Orlando, Florida City Guide

By
Cortney Tarell
Orlando, Florida City Guide

Orlando is known around the world as a popular vacation destination, mostly for its amusement parks. As the home to Disney World, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld (not to mention it’s just a short distance from Busch Gardens and Lego Land), there’s no denying that this is the best place in the world for theme parks. But there is a lot more going on in Orlando than just that. According to Wallet Hub, Orlando is the #1 city in the country for retiring, getting married, celebrating Christmas, and starting a business, and it is the #2 city for going to college and having a pet. There are so many reasons Orlando is an amazing place to visit and to live. 

History

Believe it or not, Orlando did not just pop up when Walt Disney selected it as the home for his new park. Its history actually began in 1838 when Fort Gatlin was built in south Orlando to assist the fight in the Seminole War. All that remains of the fort today is a marker at the corner of Summerlin Ave and Gatlin Ave. At the time, the town that sprouted around the fort was known as  Jernigan, and it got its first post office in 1850. It’s unclear as to why the name was changed Orlando in 1857, but there are several theories. One is that Judge James Speer chose the name, either to honor an unknown man who worked for him or as a reference to the character from Shakespeare’s, “As You Like It”. It also may have stemmed from a man who was buried in the area after dying on the way to Tampa or a soldier who died in the Seminole War and was buried near Lake Eola, named Orlando Reeves. There is no proof that Orlando Reeves was a real person.

Church Street Station
Church Street Station
 

The city was incorporated in 1875 with only 85 residents. After that it would see several industry booms. The first came between 1875 and 1895 with the citrus industry taking over the area and many citrus barons moving in. The Church Street Station, still an important part of Downtown Orlando, was built in 1889 to help bring more people into the city. This period ended with the “great freeze” of 1894 and 1895.

Next came the Florida Land Boom in the 1920s, which brought many people to the area to live in Florida’s paradise. It was during this time that downtown Orlando began to be built up and many of its historic neighborhoods began. In downtown, the Orlando Public Library, The Beacham Theater (Now a night club), the Orlando Municipal Auditorium (now the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre), and several hotels were built during the 20s. By 1944, the population had grown to 45,000 people.

During World War II, the city became an important military center. It had two bases, the Orlando Army Air Base that would later become the Orlando Executive Airport and the Pinecastle Air Force Base which became the McCoy Air Force Base and is now the Orlando International Airport. Many service members chose to make their home here after the war ended, further growing the population.

Regardless of all of that history, there’s no denying that the biggest thing to happen to Orlando was Walt Disney choosing it for his second theme park in 1965. Walt Disney World opened in 1971 and transformed the area into a top tourism destination, bringing in tons of other tourism businesses and making it one of the most visited cities in the world.

But the city didn’t want to only be known as the home of Disney. Through the 1970s and 80s, Downtown Orlando saw great revitalization, turning it into the main business center of the region. That revitalization continued throughout the 90s, and efforts to make the area more culturally exciting continue to today with recent additions such as the Amway Center in 2009 and the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts in 2011.

To learn more about the history of the area, check out the Orange Country Regional History Center, which is housed in the historic courthouse of downtown that was built in 1927. To learn about how African American people have been a part of this story, head to the Wells' Built Museum of African American History & Culture. For something a little bit more specific, check out the Orlando Fire Museum and learn the history of firefighting in the region.

Culture

Orlando is most known as a theme park haven, and it would be impossible to deny that a huge part of the culture relies upon the tourism industry. Orlando ranks second in the country for number of hotel rooms, and an estimated 41 percent of the workforce in the area works in the industry, an industry that brought in about $71 billion in 2018. This means that there is never a shortage of things to do in Orlando, but it also means there are always tourists and traffic often reflects that.

Orlando, Florida City Guide

Despite the abundance of tourists and entertainment for them, what most locals consider “Real Orlando” is actually located about 30 minutes north of the tourist district. Downtown Orlando is constantly improving and is becoming a top destination for nightlife and the arts. Lake Eola is a great place to visit to get to know the Orlando that most locals want you to see. Tons of events are constantly taking place there, so there are plenty of great excuses to visit. 

