Orlando History

History of Orlando

Orlando's history goes back many years before Walt Disney arrived in town.

It has saddened me for years that most of the millions of tourists who visit the central Florida theme parks each year have never seen the real Orlando.

Walt Disney World, for example, is almost 20 miles west of downtown Orlando, Florida.

International Drive, Lake Buena Vista, Osceola County and the area around the theme parks have expanded to cater to tourists. But not the real Orlando, Florida.

They have appeared very recently in Orlando's history.

Orlando's modern history dates back to 1838 and the Second Seminole War. The U.S. Army built Fort Gatlin southeast of present-day downtown Orlando to protect settlers from Indians.

In 1840, a small village known as Jernigan grew up around the fort. The name came from the Jernigan family, the first settlers in the area.

By 1850, Jernigan had a post office and by 1856 the community expanded to the north and changed his name to Orlando. In 1857, the US Post Office adopted the name change.

The city of Orlando was incorporated in 1875 with 85 residents, 22 of whom were qualified voters.


As for the part of Orlando's history that is still hazy: where did the name come from?

I know at least five versions about how the city became known as Orlando.

  1. One of the first politicians, the Judge SpeerHe named the town after a man named Orlando, who worked for him.
  2. The same Judge Speer was a fan of Shakespeare and named the town after Orlando, a character from the play "As You Like It".
  3. A man named Orlando was passing through on his way to Tampa with a herd of oxen. He became ill and died. The villagers buried him, and people referred to the place as "there's Orlando".
  4. Orlando Reeves was an American soldier on sentry duty one night during the Seminole Wars. He spotted a disguised Indian sneaking up on the troops and fired his gun to alert his fellow soldiers. He was killed by arrows by the Indian, but his warning saved the troops. They buried him on the south side of Lake Eola, where downtown Orlando is today.
  5. A man named Orlando Reeves owned a sugar mill and plantation north of Orlando, where today is Volusia County. He carved his name into a tree near what is now Lake Eola. Later settlers assumed that the tree was a tomb. Their speculation as to the origin of the carving led to several accounts of Seminole War battles, and the area around the tree became known as "Orlando's Tomb" or simply "Orlando".

The citizens of Orlando have their own favorite version. Recently, I heard from Carolyn Pangborna descendant of Judge Speer. She provided historical references that lead me to believe that it was the judge who invented the name.

The name was apt because Orlando's history since the end of the Seminole Wars has been one of steady growth.

Just before the Civil War, Orlando became the seat of the newly created Orange County. It was a quiet country town during the war, but had a population explosion in the years 1875 to 1895.


In that 20-year period, Orlando became the center of Florida's citrus industry.

The "Big Freeze" of 1894-1895 forced many smallholders to give up their orchards. Owners of larger orchards increased their holdings and they became "citrus barons.

Many of them have bought land and expanded their operations south of Orlando, in the area around Lake Wales.

The town of Frostproof south of Lake Wales did not earn its name by chance.

Orlando, as the largest inland city in Florida, became a popular resort during the years between the Spanish-American War and the First World War.


The Florida Land Boom affected Orlando in the 1920s. Land prices skyrocketed. Many magnificent tourist facilities, such as the elegant Hotel San Juanwere built during those heady years.

During this period, many neighborhoods near downtown Orlando were developed. The many small bungalows that still exist in these areas are part of Orlando's history and a key component of the city's charm.


There was a lot of military activity in Orlando before, during and after the World War IIl. The municipal airport north of Lake Underhill was converted into the Orlando Army Air Base.

A new airport was built 10 miles south of Orlando to replace the municipal airport. It was quickly converted into Pine Castle Air Force Base and eventually became the McCoy Air Force Base. It is now the site of the vastly expanded Orlando International Airport.

After the war, many of the military men and women stayed to settle and raise families in Orlando, "The City Beautiful".



In 1956, Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin)built a major aerospace defense manufacturing plant south of Orlando on Kirkman Road. It became a major employer in the Orlando area.

In addition to jobs in Martin MariettaOrlando is close enough to Patrick Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and the Kennedy Space Center that residents can commute to work from Orlando's eastern suburbs.

The Beachline Expressway allows easy access to Port Canaveral, a major cruise ship terminal.

Because of its proximity to the Space Coast near the Kennedy Space Center, many high-tech companies have moved to the Orlando area.

Here is a promotional video from the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce was promoting growth in Orlando. If you were here at that time, you will remember the scenes with nostalgia.

The Chamber of Commerce was successful in helping Orlando grow, but little did they know what was waiting to happen in the late 1960s in the area 17 miles southwest of the city known as Lake Buena Vista.


The biggest thing that ever happened to Orlando, however, was when Walt Disney announced in 1965 that he was going to build Walt Disney World near Orlando.

Those who started working at Walt Disney World in 1968 saw firsthand the changes that took place in Orlando, Florida: some good, some bad.

Walt Disney World opened in October 1971.

O tourismThe high-tech industry and agriculture has become a major part of Orlando's economy. Today we are starting to see technology companies coming to Orlando.

The population has exploded since then, and now there are probably as many jobs in services in the tourism industry as there are in high-tech jobs.

Orlando in Florida now has more theme parks and entertainment attractions than anywhere else in the world.

What was once a sleepy little town shared with McCoy Air Force Base is now the giant Orlando International Airport.

When the Walt Disney World was being built, the tallest building in Orlando, Florida, was the 10-story Angebilt Hotel, shown on the postcard above.

Now there are buildings of up to 35 stories in the center.

It's simple to enjoy Orlando's history. Just drive away from Walt Disney World and the other theme parks and head toward the true Orlando.

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