point, John McEnroe, who has probably done more than anyone else to sully the image of American sportsmanship, has taken a licking and may be going off to think things through. One hopes that will include a review of his manners.
And as proof that reason and justice do ultimately prevail, there is a report that those seemingly interchangeable nighttime soap operas on TV are finally losing their appeal.
Meanwhile the Soviets, whose own press and film industry have distorted and misrepresented the American way of life for years, have suddenly become exercised about the possibility that the ``Rambo'' and ``Rocky'' movies are distorting theirs.
Welcome, comrades, to freedom and the world of American dreams.