Orlando is also a top college town, home to the largest college in the country: The University of Central Florida, as well as several other smaller colleges. Because of this, the city has a substantial youthful population, with a median age of 33 in 2017, and getting younger every year (the national average is 38.2 and the average for Florida is 42). This means that there are tons of trendy places to eat, drink, and hang out, as well as tons of new businesses constantly being opened in the perfect business environment.

But if you’re hoping to retire in Orlando, worry not! There are tons of communities for retirees too. Wallet Hub ranks Orlando as the #1 location for retiring, and tons of people are choosing it for its warm weather, abundance of activities, and senior-friendly services. The city has a full range of retirement communities that allow you to live in whatever environment feels best to you. The greater Orlando area has over 170 golf courses and tons of organizations for the 65+ crowd.

Demographically, Orlando is very diverse, with a higher percentage of Hispanic and Black residents than the national average. It has the largest population of Puerto Ricans in Florida as well as many people from Caribbean countries. Here you will find a welcoming space for just about every religion and sect including a very active Jewish community.

LGBT+ people will also find Orlando a welcoming home. Business Insider ranks it the #4 city in the country for Gay Dating and Nerdwallet ranks it the #10 LGBT friendly city in the US. There is no shortage of gay bars all around the city. Check out Parliament House, Southern Nights, Hank’s, Savoy, and Stonewall to experience a few of the most popular. Gay events happen throughout the year, including Gay Days at Disney, which has been going on since 1991. Visit during the Orlando Pride Festival, Girls in Wonderland, or One Magical Weekend for an especially gay experience. The city has taken steps to become even more gay friendly since the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. Now you will find tons of rainbows and open symbols of pride all throughout the downtown area. 

Food and Drink

You might not immediately think of Orlando when you think top food destinations, but that would be a mistake. Orlando is quickly becoming an internationally recognized location for delicious food and drinks. It has been ranked as a top food city by Travel Pulse and Wallet Hub. This is partially due to Disney, which has over 400 restaurants not just in the parks but also in the hotels and in Disney Springs, so you don’t even have to buy tickets to the parks to enjoy some of the best Disney food. Some of these restaurants are owned by world renowned chefs and local darlings. There are many high end restaurants outside of Disney as well, spread all across the city. 

But you don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat well in Orlando. There is delicious food for every budget. In fact, Orlando has a thriving food truck scene, and Food Truck Nation ranks Orlando 3rd in the country for food trucks. There are tons of weekly and monthly food truck events that you should check out to experience some of these food trucks.

Because Orlando is huge, there are many different neighborhoods known for their food. The most touristy area of the city, Known as the i-drive area, has tons of great food. It mostly caters to tourists and has tons of exciting and flashy things to do and places to eat, but you will find local eateries galore. Also nearby is Doctor Phillips, which has a street called Restaurant Row, so you know it’s got a ton of options for food.

Downtown Orlando is mostly known as a place for bars and nightlife, but you will also find a huge variety of local restaurants, bakeries, and coffee shops. Near downtown, you will also find great places to eat in College Park and Ivanhoe to the northwest, or Thornton Park and the Milk District to the east. The Mills 50 District is one that any food lover should not miss. It was once known as Little Vietnam, and it is mostly known for its abundance of Vietnamese and other Asian foods, but it has tons of other diverse restaurants as well.

Head to the east and you’ll end up in UCF area, where tons of restaurants and bars are there to cater to students as well as the families that live nearby, especially in Waterford. Another family area where there is tons of great food is Lake Nona, which is in southeast Orlando. No matter where you are in the city, you’ll definitely find something delicious nearby.

Shopping

Disney Springs

Orlando has shopping for every budget and interest. If you want to shop, Disney Springs is a great place to start, with a huge amount of stores including everything from Disney memorabilia and affordable clothing to upscale fashion and accessories. Universal’s City Walk also provides a great shopping experience, though there are less options available than at Disney Springs. While your in the attraction area, you can also head to International Drive and Pointe Orlando for some shopping that is especially tourist-friendly.

