March 6th, 2007


Posted in Demographics, Society and Culture, United States by Christopher DeWolf


New development in Orlando. Photo by David Burnett

“Everything happening to America today is happening here,” writes T.D. Allman in the latest issue of National Geographic. He’s talking about Orlando, the sprawling urban region in Central Florida that is most famously home to Disney World. For Allman, Orlando represents the next generation of American cities, a vast and diffuse cornubation that is truly a manufactured landscape. His article is an intriguing and unsettling look at the future of urban America.

Allman starts by sketching a brief history of Disney World, without which, a local saying goes, “the Orlando region would be called Ocala, a rival town up the road.” It is a history as murky as the water in Orlando’s sludge-filled lakes, made possible by a “sweetheart deal with the state legislature” that places the Magic Kingdom “above and beyond the law.” State safety inspectors cannot examine Disney’s rides and the people who live on Disney’s property—in the faux-historic subdivision of Celebration, or in time-share condos—have no say in how it is managed. Everything about Disney World is carefully designed and controlled, a legacy of Walt Disney’s consternation over the dreary suburban landscape of motels and strip malls that quickly engulfed his original Disneyland in California.

Visiting or living in the Magic Kingdom is an experience beyond reality. In a way, the same can be said of Orlando. Allman certainly makes his case. “The most telling theme park in Orlando isn’t even Disney’s,” he writes.

SeaWorld is populated with sharks and whales plucked from the ocean and transported 50 miles (80 kilometers) inland. (Marineland, Florida’s original aquatic attraction on the Atlantic coast, is a fossil of its former self.) Every year, hundreds of thousands of people drive down the Atlantic coast of Florida and turn inland to visit America’s premier saltwater attraction. SeaWorld bespeaks the essence of Orlando, a place whose specialty is detaching experience from context, extracting form from substance, and then selling tickets to it.

In this place of exurban, postmodern pioneers, the range of choices is vast even when the choices themselves are illusory. Here life is truly a style: You don’t want to live in a mass-produced, instant “community”? No problem. Orlando’s developers, like the producers of instant coffee, offer you a variety of flavors, including one called Tradition. Structurally it may seem identical to all the others. Only instead of vaguely Mediterranean ornamental details, the condos at Tradition have old colonial finishes. In Orlando’s lively downtown, it’s possible to live in a loft just as you would in Chicago or New York. But these lofts are brand-new buildings constructed for those who want the postindustrial lifestyle in a place that never was industrial.

Orlando’s bright lights are not the garish displays of Las Vegas or the proud power logos of New York. Instead, Orlando glimmers with the familiar signage of franchise America: Denny’s, Burger King, Quality Inn, Hampton Inn, Hertz. Orlando also leads in the culinary transformation of the exotic into the familiar. From its Orlando headquarters, the Darden Corporation, the city’s first Fortune 500 company, mass-markets theme foods. It standardizes the output of Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens everywhere.

All over Orlando you see forces at work that are changing America from Fairbanks to Little Rock. This, truly, is a 21st-century paradigm: It is growth built on consumption, not production; a society founded not on natural resources, but upon the dissipation of capital accumulated elsewhere; a place of infinite possibilities, somehow held together, to the extent it is held together at all, by a shared recognition of highway signs, brand names, TV shows, and personalities, rather than any shared history. Nowhere else is the juxtaposition of what America actually is and the conventional idea of what America should be more vivid and revealing.

Welcome to the theme-park nation.

Orlando, of course, is also the birthplace of the mega-church, a kind of religious and commercial enterprise that is, Allman writes, “the culmination … of the integration of religious practice into the freeway-driven, market-savvy, franchise form of American life.” In Orlando, even going to Sunday service is an act of artifice, a weekly trip to Jesusland. (During the rest of the week, Orlando’s devout can visit The Holy Land Experience, a Christian theme park where Jesus is crucified and resurrected every day—with music!)

