What I Learned After Living in Florida for One Year

I moved to Florida about a year ago and I felt to write this post to share some thoughts and hopefully help other “city people” – that for a reason or another – may decide to move in here. I can definitely consider myself a “city girl” since I spent most of my life living between Rome and New York. I know exactly how to avoid traffic in Rome, navigate the NYC subway system, find the best spot to take a picture of the Colosseum, and when the Manhattanedge is happening every year. 

However, when I was about to move to Florida, I used my “traveler soul” to prepare as best as I could. So, when I moved to Orlando, I knew that the weather, urbanization, style of life, people, and so on, would have been different. I was pretty sure that living in Orlando would’ve been way different than in a metropolitan city, and I could imagine that by simply looking at Google Maps: Orlando is not a concentric city as Rome and is not a population-dense city as New York. Orlando has a city center, the so-called “downtown Orlando”, where the majority of administrative offices, banks and companies’ headquarters, are located, where there is a beutiful lake plenty of swans, and where a couple of streets host many stores and restaurants. However, I realized that even in the city center, there are not many people walking around and I believe it is because of both the heat and long distances that separate places where people live and where people hang out.

Lake Eola, downtown Orlando | Source: Wikimedia Commons

In the south-west of Orlando, is where the parks, including the Universal and Disney, are located. Of course, they are a dream for both children and adults but the parks area is somewhat far from where about half of the Orlando’s population live. The reason why I am mentioning that, is because there are several small cities, with their own administrations, where people live. These cities are located all around downtown Orlando and extend up south close to Disney (such as Lake Buena Vista) and north close to Lake Jessup (such as Lake Mary). Also, going east, there is the growing area around the University of Central Florida which has recently attracted several international students and scholars that are relocated in the areas of Winter Park, Union Park, Oviedo, Winter Springs, Colonial Drive, and Maitland. All of these areas have their own identity, mostly Winter Park, Oviedo, and Maitland, where small city centers with restaurants and stores have poped-up in the last five or six years. Other people also live on coast between Titusville and Cocoa Beach; those people, either work on the “space coast” – for instance at the NASA headquarters or at the Lockheed Martin office in Melbourne – or commute every day to Orlando.

Cocoa Beach, east of Orlando and close to the space coast | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Living in one of those small cities has its own pros and cons. Starting with the cons, for sure, there is the fact that if you live in the north-east of Orlando you are literally more than 30 minutes driving from downtown Orlando and even 45 minutes/1 hour from the parks area (depending on traffic). Also, franchising and convenient stores are not in all of these areas – which means that if you are starving for the Trader Joe’s fresh ravioli you may have to drive for a while. Now, the point is that for people whom were born and raised here, those driving distances are nothing. I met people that for work, easily drive 2 or 3 hours a day or just drive to Tampa (which is a couple of hours from east Orlando) for a 30 minutes meeting with a client. Of course, for who was born and raised where everything can be found at a walking distance, this is something absolutely new. Also, in Orlando, public transportation is reduced at its minimum and the majority of bus lines are in the area of downtown. And it does make sense because the majority of people own, at least, one car every two people (this is what I noticed). Among the pros there is defintely a more affordable life under any aspect, from housing to grocery, from free time activities to clothing. Also, the identity that characterizes some of these small cities make people helping each other, participating to local events, and also, makes local administrations more involved and accessible to local residents. The level of security is usually better and you can tell that by the number of families with kids living in these areas.

City of Oviedo, north-east Orlando | Source: Wikimedia Commons

What is incredible here in Orlando, is the number of natural reserves, springs, beaches, and lakes available for a day off to spend in the nature. Of course they are located between 30 minutes to 1 hour driving from Orlando city center, but they are definitely worth it the trip. If you like go to the beach, you cannot miss Cocoa Beach (about 35 minutes from east Orlando). If you like to spend time in the nature, go the to the springs, it is plenty of them in the north of the city (between 40 to 50 minutes from downtown Orlando). If you like to take a walk around a lake (when the heat allows!) or just eat outdoor (dinner time is strongly recommended!) then Lake Eola and Lake Baldwin are very nice spots. In general, there are several outdoor activities you can do: from hiking to kayaking, from snorkeling to swimming.

Green Springs, north of Orlando | Source: Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to lifestyle here everything goes way slower. Almost no traffic and no rush. Everything starts earlier and shuts down earlier. Also this aspect, has its pros and cons. And it does strongly depend by your age, lifestyle, background, and so on. If you have a family with kids, this is the perfect place for you: good schools, several parks with playgrounds, local markets where to buy fresh food, and sports centers with activities dedicated to children. Also, since life is cheaper, you can afford a bigger house or apartment, you can have two cars which helps managing the work-family balance, and you can definitely save some money for recreational activities. If you are a young professional then you may encounter some obstacles when it comes to networking. There are several events and Meetups around, but usually, they are concentrated in the area of downtown Orlando so if you work a little far away, then it gets more complicated to attend them. Also, the social life is primarily in the area of dowtown Orlando and International Drive (which basically connects the city center with the area of the parks) and in other areas you may struggle – mostly during the week – to find something open after dinner time. Instead, if you are a student and you are lucky enough to go to the University of Central Florida, than things change. The University works hard to provide students, faculties, and scholars with getting-together activities, sports and networking events. Also, the area around the University is plenty of places where to hang out, from bars to restaurants, from WiFi cafes to any kind of take away cuisines. 

UCF Football Stadium, University of Central Florida | Source: Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the aspects just described, two more of them are worth to mention. First, living in Florida teaches you how to live in armony with the nature and animals. The urbanistic plan of Orlando, mostly the cities around, has taken into consideration the nature that surrounds. I believe the greater Orlando area is a good example of integration between nature and urban centers. It happens often that bears are seen around some residencies, mainly the ones that face natural reserves or woodlands, gators may be also seen in some lakes, including the most famous one in the north-east of Orlando, Lake Jessup. In general, every day you can see a new type of lizard, a new colorful type of butterfly, and you can hear a new sound which usually belongs to a beutiful and colorful bird. Squirrels, geckos, and frogs are all around and at some point, you will just find yourself admiring the biodiversity that surrounds you. 

The second aspect is worth to mention is related to the weather, in particular, the annual hurricane season which usually extends from early June to late October. Hurricanes can impact people lives with either their disruptivness or consequences. For consequences I mean, for example, the lack of power and running water for days after the hurricane. For this reason, experts always suggest to have a “hurricane kit” ready, which means having available chargers, water, canned foods, first aid kit, torch, and so on. Complete lists of useful items can be found online in several websites of the city or county administrations. I always suggest everyone to check them out often and be ready for the hurricane season.

However, if for a “city girl” life can be quite different in here, and sometimes that vibrant environment of the metropolitan areas is so much missed, it is also true that the better quality of life is making my doctoral years definitely more pleasant!

Sara Belligoni

Header image © Sara Belligoni