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WELCOME TO
CENTRAL FLORIDA

If you think Metro Orlando is just about
tourist attractions, take a closer look.

In Central Florida, you’ll find picture-postcard villages where tree-shaded streets are lined with antique shops and Victorian homes; farm towns where citrus packing plants still crate and ship delicious oranges and modern mixed-use developments built around resort-style amenities.

And everywhere you’ll see beautiful lakes. These thousands of shimmering bodies of water – some huge, some tiny and many interconnected by manmade canals or natural tributaries – provide some of the choicest real estate in all of Florida.

Despite its outsized international profile, due mostly to the presence of Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, Sea World and other attractions, Orlando proper is, in fact, a medium-sized municipality of fewer than 200,000 people.

The Orlando MSA, however, has 2,134,411 people, an increase of 51,990 new residents between 2009 and 2010. By population, it’s the third-largest metropolitan area in Florida, the fifth-largest in the southeastern United States, and the 26th largest in the United States.

That increase is expected to continue far into the future. By 2050, in fact, Metro Orlando is expected to have 4 million residents, making it larger than all but four other metro areas.

And it will all be connected by SunRail, the region’s new commuter rail service, the first leg of which opened in 2014.

But with so much going on in so many places, where should a newcomer look for a home? Here’s a county-by-county primer. Undoubtedly, there’s a neighborhood, and a home, just right for you and your family.
 

ORANGE COUNTY

Apopka

Apopka’s roots, literally and figuratively, are in agriculture. However, this booming city of about 40,000, located in the northwest corner of Orange County, now encompasses some of the region’s most exclusive addresses.

Noted as “The Indoor Foliage Capital of the World,” Apopka’s foliage industry is a multimillion-dollar business. Cut flowers, blooming plants, roses and bulbs are also grown in abundance.

But agriculture is rapidly vanishing as dozens of muck farms, created when Lake Apopka was diked during World War II, were purchased by the state and shut down in an effort to restore the polluted body of water to a pristine state.

Just west of Apopka is the agricultural town of Zellwood, home of the annual Zellwood Corn Festival. The event, held each May for more than 30 years, draws thousands to hear country music and nosh on what is widely regarded as the sweetest sweet corn grown anywhere.

College Park

Although its residents may be getting younger, much about this beloved Orlando neighborhood, which was platted in the 1920s, remains the same.

The 80-year-old commercial district along Edgewater Drive has always been home to an array of delightful mom-and-pop shops and eclectic eateries. The streets have always been quiet and the homes well kept and charming.

Gotha

 Gotha, population about 1,000, is a quaint enclave tucked inconspicuously north of upscale Windermere.
The unincorporated community’s tree-shaded, one-block commercial district features the wood vernacular, circa-1920 New Life at Zion Lutheran Church. And across the street is Yellow Dog Eats, a funky restaurant that occupies a circa-1879 structure that had previously been a private home and a general store.

Maitland

 Since the 1960s, Maitland, population about 14,000, has been a quintessential bedroom community. Some of the area’s first suburbs were built there to attract young families looking for large lawns and good schools.

In the late 1970s a sprawling office park called Maitland Center was built near the I-4 interchange, giving the city a distinctive business identity as well.

In recent years several numerous big mixed-use projects have been completed, giving Maitland’s somewhat nebulous downtown district a more cohesive look.

Maitland was established in 1838 as Fort Maitland, named in honor of Capt. William S. Maitland, a hero of the Second Seminole War. Today the city is home to the Enzian Theater, the region’s only art-house cinema and the setting for the annual Florida Food and Film Festival.

And two large art festivals are held in Maitland: one in October, sponsored by the Maitland Rotary Club, and one in April, sponsored by the Maitland/South Seminole Chamber of Commerce.

