ORLANDO, Fla. — The pixie dust that transformed Central Florida after the late Walt Disney built his dream park is still working its magic, with a little distasteful fallout.
When Walt Disney World opened 15 years ago, no one even suggested that Orlando one day would have more hotel rooms than most of the nation's big convention cities. Today, it's No. 3, well behind New York City, but ahead of Las Vegas and closing in on Los Angeles.
In a decade and a half, the population of Greater Orlando doubled, mainly in the suburban towns, and its chief business became hosting 10 million to 20 million visitors a year. Between 1980 and 1985, half of the new businesses that located in Florida chose Orlando, including more than two dozen laser optics firms. An estimated 1,000 people a week are moving into the area.
Eleven construction cranes dot the downtown skyline as hotels, banks and office buildings reach skyward in a planned $1-billion expansion. And the 30,000 downtown workers, up from 10,000 not too long ago, don't roll up the sidewalks as they leave.
Here Come the Movies
The movie industry is moving in strong, with both Disney and Universal opening production studios.
Orlando is getting a new National Basketball Assn. franchise, to be called--what else?--the Orlando Magic.
When Disney's agents began secretly buying up scrubland at bargain prices in the 1960s, Orlando was an inland crossroads town surrounded by orange groves and brahma cattle grazing among palmetto bushes.
There were a few space-related industries, with Cape Canaveral just 50 miles to the east, and some tourists stopped by, usually on their way to Miami, Busch Gardens in Tampa or Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven.
Fifteen years ago, there were about 6,000 hotel rooms in the area. Today, there are almost 10 times that number, with rates for a single ranging widely from about $15 a night to more than $200.
And the growth shows no signs of slowing down.
Traffic is sometimes maddening and the crime rate is up, but most agree that the buzz of the electronic cash register has a soothing effect.
Officials at the Orlando-Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau say the average family of four stays 4.1 days and spends $770.
$800,000 Bird Cage
But $770 won't go far in some hotels. One, for instance, has an $800,000, 50-foot gilded Victorian bird cage as the centerpiece of its 10-story atrium. Fish, a few worth $4,000, swim in an aquarium nearby. Another luxury hotel has waterfalls you can swim under, with a dozen Jacuzzis strewn about the free-form pool. The largest hotel in all of Florida, with more than 1,500 rooms, is here, too.
The average price of a hotel room, off Disney property, is about $45 a night. The top price for a single room is $210 a night at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress. But you can go down the road a few miles and get a cut-rate room for $14.95, three bucks extra per kid. Or you can head for one of the many campgrounds. A campsite on Disney property costs $24 a night. It's cheaper off Disney land.
Golfers have a choice of 43 courses in the area.
As Disney's Magic Kingdom began drawing tourists to the region, other attractions opened--Sea World, Boardwalk and Baseball, Wet 'n Wild and the downtown Church Street Station for nightlife. Some of the long-established attractions, such as Cypress Gardens, Bok Tower and Gatorland, were spruced up and enlarged.
The newest major amusement park, Boardwalk and Baseball, features six playing fields, batting cages for the kids, an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster, 31 other thrill rides and the boardwalk itself. It will become the spring training camp for the Kansas City Royals.
There's Lots to Do
There are dog races, helicopter rides, hot-air balloons, scuba lessons, magicians, a flea market billed as the world's largest, riverboat trips, a view of 17 million citrus trees from atop a tower, an Elvis Presley museum, jousting, glass-bottom boats and 5,000 alligators at one location.
Industry followed the amusement parks, some inspired by Disney, some by nearby Cape Canaveral, some by Orlando's Sun Belt ambiance. The U.S. Navy has its second-largest boot camp here, graduating 500 to 600 young men and women a week.
A New York City psychiatrist recently told Forbes Magazine that Orlando was the best place in the country for marriages to survive. Civic pride is such that they started calling the local yuppies "yuppos"--"o" for Orlando.
One hotelier predicts that by 1990 Orlando will be the largest convention center in the United States. New York, with 90,000 hotel rooms, now leads the list and Los Angeles is only slightly ahead of Orlando.
And as the building continues, the tourist industry appears unworried that Orlando might reach the saturation point.
"Overbuilt is an overused word," sniffs Alan D'Zurilla, director of marketing for the Stouffer Orlando Resort, the hotel with the $800,000 bird cage and pricey carp. "It's used mostly by pessimistic journalists."