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What Was Orlando Like Before Disney World?

How did the construction of Walt Disney World transform a Central Florida swamp into one of the world’s major economic hubs?

Walt Disney World and the city of Orlando have become all but synonymous in the consciousness of the American public, but Walt Disney’s almost-larger-than-life ambition to turn what was essentially swamp land into a major amusement park created nothing short of an economic revolution for that slice of Central Florida. 

What actually existed pre-Disney World was stereotypical rural Florida: lurking alligators, mangled flatlands, and sinkholes. However, according to National Geographic Magazine, Walt Disney’s choice of location for his park was economically brilliant. Walt Disney understood that landowners would sell this agriculturally useless land with muggy summers and winters sometimes harsh enough to kill crops for extremely low prices. 

This murky swampland surrounding Orlando, experienced massive economic growth, which occurred in parallel to the growth of the amusement park. Resorts, stores, and restaurants sprung up to cater to tourists and newly-relocated employees alike. Orlando’s population grew from 560,000 the year Disney World opened in 1971 to 1.2 million in 1990. The population of the Orlando metropolitan area now approaches 2.5 million, and the Orlando International Airport, for example, is now the 41st busiest airport in the world. 

However, the rising economic influence of Disney World only signifies a larger issue. Disney World represents a sharp contrast from the world around it. Only one year ago, a child was pulled into a lagoon and drowned by an alligator beside a Walt Disney World hotel. Disney World has only been semi-successful in creating an artificial world to try and deny its swampy, Floridian nature.

Sure, Orlando has become this place of mass development, but it still doesn’t serve as a model for improving the economic lot of people living in places like the rural South. This localized area of economic growth has failed to spread its prosperity to other parts of inland Florida and has almost become a striking example of concentrated and almost insular economic opportunity. 

Orlando’s striking growth exemplifies the lack of economic opportunity in other parts of Florida that need it. For example the unemployment rate  in Orange County, Florida where most of Disney World is located stands at 3.5% as opposed to say 4.9% in another county in inland Florida, Putnam County. Orlando, which houses Disney World, albeit a multi-billion dollar industry, is an anomaly for the rest of the inland South. Without the introduction of transformative economic catalysts like amusement parks, sports teams, and major cultural centers, what can be done to put geographically inhospitable and economically quiet areas onto the world map? But after all, for the residents of some of these rural counties, perhaps they would prefer simply to continue life as usual. 

Ashley Wang is a student at Rutgers University. 

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