Adjacent to Maitland is Eatonville, founded in 1887, which is thought to be the oldest city in the country incorporated by African-Americans. Folklorist Zora Neal Hurston lived in Eatonville for a time and wrote about the community in books such as Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Oakland

 Oakland was once the industrial and social hub of Orange County, thanks to the Orange Belt Line railroad. But in the 1890s most of the town burned and the railroad went bust. Today, Oakland is home to just 1,800 people.

Elected officials still refer to Oakland as a town, although it was incorporated as a city in 1959. The city designation does seem a bit incongruous in a quiet place where voters have rejected proposals to pave the narrow clay streets for fear that more people might want to drive on them.

Ocoee

 Ocoee remained an isolated citrus town clustered around Starke Lake until the 1980s. Today, with more than 30,000 residents, it has edged ahead of Winter Park to become the third-largest city in Orange County, behind Orlando and Apopka.

The transformation began two decades ago, when devastating freezes destroyed thousands of acres of citrus trees and opened west Orange and south Lake counties for development. Today, Ocoee boasts a one-million-square-foot regional mall and at least two dozen new subdivisions with homes in all price ranges.

In addition, the Florida Turnpike, S.R. 408 (formerly known as the East-West Expressway) and S.R. 429 all pass through the city, meaning once-remote downtown Orlando is now just a 15-minute commute.

Downtown Orlando

Downtown Orlando combines beautiful new high-rise condominiums and historic neighborhoods surrounding Lake Eola and the city’s signature fountain.

In recent years, the Amway Center opened as home to the NBA’s Orlando Magic. And the heart of downtown now boasts a state-of-the-art arts and entertainment complex, the Dr. Philips Center for the Performing Arts.

Southeast Orlando

At roughly 100 square miles, the region generally referred to as Southeast Orlando encompasses the University of Central Florida, Orlando International Airport and an array of master-planned communities as well as stretches of pastureland, piney forests and wetlands abutting the Econlockhatchee River.

But the remaining rural areas are rapidly vanishing as the pace of growth accelerates. Today the southeast sector, which includes portions of the city of Orlando as well as unincorporated Orange County, is home to more than 200,000 people, with more arriving daily.

Tavistock Group, the developer of upscale Lake Nona, has been particularly aggressive in promoting commercial and job growth in southeast Orlando, helping to create “Medical City,” a biotech and health sciences cluster that includes the UCF Medical School, the Sanford-Burnham Institute, Nemours Childrens Hospital and a new Veterans’ Administration Hospital.

Windermere

Nestled on an isthmus among the spring-fed Butler Chain of Lakes, the cozy town of Windermere, population about 2,300, has emerged as a magnet for the wealthiest Central Floridians.

But while Isleworth and other exclusive enclaves carry Windermere mailing addresses, they are actually located outside the town limits. Windermere proper encompasses only about one square mile and consists largely of a laid-back retail district with a few mom-and-pop stores and a scattering of older homes lining sandy streets.

Those streets remain unpaved to discourage traffic and prevent runoff from damaging the Butler Chain, which consists of eight pristine lakes connected by a canal system.

Winter Garden

Winter Garden, population about 30,000, began its greatest period of growth in the 1980s, when devastating freezes destroyed thousands of acres of citrus.

Developers began buying up decimated groves for new homes, creating new subdivisions seemingly overnight. Then came a brilliant project called Rails to Trails, through which abandoned rail beds across the country were converted into hiking and biking trails.
The popular West Orange Trail passes directly through downtown Winter Garden, thus converting the all-but-forgotten city into an oasis for thousands of ready-to-spend strollers.

And most are charmed by what they see. In 2001 the tired downtown district underwent a facelift. Brick streets were restored, old buildings were remodeled, and Centennial Fountain, saluting the city’s citrus-growing heritage, was constructed.

While the old downtown is reemerging as a force to be reckoned with, several miles south a 1.15 million square-foot open-air mall called Winter Garden Village at Fowler Groves has opened. And Horizon West, a massive master-planned community with a major town center, is rising from thousands of acres of grove land.

