We need to talk about Orlando. We need to do this for the simple reason that this Central Florida tourist town could well eat Las Vegas’ entire lunch someday. Arguably, it’s close to doing it even now: Though a record 42 million tourists visited Las Vegas in 2015, Orlando drew 66 million in the same time frame (also a new record). Depending on whom you ask, Orlando could be outdrawing us in convention business; the figures are close and hotly contested, but one is certain: Orlando’s convention center boasts 2.1 million square feet of space to Vegas’ 1.94.
The hits keep coming. AngelList gives a $4.4 million dollar average valuation for Las Vegas’ start-ups, which is impressive until you see that Amazon-owned Zappos is on the list, pushing the numbers up. (Orlando’s start-up valuation average is awfully close to ours, at $3.6 million.) The populations of the two metropolitan areas are neck-and-neck, both just above the two million mark. And for those who consider such things a marker of progress, Orlando has two major league sports franchises—the NBA’s Orlando Magic and MLS’s Orlando City SC—to our just-birthed NHL franchise.
My parents live in Orlando. I visit them every year, in the quiet-ish time between Thanksgiving and Christmas when daytime temperatures drop to the high 70s/low 80s. (Another thing the two municipalities have in common: summertime temperatures seemingly antithetical to the existence of human life.) I would be lying if I said I knew “the real Orlando” in the way I tell visiting friends that I know “the real Vegas,” because I’ve never gone barhopping there—my taste test for virtually any municipality, from Brooklyn to Bangkok. When in Orlando, I do as 66 million others do: stand in line at Walt Disney World, and teach my parents how to use their smartphones.
But on my last visit, Orlando began to feel familiar to me, because I finally recognized it as a face in the mirror. Orlando is so similar to Las Vegas in every aspect—the suburban sprawl forming on its edges, the deadly insects and reptiles lurking in its wild areas, the beleaguered faces of service industry workers just trying to get through the supermarket without one more goddamn thing happening. Once I saw and understood these things, I knew which rocks to peek under, and I was right: The Orlando Weekly bemoans the stop-start of the city’s visual arts scene; city officials are struggling to gain support for a light rail line to the airport; and local businessmen are making noise about—you guessed it—bringing in an NFL franchise.
Like anyone else with a heart, I mourned the victims of the June 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. And yet, I allowed that horrific tragedy to slot into my “Florida man” narrative, in which everything bad that happens in that state—the 2000 electoral recount, the killing of Trayvon Martin, even the poor kid who was attacked by an alligator at Walt Disney World—happened in another world with no connection to my own. But in Orlando’s proliferation of housing tracts and service industry-based economy, I’ve finally seen what others see in our own town, and why Vice thinks Las Vegas doesn’t deserve something as benignly American as a football team. Seeing behind Orlando’s curtain gave me a perspective on Las Vegas that, before now, I only thought I had.
So, yeah, about those Vegas vs. Orlando tourism and convention numbers: We should absolutely be proactive in staying competitive, whether that means expanding the Las Vegas Convention Center or courting more start-up business. But we should also put some of that effort toward building our light rail, supporting our artists and cultivating an understanding of why we live here and why we do what we do. And we should occasionally look east and wonder how our neighbors are holding up.