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There's drug trouble in vacation paradise

Orlando, known more for fantasy and family fun, is also struggling with a growing heroin epidemic.

International Drive, just a few bumper-to-bumper miles from Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom, is a tourist strip that almost always speaks in superlatives:

There is the world's largest McDonald's, accompanied by the world largest McDonald's Playland. The east end of the street is fueled by 41 fast food franchises jammed into a 1.3-mile stretch. Alongside them are stores with enough chutzpah to shout _ T-SHIRT KING, SHELL WORLD, DENIM USA and SPORTS DOMINATOR. Even a one-cash register convenience store here brags that it's a "SUPER MARKET!"

The only thing being understated these days along what locals call "I-Drive" is the arrival of a new form of diversion _ heroin.

Federal and state drug agents say room service at some of the area's 23,000 hotel rooms can be a bag of almost pure Colombian heroin. And not all the activity is indoors. Thirteen suspects have been arrested on heroin charges this year in the parking lot of the world's largest McDonald's.

Tourist officials, such as Bill Peeper, president of the Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, say the 25 heroin arrests on the strip this year are "not a vast number," and a deputy sheriff who patrols International Drive calls it the safest street in Orlando.

But no one argues that a town built around fantasy and escapism is grappling with a major heroin epidemic.

Fifty-two people died of heroin overdoses in the greater Orlando area last year, more than the number of homicides. Fewer than half that number _ 23 _ died of heroin overdoses in the Tampa Bay area in the same period. And the death rates in Orlando this year show no sign of slacking off. Heroin arrests have doubled each of the past three years. Drug seizures in 1999 already are up 200 percent over 1998. Federal drug officials have labeled Orlando and its suburbs as a major heroin trafficking district and created special drug task forces to combat the problem.

"A lot of people think Orlando is Mickey Mouse and Sea World," said Dave Donaway, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "But we've got a major heroin problem here, and it's not going away."

Buying heroin is not part of the vacation plans of the area's tourists, Donaway and other police officials say. Orlando's heroin problems are local and only peripherally touch the tourist district.

But Donaway, who heads one of three heroin task forces based in Orlando, says the tourist crowds and the vast number of hotel rooms along International Drive have attracted dealers.

"A lot of drug distributors will use hotels. It's easy to mix in and it keeps them mobile. We have worked numerous cases that took us to hotels on I-Drive."

Orlando's popularity with international visitors also has contributed to its heroin problems, says Steve Collins, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent who heads a federal heroin task force in Orlando.

Heroin often is smuggled in small quantities by mules, people who are paid to swallow condoms filled with heroin or smuggle the drug elsewhere in luggage or clothes.

Mules arrive on Orlando's international flights, or on five daily domestic flights from Puerto Rico, which aren't subject to U.S. Customs' searches. The confluence of Interstate 95, the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 4 make the area a good distribution point for traffickers.

"We got it coming in trains, planes and automobiles," Collins said.

Police say much of the drug activity is centered in run-down stretches of U.S. 441, also known as the Orange Blossom Trail, south of the Citrus Bowl. Here, miles of aging motels, rent-by-the-week mobile home parks and ragged houses provide a hiding place and a customer base. Down one street, a teenage boy on a bicycle waves a white T-shirt at passing cars to advertise his roadside drug business.

Robert Linneman lives in one of the old mobile homes along Orange Blossom Trail. He is a bone-thin white man of 29 with a gap-toothed smile and dirty hair pulled into a ponytail.

Linneman swears his only vices are cigarettes and cold beer, but he knows the street offers more than that.

"It's a pain in the a-- trying to walk down the Trail. People always asking "Are you straight?', "You need something?' "

Drug agents dance around labeling Orlando's drug problem by race or ethnicity, but Linneman doesn't claim to be politically correct. He says the drug trade along OBT has clear boundaries and organizations.

"Basically it is Puerto Ricans who are dealing with it (heroin), and blacks have the crack."

In his office, the DEA's Steve Collins uses his computer to keep track of heroin-related numbers. He can show you that heroin seized in Orlando is among the purest in the United States _ often in the 96-97 percent range. That the primary source is Colombia, which developed its heroin trade in the '90s by undercutting prices and keeping purity levels high. That purity contributes to Orlando's high death rates, which rose from zero in 1993 to more than 50 last year.

The deaths vary, from old-time addicts to teenage experimenters to white collar professionals. Many of the new users are drawn by an acceptance and glamorization of heroin in movies and popular music.

"This is a very young community, and there was a popular rave scene here. The market started there with people snorting it, thinking they couldn't become addicted that way," Collins said.

If Orlando's heroin deaths go down this year, it won't be because fewer people are using the drug. Some lives are being saved because emergency workers now carry a heroin antidote in their ambulances.

"We can save them if we get there in time," said Tammy Wonderly, a spokeswoman for the county's fire rescue units.

The antidote blocks the body from absorbing any more of the drug.

"It will bring them back almost immediately," Wonderly said.

So quickly that some overdose victims have leapt from moving ambulances to avoid questioning and possible arrest.

Tracing overdoses to dealers and up the sales chain have resulted in a number of arrests and convictions.

So far, Orlando's tourists are largely oblivious to what Collins calls a "heroin epidemic." There are no statistics showing tourists dying, being victimized or arrested in greater numbers.

But when he closes his computer, Collins' screen saver captures the odd intersection of fantasy and drugs that is modern-day Orlando:

It is a wild-eyed Donald Duck, jamming a syringe full of heroin into a vein.

_ Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.