Home to Walt Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios, the Orlando, FL area is one of the most visited regions in America. But with the country's second-largest university in its backyard, a diverse population, a booming sports sector, and vibrant arts and cultural scene, it's easy to see why this tourist capital is also one of the best places to live.
Education at the Top of Its Class
The Orlando area boasts more than two dozen public and private colleges and universities, including the University of Central Florida, Rollins College, Florida A&M University College of Law and Valencia College, which was named the community college in the country and awarded the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer says having so many higher education choices enhances not only the city's quality of life but also helps with economic development.
“The University of Central Florida is an economic engine for the community and is known for its variety of programs,” Dyer says. “Both Valencia [College] and UCF are great partners in the community in terms of recognizing the needs of our workforce and creating degree programs that focus on those areas.”
Dyer says the workforce development efforts begin long before college. The metro area's exceptional public school systems equip students with 21st-century skills and prepare them to compete in the global marketplace. The Orange County Public Schools system exceeds the state's average graduate rate, and 17 of the district's high schools were named Top of the Class by the Washington Post. Neighboring Seminole County Public Schools system ranked in the top 4 percent by Newsweek for the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests taken, and three of its high schools were featured as a Best High School by U.S. News & World Report.
America's Melting Pot
The Orange County school system is comprised of students from more than 200 different countries and is a good reflection of Orlando's cultural diversity. Hispanics and African-Americans make up more than 40 percent of the population.
“I always say diversity is our greatest strength, and I truly believe that. We've been able to assimilate people from all over the world into our community. We have a richness in terms of diversity and different ways of thinking. We're also a very tolerant and accepting community; we're diverse in terms of gay rights,” Dyer says, also noting that Orlando consistently ranks as one of the top LGTB-friendly communities in the country.
Orlando was one of the first cities in the state to adopt a domestic partnership registry – which now includes more than 1,200 couples – and Dyer says he hopes the city will one day host the state's first same-sex marriage.
Quality of This Place
Diversity is but one of a long list of Orlando's attractive quality-of-life amenities. Central Florida's year-round sunny and mild climate allows for a selection of outdoor recreation activities from golf and tennis to water sports and biking. Orlando is home to the Golf Channel, and the USTA (United States Tennis Association) is locating its headquarters here. The city claims the title 'Wakeboard Capital of the World,' and has also hosted the Professional Paintball League World Cup for the last decade.
“We have a sports arena that the Commissioner of the NBA called the best in the world,” Dyer says, referring to the Amway Center where the Orlando Magic play. “We reopened the Orlando Citrus Bowl in November 2014, and we just broke ground on a new [$110 million, 19,500-seat] MLS soccer stadium downtown.”
Dyer says the city's efforts toward sustainability also add to Orlando's livability.
“Orlando is the most sustainable city in the southeast. We have made a great effort over the last eight years with our Green Works Orlando Program,” he says. “We have several LEED-certified fire stations. We've converted our traffic lights and signals to LED lighting, and we created a wetlands park that treats waste water coming from the water treatment facility.”