Florida Mall
The Florida Mall
 

There are tons of malls in Orlando as well. The Florida Mall is the largest and most visited. With over 250 stores, you’re sure to find something that you love when you shop here. The Mall at Millenia is also a large mall, but it specializes in luxury stores and designer labels. If you’re searching for a great deal, the best places to check out are the Orlando International Premium Outlets, the Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores, and the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets

Other shopping districts include the Waterford Lakes Town Center, which caters to students and families and has a huge amount of options to choose from. Ivanhoe Village is an eclectic shopping area where you can find antiques, art, and trendy shops. Park Ave is technically not in Orlando, it’s just north of the city in Winter Park, but it is a great place to stroll the street while checking out local boutiques, niche interest shops, and more. The largest flea market in Orlando is Central Florida Fairgrounds Farmer’s and Flea Market at the fairgrounds.

Entertainment

Disney World
Fireworks at Disney World
 

There are few cities in the world that rival Orlando for entertainment. It is the theme park capital of the world, but you already know about all the reasons why Disney World, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld make Orlando a city worth visiting. There’s so much else to do here outside of those places, including plenty of lesser known theme parks like Discovery Cove, where you can swim with dolphins; Fun Spot, where the whole family can have fun without the excessive cost that comes with other theme parks; and Gatorland, where you can get up close and personal with Florida’s iconic predator. 

Icon Park
ICON Park and the Orlando Eye
 

International Drive is the entertainment capital of Orlando, especially for people who are visiting from out of town. Some of the highlights of the area include the Chocolate Museum & Cafe, ICON Park, Skeletons: Museum of Osteology, Titanic the Experience, SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and iFLY Orlando.

There are tons of amazing shows you can catch while you’re here both in the i-drive area and outside of it. Blue Man Group, located in City Walk, is a great show for people of all ages that’s different from anything else you’ll find. Medieval Times is probably the most popular dinner show in the area, but there are tons of other dinner shows for every taste and interest. Check out Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows, The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show, and Capone's Dinner & Show.

For people who want to stay out of the tourist region of Orlando, there’s still tons of stuff to do. You can bowl all around the city at places including Three Point Bowling Center, AMF Sky Lanes, and Boardwalk Bowl Entertainment Center. Airhead Adventure Arena is a trampoline adventure location where you should come to jump your heart out. Orlando Watersports Complex is another place to go for wakeboarding and all kinds of family fun on the water.

The Crayola Experience
The Crayola Experience
 

If you’re here with kids, there are so many places perfect for giving your kids an amazing time. The Crayola Experience is a top family activity that will entertain your kids while sparking their creativity. If you want your kids to learn while they have fun, head to the Orlando Science Center. Other places to check out to give your kids a great day include Planet Obstacle and Hukoo’s Family Fun.

If you want to have fun without kids, there’s plenty of places you should check out as well. There are tons of arcades throughout the city that are perfect for adults. Arcade Monsters, Player 1, and Joysticks Arcade Lounge and Retro Bar are some of the best ones. Orlando also has a ton of escape rooms, which allow you to work as a team with your friends to solve the mystery. Another great option for adult entertainment is to catch a comedy show, either at AdLib Theater or SAC comedy club.

Arts

Doctor Phillips Center For The Arts
Doctor Phillips Center For The Arts
 

Orlando has never been known as a capital for the arts, but the city has recently put effort into becoming a more artistic city and it has a growing arts scene in recent years. The opening of the Doctor Phillips Center was a huge step in that direction. There is also a growing amount of public art in downtown and beyond.

There are two major art museums in Orlando. The Orlando Museum of Art is the main one, located in Loch Haven Park and featuring tons of amazing permanent art as well as temporary collections to constantly provide something new. The Mennello Museum of American Art is a lesser known museum with American art both contemporary and traditional as well as a permanent collection of art by Earl Cunningham.

