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Whether you are a sun and beach worshiper, theme-park aficionado, or lover of nature, Central Florida most definitely has something to tickle your fancy. From the cobblestone streets of historic St. Augustinethe nation's oldest cityon the Atlantic Ocean to the new Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World to the soft white sands of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Mexico, there's an adventure a minute in this 200-mile stretch across Florida's middle.
Orlando is at the heart of it all, home of ever-expanding gargantuan amusement parks that draw more than 37 million people to town every year. Walt Disney World is the country's top travel destination, with die-hard devotees returning again and again. just outside Orlando is the charming residential town of Winter Park, known for its shops and restaurants. International Drive and Kissimmee (and Highway 192, which connects it to Walt Disney World) offer accommodations to visitors exploring the area's theme parks.
Take a walk through working soundstages and seek excitement on the cutting-edge Twilight Zone Tower of Terror ride at Disney-MGM Studios theme park one day, then smell King Kong's banana breath or try to escape the grip of JAWS at Universal Studios Escape the next. And if you want to see real animals, two more world-class amusement parks are enticingSeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa.
East of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center beckons astronaut wannabes, and Daytona Beach just up the coast attracts race-car drivers, bikers, and college students on spring break. At the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp north of Orlando, a group of about 40 spiritualists welcomevisitors into their community (see "A Peek into Your Past and Future" on page 31). A little farther up the road near Orange City is Blue Spring State Park, a perfect place to spot the endangered manatee, a weed-eating mammal, in its winter refuge. Other natural areas include the scenic St. Johns River and Lake Kissimmee. And the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, one of the largest and most modern in the world, is the place to learn about Florida's underwater habitats.
The earliest known inhabitants of this diverse region were the Timucan Indians, whose aboriginal roots in the area date from 5000 BC. Although the tribe was extinct by 1777, it left many prominent reminders, especially along the coastline in the form of shell mounds. One is Turtle Mound, the tallest point of land on Central Florida's east coast, located inside the Canaveral National Seashore near New Smyrna Beach.
Europeans first came to North America in 1513, when Ponce de Leon immortalized himself by seeking the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine. Soon thereafter, the Spanish planted the first orange trees in the New World near St. Augustine. But it wasn't until 1768 that a serious attempt was made to farm the region. Dr. Andrew Turnbull of Scotland received a 60,000-acre land grant that extended from New Smyrna Beach to Cape Canaveral. He recruited 1,500 farmers from Turkey and Minorca to work his plantation, but Turnbull's brutal work policies and sporadic Indian raids convinced many farmers to flee to St. Augustine. The colony failed after 10 years.
Later plantations fared far better (Dr. Odet Philippe imported grapefruit from the Bahamas and planted Florida's first citrus groves in the Pinellas Peninsula in 1823) until the 1830s, when the US government decided to remove the Seminole Indians to Oklahoma. Many of the Seminole refused to leave their lands, prompting a series of three different wars in the area. During the Second Seminole War of 1835, the Seminole attacked all the plantations that were considered to be on tribal lands and burned and destroyed the major spreads. Even after three wars, the Seminole refused to sign a peace treaty and never surrendered. They are the only Native American tribe today that can make this claim. Most Seminole are currently found in the Everglades, although there is a sizable population around Ocala.
In the late 1800s, the coming of the railroad and the improved national transportation system opened up citrus shipping in the urban northeast. Central Florida had already experienced an increase in citrus production 30 years earlier after the end of the Civil War, when the commercialized citrus industry reached a level of about a million boxes. Ten years before the end of the 19th century, that figure jumped fivefold. With the new trains, citrus fruits were shipped throughout the country. Today, more than 12,000 citrus growers cultivate a record 103 million citrus trees on more than 853,000 acres of land in Florida, mostly in the central region of the state. More than 140,000 people work in the citrus or related industries, and the state trails only Brazil in global orange production, and leads the world in grapefruit. The industry generates more than $8 billion in economic activity in the state. Other important sources of income are tomatoes and other vegetables, sugarcane, tobacco, and cattle.
For an area that got such a late start in life, Orlando and Central Florida have more than made up for their years of isolation. Ever since Walt Disney World opened in 1971, Central Florida has added one high-tech attraction after another to make it the world's most sophisticated playground. It doesn't hurt that the weather here, as in Southern California, the home of the original Disney theme park, is attractive year-round.