The story of the 2012 All-Star Game did not begin when David Stern stood in front of a nice backdrop during the 2009 Finals and held up specially-made jerseys to commemorate the announcement. The story does not begin when shovel was put to dirt on the corner of Church Street, South Street and Hughey Avenue in downtown Orlando.
The story may not really begin when Orange County mayor Richard Crotty and Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer fought and pushed through an ambitious plan to build a new arena, a new performing arts center and renovate the aging Florida Citrus Bowl.
The story, probably begins in the late 1960s and 1971, when another visionary saw a small, farming area in the middle of Central Florida and began buying up land. This was the moment things really changed for Orlando. It came to define the city, the region and everything about it. Yes, that man was Walt Disney.
There is no Orlando Magic, no 1992 All-Star Game, no Amway Center without that vision to build Disney World.
Yet, it felt the city was still stuck in its shadow. Unable to grow up and get beyond it. The Magic were a first step to advertise Orlando the city rather than Orlando the destination (and really good airport).
When you grow up in Orlando, things are different. Fireworks don't amaze -- I see them every night from my back porch, they annoy the hell out of my dogs. Theme parks are a normal thing to do on an off day from school -- Labor Day to Thanksgiving are the best times to go. It is the entertainment option.
When you leave Orlando, Disney becomes the thing that defines where you are from. In those icebreaker games in the college dorm, you respond you are from Orlando, and you know what the response will be. I went to Orlando, I went to Disney. Yes, I have been too.
At what point does Orlando not become Disney? How does a city grow up when it is truly defined by one thing?
The road to build the Amway Center and make the All-Star Game a reality was a long one. Inextricably tied to Disney and the tourism industry it created, the county proposed to increase the tourist tax by one cent to help fund the arena. The city and the county saw an opportunity to stimulate the economy, bring people to Downtown Orlando (an area that was becoming forgotten in favor of nighttime entertainment areas at the theme parks and in the various suburbs).
This was also an opportunity to make Orlando a destination for more than just world-class attractions. It was a chance to bring back the concerts and sporting events that left Orlando because of an outdated facility. It was a chance to bring people to the heart of the city. It was a chance to make being a resident of Orlando a whole lot better by providing more entertainment options.
And, yes, it was a necessity to keep the Magic in Orlando for a long time.
Arena deals are on shaky ground to a lot of economists. Many believe it is the taxpayers subsidizing private business. In many senses, that argument makes sense. But when I look at Downtown Orlando before and after the Amway Center, I see a different place.
Restaurants on game nights and concert nights are packed with people wanting to be close to the action. New business have sprung up in the last two years in preparation for the building's grand opening. Downtown Orlando, once a place where you were honestly a little nervous to walk around, is a vibrant business hub with the modern amenities of night clubs and restaurants at night and business people during the day.
The transformation was startling as someone who grew up in the Orlando that had a downtown that was dead on most nights.
So what does this All-Star Game mean to the people of Orlando?
That is tough to say. There are plenty who are upset with the extra security placed around the building supposedly shutting out local businesses -- there are several businesses across the street from Amway Center that sued the city and the NBA seeking an injunction to stop building a security wall the Department of Homeland Security requires for such large events. There are plenty who will probably consider the countless parties held during the weekend to be a headache.
But there will be plenty more who will say the added foot traffic in the city -- not Disney, but in the city -- will be a big boost to an area that was hit extremely hard by the housing crisis (this is the area of that famous 60 Minutes report from November on homeless children, a problem that is persistent throughout Central Florida).
More than that, this is a chance for Orlando to show that the trip to Disney is more than a trip to Disney. It is a trip to Orlando.
There is so much to see and do in the city now. So much more to offer than even 20 years ago when the city hosted the 1992 NBA All-Star Game.
Orlando has done a lot of growing. I am of the opinion the bold plan to build the Amway Center, a building built to attract and host major events like the All-Star Game, was a giant step to reshape Orlando's identity.
As the NBA prepares to descend on Orlando, I hope they enjoy what they see. I hope they see that Orlando is a magic town, a magic kingdom of its own, if you will. I hope they see that, while Disney and the theme parks are still the cash cow and the basis for the economy of the entire region, this is a city that can stand on its own and be a destination unto itself.
We may not be ready to compete with the New Yorks and Los Angeleses of the world. But we are ready to put on a show for the world.
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