Arriving on her first railway trip through Kissimmee in the late 1880s, Historian Minnie Moore-Wilson observed that “…from the oil street lamps, the little city, now numbering about 1,000 inhabitants, presented a picture of tropical beauty.”
Wilson might be shocked today to see how “the little city” (now numbering about 65,000 inhabitants), and its lakefront, have grown. Entering its final phases of construction, the Kissimmee Lakefront Revitalization Project has transformed the Tohopekaliga lakefront into a modern community center, complete with electric car charging stations and a focus toward the future of Osceola County’s community.
But any lifelong Osceolan will tell you that it’s hardly the lakefront park of yesteryear.
Like many places in Osceola County in the early 1800s, Lake Tohopekaliga – meaning “fort site” – acted as a refuge during the three Seminole Wars. The lakefront was not largely developed until the 1880s. After Hamilton Disston made a deal with the state to drain 1 million acres of South Florida, Kissimmee became a hub for transport of people and goods via steamboats down the Kissimmee River. To meet the demands for transport, a shipyard in Kissimmee constructed these steamboats, which attracted workers to the small lakeside establishment. As a result, Kissimmee boomed, and the downtown area was constructed in the mid-1880s.
The boom did not last, however, as economic downturn in the 1890s ruined Hamilton Disston financially, and citrus freezes in 1894 and 1895 pushed farmers further south. Apart from the operation of an airfield in Kissimmee during World War II, cattle remained Osceola County’s biggest industry until the construction of Walt Disney World Resort in the 1970s.
After the construction of Walt Disney World, development in Osceola County stretched largely down the 17-92 corridor, and away from Downtown Kissimmee. In 1978, a special tax was implemented to revive the historic downtown area. The revenue generated by the tax went toward the restoration of historic buildings and the construction of a lakefront marina.
Despite the revitalization tax, there was no legislation in place to protect the historic integrity of Downtown Kissimmee. In 2003, the City of Kissimmee established the South Beaumont Historic Preservation Overlay District, which encompasses about 100 historic structures in the area. In 2007, Kissimmee adopted its current preservation ordinance, which outlines standards for protection of the city’s historic properties.
When the city broke ground on the Kissimmee Lakefront Revitalization Project in spring 2009, part of an excavation preceding the first phase of construction turned up old seawalls, and even the foundations for the Municipal Zoo, which closed in 1970. Osceola old-timers recall the low hum of the lion’s roar echoing across Lake Tohopekaliga from its cage in the lakefront park.
While the park no longer offers the frightful sight of a caged lion, the amenities at the Kissimmee Lakefront are growing every day thanks to the Revitalization Project. Upon completion, the park will boast basketball and volleyball courts, two playgrounds, a marina and public boat ramp, docks and a Lighthouse Point for recreational fishing, covered picnic areas, a fire-pit, and a three-mile walking and jogging trail.
For more information on the Kissimmee Lakefront Revitalization Project, visit www.lakefrontpark.org.