Moving to Orlando
I get emails every so often asking what it’s like to live in Orlando, from people who are potentially interested in moving here. There are many ways to organize this, but I figured it might be best if I simply used topics as paragraph headers.
You should know that Orlando has highly varied neighborhoods. There are charming, older homes downtown, and there are slums downtown. Neighborhoods in disrepair are sometimes not too far from new housing developments. The patchwork of housing values is a familiar story across America, but in Orlando, it happens on a micro-scale but still reveals dramatic differences. It boils down to buying in the right area. If you do move here, get a realtor you can trust.
Suburbia. Most of Orlando is suburbia. The downtown area has its charm, including older houses and brick cobblestone streets, but it’s fair to say this city has largely grown since the 1970s (yes, when Disney arrived), and the demand has been for sprawl ever since. The entire region was once orange groves (hm, this seems just like Anaheim), and these days you can’t find an orchard unless you try really hard.
Traffic. People talk about “rush hour” and “gridlock” out here, but it’s nothing compared to Los Angeles and Orange County. The main artery of Interstate-4 can get crowded, but really only at certain times of day. An accident or a sudden vicious downpour can bring traffic to a screeching halt, but we’re not talking hour-long delays here. A good many locals don’t use I-4, though, preferring to travel on the toll roads instead. With a transponder, passage through the toll booths is a snap at 35 MPH, and there are never clogged roads on the tollways. Driving a car is convenient here: there are no smog tests, and annual registration fees are affordable.
Crime. Like any city, Orlando has its share of crime, but this is very neighborhood-dependent. The tourist zones are home mostly to petty crimes like pickpocketing and the occasional break-in. It’s not a big city for murders or other violent crimes. Wait, check that. It’s getting to be that way; there is a growing crime problem in Central Florida, increasingly centered around population zones like downtown or the local university.
People. In the city of Orlando proper, you have just a normal range of citizens. But if you spend your time at the attractions, you’ll be surrounded by tourists. And it’s different to hang around tourists all day; these are people on vacation and they have a different set of priorities. Some are determined to have a good time, others are fighting with their fellow travelers, but none of them act the same as they would back in their home cities. People put on different hats when they go on vacation, and it makes for a different atmosphere at the parks. Certainly there’s a palpable difference between Disneyland and Disney World in this regard, since there are so few locals at WDW. Most of the people living in Orlando are themselves transplants (the word for a local who grew up here is a “Florida Cracker,” for reasons we won’t go into here—even this usage of the term is not universal). The primary ethnic minorities are not Mexicans (there’s no border with Mexico), but Puerto Ricans. Cubans have a larger presence in Miami than in Central Florida.
Blood pressure. A 2006 study found that after controlling for a lot of variables, Orlando has the highest average blood pressure among men. Newspapers called it the “angriest city,” though I’m not sure it has to do with anger (their results also collated FBI records on assaults, so add that to the crimes listed above). I suppose the combination of clueless tourists and impatient locals on the roads can lead to some blood boiling. I know that mixture creates real hazardous situations in places like US-192 after the parks let out. Speeding Cast Members on the way home weave through tourists that decide they need to be on the other side of the street all of a sudden… it’s a nightly recipe for disaster. But I am not sure the blood pressure has to do with this. Even if they didn’t control for age in the study (you’d expect Florida to have more retirees), did they account for restaurant density? Maybe having so many restaurants here leads to unhealthy eating?
Schools. The public schools are probably about average when viewed nationally, all things considered. There are definitely some under-achieving schools around, but they seem very determined by geography. If you have school-age children, this may well be a point of concern when deciding to move to Orlando and needing to choose an area. As can be expected, the areas with the best schools have the most expensive housing. This is probably a truism throughout the country.
Cost of Living. If you’re coming from a place with a high cost of living ( New York, San Francisco, even Los Angeles), you’ll appreciate how quickly the savings pile up in a place like Orlando. A movie in a new stadium-seating theater with a great sound system will cost $2 less than it would in a big city. Staples like bread and milk probably only cost a few pennies less, but gas is far cheaper, partly because Florida doesn’t have nearly as many taxes built into the price of gas. As noted earlier, there are no smog tests because there is no smog. Weather from the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic ocean take turns blowing across the peninsula, and the smog just doesn’t build up.
Weather. With the aforementioned weather fronts, the sky is always blue and there are always puffy white clouds (it reminds me on an almost daily basis of the wallpaper in Andy’s room in Toy Story). But the colliding fronts also lead to virtually daily rainshowers in the late afternoon during summer, which is the rainy season. Note: the rain never lasts that long, unless it’s a real storm around. Winter is the dry season, and it gets cold. We went bundled up to the state fair in Tampa with real winter jackets (bought in Iowa!) and we were not warm enough. Spring and autumn are truly ideal times to be in Florida. I call it “ San Diego” weather in those months.
Hurricanes. It’s true, there are sometimes hurricanes. I moved here in 2004 and watched the approach of Charley, and everyone assured me it had been 24 years since Orlando had been hit. We’re dead center vertically and dead center horizontally in the state – about as safe as you can get. Orlando is where people evacuate *to* when a hurricane comes. That said, Charley did hit us pretty directly, as did two other storms glancingly in the same 2004 season. Not much action since then. Was there damage? Mostly roof damage (a lot of blue tarps for half a year), and some wind damage here and there. But nothing like what happens on the waterfront when a hurricane comes ashore.