Winter Park

Once a haven for artists, writers, and some of the most influential families in the country, Winter Park was promoted in the late 1800s as a refuge for “the cultured and wealthy.” Those early boosters would almost certainly be pleased to see how it all turned out.

Today, the city is home to 70 parks and nearly as many oak trees (20,000) as residents (28,445).

The heart of Winter Park is Park Avenue, stretching 10 blocks and boasting more than 100 shops, from upscale national retailers to one-of-a-kind boutiques.

In addition, the downtown shopping district has spread west onto New England Avenue as posh apartments and retail stores have sprung up in previously blighted areas.

On the north end of Park Avenue is the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, showcasing the world’s largest collection of Tiffany glass. Several blocks farther west is Winter Park Village, a red-hot retail and entertainment center on U.S. 17-92.

In fact, the 17-92 corridor has emerged as a redevelopment hot spot, with big mixed-use projects recently completed, under way or on the drawing board. Ravaudage, a 73-sacre parcel at the corner of 19-92 and Lee Road, will have restaurants, shops, offices, hotels and multifamily residences.

Year-round the city is alive with festivals and special events, from the Sidewalk Art Festival, drawing more than 250,000 guests each spring, to the Exotic Car Show and assorted celebrations in Central Park.

On the shores of Lake Virginia is beautiful Rollins College, the oldest institution of higher education in Florida and one of the top-rated private liberal arts colleges in the country.

Seminole County

Altamonte Springs

Although Altamonte Springs was incorporated in 1920, its population totaled only 5,000 as recently as 1970. But that was before developers turned this erstwhile whistle stop into a thriving suburb.

Today, Altamonte Springs, population about 40,000, is known primarily for the Altamonte Mall, built in 1974 as the area’s first regional mall, and for the presence of virtually every chain eatery in the world.

Uptown Altamonte, a 25-acre mixed-use development adjacent Crane’s Roost Park and its 40-acre manmade lake, has emerged as the city’s “downtown.”

Uptown Altamonte encompasses more than 550 multifamily residential units, 255,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, 150,000 square feet of office space, a park and an amphitheater on Crane’s Roost Lake.

Casselberry

Founded by World War I veteran Hibbard Casselberry, who in 1926 bought 3,000 acres to grow ferns, Casselberry emerged as a suburban residential community after World War II.

By the time it was incorporated in 1965, Casselberry encompassed a number of family-oriented subdivisions and a budding business district near the intersection of S.R. 436 and U.S. 17-92.

In the decades that followed, the city continued to grow—the population today stands at about 25,000—but it became almost indistinguishable from surrounding unincorporated areas. However, this quintessential bedroom community has reclaimed its distinctive identity with a 16-acre town center along U.S. 17-92 near City Hall.

Lake Mary

In 1900, Planters Manufacturing Company built a factory in Lake Mary—then called “Bents”—to produce starches, dextrins, farina and tapioca.

Today, Lake Mary, population about 15,000, sits at the epicenter of Florida’s High-Tech Corridor, which follows I-4 from Tampa through Seminole County and northeast to Daytona Beach.

Along the route, government and industry have joined forces to attract leading-edge companies in such fields as telecommunications, medical technology and microelectronics.

In Lake Mary, dozens of such companies have set up shop in several sprawling business centers that have combined to create a Central Florida version of Silicon Valley.

But the man who sparked most of Lake Mary’s modern-day growth was Jeno Paulucci, founder of Chun King, who was instrumental in securing funding for a Lake Mary interchange off I-4.

Then, in the late 1970s, Paulucci began developing a luxurious residential and business center called Heathrow, which is now home to the national headquarters of the American Automobile Association.

And there are an array of more recent projects in Lake Mary as well, such as Colonial Town Park, a 175-acre mixed-use development featuring shops, restaurants, movie theaters and apartments in a village setting.

Longwood

Of all Seminole County’s municipalities, Longwood, population about 14,000, has the most history to preserve, and has done the best job of preserving it. But it’s still a modern place, with a plethora of exclusive country club communities, office parks and shopping centers.