It might be tempting to dismiss Orlando as some Middle American backwater, a refuge from complexity and cosmopolitanism. But that would be doing Orlando an injustice, because this is, in many ways, a very complex and cosmopolitan urban region. Allman explains:

Today Orlando is a cauldron of all the communal characteristics Disney sought to control. In its Parramore district, you can stock up on crack, meth, and angel dust. According to the Morgan Quitno research firm, in 2006 it joined such cities as Detroit and St. Louis to become one of the 25 most dangerous cities in America. The result is armed guards at the gates of “communities” where entry is solely by invitation. The Orlando area also has one of the highest pedestrian death rates among the largest metro regions in the country. Four decades after Disney’s fateful flyover, Orlando is a place of enormous vitality, diversity, ugliness, discord, inventiveness, possibility, and disappointed hopes, where no clown in a character costume can tell people how to live, let alone where to park.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 2, 2005, thousands in Orlando got a shock when they turned on their car radios for the drive home. The Supremes had been banished; Kenny Rogers had been given the boot. Without warning or explanation, FM 100.3, Orlando’s famous “golden oldies” station (known as the Big 100s), had vanished. Rumba 100.3, new home of central Florida’s hottest Latin sounds, had taken its place. To oldies fans, it was as though Hispanics with boomboxes had somehow gotten inside the car.

The incident provides a defining parable of Orlando today. Twenty-five years ago, Orlando seemed a safe haven to those seeking to avoid the immigrants pouring into Miami and reshaping life all over the country. “Will the last American to leave please bring the flag?” the saying went. But as the sudden death of the Big 100s demonstrated, Miami was a forecast, not an aberration. Today there are about 400,000 Hispanics in the Orlando area—20 percent of its entire population.


Orlando is as multicultural as New York, and as much in the throes of globalization as any import-export center. Its growth has brought people speaking more than 70 languages to central Florida. Kissimmee, south of Orlando and just east of Disney World, has gone from being a cowboy town to mostly Hispanic in less than ten years. The tentacles of diversity have penetrated Disney World too. Few tourists realize it, but when their kids hug Goofy and Minnie they might be embracing low-wage workers from places like Sri Lanka and the Dominican Republic.

Go to Cypress Creek High and Meadow Woods Middle School, and you see the human complexity in the eyes of its students. The sky was streaked dawn pink as I headed out to the moving edge of Orlando. Fifteen miles (24 kilometers) southwest of downtown, I reached the latest spot where central Florida’s population explosion has turned wilderness into tract housing overnight. If the moon were ever settled, this is how it would be done. Whole neighborhoods, consisting of hundreds of houses, arrived here instantly. So have the people who live in them.

Demographically, these two schools match the Orlando area. Here both whites and blacks are in the minority; “other” is the dominant ethnicity. I picked them because they are typical schools, but when I visited I found something extraordinary—two places where more than 8,000 students and teachers were finding new ways to learn, and new ways to live together.

At Cypress Creek and Meadow Woods, great events are not just things these kids and their teachers see on TV. They impinge on people’s lives. At Cypress Creek, the assistant principal, Vanessa Colon Schaefer, was still putting her life back together after more than a year in Iraq. When her National Guard unit was sent there, she left a gap in the life of her daughter, and of this school. Kids from nearly 200 countries study at the two schools. “Normally they shout out their countries when I ask them,” says Chuck Rivers, the principal at Meadow Woods. “But one time a little boy just whispered. When I asked him again, he kept whispering, so I bent down to hear him. He whispered ‘Iraq’ in my ear.” Rivers adds, with no false sentimentality, “They’re all my kids.”

I talk to students from Colombia, Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Korea, China, the Philippines, Iran, Russia, Slovakia, and India—and I’ve just begun to plumb the mutations. “My mother is from Germany,” one little girl says, “and my father is from Madagascar.” Diversity is not an objective, or a program, or a lifestyle here. It is life.


High school students at Cypress Creek High. Photo by David Burnett

All of this reminds me of what Joel Kotkin likes to say about the centre of American vitality being in places like Fresno and Las Vegas rather than outdated “ephemeral cities” like San Francisco. There is no doubt that Orlando is brimming with economic dynamism and human energy—but for what? What will it come to? Will Orlando ever be anything more than a city of theme parks, an empty landscape of lifestyle bubbles and the hollow spaces in between?


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