Twice a year, Val and Keith Lupton vacation somewhere along U.S. Highway 192 near Walt Disney World, drawn by the state's famous sunshine and the tourist strip's affordable lodging.
For the past eight years or so, the accommodations chosen by the British couple when planning their monthlong stays have been erratic.There was the hotel that offered a very good breakfast — but then the Luptons witnessed two groups beat each other with baseball bats in the parking lot. The next place changed hands and headed "down the slippery slope," the couple said.
In recent years, the Luptons have returned again and again to the Golden Link Motel, about six miles east of Disney World at the busy intersection of U.S. 192 and State Road 535. The friendly owner bakes them a cake each time they come to stay.
- Sara Clarke talks about how US Highway 192 has changed
- map of Hotel locations
- Region's other tourist strip struggling to recover from downturns, decay
- Pictures: Rundown and abandoned areas of US 192 in Kissimmee
- Pictures: Historic photos of US 192 in Kissimmee
- Hotels and Accommodations
- Hotel and Accommodation Industry
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Still, sitting by the pool recently with sunburned noses, the Luptons noted with distaste what goes on next door, at a separate motel filled with locals paying $140 a week: domestic disputes, shouting matches and evictions, as well as constant panhandling at the nearby intersection.
"It's spoiling it for holiday makers," said Val Lupton, 74.
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As Osceola County embarks on what may be the most-ambitious redevelopment yet of its once-famous but now-faded tourism corridor, its biggest challenge may be the hotels and motels that, racked by a decade of recessions and other difficulties, have lost touch with the magic of being on Disney's doorstep.
A 2011 survey by the county's Fire Department found that 16 of the strip's 59 hotels and motels were by then operating — without proper permits — as long-term housing, meaning they allow their "guests" to stay more than 30 days.
Tourism workers have settled into the strip's discount lodgings to be near public transportation and their jobs. Joining them are families down on their luck, day laborers, transients and sex offenders. Many of these low-income locals have nowhere else to go: Osceola has no homeless shelters. Others prefer the stable, weekly price of a low-budget motel to the monthly rent and fluctuating utility bills of an apartment complex.
"As much as we want to move them out of our hotels on 192, there is nowhere for them to go without them losing their jobs," said Dianna Chane, who owns two hotels on 192.
With the economy continuing to improve, Chane is restoring her 534-room Travelodge near Walt Disney World's southern entrance to what it once was: a property catering to budget-minded tourists on their way to Disney theme parks.
The hotel emerged from the Great Recession with its rooms largely occupied by low-paid tourism workers and local families with no other place to stay. But many of the buildings in the complex now cater once again to tourists, and Chane is spending more than $1 million to attract an investor who will take it off her hands.
Her other hotel is a different matter.
Local families still occupy about half the 300 rooms in her HomeSuiteHome property, which is east of Interstate 4 and Disney. Unlike the Travelodge, which now charges about $79 a night for a room, the HomeSuiteHome is getting just $149 a week from its long-term residents.
The place is full and turning a profit — and finally current on its taxes, Chane said. But the international buyers looking at hotels and other tourism properties along U.S. 192 these days don't want fixer-uppers, which are all too common along the 15-mile-long tourist strip.
"They have the money. They want to put it in," Chane said. "They don't care about impact fees or taxes. They just want it to be easy."
Long, slow slide
Many of the first hotels to serve Disney World vacationers after the giant resort opened in 1971 sprang up along U.S. 192. But in recent decades the corridor between Kissimmee and Disney has been forced to reposition itself as an affordable alternative to the tens of thousands of newer hotel rooms built on Disney property or along Orange County's fast-growing International Drive.
U.S. 192 suffered during the 2001 recession and the travel slump that followed the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Six years later, it was slammed again by the Great Recession. In between, it was raked by three hurricanes that passed over the region within weeks of one another in 2004.