Old Orlando The City Beautiful’s not all theme parks and bustle. Discover the old—and quite haunted—southern town that’s still there. Features
Features  |   August 01, 2014
Old Orlando
Author Notes
  • Gary Dunham, PhD, is ASHA publications director and editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. gdunham@asha.org
    Gary Dunham, PhD, is ASHA publications director and editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. gdunham@asha.org×
Article Information
Swallowing, Dysphagia & Feeding Disorders / Features
Features   |   August 01, 2014
Old Orlando
The ASHA Leader, August 2014, Vol. 19, 40-44. doi:10.1044/leader.ACC2.19082014.40
The ASHA Leader, August 2014, Vol. 19, 40-44. doi:10.1044/leader.ACC2.19082014.40
In early summer evenings across the Deep South, the old folks gather in rocking chairs on broad, wooden porches to catch a stray breeze, gossip and remember. Most often, the chitchat’s about the day’s this-and-that, but … as the shadows stretch and twist, and if someone’s in a rarefied mood, the telling can get interesting.
“People say that a guest in Room 206 in the Super 8 never left,” one woman shudders. “They claim his ghost climbs out of bed, making it shake. The sink comes on by itself.” She shifts nervously.
Another woman grimaces and snorts. “What about that cemetery way over on Rouse Road? I hear people tell there’s an angry ghost, all dressed up in old-fashioned work clothes, who’s buried in an unmarked grave there.” She stares out into the growing twilight and sighs. “Brrr. That place can get downright disturbing after dark.”
A grizzled man to her left nods and murmurs, “Sounds as bad as the old Sunland Hospit—”
“Let’s not talk about that place,” a man at the far end of the porch snaps, slapping his thighs. “Definitely. Not. That.”
Everyone rocks a bit faster.
Welcome, ASHA convention-goer, to Orlando.
No, really.
Peel away the Mouse, half a century of glitzy trappings, and there’s the Deep South, the Old South, staring right back atcha. A visit to the Orange County Regional History Center’s exhibits makes clear that Orlando goes back further than we think, and with that rich history inevitably come … tales. Shudder.
The present past
Native peoples, including the Seminoles, lived in the Orlando area long before Europeans arrived in Florida in the early 16th century. The usual, grim tale followed: epidemic, war and dispossession of homelands, as the invading newcomers became settlers. Fort Gatlin, an Army post, was built just south of today’s downtown in 1838. The post is long gone, but there is a historical marker that takes all of 1.2 minutes to read at the corner of Gatlin and South Summerlin avenues.
As the 19th century reached its midmark, the town of Jernigan grew up around the fort, becoming the county seat and changing its name to Orlando in 1857. After farmers began growing and harvesting citrus trees in the 1880s, Orlando grew rapidly. Unfortunately, a three-day freeze in 1894 destroyed nearly all the citrus trees in Orange County, and hurt the local economy so badly that it took Orlando 15 years to recover. But it did, and continued to prosper throughout the 20th century, as seen in building booms in the ’20s and after World War II.
Today, amid the bustling tourist trade and skyscrapers, Orlando’s past remains. Southern accents linger; shrimp and grits persist; and many old buildings still stand. Six historic districts stretch across Orlando, perhaps most notably an eight-block, cobblestoned stretch of downtown that includes some 60 old buildings built from the 1880s through the early 1940s. A Victorian house and cottage, the old railroad depot, the nearly century-old Angebilt Hotel, the old Orange County Courthouse, and dozens more historic places—check them out! The City of Orlando’s put together an indispensable walking tour of its Downtown Historic District.
A haunting city
And there’s something else that remains of the past in Orlando—ghosts or, more precisely, the belief in them. The city’s haunted, folks. Yep. Like all old places steeped in local traditions and beliefs, Orlando over the years has amassed its tales of the supernatural. Heck, as the locals would have it, some old buildings, cemeteries and parks appear to attract more ghosties and poltergeists than tourists. From what I have heard, even when a building is remodeled, they tend to stay around.
Take the downtown historic district, for example, and buildings nearby. As you’re strolling through it, keep in mind that some of the cool places on the walking tour are rumored to be haunted. A veritable potpourri of the supernatural awaits. Check’em off as you go …
  • That old railroad depot on Church Street? A piano-playing ghost, spectral crying babies.

  • The Egypytian-styled Art Deco First National Bank on South Orange? Light anomalies, supernatural cold spots and ghosts.

  • The Elijah Hand Building on West Pine, which used to be a funeral parlor? Disembodied whispers and footsteps, the apparitions of a woman and young child wandering the upstairs halls.

