Presidential visits to Orlando: How the city’s gone from a place presidents avoided to a must-visit battleground city.
The first time a president visited Orlando, he wanted to leave before he even arrived. That will be the least of our worries Tuesday.
Donald Trump definitely wants to be here. As he kicks off his re-election at Amway Center, we’re more concerned that thousands of supporters, protesters and CNN’s Jim Acosta will get stuck on Interstate 4 and miss the big announcement.
Road conditions were also a problem the first time a president actually set foot in Orlando. Of course, that was in 1888 when the average road was made of mud.
A much bigger problem was presidents didn’t think Orlando was worth their time. Which brings us to this week’s Ask Orlando question: “How many presidents have visited Orlando?”
Ten or 11. Or 44, if you count Disney’s Hall of Presidents.
Historians aren’t sure how many have come to our fair city in the flesh. They are sure Orlando was the site of some famous presidential statements.
“I am not a crook,” Richard Nixon declared here in 1973.
Ronald Reagan made his “Evil Empire” speech here in 1983.
Then there was this: “We will not stop in Orlando!”
So proclaimed Chester A. Arthur in 1883 as he was taking the presidential train back to Washington D.C. Arthur had been vacationing in Osceola County, where he’d declared Reedy Creek the finest fishing hole in the world.
Little did he know that about 90 years later, he’d return to Reedy Creek as an animatronic figure. But that’s a different story.
Arthur’s trip might have taken him farther south, but presidents had to stay in touch with Washington. At the time, telegraph service only extended to Kissimmee.
Florida was a wilderness, and presidents saw no reason to waste time on a state with four electoral votes and 40 billion mosquitoes.
When Arthur’s train slowed for a stop at Orlando’s railroad station, he told the conductor to press ahead, disappointing dozens of supporters who’d gathered on the platform holding signs and wearing MAGA hats.
Arthur’s successor was the first president to actually set foot in Orlando. Grover Cleveland arrived at the Winter Park station in 1888, gave a speech to about 1,000 people, then went to the Seminole Hotel in Maitland for a nice lunch.
On the way back, the presidential carriage hit a hole in the road, throwing one of Cleveland’s aides into the road.
“I keep wondering if it took Cleveland longer to get from Maitland to Winter Park by horse-drawn carriage than it takes a car driver today,” Jim Clark said.
He’s a UCF history professor, author of “Presidents in Florida,” and an invaluable source for this story. Without him, I’d have had no idea who Charles O. Andrews was, much less that Orlando is home to the Charles O. Andrews Causeway.
Andrews was a Florida senator, and he backed Harry Truman when the Missouri senator faced a tough Senate re-election in 1940. Andrews died in 1946, but Truman didn’t forget his old friend.
Mills Avenue was being built and local leaders decided to name a short stretch of road over Lake Estelle the Charles O. Andrews Causeway. When it opened on March 8, 1949, Truman led the motorcade.
Police estimated the crowd at 50,000. Truman reportedly said it was 500,000 on his Twitter account. He also received an honorary degree from Rollins College.
That is not on Trump’s agenda Tuesday. But he is the sixth straight sitting president to visit Orlando.
They haven’t come here for the fishing. Florida is a crucial swing state, and the I-4 corridor is the swingiest part.
“Can you imagine a candidate not coming to Orlando today?” Clark asked.