Orlando’s name is something of legend — a story best told under an autumnal night sky with the crackle of a glowing firepit. Facts about Central Florida before and soon after its inclusion as the 27th of these United States of America can seem obscured by Father Time himself. With this thick haze, hovering like the occasional morning fog over this land’s many lakes and ponds, one thing becomes evident rather quickly — Orlando has been a place that has suffered from an identity crisis since its incorporation as a city in 1885.
Even its name, “Orlando,” is ambiguous in origin. The story comes together something like a Quentin Tarantino script: three separate, equally plausible tales, two of which are made of 100% bologna. Was the city named for a fallen soldier of the Second Seminole War, Orlando Reeves? What about Orlando Rees — a sugar farm owner whose trail marker (left when trying to recover lost slaves and cattle) was found and mistaken for a grave marker? Or was it coined by traveling gentleman, James Speer, who simply had a love for Shakespeare’s As You Like It, naming the land after the play’s protagonist?
Honestly, the truth doesn’t really matter much in the end (how’s that for anticlimactic, huh?). The point I’m getting at here is that Orlando has a long-running tradition of being an amorphous, undefinable, and, frankly, bipolar heart of Florida. As a native Central Floridian, it’s always a little hard to tell how a person will react when I share (or confess, depending on the person’s preconceptions) that I am, in fact, from Orlando — well, sort of. As I mentioned in my previous article on the success of Orlando City Soccer Club, it’s vital to note that Orlando doesn’t strictly refer to the area within the city limits. The branching suburbs of this town, including Oviedo (my true hometown), Winter Park, Sanford, Lake Buena Vista and more are all vaguely lumped under the umbrella that is “Orlando”.
The unfortunate reality is that, for so long, the sprawl that is Orlando was simply seen as a space-between-spaces — the wardrobe to “hipper” cities’ Narnia. Maybe we deserved this perception; our greatest industries include tourism and hospitality, both of which earn their lifeblood from a disposable, transient, single-serve anti-culture. Many haven’t been Orlandoans long enough to identify themselves as such. Parents, tired of life in big cities like New York or Boston, come down to raise their kids in the safety of suburbia. These kids turn into young adults and run screaming for greener pastures with more culture, more opportunity and more of a definable identity, which Orlando so desperately needs.
This is about the part of the article that you might expect me to write Orlando’s eulogy, hit Command-S, and book a flight to Anywhere-but-heres-ville, but something very in line with the Orlando story has begun happening — something unexpected. Orlando has found its voice and, boy, can she sing.
Orlando, How Art Thou?
Art is key to any civilization — something that separates man from beast, mindlessness from introspection. Art is often the cornerstone of culture, and something any society worth its muster encourages and embraces. For these reasons, it should come as no surprise that Orlando’s eclectic art scene is a major component in changing us from a city primarily known for hawking overpriced souvenirs to one that can form an identity completely separate from the theme parks.
You can break up our “art” scene into three, equally important parts:
Music: Orlando’s music scene is one of independent, creative, home-grown artists. It’s a small circle, but that makes it intimate, more “real” in a way, than bands in other cities that find themselves too splintered to form a community. Though Orlando is a city spread across multiple neighborhoods and districts, live music is largely focused on a few well-known staples to the local music scene. Dimly lit spaces like Will’s Pub, Tanqueray’s and Spacebar all ooze with character, hitting you with a vibe before performers even take the stage — something even the most high-tech, acoustically sound venues can’t achieve without the certain je ne sais quoi that these spots deliver in spades.
Theater: If Orlando’s lack of Broadway-quality theaters was the flood, the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center is our Noah’s Ark. This behemoth houses the Walt Disney Theater, a gorgeous, state-of-the-art venue that seats more than 2,700 and hosts everything from Sufjan Stevens to Shakespeare. Plus, it’s nice to see something with the Disney name that isn’t created strictly for tourist season.
- Street: Orlando doesn’t have the luxury of towering skyscrapers, historical architecture or iconic bridges that other cities enjoy. Instead, our city has taken it upon itself to transform these mostly low-lying, cinderblock-built buildings into something beautiful. These “strip-mall” style buildings that were once eyesores now act as canvases for Orlando’s burgeoning street art scene. Best of all, most of the street art you’ll find is actually commissioned by the city. Orlando has begun to define its aesthetic by empowering its residents to capture the city’s spirit on walls, utility boxes (the Doctor Who Tardis on Corrine Dr. and Winter Park Rd. is a personal favorite) and alleyways.
