Central Florida: A Review


downtown orlando

by John Ellis

My family and I have lived in Central Florida for a little over 2 months, so, of course, it’s time for a review. A review filled with hot-takes, because a hot-take-less review is no fun.

Florida is essentially 3 states: Northern Florida, including the Panhandle where I grew up. Central Florida, where my family now resides after spending 6 years in the D.C. area (referred to as the DMV for District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia). South Florida, a magical place where I want to move although I realize deep inside of me that I don’t really want to live there.

An argument can be made that the state is really 4 states, with the Florida Keys being the fourth. However, I view the Keys as the real Florida that the other 3 sections strive to be but fall short of.

Even though I recognize that the Keys are superior to the rest of the state, having grown up in Florida, I love all of it and am happy to be home. That being said, every section has its strengths and weaknesses. There are things about Central Florida that I like and dislike. There is also some overlap between this area and the part of Florida I grew up in. The overall personality is the same. The smell is the same (except for those times as a kid when the wind was blowing the wrong way out of Cantonment). The seafood is just as delicious and plentiful. It’s all Florida, but I’m currently sitting in the middle of the state. So, below are some of my likes and dislikes about the region after 2 months as a resident of the Orlando area.

Before moving, if you had told me that I would miss the D.C. area’s slavish devotion to procedure and policy, I would have scoffed in your face. One of the biggest adjustments to the DMV was learning to live in an area that idolized Robert’s Rules of Order. Apparently, though, my 6 years in the buttoned up Capital of the U.S. populated by super-Type A personalities changed me. Everyone around here seems to be making it up as they go along, and it’s driving me crazy.

It doesn’t matter the organization. Public. Private. Religious. Educational. Medical. Retail. Whatever. Everyone. No one actually follows their posted policies and procedures. I have learned that no matter how diligently I research what I’m supposed to do to accomplish X, and no matter how committed I am to adhering to the minute details of what the organization asks of me in order to accomplish X, it ain’t going to happen that way. No matter what I’m doing or where I am, the person I’m dealing with is either unaware of their organization’s policies and procedures, or they simply do not care. To make matters, worse, when I come back with the “adjustments,” the rules have changed, again. I have wasted far too much time because people around here fly by the seat of their pants. If you adore Robert’s Rules of Order, Central Florida is not for you.

However. 

Not only do I not adore Robert’s Rules of Order (never even read ’em, to the chagrin of the other elders at my church in Arlington), but I recognize that much of what I love about Central Florida helps produce their make-it-up-as-they-go-along approach to life. The laidback personality of the area, and I think this is true of the rest of Florida, too, is one of not trying, in a good way. In other areas of the country in which I’ve lived or spent a substantial amount of time, people try too hard. And this plays out in a variety of ways. For example, the food in Central Florida destroys the food of everywhere else I’ve lived.

There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to restaurants and specialized food stores in this area. I’m not just talking about the variety, although the food scene is quite diverse. The D.C. area has a diverse food scene. The Bay Area of California, where I briefly lived, has a diverse food scene. I’ve spent time in areas of the country with a diverse food scene. What makes Central Florida different is their approach to food.

The region’s laidback personality has a positive affect on the food. The chefs aren’t trying too hard; they prepare and cook vibrant dishes that are full of flavor without the felt need to impress artisanally mustachioed men wearing  Capri pants. What’s more, they don’t adhere to the hipster portion size nonsense that has gripped the stunted imagination of chefs elsewhere. When your order a plate of food in Central Florida, you get a plate of food that your grandfather would be proud of.

By way of contrast – and this is going to upset some people, but it’s true – many of the gastro pubs I’ve eaten at around this country are a disappointment because they try too hard. Since hipster chefs worship the concept of fusion at the expense of foundation, the flavors are often jumbled and all over the map. Even if the food is good, the portions mimic that of the child plates at a Ruby Tuesday’s, and the wait staff are insufferable with their condescending and obviously put-on ironic view of their customers and the world in general. But not here in Central Florida.

For sure, irritating and unsatisfying hipster restaurants can be found around here. But there is no reason to darken their dimly-lit doors. There are plenty of irony free restaurants serving delicious food piled high on plates delivered by genuinely friendly and happy servers. Delicious foods of all types – from soul food, to Cuban, to seafood, to good-old-fashioned pub food, to BBQ, to Colombian, to Italian, to Korean, to Thai, to whatever you might be craving. Central Florida’s food is one of my favorite parts about living here.

Unfortunately, driving is required to get to one of the myriad of restaurants. Traffic in the Orlando area is terrible. And it’s terrible for two main reasons: 1. The vast amount of people here. 2. The personality of the area. Combined, those two things make for incredibly frustrating car rides. I’ll explain.

Ever since I was a young kid, I’ve fostered the compulsion to look up things like population, elevation, history, and a whole host of interesting demographic tidbits about the places I travel. Because of that, while in Tampa a few weeks ago, I found out that the Cigar City is the fourth largest city in the Southeast. Except, while driving around, I commented to my wife about how much smaller Tampa feels than Orlando. After a brief moment of reflection, I concluded that the tourists are the cause.

On average, the Orlando area welcomes just over 70 million tourists a year. 70 million. That’s over 55 million more tourists than Washington D.C. sees annually.

