When people think of the most visited places in America, the answers often include global cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But since 2014, the most visited U.S. city is a different kind of world center — the theme park capital of the world. Orlando drew 75.7 million visitors in 2019, marking the sixth consecutive year the city home to Walt Disney World Resort attracted more tourists than New York City.
“I live in Orlando, but this is not what you would have considered a world city before,” said Carissa Baker, assistant professor of theme park and attractions management with the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “It’s not Los Angeles. It’s not New York. It has a much smaller population. So it’s almost incredible to see the success theme parks have brought to the city.”
Orlando Before Disney
Orlando’s history dates back to 1838, when the U.S. Army established Fort Gatlin during the Second Seminole War in an area surrounding three lakes: Lake Gem Mary, Lake Jennie Jewel and Lake Gatlin, according to the Florida Department of State. This area lies a few miles east of where the Mall at Millenia stands today.
A few soldiers and families remained in the area after the war ended in 1842 and the Army withdrew from the fort in 1849.
A decade later, in 1856, Fort Gatlin would become the county seat of Orange County, which was created from a larger county called Mosquito County, according to the state department.
Its name would change to Orlando, a name some historians attribute to the legend of a soldier named Orlando Reeves who was killed after warning troops in his camp that Native American soldiers arrived in disguise. But there’s no proof that the skirmish occurred or that Reeves even existed.
Primarily bolstered by the agriculture industry and the military in its early history, Orlando was a popular destination even before Walt Disney began buying and developing land there. In describing the development of Interstate 4, the Florida Department of Transportation mentioned a traffic study that found about 195,000 vehicle trips per day took place in and out of Orlando and Winter Park in 1954.
“We had cattle, fishing, and we had roadside amusements,” Baker said. “It wasn’t the same kind of tourism (as Disney World).”
Teresa Jacobs, a former Orange County mayor, recalled discovering through a former staffer’s genealogy project that before Disney World’s development, the county had a tourism advisory council aimed at drawing visitors to Lake Eola, the centerpiece of Orlando’s downtown corridor.
While the lake is a draw for its natural and skyline views, special events and its population of swans, it’s not an attraction by the county’s current standards, she said.
“Somebody’s goal at that time was to have tourism come to Orlando,” Jacobs said. “They had no idea what was to come.”
Building a Theme Park Capital
Central Florida tourism in the years immediately following World War II wasn’t on the scale of Disney World, but did attract high enough traffic to necessitate infrastructure improvements.
As fate would have it, those improvements — a second phase of Florida’s Turnpike extending from Orlando to Wildwood completed in 1964, and the first stretch of Interstate 4 that debuted the following year — would ultimately draw Disney to Orlando.
While Orlando did have a marquee attraction in the wildlife and amusement park Gatorland, which first opened in 1949, other theme parks required a longer drive from where the Magic Kingdom stands today. Cypress Gardens, a key influence on Disney World, was about 40 miles southwest in Winter Haven. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay was about 80 miles away.
But Cypress Gardens and Busch Gardens didn’t command the pull of international tourists that Disney World does, Baker said.
And without Disney World, its competitors likely wouldn’t have given Orlando a chance.
The years that Disney laid down the foundation for his theme park empire were also when another man, an attorney named Finley Hamilton, began developing another component of Orlando’s infrastructure important to its tourism industry, International Drive.
The tourist corridor located about 15 miles from the Magic Kingdom attracted 14.8 million visitors in 2018, representing about 20% of the city’s tourist visits, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said in his 2020 State of I-Drive Address.
Hamilton developed the road to service a Hilton hotel he operated, thinking it would attract people coming to Orlando for Disney World, Demings said. People expected International Drive to fail and critics called it “Finley’s Folly.”
“But, they couldn’t have been more wrong,” Demings said.
Two of Disney World’s most significant theme park competitors, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando, are located on this strip.
So are a wealth of restaurants, hotels, shops and secondary attractions that compete for the attention of Disney visitors.
“Adding a touch of magic made (Orlando) known as a worldwide destination where people really thought of Florida a lot more and Disney, Orlando and Florida just became so well known throughout the country,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at UCF.
The Path to Most Visited
Despite Disney World’s success, Baker thinks Central Florida’s evolution would come later. It was as early as the late 1990s when the region became what she describes as “an unmissable, world-class destination.”
That period was when Disney added its fourth theme park, Animal Kingdom, and Universal added its second, Islands of Adventure.
But theme parks and their attractions would evolve further in the coming decades as places that bring their favorite movies and television shows to life, including “Star Wars” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and “Avatar” at Animal Kingdom.
In fact, Pandora — The World of Avatar, which opened in 2017, propelled Animal Kingdom from Disney World’s fourth-most visited park in 2006 to its second-most visited each year since 2017, according to the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual theme park attendance reports.
Pre-pandemic, Orlando drew 75.7 million visitors in 2019, including more than 69 million domestic travelers and about 6.5 million international travelers, according to Visit Orlando.
Central Florida likely would have experienced growth without Disney World, but as a midsized city like Lakeland as opposed to a larger metropolitan area, Jewett said.
And amenities that support Orlando’s tourism and economy beyond theme parks, like the Amway Center and Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, wouldn’t have been possible without tourist development taxes from theme park visitors, Jacobs said.
Baker thinks theme parks have a nationwide and worldwide pull that draws people to Orlando because they offer compelling and immersive entertainment experiences based on characters and stories that are beloved around the world.
“There’s something in this form of entertainment that appeals to people,” Baker said. “The proof is in the pudding when they look at the revenues — people love this form of entertainment.”