  • The Old Orange County Courthouse, which now houses the Orange County Regional History Center? As you take in the history exhibits, be mindful of the giggling, playful ghost of a young girl, a spectral woman looking out a window, and so much else supernatural!

  • What about the Wall Street Building, right next to the courthouse, crammed full of eateries and bars? Surely that’s not haunted! Sorry, the ghost of a little girl is said to appear in mirrors and just … stare.

  • The Citrus Center on Orange Ave? Stories abound of footsteps in empty elevators, doors opening and closing on their own, and, yes, another specter staring and scaring a-plenty in bathroom mirrors.

Shudder again. Do I have your attention, yet?
Rather than seek the ghosties all solo-like, if you’re in the mood for a fun, guided tour of haunted downtown Orlando, check out American Ghost Adventures, which meets at the Harry Buffalo at 129 W Church St., in the heart of the historic district.
But really, dear convention-goer, you don’t have to stray far to enjoy Orlando’s ghosts. They’re right there with us. See the Hyatt Regency right next to the Convention Center? It used to be the Peabody Hotel, where some guests claimed to have seen apparitions in the hallways and encountered unexplained cold spots … well, you get the picture.
This will be a spirited convention, I promise.

What’s in a Name?

In 1857, the settlement of Jernigan in central Florida became Orlando. Where the heck did they come up with that name? Dunno. Through the generations, the tales have spun and Orlando has been variously attributed to …

  • A soldier, Orlando Reeves, who supposedly died in 1835 during the Second Seminole War. There’s a monument to him on Lake Eola in downtown Orlando—check it out. Only problem—there’s no record he ever existed.

  • A cattle rancher from South Carolina, Orlando Savage Rees, who owned several estates in the area in the 1830s. He might have carved his name in a tree, which was then mistaken for his grave site. Then again, maybe he didn’t.

  • Judge James Speer, a prominent settler and huge fan of Shakespeare, who renamed the town after the male lead in “As You Like It.” Hmmm … one main street in downtown Orlando is Rosalind Avenue, named after the heroine of the same play, so go figure.

From bard to mouse? There are worse journeys for a city to make.

12 Orlando Facts, Some Rather … Unusual

  1. Its nickname is the real catchy “The City Beautiful,” though locals call it simply “O-Town.”

  2. Be real careful crossing the street. According to the most recent Pedestrian Danger Index, Orlando ranks as the top U.S. city where pedestrians are hit by cars—five times the national average.

  3. The first waterpark ever, Wet n’ Wild, was built in Orlando in 1977 and remains open year-round.

  4. The city has the world’s largest Marriott, which contains 2,000 rooms. 2,000 wakeup calls and beds to change every day … it staggers the imagination.

  5. Richard Nixon infamously announced “I am not a crook” at a press conference in Orlando on Nov. 17, 1973.

  6. Three completely unremarkable movie threequels were filmed mostly or all in Orlando: Lethal Weapon 3, Jaws 3 and Transformers 3.

  7. On Sand Lake Road stands the World’s Largest Entertainment McDonald’s, consisting of two stories with 60 arcade games, a 25,000-square-foot-play area, and even (gasp!) gourmet food.

  8. Bring the bug spray. Orlando is the county seat of Orange County, which used to be named Mosquito County.

  9. 59 hurricanes have hit Orlando directly in the last 150 years.

  10. Walt Disney World is not in Orlando; it’s about 18 miles outside of city limits.

  11. One of those dudes from one of those forgettable, interchangeable boy bands grew up in Orlando. I’d tell you which band, but my brain refuses to go near the subject.

  12. The Beat generation lives! When his classic novel “On the Road” was published in 1957, Jack Kerouac lived in the College Park neighborhood of Orlando. You’ve probably guessed, correctly, that he’s died since then.

Where Do I Grab Some Grub?

More than 5,300 restaurants crowd Orlando—holy moly! Something for everyone. If a foolhardy but woefully earnest individual tried to eat out at a different restaurant for each meal it would take years to chow through ‘em all.

So, where to start? Here are lists of locals’ favorite restaurants:

I’m tired, kind of cranky and need breakfast before speaking to anyone. Aside from confining myself in the hotel room and ordering room service until some type of human being emerges and is ready to socialize, what’s Orlando got for me?

I’ve reached the end of a convention day. So much learned and discussed, and it’s time to enjoy a round with colleagues and friends. Where to?

  • Well, your hotel will most certainly sport a watering hole. However, if you and your companions want to get out a bit, consider these fine Orlando bars, as selected by USA Today’s 10best team.

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August 2014
Volume 19, Issue 8