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Local historian looks at the unlikely story of Orlando’s emergence

A Q&A with Jim Clark, author of ‘Orlando, Florida: A Brief History’

Photo: Photos courtesy Jim Clark, License: N/A

Photos courtesy Jim Clark

Orange Avenue in Downtown Orlando in the 1930s

Photo: , License: N/A

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What surprised you most as you were putting this book together?
I was struck by how everyone who comes to Orlando these days has their hand out for government money, and the politicians nearly break their wrists anxiously writing checks. And yet the three people who changed the course of history in Orlando – Dr. P. Phillips, Disney and Martin – simply showed up and picked Orlando. The government had zero role. [Ed. note: Disney did get a sweet deal from the legislature in 1967 with the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, essentially giving the company the right to function as its own municipality.] Previous leaders were able to create a pro-business environment without handing out money. 
What do you imagine Orlando would be like today had Disney taken his vision somewhere else?
Lots of people have wondered about this. Orlando was well on its way toward becoming a center for finance and technology. The arrival of the space program brought the Martin Company and other high-technology companies. The citrus industry had created a number of fabulously wealth men and women who were investing in the area. Orlando would have become a regional hub for all of Central Florida and a transportation center. Darden Restaurants picked Orlando before Disney came. On the other hand, the scores of great restaurants and shopping at Mall at Millenia are here because of the tourists.

That makes it sound like Orlando might have been better off without Disney.
Better or worse depends on your point of view. We might still be one of the 10 or 15 largest cities, but more like a larger version of Lakeland, or a smaller Jacksonville. One thing people tend to forget is the impact of the theme parks on culture: Many of the actors and musicians performing in theaters and concert halls have full-time jobs at the theme parks.

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