As I mentioned in Part 1 of Ken’s interview, Ken’s knowledge of Orlando runs quite deep. In this part of the interview, Ken shows off that knowledge by delving into the “Orlando decade” of the 1990s. Let’s get right to it:
You talk about the 1990’s as not just the “Disney Decade” but as the “Orlando Decade”. Have you observed similar, wide spread growth over the past 10–15 years?
The 1990s were a very special time for Orlando. It wasn’t just the growth but the evolution of a small town into a global epicenter of entertainment. The 1990s growth slowed down dramatically post–9/11 and then all but stopped during the Great Recession. The 2000s growth was crazy but, unlike the 1990s growth, many of the plans never saw the light of day. I honestly felt very uncomfortable during the Recession, it was scary not seeing cranes in the skyline. It was odd passing empty fields that remained that way for seemingly years. It was very different.
I would actually say the growth we see now is more off property than on it. The 1990s (well 1989–1998) saw Disney World open 2 theme parks, 2 water parks, 11 resorts and major expansions to retail throughout the resort. Universal opened in 1989 causing major investments in that area of town. A lot of the focus during the 1990s was on the Big Three. We saw I-Drive and 192 open many hotels during that same time period but most of the focus was on Orlando coming to grips with it being a major global player. Most of the other growth in the region was new residents. By some estimates I’ve heard pre-recession Orange County saw 1,000 new residents per week move in.
The growth we see now is different because we now understand that this is a ‘big city’ and we will need to address the issues that arise (like homelessness, traffic, sustained growth, etc) in ways that big cities address them. Right now we currently have a metro population that’s comparable to Cincinnati or San Antonio but on top of the regular population we now have over a million tourists a week visit. The leaders (and residents) seemed easier to amaze in the 1990s with promises of cool buildings, new homes and increased tax bases. Now we’ve all grown up some, now we know what questions to ask and understand that not all development is good development.
I think that places like Gatorland do find it harder to exist in today’s ‘big city’ Orlando. Partly due to the increase in on-site offerings and due in part to the sophisticated tourist Orlando now attracts. The mom and pop tourist who drive in from the mid-Atlantic have given way to international tourist, tour groups and others who expect something more. When you pay thousands of dollars to fly here and stay here you expect more. That shift to flying also means a smaller percent of tourists have their own vehicles which make things like Gatorland harder to access. MCO is still the #1 car rental location in the world but even so many tourists are afraid to tackle the large, always crowded road network that has emerged around Orlando over the past 20 years.
I’m hopeful the shift to mass transit in the region will help tourist rediscover places like Park Ave, Mt Dora and downtown Kissimmee. I’m less hopeful places like Jungle Adventure can survive the shifts in demographics and travel patterns of the modern Orlando tourist. Gatorland is lucky as it sits next door to property being developed for a Phase 2 SunRail station (the Tupperware station), so while it would be a bit of a hike it will be accessible from rail transit.
Overall the growth we see now seems less magical, less over the top. Its more of in-fill, more of growth for things that are needed. I mean the Planet Hollywood building, the OCCC, the announcement to make Universal into a huge resort complex with 3 hotels and a 2nd theme park- we don’t see that type of growth today. What we see now is enhancements to the existing structures of the city. The exception to that might be Lake Nona but even that isn’t that odd when compared to things like Celebration. It’s not as ground breaking. Even UCF’s growth has become a bit common place at this point. That’s not to say any of this growth isn’t great, it’s just not a shocking as it was when it first really started to crank up. I honestly don’t know what could be announced for the area that would be as large as the developments in the 1990s. Luckily though we now know how to better sustain the growth and not completely pave over the natural environment that we were so quick to dismiss during that 1990’s growth.
Thanks again to Ken for taking time to put together such a comprehensive breakdown of Orlando’s “present.” We’ll be taking a look at Orlando’s future, tomorrow.