Being surrounded by tourists almost made me forget that Orlando is a real city
When I moved to Florida in 2013, I knew what my goals were. I knew I was going to follow my dream of working at Walt Disney World, so it was only natural to want to live nearby. I've never been one for long commutes and I knew from my brief time living in Florida for my 2011 Disney College Program, traffic on I4 is unpredictable and usually not ideal. I ended up selecting an apartment off of Highway 192 about 5 minutes from the Animal Kingdom park entrance. I knew that Highway 192 was a tourist trap, but to a Florida newbie, it had its appeal. I'd never run out of chain restaurants to get food from, there was a Target and Publix right next door, and most importantly no I4 traffic. Plus, driving past a gift shop with the giant wizard on the outside of the building every day couldn't possibly get old, right?
Everything was perfect for the first couple of years. The commute wasn't bad, I still enjoyed my job at Disney, and everything I needed was convenient. Over time, I started to like my job less. I didn't feel appreciated, didn't feel the opportunity for growth, and was losing patience with answering "Where's the bathroom?" 310 times a day. Once I stopped enjoying going to work, I snapped out of my dream world where I lived in the perfect neighborhood.
Suddenly, the commute was really annoying. It wasn't I4, but there were too many traffic lights on 192 and everyone was a tourist who couldn't drive. The Publix closest to me became a spot I'd avoid like the plague because, for some reason, tourists viewed this grocery store as a must-see attraction. Maybe it's because it was in front of a giant resort, but still. Going to Target started to irritate me because more than a few times, the cashiers making small talk asked me if I was "just visiting." As hypocritical as it sounded, I got sick of seeing Cast Members in their costumes in normal, everyday places too. I was guilty of wearing my Disney costume out in public, but seeing it as the norm made me feel like I lived at work. I could never escape Disney or the harsh reality of a marketed fantasy taking over Central Florida.
I noticed I was starting to feel homesick all the time. I couldn't understand why after 3 years in Florida, I still didn't feel settled. Why did I miss home so badly? Why did I cry when my North Carolina visits were over and I had to go back to Florida? I came desperately close to packing it all up and moving back to NC. I longed for a place of normalcy and regularity where the cashier would know me and not ask me if I was there on vacation. You can't build a home in a place where everything around you is transient. Tourists weren't the only ones coming and going, neighbors and coworkers were always picking up to move back to their home states. Florida didn't exactly seem like a place to build a home or a future.
When my lease was up, I was going to move. I had quit my job working for the Mouse and I was sick of Florida. After 3 years in the same apartment, rent was getting too high. I told my mother I was moving back to NC. She convinced me not to and I think that was the most loving thing she could have done. Instead, my task was to find a starter home to purchase so an increasing rent wouldn't be a concern. As a first time home-buyer, I was overwhelmed, but the one thing I wouldn't compromise on was location. I wanted to get as far from the Disney bubble as I possibly could while enjoying Orlando as a city, not an attraction.
I found a place in the upcoming Downtown Orlando neighborhood referred to as "SoDo." This referred to the growing area located about a mile south of Downtown Orlando. I lived in my new home for a month and felt more at home than I ever had before. I don't see Cast Members or tourists around here. Disney is 30 minutes away but feels like an eternity because I don't have to see it daily. I've lived in my SoDo home for over 2 years and no one in any cashier role has ever asked me "just visiting?"I see more Florida license plates than out of state plates. I know where the closest schools are as if families actually settled down here. When I'm out running, a random guy in a Mickey shirt doesn't ask me if I want to buy a Disney Park ticket for $25.
The best part of all is that I haven't felt homesick since moving to SoDo. Not once. I miss my family occasionally, but I don't idealize NC's standards for living over Orlando's. I feel like Orlando finally belongs to me as my home. I enjoy supporting local businesses and exploring Orlando's unique neighborhoods every weekend. If you find yourself depressed, homesick, and questioning your future, I'd recommend looking at your environment as a first step. I never thought moving 15 exits up I4 would change my life, but it did just that.