In 1873 a New Englander named Edward Henck homesteaded a tract of land that he dubbed Longwood, after a Boston suburb he had helped plan.

Henck was also the town’s first postmaster and its first mayor. And in what may have been his spare time, Henck co-founded the South Florida Railroad and built a line connecting Sanford and Orlando, which enabled Longwood to boom as a citrus- and lumber-shipping center as well as a winter resort destination.

But as crucial as Henck was to Longwood’s development, it was a carpenter named Josiah Clouser, a Henck employee, whose legacy is most visible. Clouser, a Pennsylvanian, constructed most of the buildings still standing in Longwood’s remarkable historic district, a two-block area on Warren and Church avenues near the intersection of C.R. 427 and S.R. 434.

Popular annual events include the Longwood Arts and Crafts Festival, held the weekend before Thanksgiving, and the Founders Day Spring Arts and Crafts Festival, held in March.

Oviedo

While Oviedo might be one of Central Florida’s oldest communities, first settled some 140 years ago, this Seminole County boomtown knows how to embrace newcomers.

Indeed, few Central Florida municipalities have witnessed the kind of growth Oviedo has seen in recent years. The town’s population has now surpassed 30,000, more than a tenfold increase since 1980.

Oviedo’s growth was a long time coming. The area’s first settlers, who put down stakes near Lake Jesup in the 1860s, called it Solary’s Wharf. In 1883 postmaster Andrew Aulin dubbed it Oviedo, supposedly after seeing a Spanish town of the same name on a map.

Longtime locals point to 1964 as perhaps the most significant year in Oviedo’s history. That’s when a desolate 1,145-acre tract in rural northeast Orange County, about seven miles east of the city, was selected as the site for Florida Technological University (now the University of Central Florida).

Sanford

Located on the shores of Lake Monroe, Sanford once rivaled Orlando as the region’s largest city. A major distribution center for vegetables and citrus, it was known as “The Celery Capital of the World.”

But agriculture is no longer king in Sanford, population about 50,000. Today it’s the Seminole County seat, making county government the leading employer.

And, after years of stagnation, Sanford is also a city on the rise, thanks to a burgeoning airport—one of the fastest-growing in the country—and a downtown redevelopment project.

Today, Sanford is enjoying a resurgence that is in part tied to increased air travel at the Orlando-Sanford International Airport. The facility, located on Sanford’s east side, has a two-story international terminal, a separate domestic terminal, a U.S. Customs Office and three paved runways.

In historic downtown Sanford, work is complete on the $11 million Sanford Riverwalk, which includes sidewalks and bike trails along Lake Monroe between Mellonville and French avenues.

Winter Springs

Until the mid-1950s, Winter Springs was nothing more than several square miles of scrub pine and palmettos. That’s when developers Raymond Moss and William Edgemon bought the land, subdivided it and introduced the Village of North Orlando.

At the start of the 1970s, a time of rampant growth throughout Central Florida, the area contained one small grocery store and roughly 300 homes straddling S.R. 434.

Tuscawilla, eastern Seminole County’s first upscale golf-course community, changed all that. Also, a new city charter was adopted in 1972, changing the city’s name to Winter Springs.

Today, the city’s growth rivals that of adjacent Oviedo. In the past two decades, population has increased 800 percent, to more than 32,000.

OSCEOLA COUNTY

Kissimmee

“Big-time attractions, small-town hospitality.” Although much has changed during the past several decades, that one-time slogan for Kissimmee still largely rings true.

This is a friendly, down-to-earth community still best known for its biannual Silver Spurs Rodeo and its genuine cowboy panache. It just happens to exist alongside Walt Disney World, the world’s No. 1 tourist attraction.

Kissimmee, formerly called Allendale, had its beginnings as a tiny trading post on the northern bank of Lake Tohopekaliga. The community was incorporated in 1887 and renamed Kissimmee. It later became the Osceola County seat and, by the 1930s, cattle rivaled citrus as its main industry.

