‘It was just nothing’: 99-year-old recounts Orlando’s transformation from sleepy town to tourist destination

Near-centenarian remembers more than 50 years of living in the City Beautiful

ORLANDO, Fla. – In celebration of Women’s History Month, we want to introduce you to a local woman who has borne witness to Central Florida’s transformation over the past 50 years from a town full of orange groves to a top tourist spot.

Ann Polasek is now 99 years old and still active in community events, real estate and as a day trader on the stock market. But she first moved to Orlando in 1960 for her husband John’s job at Martin Marietta.

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“People didn’t have pools. There was no decent store to go to to buy clothes, people would actually go to Georgia to buy clothes. No Colonial Drive. The only store we had was Ivy’s,” said Polasek. “There was a Woolworths and there were a couple little boutique stores and they would carry maybe eight or nine dresses. It was just nothing. But it was always a friendly town, we were never unhappy, ever.”

Maybe not many options for shopping, but what there was were plenty of orange groves. Her father encouraged her to buy property, so the Polaseks quickly planted roots purchasing an orange grove.

“We went out and looked for a grove because there was a tax savings, you could depreciate trees and we found this little 40 acre grove that had very small trees on it, it was like a nursery still,” said Polasek. “And so after we bought it, we were worried, ‘What if it freezes? We’ll be paying this mortgage off for 40 years.’ But then along came Disney.”

John and Ann Polasek (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Walt Disney put the entrance to his new theme park just one mile from their grove. Today, it looks completely different, off 192, which was just a dirt road then, Polasek said.

“And once Disney came, and of course, you know the rest of the story there, it just blossomed,” said Polasek. “I remember David Siegel, the time share man, met us out there and he said, ‘I have an idea. What I want to do is, I want to build a hotel and sell rooms by the week.’ This handsome young man, and John and I looked at each other, ‘Hmmm, there’s something wrong here.’”

Time shares weren’t a thing back then, and the concept seemed too out-of-the-box to work at the time.

“Would you rent a room by the week? Did you ever hear of such a thing?” recalled Polasek.

“It seems like he did pretty well with that time share thing,” said News 6′s Lisa Bell.

“I think so, much better than you and I,” laughed Polasek.

News 6's Lisa Bell interviews Ann Polasek. (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

As businesses and the population grew in Central Florida, Polasek began cultivating support for local charities. She’s been a driving force behind the Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando, the Florida House in Washington D.C., the Capen House, Casa Feliz and especially, the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park-- who’s a distant relative.

“Oh, very involved, because this man gave everything to Winter Park, everything,” said Polasek. “And there are people in Winter Park that have never been there, they drive by it. If this interview has nothing to do, but to bring two more people there, it’d be worth your time. It’s so beautiful, the gardens.”

When it comes to business matters, Polasek talked about selling commercial real estate and said at the time, she was the only woman who did so in the firm. But she said she never felt brushed aside working alongside men.

“Each man is different, a couple of them were more egotistical than others, but in general I was treated well,” said Polasek.

“So, if you had some advice to young women today, what would that be?” asked Bell.

“Well, have you got an hour?” said Polasek, laughing. “I would say number one love God, love your children. Be good to your neighbor. If there’s anyone you’re angry with, go and make up with them, life is too short. Nothing is that important in life.”

Polaseks (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

And when it comes to investing...

“Of course I have advice, buy low, sell high!” said Polasek.

Polasek attributes her longevity to staying active. When she’s not day trading, she’s doing yoga, jazzercise and swimming, and she’s working on plans for her 100th birthday party this summer.

We think her positive attitude helps, too.

“Everybody is important, everybody. Look at yourself in the mirror, you’re important,” said Polasek. “Life could be happy, it’s up to you. You could have a smile on your face or a frown, go around with a smile on your face, people will smile back and before you know it, you make a friend.”


About the Author:

Lisa Bell has been in Central Florida since 2007, covering the big stories that impact our community. Lisa was promoted to News 6 evening news co-anchor in May 2014.