The Spanish side of Orlando

Most people who think of Orlando think of the theme parks and other tourist attractions that make the city one of America’s most visited destinations. Although sites like Walt Disney World aren’t actually in Orlando itself, being the nearest city means that Orlando receives most of their travellers.

Orlando's most famous site
Arguably Orlando’s most famous site

Getting around in Orlando and surrounding Orange County usually requires driving. For travellers looking for car hire, Orlando airport offers a range of different options, and there are also car rental offices throughout the city. As with many American cities, sprawling Orlando calls for a car if at all possible. Most of the major tourist attractions are located off Interstate 95 (“I-95” for short), but there’s more to see in Orlando than just theme parks.

Orlando's most famous site

Orlando’s Most famous site?

Florida has a very long history of European settlement compared to most of the United States. It was first reached by Spanish explorers in 1513. Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto marched and fought all the way from Florida to Oklahoma between 1539 and 1543. Several of Florida’s cities have a rich Spanish colonial heritage. Saint Augustine is the longest continuously settled European community in the US; it was founded by the Spanish in 1565.

Given this rich history of Spanish political and cultural influence – and given the Spanish-sounding name of the city – most people assume that Orlando is also a legacy of Spanish colonisation. In fact, the city was not founded by the Spanish at all. Most of Orange County – renamed from the much less appealing-sounding Mosquito County in 1845 – was not settled by Spanish colonists. The name “Orlando” may derive from the name of an early settler, from the name of a soldier killed in action at the site, or from a character in a Shakespeare play. The town was originally called Jermigan, but the name was changed in 1857. Some parts of the historic city, especially around Lake Eola, date back to these 19th-century settlers.

Before European settlers arrived, the area was home to Native American people. The history of Florida’s native tribes is complicated; many Native Americans from the north moved into Florida to escape encroaching British colonisation. Once Florida passed into American hands, conflict between these groups and the US government was inevitable. Evidence of these battles can be seen in Orlando today; Fort Gatlin, founded by the American army in 1838, was located just north of Lake Gatlin, south of the city centre. Although the fort no longer stands, a sign and flag mark its former location.

Although Orlando was never an important part of Spain’s colonial empire, the Spanish influence is still felt today. The city boasts a vibrant and growing Latino community, particularly in its southern areas, and many residents are bilingual. As the city continues to expand, more and more of its workers and residents come from the state’s Latino community, which traces its origins back to other former Spanish colonies elsewhere in the Americas or the Caribbean.

Although it lacks the long history of Spanish settlements like Saint Augustine or Pensacola, Orlando is nevertheless part of the legacy of Spain’s American ambitions. The wars between settlers and Indians that shaped its location were spurred by Spanish policy, and the Spanish language is alive and growing among modern Orlando residents.