The Orlando Museum of Art
The Orlando Museum of Art
 

The main place for checking out galleries in Orlando is the downtown arts district, where there are more than 20 galleries and tons of events including a gallery hop that happens every 3rd Thursday. Some of the best galleries in this area include the City Arts Factory, the Twelve21 Gallery, the Grand Bohemian Gallery, and the Gallery at Avalon Island. Other areas to head to for gallery hopping include Park Ave in Winter Park, Ivanhoe Village, and College Park.

Orlando is also a great place for the performing arts of all kinds. Many performers from all over the world choose Orlando as place to have a career since the theme parks offer lots of job opportunities for them. There are a ton of theaters where you can catch a musical, play, or dance show. Check out The Orlando Shakespeare Theater, The Mad Cow Theatre, The Orlando Repertory Theatre, The Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, and The Garden Theatre to see what shows they have on offer. 

Orlando also offers amazing ways for people to get involved in the arts. Central Florida Community Arts is an organization that offers tons of art programs for people of all ages, from pre-school all the way up to seniors. According to Chorus America, they have the largest community choir in the country.

Sports

Amway
The Amway Arena, where the Orlando Magic Play
 

Orlando has 2 major men’s sports teams, a basketball team: the Orlando Magic, and the Orlando City Soccer team. The Magic might be more well-known nationally, but locals are just as passionate about their soccer team. The soccer stadium in South Downtown Orlando hosts soccer games that are truly events, with tailgating and tons of food and drinks for patrons to enjoy.

There are also many other professional teams. Orlando Pride is the women’s soccer team playing in the National Women's Soccer League. It has been the home to many of the sports top players including national team co-captain, Alex Morgan. The Orlando Solar Bears are an ice hockey team in the South Division of the ECHL's Eastern Conference that plays at the Amway Center. There are three minor league football teams playing in Orlando: The Orlando Phantoms, a Minor League Football team and a member of the United Football Federation of America that plays at Lake Brantley Stadium; The Orlando Anarchy, a woman’s team in the Women's Football Alliance that plays at Trinity Preparatory School; and The Orlando Mayhem, a women’s team in the Independent Women's Football League that plays at East Ridge High School.

UCF Arena
UCF Arena
 

People in Orlando also can be very passionate about UCF athletics. The UCF Knights play in the NCAA Division I. Their basketball and football teams are especially well-loved, but they have tons of other teams for locals to root for as well. 

Orlando is an excellent place for youth sports as well. It is the top city in the country for athletic tournaments, so kids can take part in tournaments very easily in just about every sport. With public high schools that have nationally ranked sports teams, private schools that are known for their sports, and tons of athletic opportunities for kids outside of school, there will be a place for your kids no matter what sport they play.

Nature & Outdoors

Orlando is known as a big city, but it is a big city with so much nature to enjoy as well. The Harry P. Leu Gardens is a wonderful place to check out if you love flowers with its 50-acre of beautiful landscapes. The UCF Arboretum is 80 acres of land on the UCF campus that is home to more than 600 species of plants. The Orlando Wetlands Park is a man-made wetland, but that hasn’t stopped nature from making a home in it. It’s a great place to view wildlife or go horseback riding through the scenery. The Tibet-Butler Preserve is 20 acres of some of the best hiking in Central Florida.

Some of the most beautiful parks to check out in the city include Dickson Azalea Park, The Greenwood Urban Wetlands, and Blue Jacket Park.

If all that’s not enough for you, remember that Orlando is just a short drive away from so many other natural wonders. Wekiwa Springs State Park is only a short drive from Orlando and has springs and other natural sights to see. Kelly Park in Apopka is a great place for tubing along the free-flowing natural spring. The Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive is an 11 mile trail of nature that you can enjoy from the comfort of your car. The Oakland Nature Preserve is a place to experience all kinds of nature about 30 minutes west of Orlando. The Little Big Econ State Forest in Geneva has tons of opportunities to explore natural Florida. The Black Hammock in Oviedo offers airboat rides where you can see gators and tons of other natural sights. Head north for the Ocala National Forest and all of its beautiful parks and springs.