Obviously, what I’m about to assert isn’t scientific, much less exact, but I think it provides a good snapshot – 70 million divided by 12 equals almost 6 million. That’s an average of an extra 6 million residents a month. This means that even though on paper, Orlando is a metropolitan area of just over 2 million, the actual population is more like 8 million (more or less, depending on the time of year). Washington D.C.’s metropolitan area has a population of about 6.2 million. Now, add D.C.’s amount of traffic to Central Florida’s laid back personality and I end up with high levels of stress while driving.

By way of one example, it takes forever for people to decide to put any pressure on their gas pedal once the light turns green. And I’m not just talking about those at the front of the line. I’ve used my horn here more than I ever did in D.C. attempting to communicate to the person lazily enjoying his idling car that while he may not have anywhere to be, I do. In many ways, the traffic in the Orlando area is worse than D.C. traffic. D.C. area drivers are aggressive, and I miss that.

(Orlando drivers also don’t know how to navigate 4-way Stop signs, but that’s not unique to here.)

What I don’t miss about the D.C. area is the weather. Oddly enough, D.C.’s heat is worse than Central Florida’s. I’m not really sure why this is, because the temperatures here are higher and the difference in humidity between the two places is probably undiscernible (to my surprise, Orlando is less humid than the Panhandle where I grew up). I can’t explain it, but I like the heat here better (not to mention that I won’t have to shovel snow this winter). The heat makes sense here and doesn’t feel like an anachronism. When I step outside, even during those times that I don’t enjoy the heat index of over 110 degrees, the heat is bracing and not depressing. Like I said, I can’t really explain it.

The heat, though, is constant. And I don’t like that. When you step outside after the sun goes down, it’s still hot. In the evenings, I enjoy sitting on the back deck with a cold beer and a good book. I don’t, however, enjoy doing so with sweat pouring down my back.

Oddly enough, people wear long-sleeves and even sweaters here. I’m told that’s because of the temperature swings between outside and inside. I don’t buy that, though. Air conditioning is not unique to Florida. Neither is heat. The temperature swings between inside and outside are not greater in Central Florida than in the D.C. area, nor in most other places in the South. But I only see people wearing sweaters in 90 degree temperatures here. I think it’s all in their head. Or there’s another reason. I’m wondering if the length of the hot season here has caused an acclimation to heat that the residents are unaware of. Or maybe they wear sweaters because it rains so often.

Prior to moving here, our two kids were afraid of thunderstorms. That has quickly changed, though. Like when I was a child, our kids are now fascinated by the immense power, energy, and beauty of a normal mid-to-late afternoon Florida thunderstorm. And the average thunderstorm in Florida laughs at the worst thunderstorms in the Mid-Atlantic region. As somewhat of a side-note, while in Arlington over Labor Day weekend, I told a friend that our kids are no longer scared of thunderstorms. He replied, “That’s because thunderstorms are worse in Northern Virginia.” Astonished, I looked at him and asked, “What in the world are you talking about?”

You don’t understand thunderstorms until you live in Florida. And, believe it or not, those Florida thunderstorms are something that I love about living here.

All that rain combined with the area’s personality make for a sort of fun quirk of the area. People don’t really use umbrellas around here. They just walk in the rain, seemingly unbothered by it.

After moving here and watching people nonchalantly walk down the sidewalk during downpours, I remembered my childhood. It was only after moving away from Florida that umbrellas became a necessity for me. To be sure, people use umbrellas here. But far more people than most non-Floridians would guess are not fazed in the least by the rain. They fly by the seat of their pants, after all. Whatever they were going to do in dry clothes can be done in wet clothes. Que sera, sera.

All this rain, though, especially considering the Noahic level of torrential downpours that happen, create problems for me driving.

After having knocked the area’s drivers above, I must now confess that the locals are experts at driving in rain. Me, though? I have yet to acclimate to driving in this type of rain and hate it. I especially hate it when everyone around me is doing 75+ on the Florida Turnpike when it seems like a giant bathtub is being emptied out on the road.

But, here’s the thing.

Whenever it rains in Greenville, SC or Arlington, VA, the last 2 places I’ve lived, car accidents abound. Not here. Even though Floridians drive when it’s raining at speeds that the state has deemed unsafe in dry conditions, car accidents are rare. Both my wife and I have marveled at this as we’ve driven through thunderstorms. It’s impressive, and I apologize to the residents of my new city for driving like a Yankee when it rains. I trust that will change and, one day, I will again drive in the rain like the Floridian I am.

One final thing before I wrap this up – the Beaches!

I don’t care where you live. I don’t care if you live in the Carolinas, or California, or Maryland. Your state’s beaches are a joke compared to Florida’s beaches. I realize that may offend you, but it’s true and doesn’t really require me to defend it. You’re angry because you know it’s true and you’re jealous.

The palm trees, the abundance of Spanish moss, the lushness of the plant life, the soft and spongy ground, the smells, the sounds of the bird and insect varieties, the never-ending supply of lizards, the closeness of the sun, and the overall feeling of Florida are all wonderful. The beaches, the lack of winter, and the food (especially the seafood) make living in Florida worth having to put up with the occasional hurricane.

In all seriousness, my family has enjoyed these first couple of months as residents of Central Florida. First and foremost, God has led us to a church where we will continue to be fed the Word. Running a distant second, we have enjoyed exploring the area and are doing our best to take advantage of all the wonderful things that Central Florida (and Florida as a whole) has to offer. The area isn’t perfect, but we really like it here and are learning to love it.

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