Orlando Sentinel's Sara Clarke talks with FOX35 about how US Highway 192 in Florida has changed.

Back when International Drive was a short dead end and Orange County's giant convention center was just a dream, U.S. Highway 192 in Osceola County was Walt Disney World's doorstep, the road most Disney-bound tourists cruised in search of an affordable motel and a meal.

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But for more than a decade now, what was once the region's main tourist strip has been more like Disney World's doormat.

Hammered by recessions and hurricanes, some motels double as homeless shelters; empty restaurants and shops rot in place; and small-time attractions barely cling to life.

Meanwhile, more and more tourists looking for affordable lodging are drawn instead to the growing number of "value-priced" hotel rooms on Disney property.

Osceola now wants to bring back U.S. 192's glory days with what may be its most-ambitious rescue attempt yet for the 15-mile-long tourism corridor, which has been the county's major source of jobs and revenue since Disney came to town more than four decades ago.

"There's a lot of joking about, 'You just need to bulldoze the place and start all over,' " said Jeffrey Jones, the county's "smart-growth" director. "If a developer owned the corridor, that's probably what he'd do."

Determined to revive a district once known as the "Kissimmee-St. Cloud Resort Area," the county is considering potentially drastic surgery on 192: amputating one section to save the other two from a spreading infection.

The county thinks the easternmost part of the corridor, where many motels are now filled with long-term residents instead of theme-park visitors, should be rezoned to allow nontourism types of development. But some still hope visitors will return.

"We're supposed to be [for] tourists. We don't want locals," said Sam Vaidya, of the 18-room Victoria Inn Motel, which is more than 30 years old. "That's the goal we have, but [at the moment] there's no other option."

Difficult decade

The numbers show that something has to be done to draw more vacationers back to the tourist strip.

According to county figures, the tourism corridor's taxable value has fallen more than 24 percent in the past decade. An area that was once half the county's tax base now constitutes just a quarter of the total.

Osceola has hired a consultant to help businesses and residents create a new vision for 192. Should it look and feel like Las Vegas Boulevard, in the nation's casino capital? Biscayne Boulevard in Miami? Or what about Orlando's International Drive, which has grown from a stub off Sand Lake Road into the region's undisputed king of tourism?

Before the Great Recession, Osceola spent about two decades beautifying U.S. 192 and making it safer for motorists and pedestrians. That $30 million project, paid for by the corridor's businesses and property owners, resulted in the ubiquitous purple light poles, extra-wide sidewalks, palm trees and mile markers that still line the road today.

In the months after the 2001 terrorist attacks, business was so bad for Central Florida tourism that even Disney World temporarily closed blocks of hotel rooms; along U.S. 192, the average hotel was able to fill only four of every 10 rooms each night. In 2004, when three hurricanes tore through the region just weeks apart, all three dozen members of the Kissimmee Hotel Motel Association reported some kind of damage. And during the depths of the 2007-09 recession, the strip's hotels struggled to fill a third of their rooms — even as some charged less than $30 a night.

The situation has improved since the last recession, but the area's performance still lags that the market overall. While Orlando hotels generally now fill almost seven of every 10 rooms on average and charge an average of $97 a night, the 192 corridor and nearby resorts now fill roughly six of every 10 rooms and charge $63 to $76 a night.

Lesson in contrasts

Hector Lizasuain, the county employee in charge of the corridor's latest makeover, points out the strip's problems and opportunities as he drives along west U.S. 192.