Besides the opportunities for big-name touring shows that the Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center (as well as the massive Amway Arena and recently renovated Camping World Stadium *cough–Orlando Citrus Bowl–cough*) provide us, the common factor in Orlando’s art scene is a true sense of homegrown community. Walk into most coffee shops, cafes or lounges and you’re bound to find the work of local artists proudly displayed and sold. The aforementioned murals adorn the venues, in which local bands share their very own art, painted with worn-in drum kits and groaning guitars. It’s an ecosystem of creativity — the backbone and soul that can easily be missed by those that focus on the theme parks for their entertainment and artistry.
Eat, Drink and Be Varied
After taking on the task of writing a food blog (Bohn Appetit — shameless plug), my image of what Orlando can provide in a bun, a tortilla and a cocktail glass has forever been altered. My friends, if you have not yet found unique, quality eats in Orlando then you may be stuck in a The Matrix-like, alternate, parallel, bland world of chain restaurants (something our city can happily facilitate as well). For those that choose the “red pill” and reject that false reality, a world of ethnic flavors, unique fusions, quality craft beer and cocktail concoctions await your taste buds.
The thing that many people (yes, even locals) do not understand about Orlando’s food scene is that it’s highly multicultural, deeply ingrained in tradition and still willing to try new, exciting things. From fundamentals like the roast beef sandwiches served at the unassuming Beefy King, to late-night, Frankenstein-like Asian/Hispanic fusion at Tako Cheena, there is an entire world to uncover if you just take a moment to look past the familiar, “safe” choices of mostly decent-to-middling fare at the many chain restaurants found around town.
Cask & Larder, sister restaurant to beloved gastropub, Ravenous Pig, brings southern classics to the table with an ever-changing menu of seasonal dishes; plus, they brew their own beer, so, bonus points. Looking for dessert to top off your savory southern dinner? P is for Pie, Bluebird Bakery, Valhalla Bakery and others provide a list of sweet, sweet bliss in the form of cupcakes, cookies and more. Feeling more like Asian fare? An entire strip of traditional and fusion mom-and-pop restaurants and shops line a portion of State Road 50 that’s known as Little Vietnam. Go hungry — leave waddling. Yes, it is hard to live here and stick to a diet. No, I am not in any way mad at that fact.
Honestly, it’s hard not to sit here and preach the gospel of Orlando’s foodie scene until the cows come home (after which we’d probably barbecue them). There is just so much to explore — so many varieties — that I could never include even all of my favorite eateries, cafes and hole-in-the-wall spots. Surely, we have exquisite fine dining options as well, but we excel at more accessible, creative, and quality eats that avoid pretension by delivering something you’d never expect in places you may walk right past every day.
In recent years, Orlando’s nightlife has seen something like a renaissance. Yes, the University of Central Florida (UCF) still has its seedy college bars, Downtown has a fair share of dirty dancefloors and cheap drink specials, but a lot has changed, even in the relatively short time that I’ve been of age to imbibe.
The watering holes have grown up. Those looking for a sophisticated cocktail with a hot date can visit the likes of The Guesthouse, serving classic and wholly original cocktails.Trying to impress a craft beer connoisseur? Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour (featured on our very own Bohn Appetit) was recently named one of RateBeer’s best brew pubs in the nation. For those looking for something a bit more discreet, Hanson’s Shoe Repair and The Treehouse are two speakeasies worthy of doing a little sleuthing to find.
Another major change that’s been turning heads is our emerging craft beer scene. No, we are not quite up to the standards set by our friends in Oregon, California or Colorado, but there is no question that we’ve caught the beer bug and its yielding awesome results for local beer lovers. Crooked Can Brewing Company, Orlando Brewing, The Hourglass Brewery, Red Cypress Brewery, Ten 10 Brewing and the aforementioned Cask & Larder and Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour are all local contributors to an ever-growing beer belly that Orlando can be seen proudly sporting.
Between the options provided by restaurants and watering holes, there’s no denying one thing: Orlando has a level of variety that is lost on those that don’t bother to explore a little, take a chance on a local business, and break the chains of chain restaurant reliance.