Education & Schools

UCF Student Union
UCF Student Union
 

As previously mentioned, Orlando is a top college town. The University of Central Florida is the largest college in the country, and the area around it has developed into a great place for college kids to live. Orlando is also home to one of the top state colleges, Valencia College. When Valencia was a community college it was “named the best community college in the nation as the inaugural winner of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence”. The Florida A&M University College of Law and the Barry University Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law are located in Orlando. Full Sale University, a college that specializes in entertainment, media, arts, and technology and Rollins College, Florida’s oldest college, are both located in Winter Park.

Smaller colleges and campuses located in the city include Webster University Orlando, Keiser University Orlando, International Vedic Hindu University, Florida Technical College, Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (a video game development graduate school), Belhaven University Orlando, and AdventHealth University.

Click here for a Complete Guide to Higher Eduction in Central Florida

For public and private elementary through high schools, see our Florida Education directory. Orlando is part of the Orange county public school system. For private schools you will find tons of faith-based schools as well as many secular preparatory, montessori, and specialty schools.

Click here for a Complete Guide to Central Florida Private Schools 

Click here for a Complete Guide to Central Florida Preschools

Tourism

75 million people visited Orlando in 2018, and that number is growing every year. Tourism is the leading industry of the city, so if you visit here, you know there’s going to be tons of stuff to do and people making the trip easy for you.

As previously mentioned, Orlando has the second most number of hotel rooms in the country, so there is no shortage of places to stay when you visit. There’s a huge list of hotels available for every budget and every length of stay. If you’re visiting for Disney trip, staying in the Disney Hotels is the best way to go if you can swing it. They make everything from travel to dining and entertainment so easy and convenient. But there’s no reason to think you have to stay at Disney to get those things. Tons of other hotels offer great options and easy transportation as well.

Convention Center
The Orange County Convention Center
 

Another reason many people travel to Orlando is to attend a conference or convention. According to Cvent, Orlando is the most popular city in the country for meetings and events. There are countless hotels across the city with their own convention centers that host both recreational and business events throughout the year. This includes many of the Disney Hotels. But Orlando is also home to the second largest convention center in North America: The Orange County Convention Center. If you're visiting for a particularly large event, this is likely where it will take place.

Transportation

The Orlando International Airport
The Orlando International Airport's Terminal C - set to open in 2021
 

The Orlando International Airport is one of the busiest in the country. If you are visiting Orlando it is the most likely airport that you will travel through, though it is not the only option. The Orlando Sanford International Airport is much smaller, but a few airlines fly to the area exclusively with them. The Orlando Executive Airport is located close to downtown and is used mostly by corporate travelers flying on smaller planes.

Public transportation in Orlando is not very extensive. The Lynx bus system travels all around the greater Orlando area, though it is not a very popular means for travel. There is also the SunRail, a train that runs from Poinciana through downtown Orlando and up to DeBary. If you’re staying in the tourist district, your hotel might have some form of transportation available to and from the major attractions.

Health & Medical

Hospital

 

The Orlando area is a top location for Medical facilities and education with an award winning Cancer Center (https://www.orlandohealthcancer.com/), Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children (https://www.arnoldpalmerhospital.com/), and Lake Nona Medical City, a huge master planned community for health and life sciences in Orlando, with the UCF College of Medicine and others. 

 

For Local Businesses including Food & Drinks, Services, Health & Medical, Education, Sports & Recreation, Arts & Entertainment and more, see our Local Business Directory (coming soon). 

 

 

Who we are

We are locals and writers who love to research, explore and share information about Florida. Our goal is simple. To share the positive (and sometimes not so positive) things that make the area unique. To be real without an agenda. And to support a strong local community. 

All images on this page copyright © FloridaSmart.com, FL Smart, LLC, Cortney Tarell, Photographer

 

Sources:

https://www.orlando.gov/Our-Government/History
https://www.florida-backroads-travel.com/history-of-orlando.html