Most Americans associate Orlando with vacation time. And why wouldn’t they? It is, after all, known as the “theme park capital of the world.” The metro area is home to Universal Orlando, Gatorland, and a little place called Walt Disney World. In fact, the City Beautiful has an attraction of some sort for just about everyone—including history buffs. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, impress everyone with these O-Town facts.
1. The city’s original name was “Jernigan.” Georgia native Aaron Jernigan (and his herd of 700 cattle) settled in the region in 1843. Jernigan built a cabin near Lake Holden, and around the property, a thriving community emerged. Sometime in the early 1850s, it was named after him.
2. Jernigan was renamed “Orlando” in September, 1857. Nobody knows why. Many believe that it was a tribute to Orlando Reeves, a soldier who was supposedly killed there by a Seminole warrior. And then you’ve got the bard theory. Judge J.S. Speer was a big player in the founding of Orange County, Florida. According to folklore, he was also an avid Shakespeare buff. Supposedly, Speer pushed to replace “Jernigan” with the moniker of the character from As You Like It.
3. The Hard Rock Café restaurant chain, which was founded in London, is headquartered on Old Park Lane.
4. When Walt Disney decided to build a theme park east of the Mississippi, he soon realized that central Florida, with its dirt-cheap swampland, would be the perfect locale. Greater Orlando was chosen because it was where the Florida turnpike crossed Interstate 4 (which hadn’t been finished yet) and there was a sizable airport in town. Walt Disney World had its grand opening on October 1, 1971.
5. Spaceship Earth—the golf ball-shaped centerpiece of Disney's Epcot Center—measures 165 feet in diameter and weighs 16 million pounds.
Part of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) was shot at Gatorland, a 110-acre Orlando wildlife center and theme park. As the name implies, it’s home to hundreds of alligators—including four ultra-rare leucistic gators. Visitors can also check out a petting zoo, aviary, and zip line.
7. Here’s another fact for you movie buffs. Orlando has had three City Halls in its history, the second of which was demolished in 1991. Beforehand, Warner Brothers received special permission to film the six-second implosion. Their footage was later edited into the opening of Lethal Weapon 3 (1992).
8. Walt Disney World estimates that, since 1971, a staggering 1.65 million pairs of sunglasses have been handed over to its “lost and found” department. More than 6000 cell phones are turned in every year as well.
9. “I am not a crook” is probably Richard Nixon’s most famous statement. Denying any involvement with the Watergate scandal, Tricky Dick blurted out this line on November 17, 1973. Of all places, he was at a press conference inside Disney World’s Contemporary Hotel when he said it.
Orlando has several nicknames (including O-Town), but the best-known has to be “The City Beatiful.” In 1908, Orlando adopted this as its motto. Unfortunately, this isn’t a very unique title. Coral Gables—another Florida city—has been using this same slogan since 1933 and actually tried to trademark it in 2006. Incensed, Orlando blocked their claim. After much negotiating, the two cities made a geographic compromise. Orlando now has the exclusive right to advertise itself as “The City Beautiful” in 22 nearby counties. Meanwhile, Coral Gables exerts this same power over 10 other counties in south Florida.
11. Every so often, the NBA’s Orlando Magic hype up fans with their “dancing dancer dads”—a groundbreaking squad that consists entirely of men who are the fathers of former or current Magic cheerleaders.
In May of 1981, the Orlando suburb of Winter Park received a dubious distinction. Over several days, a sinkhole swallowed up a three-bedroom home, five Porsches, and parts of two different streets. When it finally stopped growing, the thing had become 75 feet deep by 350 feet wide. Geologist Jim Jammal later said that this was “the largest sinkhole event witnessed by man as a result of natural geological reasons or conditions.”
13. Oakland A’s manager Billy Beane was born in Orlando on March 29, 1962. His statistics-driven approach to scouting became the subject of Moneyball by Michael Lewis and an Oscar-nominated, 2012 bigscreen adaptation.
14. Orlando is home to what’s billed as the world’s “largest entertainment McDonald’s.” A 19,000 square-foot marvel, it boasts more than 50 arcade games and a children’s jungle gym that stands 20 feet high.
15. The Backstreet Boys were officially founded in Orlando on April 20, 1993. By the way, they named themselves after the city’s Backstreet Market—a long-gone flea market where the singers used to hang out.
Think of him as the ballooning world’s Charles Lindbergh. Though he was born in Tampa, Joseph Kittinger grew up in the Orlando area. In 1984, he became the first hot air balloon pilot to complete a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Kittinger took off in Caribou, Maine, on September 14. Eighty-six hours later, his helium vessel touched down in Montenotte, Italy.
17. O-Town’s signature landmark once survived a lightning strike. Finished in 1957, the UFO-shaped Linton E. Allen Memorial Fountain is now part of a regular music and light show. Misfortune, well, struck when a bolt of lightning severely damaged the fountain in 2009. It was fixed and rededicated (at a cost of $1.6 million) on July 4, 2011.
18. The Orange County Convention Center is America’s second biggest. At 2,100,000 square feet, it’s exceeded in size only by Chicago’s huge McCormick Place [PDF].
19. In 2014, 62 million vacationers decided to visit O-Town. This made Orlando the first destination in U.S. history to receive more than 60 million tourists within a single year.
20. Tourism wasn’t always Orlando’s claim to fame. Historically, the city has long been associated with the citrus trade. In the mid-1950s, greater Orlando produced 40 percent of Florida’s famous oranges. Yet, by 1990, that number had plummeted to just 6 percent. Many factors helped spur the local citrus industry’s decline—including the rise of Disney World and a stretch of harsh winters in the 1980s.
21. A relatively unassuming home in Orlando's College Park neighborhood has become a must-see for fans of Jack Kerouac. The author lived there from 1957 to 1958, around the time On the Road was first published. Today, the Kerouac Project of Orlando hosts four writers-in-residence at the cottage annually. (Applications for 2016-2017 are closed, but you can learn more about how to become one on their website.)
Orlando wasn’t incorporated as a city until 1875. Its population at the time? Eighty-five. Only 22 of these residents were eligible to vote back then.
23. The first female state senator in Florida’s history was a Pennsylvania native by the name of Elizabeth “Beth” Johnson. Originally from Pennsylvania, she moved to Orlando in 1937. Before her election to the state senate, she chaired the city's first municipal planning board.
24. An 8-foot Statue of Liberty replica keeps an eye out for huddled masses by Lake Ivanhoe. Adored by visitors and townies alike, she was donated to the city by the Boy Scouts of America in 1953 as a replacement for a large concrete sculpture that had been defaced.
25. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando serves some absolutely delicious butterbeer. Corporate executive chef Steven Jayson spent three years working on the recipe. Before it went public, J.K. Rowling herself was invited to taste the finished product, and apparently loved his brew. Ten points for Jayson.