Orlando is roughly divided into four quadrants defined by Interstate 4 (north-south) and Colonial Drive/SR 50 (east-west). The theme parks and attractions are generally in the southwest quadrant about 20 miles from the city center while the dense International Drive hotel area abuts the southeast side of I-4. The south and west sections, especially International Drive, Sand Lake/Dr. Phillips and Lake Buena Vista, are the Orlando neighborhoods where you’ll find the greatest concentration of hotels, restaurants, night clubs, golf courses and attractions. Until Orlando began its dramatic growth spurt in the 1970s, the metro area was a patchwork of small towns including Kissimmee, Apopka, Winter Park, Altamonte Springs, Maitland, Lake Mary, Winter Springs, Oviedo, and Winter Garden. Some of these small towns still have historic downtown districts making for beautiful Orlando neighborhoods with their older bungalow or Spanish Revival style homes and blocks of retail. Most are now defined by more recent development clustered around shopping malls. Like many cities, the center of Orlando was largely abandoned during the post-War rush to the suburbs, but it’s now attracting younger residents to newly built condos and apartments. The City of Orlando still has some historic districts that are heavily residential with a high proportion of pre-World War II homes: Delaney Park, Thornton Park, College Park, Edgewater, Lake Cherokee, and Eola Heights. There are also some urban pioneer districts on the upswing including Mills 50 and SoDo (south of downtown). Very upscale Orlando neighborhoods such as Isleworth (home of many pro golfers), Bay Hill, Heathrow, Tuskawilla, Lake Nona and Alaqua Lakes are spotted around the metro. Only a few of these areas are of interest to visitors unless your destination is a specific restaurant or attraction.
Lake Buena Vista/ Reedy Creek
When Walt Disney was looking for the place to build his dream park, he had a couple of requirements. One was that there be enough empty land that it could be a good distance away from competing hotels, shops and restaurants. The other was his insistence that the park have the status of a municipality so that the Walt Disney Company could control tax rates, police and fire services. Southwest Orange County had 39 square miles of empty land and the Florida legislature gave Disney his town: Reedy Creek Improvement District. RCID is a bit harsh sounding for brochures, so the company adopted “Lake Buena Vista” as its nom de terre. The mayor of Reedy Creek is a Disney employee, as are the police and firemen. You could say that Lake Buena Vista is “all Disney, all the time.” There’s Downtown Disney, the shopping-and-restaurant outdoor mall, the Lake Buena Vista hotel strip within walking distance of Downtown Disney and—just over the border in Osceola County—a huge complex of more shops, hotels and restaurants that aren’t owned or licensed by Disney.
The center of Orlando was largely abandoned for decades but is undergoing a renaissance. Four large building projects—a new arena for the NBA Orlando Magic, the Dr. P. Phillips Performing Arts Center, the renovation of the Citrus Bowl football stadium and a planned commuter rail line—are reinvigorating the Downtown Orlando neighborhoods. Large office towers kept professional jobs located Downtown and, as new, mostly younger, residents have move into condos and apartments downtown, more restaurants and retail have sprung up. The Wall Street pedestrian plaza has a clutch of party bars and the Firestone and Tabu clubs showcase DJ, hip hop, reggaeton and electronic music. The Bosendorfer Lounge at the Grand Bohemian Hotel across the street from City Hall is the place for sophisticates with its nightly live jazz and extensive contemporary art collection. The King Corona Lounge just north on Orange Avenue has a riotously large collection of cigars, a sleek bar and live music on weekends.
Immediately adjacent to Downtown and centered at Washington and Summerlin, Thornton Park was the first of Orlando's neighborhoods to benefit from urban pioneering. One of the city’s best restaurants, Hue, is here. The area is bounded on the west by Lake Eola, the city’s centerpiece park with broad walking lanes, grassy fields, a central fountain, amphitheater and playground. Urban Think Bookstore stocks all the books you won’t find at Barnes & Noble and is the modern version of a 1960s coffeehouse complete with Spoken Word competitions and a latté bar.
International Drive runs north to south, roughly paralleling I-4 about 10 miles from Walt Disney World. This isn’t an Orlando neighborhood in the traditional sense: no one lives here. Instead, it’s one of the city’s primary entertainment and hotel districts. You’re as likely to run into a Londoner as you are an Orlandoan. There are attractions—the Wet ’n’ Wild water park, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Wonderworks—resorts and dozens of restaurants, including a couple of pretty good ones (Dux at the Peabody Hotel, Everglades at the Rosen Center and the Pointe Orlando group). If you’re looking for kitsch, you'll find it on I-Drive: T-shirt shops, all-you-can-eat buffets and discount attraction tickets. Pointe Orlando is a bit of a reprieve; the complex near the Orange County Convention Center houses BB King’s Blues Club, Tommy Bahama’s, Armani Exchange, Kiehl’s, six good restaurants and an Imax/3D theater. The I-Ride Trolley is an easy way to get around.
This is Orlando’s Grosse Pointe: Established, old money, brick streets and BMWs. Park Avenue is separated from the railroad tracks by Central Park, and a grid of brick streets overhung by century-old oaks leads to the campus of Rollins College, a prestigious private liberal arts school. The avenue is lined with excellent restaurants and watering holes including Luma (modern American), Bosphorus (Turkish), Circa (classic American), Park Plaza Gardens (American), The Wine Room (huge wine selection) and good moderate-priced eateries such as Panullo’s (Italian), Panera Bread (sandwiches and coffee) and Palmano’s (Mediterranean and coffee). Most have outdoor seating, and in the evenings after the heat has passed, the people who actually run Orlando hang out at tables under the oaks. Just beyond the retail are street after street of older homes, including some spectacular Mediterranean mansions, many, unfortunately, hidden behind high walls and hedges. The city is squeezed in between a chain of lakes, the largest of which (Virginia, Maitland, Osceola and Mizell) are connected by narrow canals. A terrific boat tour that leaves from the dock at the east end of Morse Avenue will show you what you can’t see from the street; how that other half really lives.
As the founder of the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman, once famously said, “If you remember the ’60s, you weren’t really there.” Most of the folks who hang out in Audubon Park are too young to remember the Summer of Love, but they would have fit right in. The two-block area at the intersection of Corrine Drive and Winter Park Drive has the corner on funk. Most days it’s easy to zip by and see nothing but aging strip centers, but on Wednesday nights and weekends, the community gathers: guys in skinny jeans with radio knobs inset into their earlobes repairing bicycles, a tarot card reader, representatives of an organic food co-op, aging hippies and young kids swirl in and around Stardust Video & Coffee. Across the street, Park Avenue CD is the area headquarters for vintage and re-issue vinyl recordings.
Named for its central intersection—Mills Avenue and SR 50—this was once a thriving Orlando neighborhood for military families. As the nearby Orlando Naval Training Center and McCoy Air Force Base wound down and closed the area of small homes fell on hard times. In the 1970s Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian families began moving in, revitalizing the district. It now has a half-dozen Asian supermarkets and outstanding Asian restaurants (Little Saigon, Pho 88, Viet Garden). Affordable housing and ethnic diversity has attracted young couples to settle here, encouraging more nightlife such as the renovated Cameo Theater, Plaza Theater and Roxy. There’s also an Asian botanical shop for all of your goatweed and eel-extract needs.