Orlando history - A Look back in Time
Originally named Jernigan after Aaron Jernigan who came from Georgia and settled here in 1843,
Orlando grew slowly around an old Army post - Fort Gatlin - that had been abandoned in 1849.
The town's name was permanently changed to Orlando in 1857. While different versions of the
origin of the name are recounted, the official version gives credit to Orlando Reeves, a U.S.
soldier. Reeves was killed in 1835 by an American Indian's arrow while serving on sentinel duty at
what is now Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando. Another popular story is told through a
local judge – Judge Speer – who named the town after the Shakespeare character “Orlando” in the play “As You Like It.”
Cuba’s demand for beef cattle was the chief reason for Orlando’s growth in
the cattle industry prior to 1863. With the growth came widespread cattle rustling,
which led to street gunfights in downtown Orlando that were typical of the wild west.
The lawlessness within the cattle industry caused losses to mount quickly and cotton
became woven into Orlando’s early history as a means of making a living.
As more settlers began working the fields, the small community soon found itself
located in the middle of a large cotton plantation. Orlando’s cotton industry met
its doom, though, when the Civil War stole away the industry’s workforce and a
devastating hurricane in 1871 destroyed most of the crops. In addition, cotton
cloth was becoming more readily available in stores and homesteaders soon realized
that citrus trees were easier to grow and more profitable.
“Orange fever” took over in 1870, and Orlando’s residents began planting seeds in
the land that once yielded cotton. With the nation’s growing demand for grapefruit,
tangerines and oranges, coupled with the extension of the South Florida Railroad into
Central Florida in 1880, the citrus industry flourished. On July 21, 1875,
by a vote of 22 men from the 85 residents, the 2-square-mile (5.2-square-kilometer) city was officially incorporated.
From 1894-1895, a series of hard freezes hit Central Florida, destroying
95 percent of the citrus trees and severely damaging the citrus industry.
Known as The Great Freeze, it took 15 years for the industry to recover.
Citrus became a major agricultural industry in Orlando throughout most of
the first half of the 20th century. At its peak in the 1950s,
more than 80,000 acres (32,000 hectares) of citrus trees were thriving in Central Florida.
When the hard freezes devastated orange groves in 1895,
an industrious citrus grower, John B. Steinmetz, converted
his packing house into a skating rink, added picnic facilities and
a bathhouse and built a toboggan slide that spilled into Wekiva Springs.
His entertainment complex soon made Orlando an important leisure destination.
Orlando gradually expanded in the early 20th century as many homes
received electrical power. Cars appeared in Orlando in 1903 with a speed limit of 5 mph (8 km/h)!
In 1922, Orlando’s first airport opened to haul cargo. Soon after,
the Orlando Municipal Airport opened in 1928 and Orlando quietly contributed
to the war efforts both before and during World War II as it became one of the first
places to train bomber pilots in anticipation of the war.
At the end of the Second World War,
Pine Castle Airbase served as the site for top secret X-1 tests and as home to a Strategic
Air Command (SAC) unit in the 1950s. In 1956, a major turning point in Orlando’s
growth occurred when the Glenn L. Martin Company of Baltimore, Md. purchased 10.6 square
miles (27.4 square kilometers) of southern Orange County pasture and grove land,
and announced plans to build a missile factory. Martin Marietta became the area’s
largest employer. Today the company operates under the name of Lockheed Martin and
serves as the backbone of the area’s technology industry.
Orlando began taking steps toward becoming a world-class vacation and recreation
mecca when the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom opened its gates in 1971. SeaWorld Orlando
followed suit when it splashed open in 1973. Over the years, Walt Disney World Resort continued
to expand with the opening of Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom theme parks as well as
resorts, water parks and entertainment complexes. In 1990, Universal Studios Florida came onto the scene.
In 1999, Universal Orlando Resort opened a second park, Islands of Adventure, followed by the addition of
an entertainment complex, Universal CityWalk, and three hotels. In 2000, another major theme park,
Discovery Cove, held its grand opening and features a unique dolphin-swim experience.
While Orlando’s tourism industry made headlines with the development of
world-renowned theme parks, Orlando got on the fast track, becoming one
of the country’s leaders in the meetings and conventions industry.
Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center opened in 1983 with 147,510
square feet (13,275 square meters) of exhibition space and has grown to
more than 2.1 million square feet (189,000 square meters).
As well, Orlando’s hotels and cultural venues now offer more
than 2.9 million square feet (261,000 square meters) of meeting space.
More than 5.1 million convention and meetings attendees visited Orlando in 2003.
Orlando continues to grow, offering more than 95 attractions, 113,000 hotel rooms
and 5,100 restaurants, as well as the second largest convention center in the nation.
Tourism has become the leading industry for Central Florida with more than 44 million
visitors annually and an economic impact of $24.9 billion. The high-tech industry has
also become a large player in Central Florida’s economy, while the citrus industry still
plays a major role in the area’s success.