Orlando had a problem. UCF continued to grow, Rollins College remained a shining star of a private school, and Full Sail University still stood as a bastion of the creative arts, yet Orlando faced the same issue it’s had since becoming a tourist destination — people came but they rarely stayed. These students would earn their degrees, become teachers, nurses, engineers, filmmakers, game developers and website designers, only to immediately take off to bigger cities in hopes of greener pastures and greater job opportunities.
Fortunately for Orlando’s future, the above paragraph is largely regulated to the past tense. As our schools grow and refine their programs to accommodate some of America’s best and brightest, opportunities in the form of exciting new jobs have been springing up in both established and emerging industries across the city.
- Medical City: Home to UCF’s shiny, new medical school, you couldn’t ask for more of an opportunity as a student or professional than Lake Nona’s 650-acre “Medical City”. Cutting-edge research, education and treatments are carried out here every day, positioning it as a top destination for innovative healthcare and bioscience studies.
- Florida High Tech Corridor: With the sole purpose of bringing lucrative, high-tech jobs to The Sunshine State, The Corridor has laid fertile soil for tech-centered industries, from aerospace to agritechnology. This economic development initiative is not only promoted by UCF, but also by the University of South Florida and the University of Florida. With three of Florida’s educational giants going all-in on this project, the importance of its mission to keep recent grads in Orlando, even attracting techie out-of-towners, should not be underestimated.
- Interactive Technology: Since Walt Disney World opened to the public on October 1, 1971, Orlando became a worldwide destination, not just for those that want to enjoy the attractions, but also the artists, tech people, and designers that bring amusement park magic to the realm of reality. But it’s not just the big-name theme parks that support these creative industries. A perfect example of this is Falcon’s Creative Group, a client of ours that hires professionals from multiple creative and tech-facing industries to create cutting-edge attractions and design fantastical worlds for visitors to enjoy in amusement parks all around the globe. The amount of diversity seen under one roof is what makes shops like Falcon’s so valuable to Orlando’s workers. Besides amusement attractions, there has been a recent boom in local, independent video game culture making its way into the mainstream. With UCF having the number-one graduate game development program in the world (according to Princeton Review), it makes sense that local game developers would be inspired to create a homegrown scene made up of those that come from this prestigious program, as well as the world-renowned Full Sail University. EA Sports can also be found locally. They make a little game called, Madden. You may have heard of it.
These three major growth areas are just a handful of the ways that Orlando has given its recent grads, as well as out-of-towners, a reason to start, explore and establish their careers in The City Beautiful. You’ll be hard-pressed to find this level of diversity anywhere, and our grass just keeps getting greener as the number of quality career opportunities continue to grow.
“Orlando and the Central Florida region’s evolution as a substantial, attractive, and relevant city is a tribute to what can happen when people and the organizations they represent come together to create a shared vision for a better future. The combined efforts of many hard working individuals, agreeing that it was ok to step on each other’s toes occasionally as long as it was moving the needle forward for a diversified economy with high wage, higher value jobs is what made this happen.
It was accomplished in partnership by leveraging our existing assets, focusing on key areas where we had a critical mass of talent and resources to build on, and investing in our future.” – Dr. Tom O’Neal, Associate Vice President, University of Central Florida, Office of Research and Commercialization
The Heart of the State
We have come a long way as a town, yet still have a lot farther to go. It’s sometimes lost on Orlando’s harshest critics that this city wasn’t truly put on the map until Disney propped up shop less than 50 years ago. We didn’t have the benefit of a massive revenue boom that the already popular beach city of Miami saw in the 1980s (the origins of which a certain Al-Pacino-led movie examined), but we have been on a steady path of growth that surpasses economics and enters the realm of culture. The tourism and hospitality industries are still vital to our state’s revenue and popularity around the world. I am in no way discounting the blessings that were Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld. The parks may have built this city, but it’s always been our job to make it worth calling home. Through an open-armed embrace of the arts, culinary diversity and a job market that is on a steady and exciting uptick, something tells me Orlando is going to be just fine.
The fact that we’re a historically transient town just makes our bond as locals stronger. Within Orlando, neighborhoods like the Audubon Park Garden District, Milk District and Mills 50 have their own unique charms and a sense of pride that I don’t think many people that stick to International Drive truly notice or appreciate. A real community, rich in culture and diversity, has led to Orlando finally finding its heart behind its tourism facade. I mentioned above that the origins of Orlando’s name didn’t really matter, and I meant it — we’re too busy making a name for ourselves to be concerned with our past.