Lake Eola Fountain to the east of Downtown Orlando. Photo taken February 18, 2008.
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Much of the Orlando economy is based upon tourism and the major theme parks that call the area home. These include Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Sea World, etc. Additionally International Drive and the area Convention Centers bring a bounty of visitors to the area along with the tropical type climate that appeals to winter snowbirds.
Before 1950, Orlando was not much different from other wintering locations along the Dixie Highway including Sanford, Winter Park, DeLand. Expansion of the military operations at McCoy and PineCastle Air Force Bases in conjunction with a missile program based in Orlando began the inexorable growth that continues today. As the military presence and role in the local economy decreased, tourism starting with the opening of Walt Disney World in southwest Orange County, took over as the main conduit of money making in central Florida. This trend continues today with tens of thousands of new homes continuing to be added to the metro.
Central Florida General History
During the early part of the settlement of Florida, most development took place in the Northern part of the state. The peninsula remained an untamed land populated by Indians, swampland, and alligators. The first settlers filtered in from the north, and settled areas around Tampa Bay and Cape Canaveral. With the coming on the railroads in the mid-19th century, the population increased and agriculture was the main industry. Railroads carried tropical goods from ports like Tampa north. Most of the roads built in the 1800s were for getting goods from inland agricultural regions to these ports and railroads. Other roads were built in response to threats from Indians. Mule trails followed older Indian trails between the forts built by the military to combat Indians. Interstate 4 follows such a trail from Sanford to Tampa.
Serious development and population growth did not occur until the first 30 years of the 20th century. Developers began purchasing land and building model communities, suited towards retiring northerners and tourists alike. Florida soon realized that its prosperity would be tied directly to its transportation facilities and was one of the earlier parts of the country to begin developing road networks on a large scale. The most important road in this early development phase was the Dixie Highway, which connected Florida to the Midwestern US. In Florida, the Dixie Highway was 9 feet wide and paved almost entirely with bricks, a substantial engineering feat at the time. At about the same time, the new US Highway system provided good road connections with the peninsula to the rest of the country. US 27 followed the hilly, central spine of the state, US 1 followed the eastern shore, and US 17 followed an old military road connecting forts.
The road system was considered adequate until after WW2, when the boom in population and increased tourism required a new type of road. Something limited access, paved, and high speed to get tourists south as quickly as possible. In order to accommodate these needs, the Florida’s Turnpike Authority was created in 1953. The first segment of the turnpike was built in 1957 along a route from Miami to Fort Pierce. The first portion of the route was agreed upon by nearly everyone, but the second part of the road created controversy. It was generally thought that the second portion of the turnpike would continue eastward up the coast to Titusville, Daytona, and Jacksonville. However, Orlando area civic leaders Billy Dial and Martin Andersen used their positions (Dial was on the state road board) to have the turnpike routed westward. Some east coast residents were also worried a turnpike up the coast would compete with US 1. This sentiment continued into the 1970s and delayed the completion of parts of I-95. The turnpike would continue through Orlando to end at a virtually unknown locale called Wildwood. The second portion of the turnpike was completed in 1964, it would not be until later that year when the turnpike was connected to I-75.
Central Florida saw another boom with the construction of the Kennedy Space Center in the 1960s, and with it new population and traffic concerns. To address these, the Orlando Expressway Authority was created in 1963. The organization would administer the new expressways in the area, to be financed by tolls. The first regional toll road, the Beeline Expressway, opened in 1967 and connected Interstate 4 with Cape Canaveral.
Interstate 4, originally planned in 1956, was built to connect Daytona Beach and Tampa, and would provide a quick way for travelers heading to the west coast of Florida from the Northern US. Although a short road by interstate standards, I-4 is much more important to Florida than its length would imply. For it was during the construction of the I-4/Turnpike Interchange in 1964 that Walt Disney flew over in his Beechcraft and exclaimed “this is it!”. The construction of Disney World in the 1960’s provided a catalyst for central Florida that resulted in massive population and tourism growth.
Many thanks to Justin Cozart for the background information about Central Florida. This information was originally posted on TropicalTurnpikes.com and is reproduced with permission by Justin Cozart.