ORLANDO, FLA. -- The view down Main Street USA in Disney World couldn't be rosier. The shops are jammed, the lines at the Jungle Cruise ride are long. Parts of the country may be reeling from a recession, but the mood inside the Magic Kingdom is upbeat.
This sprawling central Florida metropolis, where Walt Disney Co.'s thriving fantasy empire has kept Orlando booming, tends to regard recessions the same way it regards winter snow storms. While the Northeast may be buried in snow, an occasional cool breeze might be felt here. But not much more.
"The recession gets here last, and it gets here weaker," said Jay Porcher, vice president of the Economic Development Commission of Mid-Florida.
Yet, now even Orlando is not so confident it is immune to hard times. The region's rampant growth rate has slowed. Housing starts, rising at the annual rate of 17 percent two years ago, were flat in 1989 and down in 1990. Office space is overbuilt and the construction industry is stalled.
Downtown, the new Dupont Center, an architectural marvel in granite, turned out to be not so solid financially, and it is now tied up in bankruptcy court only two years after opening. The unemployment rate hovers at 5.6 percent, near the national average, and unemployment claims have been rising since early in 1990.
"Central Florida is not as unique as it used to be," said David Scott, an economist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "We're just as vulnerable to downturns as other major metropolitan areas."
During the boom years of the 1980s, the population of Orlando ballooned by one-third, with total population topping 1 million by the end of the decade. As an economy, Orlando was so hot that growth itself became an industry, with construction of homes, schools, roads and retail centers providing many of the new jobs. Now those jobs are disappearing. In November, 1,400 construction jobs disappeared in Orlando. The real estate industry, fueled by relocating northerners, is sputtering.
"If they can't sell their homes, then they can't come down here and buy one," said Bill Owen, president of Real Estate Research Consultants Inc. "The northeastern United States and the Ohio River Valley is a breadbasket for us. When times are tough there, it eventually filters to us."
But other industries, less dependent on population growth, continue to pick up the slack, and recent projections show that Orlando will continue to add jobs this year at an annual rate of 2.5 percent, albeit well below the 4 percent annual increases to which the region had become accustomed.
Film production, primarily operated by Disney and Universal Studios, was one expanding industry in 1990. Orlando is also home to a thriving high-technology industry. AT&T Technologies Inc. operates a microchip assembly plant in Orlando. And although it has scaled back, defense contractor Martin Marietta Corp. operates several manufacturing plants in the area, and its presence has spawned a number of smaller high-tech companies that manufacture laser-based weapons and medical equipment.
Still, the apprehension here is not far below the surface. At a recent Orlando Chamber of Commerce seminar on the local economy, the mood was somber and reserved. "I think the reality of the situation is sinking in, and I think that is necessary so that the next year or two doesn't turn into an economic disaster here," economist Scott observed.
In the view of many here, the real test of how Orlando weathers the recession will come in the tourist industry. And the prospect of a prolonged recession and higher fuel prices, together with uncertainties about the war in the Persian Gulf, has the locals nervous.
"As consumer confidence falls, I would think that one of the first victims of that uncertainty would be that discretionary vacation spending," said Stacy Kottman, assistant director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "People might go to their local state park rather than take a week off and take the kids to Disney World."
To say that weakness in the tourist trade would be a severe blow to the Orlando area economy would understate the situation. More than one-third of Orlando's jobs are in the service sector of the economy -- everything from advertising to data processing to private security firms. And within the service sector, 17 percent of the employment is in hotels and lodging. By comparison, the figure in Atlanta is 6.5 percent; for Miami, it is 8.5 percent.
The Christmas season was a good one for Orlando by most estimates. The parks were full with tourists. And for every American family that stays home, it seems there is a foreign tourist to take its place.
But there are small signs of trouble. Tourist tax collections have been declining, according to county figures. Hotel-motel occupancy rates were down slightly in 1990 -- 2 percent compared with 1989. Attendance at the area's theme parks also declined slightly, according to industry analysts.
The new Universal Studios has had trouble meeting its attendance projections, and local economists say Universal's struggle cannot be blamed entirely on its trouble in getting key rides operating properly. Attendance at Sea World and Disney World was down 5 percent in 1990, according to industry estimates (Disney doesn't release attendance figures).
Trouble in central Florida's tourism market will be more deeply felt by smaller operators, such as the Lakeridge Winery in the nearby town of Clermont. Just 20 miles up the Florida Turnpike from Orlando, the winery lives off the tourist traffic drawn to the region by Disney. Keith Mullins, general manager, said he expects the Disney crowd to come, even in a recession. But many of the visitors will be staying at the Days Inn instead of the Hilton and eating more meals at McDonald's.
"For us, that means people will probably buy only one case of wine instead of two," Mullins said.