In a new game under development at Electronic Arts Inc.'s (ERTS ) Orlando studio, Superman rockets through an 80-square-mile cityscape, honing his X-ray vision and strength to save Metropolis from the villain Parasite. On Walt Disney World's (DIS ) back lot, a team for digital media firm i.d.e.a.s. is finishing a realistic simulation of a 12-hour crisis aboard a U.S. Navy frigate. Near Orlando's airport, trainees at Adacel Systems Inc. maneuver virtual Boeing (BA ) 747s over Milan, New York, and Denver.
Every year 52 million tourists stimulate their imaginations at Orlando's amusement parks. But the real fantasyland can be found in the area's vast expanse of office parks. Orlando is the epicenter of the world's biggest cluster for computer simulation and modeling, involving more than 3,700 companies that employ 46,000. The $2.6 billion sector has helped diversify the economy of central Florida, which now has the highest job growth in the U.S.
Orlando largely can thank good fortune: It has long been home to film studios, defense industry simulation centers, and high-tech theme parks. It's also close to three of America's 10 biggest universities: Florida, Central Florida, and South Florida.
But the city also illustrates the effort needed these days to build new industries. It offers tax credits for everything from researchers' wages to capital equipment. It collaborates with colleges, government agencies, and companies in a 23-county area in the Florida High Tech Corridor Council. Aware that young creative types prefer stimulating urban environments, Orlando has transformed its once-sleepy downtown with posh new residential and retail districts. Says Mayor Buddy Dyer: "Sun and low taxes aren't the only things companies look for anymore."
Downtown's centerpiece is the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, a graduate school devoted to video game design. The former convention center is now filled with studios, game-development equipment donated by Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ), and work spaces where artists, software programmers, and producers brainstorm. The 70 students learn to develop game prototypes in their first term. "We run a 16-week boot camp," says Executive Director Ben Noel, an ex-Electronic Arts executive. Students even get involved in a commercial game launch.
Such efforts are deepening the talent pool. Three years ago, when EA wanted to expand its famed Orlando studio Tiburon, which created the blockbuster Madden NFL game, "it was a hard sell" to recruit developers, says EA Tiburon Government Affairs Director Craig Hagen. "What happened here is a real transformation." EA has since quadrupled its Orlando staff, to more than 600, with half of the recruits coming from out of state.
The military also taps Orlando's workforce for training. In one game under development for the U.S. Army, a bomb wounds five soldiers on a Baghdad street. Medics get 10 minutes to diagnose and treat the victims amid screams and gunfire. A Navy crisis simulation by i.d.e.a.s. will be enacted aboard a mock ship and require cadets to extinguish fires, hunt intruders, and rescue injured seamen. "We could not relocate the core of this company anywhere else," says i.d.e.a.s. Principal Executive Bob Allen. "Either we would not be able to find the right talent, or the costs would bankrupt us."
By Pete Engardio