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Orlando airport: new gateway to Southern region?

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The overhead tram skims above the carefully landscaped terrain. Tourists ogle lakes, orange groves, palm trees, alligators, and deer. Another ride at Disney World? Not at all, it's part of Orlando's new airport.

The airport terminal facilities cost $300 million, suffered the pains of airline deregulation, and opened months behind schedule last September. But Orlando International Airport now rivals Tampa International in state-of-the-art design.

Orlando International was built to handle the millions of tourists who visit Disney World and the theme parks that have grown up around it in central Florida. And now the airport itself -- its motto, ''Gateway to the Worlds'' -- has become an attraction.

''It's pretty nice to be able to brag about our airport and to show it off,'' said Jack Gillooly, director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. ''We are trying to bring the marketmakers here to see it and to see central Florida.''

Orlando really did need a new airport. The terminal in use for the last couple of decades was little more than a glorified hangar. With the number of passengers using the airport climbing from 1 million in 1970 to 6.5 million in 1980, Orlando's terminal was packed even during the off-season.

Construction started on the new terminal in 1978, but after work was under way, Congress deregulated the airline industry, and the aviation authority found itself building with plans that were already out of date. Instead of the four airlines that served the airport when work began, Orlando found itself host to 11 airlines, with more likely.

Work stopped, plans were redrawn, and the aviation authority had to raise an additional $138 million to finance construction.

The basic concept for Orlando International -- the ''airside terminals'' where aircraft pick up and discharge passengers, and the shuttle service to a ''landside terminal'' where tickets are bought and taxis caught - came from Tampa International.

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