Some historians date Orlando's name to around 1836 when a soldier named Orlando Reeves allegedly died in the area, during the war against the Seminole Indian tribe. It seems, however, that Orlando Reeves (sometimes Rees) operated a sugar mill and plantation about 30 miles (50 km) to the north at Spring Garden in Volusia County, and pioneer settlers simply found his name carved into a tree and assumed it was a marker for his grave site. They then referred to the area as "Orlando's grave" and later simply "Orlando."
During the Second Seminole War, the U.S. Army established an outpost at Fort Gatlin, a few miles south of the modern downtown, in 1838. But it was quickly abandoned when the war came to an end.
Prior to being known as its current name, Orlando was known as Jernigan, after the first permanent settler, cattleman Aaron Jernigan, who acquired land along Lake Holden by the terms of the Armed Occupation Act of 1842. But most pioneers did not arrive until after the Third Seminole War in the 1850s. Most of the early residents made their living by cattle ranching.
Orlando remained a rural backwater during the American Civil War, and suffered greatly during the Federal Blockade. The Reconstruction Era brought a population explosion, which led to the city's incorporation in 1875.
The period from 1875 to 1895 is remembered as Orlando's "Gilded Era," when it became the hub of Florida's citrus industry. But a great freeze in 1894-1895 forced many owners to give up their independent groves, thus consolidating holdings in the hands of a few "citrus barons" which shifted operations south, primarily around Lake Wales in Polk County.
There are a couple of notable homesteaders in the area. First is the Curry family. On their property in east Orlando there was the Econlockhatchee River and every time it had to be crossed the settlers would "ford the river". This leads its name to one of Orlando's roads, Curry Ford Rd. Also, just south of the airport in the Boggy Creek area was 150 acres of property homesteaded in the late 1800s by the Ward family. This property is still owned by the Ward family and can be seen from flights out of MCO southbound immediately on the south side of SR-417.
Orlando, as Florida's largest inland city, became a popular resort during the years between the Spanish-American War and World War I. The city was also host to several sanitariums, which serves as the basis for its hospitals today.
In the 1920s Orlando experienced a large housing boom. Land prices soared. During this period several neighborhoods in downtown were constructed leaving behind many bungalows. The boom ended when several hurricanes hit Florida in the late 20s and by the depression.
During World War II, a number of Army personnel were stationed at the Pine Castle AAF. Some of these servicemen stayed in Orlando to settle and raise families. In 1956 the aerospace/defense company Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) established a plant in Orlando. In 1958, Pine Castle AAF was renamed McCoy Air Force Base after Colonel Michael N.W. McCoy.
Orlando is close enough to Patrick Air Force Base, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, and Kennedy Space Center for residents to commute to work from the city's suburbs. It also allows easy access to Port Canaveral, an important cruise ship terminal. Because of its proximity to the "Space Coast" near the Kennedy Space Center, many high-tech companies have shifted to the Orlando area.
Perhaps the most critical event for Orlando's economy occurred in 1965 when Walt Disney announced plans to build Walt Disney World. Although Disney had considered the cities of Miami and Tampa for his park, one of the major reasons behind his decision not to locate in those cities was the threat of hurricanes. The famous vacation resort opened in October 1971, ushering in an explosive population and economic growth for the Orlando metropolitan area, which now encompasses Orange, Seminole, Osceola, and Lake counties. As a result, tourism became the centerpiece of the area's economy and Orlando is consistently ranked as one of the top vacation destinations in the world, now boasting more theme parks and entertainment attractions than anywhere else in the world.
Another major factor in Orlando's growth occurred in 1970, when the new Orlando International Airport was built from a portion of the McCoy Air Force Base. Four airlines began providing scheduled flights in 1970. The military base officially closed in 1974, and most of it is now part of the airport. The airport still retains the former Air Force Base airport code (MCO). It is considered a world-class facility, and it is one of the most heavily travelled airports in the world.
In addition to McCoy Air Force Base, Orlando also had a naval presence with the establishment of the Orlando Naval Training Center in 1968. Providing training to recruits as well as being a base for selected post basic training programs, the base had a prominent presence in the area. In 1993, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission ordered that the base be closed. The base continued in a diminished capacity until the base closed for good with the last graduates of the base's Naval Nuclear Power School leaving in December of 1998. The former base has been developed into tracts for upscale housing called Baldwin Park.