Some people say Orlando looks as if it was thrown together by Mickey Mouse. But Mickey and his Disney friends didn't create Orlando, they just helped make it what it is today—a city that thinks it's a theme park. Twenty-six years ago much of what is now the metropolitan area was little more than a patchwork of citrus orchards connected by lonely country roads. Today Orlando (population 1.5 million) is the third-largest city in Florida, after Miami and Tampa, and the international headquarters of Tupperware, Disney World and Tiger Woods. Over the last 20 years, Orlando and Orange County have almost doubled in population. From booming businesses to upscale retirees, everyone seems to be moving to the Magic Kingdom, especially jocks and particularly golfers.
For instance, at ultrachic Isleworth, 10 miles southeast of downtown Orlando, Seattle Mariners slugger Ken Griffey Jr. has a regular tee time during the off-season with his pal and neighbor, Tiger Woods—they meet at the Isleworth Golf and Country Club at around 12:30 p.m. There they'll sometimes bump into Buffalo Bills wide receiver Andre Reed, who keeps a place down the street from the lakeside estate of Mark O'Meara. Fifteen miles south of the city, former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz lives around the corner from Nick Faldo at Lake Nona. Meanwhile, on the southwest edge of town, folks at Bay Hill have grown so accustomed to bumping into Arnold Palmer that they don't even gasp anymore.
The 1997 PGA Tour guide lists 31 pros who live in the Orlando area. Ten LPGA players and seven members of the Senior tour live there, too. "These are people who can choose to live anywhere in the world," says Ted Hoepner, the chairman of the Economic Development Commission of Central Florida. "It says something important about the quality of life in central Florida that they choose to live here."
Others say that the pros are drawn to Orlando for more pragmatic reasons, starting with the fact that Floridians pay no state income tax, and including the allure of relatively inexpensive real estate, a first-rate airport (in addition to an executive airport where a private pilot like Palmer can store his new $15.6 million jet) and good golfing weather year-round. It also doesn't hurt that Orlando is as conservative as Rush Limbaugh, same as most pros.
Palmer started the migration. He was smitten with the area when his Wake Forest team played a match there in 1948 against Rollins College. Palmer bought Bay Hill in 1970, and now almost every divot in Orlando can be traced back to the man they call the King. Palmer romanced the Tour's Citrus Open to Bay Hill in 1979. In '84, he took a lead role in getting Isle-worth off the ground and designed the course there. Arnie no longer has a financial interest in the development. His latest venture in Orlando is the Golf Channel, which he launched three years ago with cable TV entrepreneur Joe Gibbs.
Officially, Orlando is delighted with the influx of high-profile athletes, but some bluenoses in old-money enclaves consider the arrival of the jocks to be the worst thing to happen to the town since, as one longtime resident says, Disney moved in with "that damn mouse" in '71. Orlando Magic forward Horace Grant found that some snooty Winter Park neighbors were less than charmed when they learned that he planned to erect a 24,000-square-foot house along one of the area's quaint brick streets. Although Grant spent $1.2 million for a two-acre lot, one resident has tried to stop construction with a lawsuit that charges that the house (or is it the owner?) doesn't fit the neighborhood. "You never want to be the most expensive house on the block," says Ben Tucker, who grew up in Winter Park and is a director of the Greater Orlando Association of Realtors, "but you don't want to be the size of his garage, either."
Maybe Grant should have followed the lead of Magic point guard Penny Hardaway and bought a place at Isleworth, where mega-houses are the norm. Home to Griffey, O'Meara, Woods and former Magic and current Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, among others, Isleworth is a collection of huge, glitzy palaces hidden behind two large, secure gates. "For most of us they're people we read about in the paper," says Tucker. "They could be in Chicago or Los Angeles."
Should one gain entrance to the forbidden city, the sights are both awe-inspiring and disappointing. Woods's house is nothing special, but don't make the mistake of calling the modest three-bedroom, two-car-garage unit a condo. "It's a villa," you will be told firmly.
Whatever. Despite the $600,000 price tag, it looks more like Tiger's old Stanford dorm room on steroids. The town-house-style units are right next to each other, and there are no backyards to speak of. Poor Tiger doesn't even have a place for a boat, so he keeps bugging O'Meara to use his. Woods's digs are only a stucco starter set, though. He recently closed on a double lot on Isle-worth's Lake Bessie—outbidding Michael Jordan—and plans to build his dream bachelor pad, complete with a par-3 hole out back.
Fortunately, Woods lives in a community where amenities such as a tee and green blend into the landscape like a swing set. A peninsula stretching through the prime jet-ski runs of the Butler Chain of Lakes, Isleworth has the general architectural tone of new money and bales of it. Dick Nunis, chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, has eight stained-glass windows featuring Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in his master bedroom. Joe Lewis, one of Isle-worth's developers, owns a house that was built to resemble the clubhouse at Augusta National—only bigger. Shaq's shack, the sprawling, 25,000-square-foot shopping center that O'Neal purchased for $3.96 million in 1993, has its own recording studio and a workout room (he filled in the indoor pool to make it), and, no, despite what you may have heard, the place is not for sale. Looming over all of Isleworth, though, is the 36,600-square-foot Palazzo del Lago (Palace on the Lake), a three-story monstrosity that looks like a wedding cake and is owned by time-share entrepreneur David Siegel.