Even given the relatively slim histories of Florida towns, Orlando is a notably young city. A rural farm town through most of the 19th century, the city didn’t really begin to take shape until after the Civil War, when citrus farming began in earnest in the area. Two legendary freezes in the winter of 1894 took out most of the area’s independent citrus growers, but ironically that disaster actually accelerated Orlando’s growth as a citrus-producing region.
Wealthy landowners like Dr. Philip Phillips not only took over the abandoned groves but implemented a number of industrial innovations in the packing and canning areas that allowed citrus from throughout Central Florida to be processed in Orlando. The growth of the citrus industry coincided with the first great Florida Land Boom in the early 20th century, and during that period, the city’s municipal facilities grew considerably with the addition of a large public library, a performing arts hall, and more.
In the 1950s, aerospace company Martin Marietta opened a plant in the Orlando area, complementing the air defense operations then based at McCoy Air Force Base (currently the site of Orlando International Airport), laying the groundwork for the region’s role in the technology and defense sectors, a role most profoundly exhibited by the presence on the coast of Cape Canaveral and NASA.
Of course, when the Walt Disney Company started buying up land south of Orlando in the mid-1960s for what would become Walt Disney World, Orlando was set on an entirely different path. Although the aerospace and engineering industry has quite a presence in the area, millions of tourists don’t flock to the city every year to watch missiles get designed.
Nonetheless, the Orlando that could have been is still very much a part of the city’s current makeup, and even if Disney had decided to build a park in Tampa or Tallahassee, the “City Beautiful” would likely still be one of Florida’s largest and most vibrant towns.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition