Jun 13, 2011
I spent four years in Orlando during college. Heather and I moved our little family back there in 2002 and we stayed there for seven years. I think that part of the problem is that we moved around so much during our time in Central Florida. We have lived in Winter Park, Orlando, Oviedo, and now Winter Springs. In college I lived in six different places. During our second stint in The City Beautiful, we lived in five different homes. So, as we begin our third go round there, this will be the twelfth different location I where have resided. (This not counting the four different addresses in Tampa I had, one in Orange Park, and one in Tallahassee.) That makes it rough to really connect - when you are constantly having to pick a new Publix, a new pharmacy, a new gas station.
But there is just something about Orlando that resonates with us. I remember when we lived in Tampa, we used to drive over to Orlando - just for the day. We didn't go to the parks or anything. We would go to a Super Target or walk around City Walk or Downtown Disney. It was our place. Going back this past week to work on the new house, it just felt familiar. That is NOT to say that it is the same place we left. You may think that not much can happen in an area in two years. But that is very wrong. As we drove around, we had to take stock of what was still in business and what wasn't. There is an entirely new massive apartment complex with parking garage across the street from UCF. Multiple restaurants have changed hands or closed down. Our hot dog place closed down. The Beef O'Brady's we used to go on Sundays after church is gone. The Oviedo Mall is even more of a corpse than it was when we left. One word that cannot be ascribed to Orlando is "static." It changes more than any other area I've ever frequented.
Orlando is such an unique city. It really is three cities. You have the tourist Orlando on the West side. That is where you find Disney, Universal Studios, Sea World, International Drive, the Florida Mall. You have whole communities that have popped up and grown due to their status as support to the tourist areas - Kissimmee, St Cloud, Lake Buena Vista, Celebration. There are residents out there. But there is also a constant massive coming and going of tourists. We like that side of town as a place to visit - but we hardly ever go there. It's too crazy, too busy, too expensive. It's humorous - when we talk about moving back to Orlando, people invariably mention Disney. In the eleven years I've lived in Orlando, I think I have been to Disney a handful of times. And, I have only paid for tickets myself maybe one or two times. I had friends who got me in, or someone else bought me tickets. Those places are just too expensive to go a lot - unless you can manage annual passes. But we will go over to the surrounding features a couple of times a year: the Lego store, the giant McDonalds, the big movie theatres.
Heading east, the next area is Downtown Orlando. You have the big buildings, the government offices, the giant courthouse, the arenas, the performing arts center, museums, SoDo, Baldwin Park. It is the arts, sports, and cultural center. This area is similar to many other large, but not massive, cities in our country. Again, it has its residents and its normal traffic. And people in the other areas only go there when they have to. If they have to go to a government outpost, a hospital, a lawyer, a basketball game, a play. There is a night life, but it is hardly as robust as the city wishes it had. They are constantly trying to boost the area and renovate areas of it. I know they have been trying to get more traffic (and fewer homeless people) to Church Street since I got to UCF in 1992. It is a constant battle against urban decay. But some people love this area of town - and it certainly has its purpose.
The farthest east is the UCF area. The University of Central Florida is considered a metropolitan university, since it is housed in a large city and was built after the city was founded. It is not in a town that grew up with the school - like Gainesville or Athens, GA or Knoxville. But, in many ways, UCF is actually a college town. The East side of Orlando was nothing until UCF started. And as the school has exploded, so has that area of town. I know that Oviedo bristles at being called part of UCF's reach - but it was a horse farm until UCF boomed. Now the college is massive. It is the biggest in Florida and the second largest in the country. It probably will pass Arizona State before long. I has an amazing campus with more and more opportunities. It has a Medical School, a football stadium, new basketball and baseball stadiums, a great concert venue. They are starting a Dental School. It is a great place. And that whole area of town has benefitted from its growth. This is the area where we have always lived. And we really like it. Everything you need is right there. And if there is anything else you want to do, it isn't hard to get out to it.
[There is a fourth district developing over at Lake Nona - partly due to the new Medical School. It is called the Medical City - with the school, new hospitals, research facilities, all that stuff. In a few years, it will deserve its own paragraph. Right now, it is still in process.]
Lots of people have asked how we liked Tallahassee. Honestly, we hated it. I know some people are fiercely defensive of our state capitol. Those people are called Seminole fans. Seriously, though, much of what makes people like Tallahassee is exactly why we disliked it. They talk about the great stuff they did in college. Exactly. We are not college kids. I have told numerous people, if you are a student whose goal is to party and drink and have a great time - Tallahassee is a great place. If you are a politician who needs to go to the office in between running for re-election and whose goal is to party and drink and have a great time and hit on college girls - Tallahassee is a great place. For families, it is a rough place. It was oppressively hot. There were not a lot of options that didn't cost a ton of money. It was not a great experience.
That is not to say there are not some great things about Tallahassee - or the last two years. The city administered recreation facilities put anything Orlando has to shame. The kids were able to join gymnastics programs, go to water parks, or join sports leagues for minimal money. Those were great things. The school the kids attended was a great experience - but that was more due to individual teacher than the school as a whole. We have had some good things happen. Heather had a great time at the FSU Med School. I lost a bunch of weight. The kids and I have a stronger relationship now. We return better people, to be sure. But there were not many tears about leaving the city.
I think one thing we like about Orlando is the potential. While we probably will not go to Disney or Universal often (or at all), the potential is there. We could go there, if we wanted. On a Saturday when there isn't anything to do, we could go to the science center or walk around one of the shopping villages. In reality, our day to day lives are not much different in Orlando and Tallahassee. But they could be.
The biggest thing about going back to Orlando, though, is the people there. I think that is what really make Orlando feel like home. We are going back to people who love us and who we love. Yes, we have people that fit that bill in every city we have ever lived. There are friends and family in Jacksonville and Tampa and West Palm Beach and Rock Hill - and even Tallahassee. But the quantity of people in Orlando who are close to us is so much larger. That is what hurt so bad about leaving. It wasn't the Magic or Mickey or Super Target or Del Taco that made leaving Orlando so bad. It was leaving those people. It was knowing that for two years that we would rarely be able to see them.
Facebook makes things like that easier. But it is not a suitable replacement to sitting in their living room and laughing and holding their baby. It is not the same thing as eating together and watching your kids all run around a play place. It can't take the place of standing next to them in church, or going to a movie together, or sitting at a table and talking for hours. I know that on our trips back during the last two years, it was always stressful to try to fit in time for all the people who wanted to see us. There are friends from Lifepointe Church, First Years Preschool, International Community School, UCF, the Apple Store, First Baptist Oviedo, Defender Ministries. I think that is what makes the thought of coming back to Orlando so sweet. It is like they all are standing there with their arms open, waiting to hug us. That is actually the picture I have in my head as I think about it. I see hundreds of individual faces smiling and saying, "Welcome Back. We missed you."
In the back of my head, I know that there is a good chance that this is only a two year return. When residency comes, we may have to move again. And that time it may be for good. I know that. It lurks back there, haunting the trip back. For the next few days, though, I am going to ignore that thought. I am going to dwell on the fact that I finally get to go home. And I can't wait.