But housing is going to power the Osceola County economy in the foreseeable future. With developable land becoming scarce in Orange and Seminole counties, about 40 percent of the region’s residential growth for the next 25 years is expected to take place in and around Kissimmee. Despite its growth, Kissimmee remains a sporting paradise, with numerous boat ramps on the shores of Lake Toho, which is known for excellent bass fishing.  Hunters can enjoy the wide-open Osceola Plain, home to turkey, white-tailed deer and fox squirrels.

St. Cloud

St. Cloud, population about 27,000, has been called “A Soldier’s Colony,” “The Friendly Soldier City,” “The Wonder City,” and “The City of Schools.”

It’s also been known as an inexpensive place for tourists to stay while visiting Walt Disney World, although city officials are now actively downplaying the once-ballyhooed tourism connection and promoting the charms of St. Cloud as a great place to live.

The military references hearken back to 1909, when the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization for Union soldiers who had served in the Civil War, bought 35,000 acres for development as a community for veterans.

LAKE COUNTY

The Citrus Tower, built in 1956, once drew awestruck tourists to its observation deck for panoramic views of Lake County’s sprawling citrus groves.

The tower—now considered a kitschy relic of a bygone era —is still there, but the landscape has changed. Now you’ll see thousands of new homes on the rolling hills that have always distinguished burgeoning Lake County from its topographically-challenged neighbors.

Which isn’t to say that sprawl has destroyed Lake County’s charm—at least not yet. There are still groves, woods, barns and more than 1,400 lakes scattered across 221 square miles. The county’s unpretentious municipalities still boast quaint business districts with mom-and-pop shops.

The city of Clermont, population 12,972, is ground zero for the county’s housing boom. The stage was set with construction of the turnpike system’s Western Beltway, which made a once-daunting Orlando commute quite manageable.

“The Gem of the Hills,” as Clermont is sometimes called, is also popular among triathlon enthusiasts. South Lake Hospital’s 15-acre, all-in-one campus is home to the USA Triathlon National Training Center, which is designed to meet the needs of all ages and fitness levels.

Also in south Lake County, small cities such as Montverde and Minneola have personalities all their own and are attracting new residents by offering a balance of seclusion and convenience.

To the north, Mount Dora, population 12,091 is the center of attention and the focus of development, although Eustis and Umatilla are also attracting attention.

Mount Dora, the aptly named “New England of the South,” was founded in 1874, when homesteaders first discovered the gently sloping lakeside hills that rise to 184 feet—hardly a mountain, but a formidable height by Central Florida standards.
Today, downtown Mount Dora contains dozens of historic buildings housing antique shops, art galleries, boutiques and restaurants.

VOLUSIA COUNTY

Geographically, Volusia County sits 50 miles northeast of Orlando, between the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean. But these days, in a region where growth is pushing outward in all four directions, geography doesn’t mean as much as it once did.

Indeed, as Metro Orlando spreads north and east along I-4 through Seminole County, Western Volusia is directly in growth’s path.
Today the area, once identified almost exclusively with Daytona Beach, is emerging as a suburb of Orlando. With 84,273 residents, Deltona has long since surpassed Daytona Beach as the largest municipality in Volusia County.

Much of the activity is spurred by commercial development along the High Tech Corridor, which runs the length of I-4 between Tampa and Daytona Beach.

In addition, the widening of the I-4-St. Johns River Bridge alleviated one of the region’s most annoying traffic bottlenecks, making western Volusia an easy 30-minute commute to downtown Orlando.

Lured by that surprising proximity, as well as by the region’s abundance of lakes, springs and the nearby beach, families began flocking to the new home communities near I-4.

Buyers have also discovered the impressive stock of historic residences west of downtown DeLand, which is clearly one of the coolest small towns in Florida.

The quaint downtown district, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places, is thick with eateries and antique shops. And stately Stetson University, which has been located here for more than a century, adds an air of permanence.