Nature. Palmettos and cypress trees are some of the most common plants around undeveloped areas (and Mexican palm trees in the developed areas), and everything is just very green because of the daily rain in summer. There is some sameness to the landscape, though, unless you make your way to a state park and really wander around. There are few natural features like caves or mountains (ha! This place is extremely flat), but the warm freshwater springs and the many rivers offer a lot of diversity.
Wildlife. You see armadillos on a daily basis (usually as roadkill), and sand hill cranes majestically pick their way across retention ponds every morning. But most of the nature around congregates in the regional parks and natural preserves. Turtles are omnipresent (you’ll catch them munching on your lawn eventually), but gators are pretty uncommon outside of undeveloped zones. That said, avoid jumping into lakes. People die all the time by discovering gators continue to live there and really will attack if threatened. Birds are particularly common in Florida. Manatees spend the cold months in warm springs, completely visible to visitors, so it’s easy to see a manatee in the wild.
Culture. The art scene in Orlando is vibrant, particularly in an older, upscale part of town called Winter Park. An annual Shakespeare festival draws people to the downtown, and there are multiple local theaters staging productions. Clearly, it’s no New York or L.A., but does it need to be? It’s a small to moderate sized town, with a bigger than you’d expect cultural footprint. You can see that just in the volume of ethnic restaurants in this town.
State Income Tax. There is none. In California, I had to fill out the form 540 every year with my federal 1040. Here in Florida it’s just the federal 1040; I simply don’t file anything at the state level and they withhold nothing from my paycheck except the federal taxes. I’m not sure exactly how the state gets away with this, but I assume it’s the hefty hotel taxes paid by tourists (somewhere north of $12/night). They really do make this town, and even this state, tick.
Orlando International Airport. Take a medium-sized airport like Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, roughly double it in size, and you’ve got an idea of OIA. Being a tourist destination has cons (longer lines at security check-ins) and pros (the airplanes coming here are ALWAYS full, so you can often “volunteer” to give up your seat and take a later flight, reaping a $300 coupon in the process). But the airport is convenient to get to, convenient to navigate, and it uses monorails to zoom from the terminal to the gates, complete with voiceover by longtime Disney park voice artist Jack Wagner. Who could ask for anything more?
Growth. The entire region has been on a tear for forty years, with lots of sprawl, lots of suburbia, and increasingly lots of freeways and toll roads. It reminds me of Orange County ( California) in the early 1970s in terms of traffic and build-out. Well, except there’s still more land here yet to be developed. And because land is available, that very often leads to failed strip malls simply lying abandoned in some neighborhoods. Think of it as a kind of “suburban decay.” Nothing major, but odd to see.
Shopping. I’m not talking Wal-Marts (though we have those) or the giant outdoor mall complex along the lines of Tustin Market Place (though we have those too), I’m talking about state of the art mega-malls—we have two of them! And of course a lot of people associate Orlando with outlet malls—we have several of those, too! They are awfully convenient for locals, not just tourists, if you’re that kind of shopper.
Theme Park Heaven. With Disney, you’ve got four major theme parks, two giant water parks, and DisneyQuest. And three themed miniature-golf courses. And shopping at Downtown Disney. And highly-themed hotel complexes (let me tell you, in terms of theme it can be just as fan as a day at the parks if you explore these hotels, and a lot cheaper and less crowded). But outside of Disney there’s a lot also. Universal has two great parks and the nearby Wet and Wild. Sea World has its park and is building a water park. An hour away in Tampa, Busch Gardens has a park and a water park. If you’re a theme park fanatic, you’ll find it difficult to stay home on weekends. The pull of these parks is just too strong, the annual pass prices for locals just too compelling.
Other Attractions. Now add into the mix the hundreds of other things to do in the area, much of it targeted to tourists, and you’ll simply never be bored. There are several examples of each of these types of activities in the local area:
- dinner theaters
- zoos and aquariums
- smaller theme parks ( Cypress Gardens, etc)
- themed mini-golf
- full-sized championship golf
- major league sports
Specifics, Details, and Subjective Opinions. This section is a bit less objective, since some readers have asked for more specifics. Take these ideas for what they are worth:
- Neighborhoods Overview: Middle-class and working-class neighborhoods both abound in Orlando, and in some cases, they transition so quickly that an overhead view would look like a patchwork quilt.
- Lower-income areas: these can be found just south of Downtown Orlando, with another pocket just west of downtown. Kissimmee and Poinciana, though close to Walt Disney World, are also low-income.
- Middle-class areas: Prosperous middle-class areas can be found just north of downtown, to the east (Waterford Lakes and Avalon Park), to the south-west (Dr. Phillips area), and along several areas along the 417 toll road. Winter Park is often cited as a desireable location, but it can be quite expensive and the houses are not that new. The houses in downtown themselves have a certain charm, but they are even older.
- Luxury houses: In terms of upscale neighborhoods, Isleworth and Windermere (south and west of downtown) leap to mind. Celebrities with (onetime) homes in Orlando such as Wesley Snipes or Tiger Woods often chose these neighborhoods.
- Schools: Have a look at http://www.greatschools.net to discover the "grades" for the schools in your desired area.