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JOSEPH N. BELL

2 Orange Counties and 2 Distinct Ways of Life

July 20, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

If you say, "I'm from Orange County" anywhere east of Baton Rouge, La., your listener will assume you're talking about Orange County, Fla. It's rather like telling a New Yorker that you work for "The Times."

Our counterpart in Florida has a number of things in common with us. We both have temperate climates, conservative politics, a history of citrus production, a lot of tourists and a debt to Walt Disney. As far as I could observe after four days in Orange County, Fla., that's where the similarities end. If our roots are common, we have been growing--with the exception of political orientation--in rather different directions.

While Orange County, Calif., has become one of the world's leading centers of high technology, higher education and industry, Orange County, Fla., has increasingly focused its attention--with a nod toward agriculture and high technology--on a single, massive industry: tourism.

The catalyst for all this growth is, of course, Walt Disney World, a 28,000-acre site about 20 miles southwest of the county seat of Orlando. So far, 6,600 of those acres have been developed and 7,200 will be preserved as a wilderness area. The remainder will undoubtedly be turned into further tourist attractions limited only by the ingenuity of Disney planners to devise ways of separating the 20 million people who visit this area annually from as many bucks as possible.

When Disney built Disneyland in Anaheim, he made one grievous economic error: He didn't acquire at the same time the land for 10 or so miles around his amusement park. Maybe he couldn't afford it. Or maybe even Walt Disney couldn't foresee the phenomenal success of Disneyland. At any rate, he didn't make the same mistake in Florida. When he built the Magic Kingdom, then followed up immediately with Epcot Center, he had the prescience to acquire the surrounding land as well. As result, Walt Disney World is one of the world's most successful examples of the tail wagging the dog.

The dog, of course, is Orange County, Fla., and the once sleepy central Florida town called Orlando that is its main population center. Today, that once-sleepy town is the hub of an entertainment complex and tourist paradise probably unmatched anywhere in the world. Although Disney World is the main attraction (and also the state of Florida's largest employer), it is by no means the only one.

Orlando's official tour guide offers 90 pages of accommodations and attractions including such non-Disney theme parks as Cypress Gardens, Sea World, Silver Springs, Busch Gardens, Boardwalk and Baseball--and even the nearby Kennedy Space Center. (Disney has also added River Country, Discovery Island and Typhoon Lagoon to its three major theme parks.)

But the biggest news in Orange County, Fla., is the opening next year of the MCA Universal Studios-Florida tour and the parallel growth in the number of film projects being attracted to Orlando by the Universal and Disney facilities. The Orlando mayor was even moved the other day to predict that within 50 years, people will be referring to Hollywood as Orlando West. MCA is pumping $500 million into its Florida tour, all the while grousing that the Disney-MGM Studio park was conceived and rushed to completion to torpedo Universal. But after four days of observing crowds at Disney World, I have no doubt there will be plenty of people to go around for both facilities.

Meanwhile, Orlando is dealing with growing pains and handling some of them a lot more efficiently than we have demonstrated in California.

For example, while we were doing our tourist number in Florida, Orlando won approval from the state to build a 300-m.p.h. train to carry passengers from Orlando International Airport to Epcot Center. It is expected to be operational within four years, and, measured against past achievements, probably will be.

At the same time, it was announced that the Orlando airport had the fastest growth rate in the United States in 1988, and now ranks 17th among the nation's busiest airports. The same week, the state Legislature authorized funds to build a 40,000-seat stadium in Orlando to use as bait for seeking a major-league baseball team in 1990. (Orlando already has a National Basketball Assn. team that will begin play next year.)

You can feel the electricity in Orlando that grows out of the conviction that there is an inexhaustible supply of people carrying money who will happily come and spend it as long as it is made easy and attractive for them. The Floridians riding this wave can scarcely be faulted for their optimism; the crowds keep growing and the money keeps pouring in by exponential numbers each year.

But at least to this Orange County Californian, there is no sense of envy. They can have it. No matter how many bulldozers they bring in, the Floridians can't create the mountains or the desert or the special kind of vitality and variety that fuels the Southern California economy and life style. I sensed that the depth and breadth of Florida living is as flat as the terrain. And the rough edges that make for interesting living seemed to me to be missing, leaving a kind of one-dimensional blandness.

So there is no real sense of competition between these two Orange counties, the width of a continent apart. We're on very different tracks, and their destination seems--at this moment, at least--to be much more clearly defined than ours.

I like it better our way.

We are not alone: America's Orange counties profiled on Clipboard / Page 2

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