On a Monday morning in May, our community came together to celebrate the news that Orlando hosted a record-breaking 66 million visitors, making us the most visited destination on Earth. At Orlando’s theme parks and attractions, “Where Dreams Come True,” people come from all over the world to celebrate. From all walks of life, they are drawn to the universal truth of fun, fantasy and family that has made Orlando famous.
On a Monday evening one month later, our community came together again—this time at a downtown vigil to mourn the loss of 49 lives, and 53 more injured, in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Candles illuminated tear-streaked faces, yet pure love was also brought to light as neighbors held hands with neighbors—gay and straight, black and white, Latino and Middle Eastern—in an act of solidarity.
Orlando isn't just a tourist destination. Two million people call “The City Beautiful” home. I moved to Orlando more than 2 years ago and immediately noticed the city’s diversity. My family lives in the Disney-created town of Celebration, which has attracted people from all over the world. At my son’s first birthday party in our new town, half the children there were from another country. Instead of belonging to an exclusive country club, we are annual passholders to Walt Disney World and SeaWorld. Our neighborhood Montessori school celebrates Muslim, Christian and Jewish holidays to honor its diverse students and teachers. My kids have played teeball and splashed in the pool with kids being raised by gay parents. Orlando is a melting pot of cultures, a place where diversity isn’t just a way of life, it is celebrated. Pulse nightclub embodied this spirit entirely.
HBO’s John Oliver opened his show Sunday night with these powerful words: “I will happily embrace a Latin night at a gay club in the theme-park capital of the world as the ultimate symbol for what is truly wonderful about America.”
In the wake of the tragedy, Orlando’s community has come together in big numbers. More than $3 million has been raised on GoFundMe for the victims and their families. Citizens are waiting in line for hours to donate their blood. Our performing arts center, named among the "World’s Coolest New Tourist Attractions” last year by Travel+Leisure, opened its great lawn as a memorial. Orlando’s Fortune 500 company, Darden, has pledged $500,000 to the victims and their families, and Walt Disney Company has just committed $1 million to the city's OneOrlando fund. Near the crime scene, a 6-year-old girl handed out homemade cards to the families of victims. She was white, their sons and daughters mostly gay and Hispanic. It was a touching display of the ability for kindness to cross all boundaries. Numerous acts of love just like these far outweigh and overwhelm the hate of one.
Orlando is a destination where 66 million visitors come to make memories with their loved ones, and it’s a community that 2 million people call home. It’s a magical place where you can escape reality, becoming a princess, a Jedi or a wizard for the day. And it’s a powerful place where in the wake of a horrific act of violence, a community comes together in peace, love and celebration of diversity.