Five Myths About Living in Central Florida
Central Florida can be every bit as seductive as South Beach. For starters, it’s the world capital of natural springs. Nowhere else on the planet can you find more of these cool, transparent fountains of youth than the wilds just north of Orlando. Add to it the appeal of living on the edge of the Ocala National Forest and the deal gets sweeter.
There are tons of rivers, wilderness areas, orange groves and secluded beaches all within an hour’s drive. You can kayak, hike, skydive and swim all year round.
While much of the state has lost its sense of the old Florida described in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novels (e.g., “The Yearling”), many areas in and around Volusia, Lake, Marion, Alachua and Seminole counties remain relatively unchanged, beckoning to those who’ve become soured on city life. Gentle rolling sandy hills, moss-covered oaks and sabal palms define the landscape here, while deer, raccoons, armadillos, and flocks of exotic birds abound.
(above) the house where Marjorie Rawlings wrote The Yearling typifies the feel of Old Florida
Miami certainly has its own charms, but this landscape just four hours north offers a pleasing contrast. The question is, do you make Miami the main course of your life and enjoy a little country tranquility on the side? Or do you make the countryside your main focus, heading south when the mood strikes?
I made it my mission to answer that question. As I mentioned last week, I decided last year to take the plunge, forsaking some 20 years of city life for a comparatively more peaceful one in DeLand, Florida, a picturesque town of some 28,000 located between Orlando and Daytona. I was encouraged by the allure of lower rent, friendlier faces, and lower density living. So how much of this experience lived up to my expectations and how much was pure delusion? Here are the five biggest false assumptions I discovered I had about life here:
MYTH #I: THINGS ARE MORE BACKWARD AND CONSERVATIVE
South Floridians often assume that once you hit Jupiter, people are either gator farmers or migrant farm workers. But I was pleased to discover that a lot of the people in my adopted city of DeLand were well-educated professionals from a variety of different countries. In fact, many of them flocked here from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, as those towns were starting to become overbuilt.
I was surprised to see that in the last presidential election, Volusia County actually went blue.
From what I’ve observed, things tend to get more conservative the further west you go. Cities like Fort Myers are infinitely more conservative than those in Volusia County, which maintains more of the “do your own thing” outlook of the local outlaw biker crowd.
Like South Florida, most of the population in Central Florida came from somewhere else. There are a lot of blue collar families from the northeast, from states like Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, a good number of those afore-mentioned bikers, and a hefty helping of retirees. However, universities like Stetson in DeLand counter that crowd with an affluent ivory league assortment of students and professors alike (though not to the degree which I’d hoped). The skydiving facilities bring in a fair amount of daredevil Europeans at regular intervals, while the back-to-nature and New Age crowds also make their presence known.
This is not to say that the conservative mindset no longer has a foothold here: Christians take to the intersections of downtown DeLand every Friday evening with signs urging people to repent or perish. But, lest ye forget, Rush Limbaugh, Anita Bryant, and the Trinity Broadcasting Network are products of South Florida!
MYTH #2: PEOPLE ARE FRIENDLIER HERE
I came here expecting to reclaim that sense of community I felt was lacking in South Florida, only to find that things were just as dysfunctional here. Sure, they’re more civil and polite. The bag boys at Publix might even offer to take your groceries out to your car. Service in restaurants is also a lot friendlier. However, since so many people moved here from someplace else, people tend to circulate within their own little bubbles, surfacing only at annual events such as chili cook-offs, art fairs, and motorcycle festivals. Miami has no monopoly on social alienation.
Last Halloween, for example, I rushed to Wal-Mart at the last minute to stock up on candy, anticipating a mob of trick-or-treaters. I was shocked to discover that not one kid showed up. At least in South Beach I could’ve at least dressed up as Iron Man and hit Lincoln Road.
MYTH #3: COSMOPOLITAN ESCAPE, THY NAME IS ORLANDO?
Part of my initial sales pitch for moving to DeLand included, “...And Orlando is close by whenever I have any big city needs.” I failed to take into consideration just what a miserable wasteland of urban living Orlando really is. Beyond its identity as a repository for expensive theme parks, the city feels like a massively sprawled out collection of Olive Gardens, gas stations, and souvenir shops, surrounded by some picturesque lakes and a few really dumpy ghettos. Aside from a couple of redeveloped shopping areas like International Drive and Winter Park, I still have virtually no idea of where to go or what to do there, or how to avoid the toll roads I’d have to take to find out.
I would try to learn more about the place by watching the local newscasts, but the first nine months of my time here, they were devoted in near entirety to the saga of missing/slain toddler Caylee Anthony and the Jerry Springeresque crowd camped out on the family’s lawn.
The good news is that I seldom find myself going stir crazy in DeLand. There are enough neighborhood bars to go out for an occasional drink, if I get the urge to go out at night; in South Beach, I could never afford to go out to the expensive clubs, so I was pretty much in the same boat.
MYTH #4: THINGS ARE CHEAPER HERE
While the idea of renting an entire 2 bedroom house with a 2-car garage and huge yard for only $795 a month had me chomping at the bit to become a Delandite, I was soon to realize that other things are more expensive—namely, utilities.
Case in point: the local electric service combines the worst of both worlds—it’s a for profit company with no competition, named, ironically enough, Progress Energy. They charge you a fee to start your service, as well as a $267 deposit for those with insufficient credit. They will disconnect service if you’re late by only a couple of weeks, and continue to send you disconnect notices even after you make payment arrangements with them. Things would never have gone that far, except that they decided to abruptly raise their rates by 25% last January, citing an increase in fuel costs and a desire to build a couple of nuclear plants at the ratepayers’ expense. Suffice it to say, that didn’t go over so well with their already stretched-to-the-limit customers, so they reduced their rate increase a few months later by about 11%—only to apply for a new increase this summer. Our electric bill in March was a whopping $224. And that was for running the central heat for only about 7 nights.
In Miami, the electric utility is municipally-owned, offering much more reasonable rates.
Groceries also tend to be more pricey. The abundance in competition down Miami-way keeps things more reasonable—but here, that bottle of Malbec you could get for a song in South Beach at the Meridian Market will set you back a good $9.
MYTH #5: YOU WON’T NEED THE CAR AS MUCH
...or so I thought! I chose DeLand largely because of its walkable downtown villagey atmosphere. I didn’t take into account, however, that aside from a few restaurants and bars, the businesses mostly consist of candy shops, ice cream stores, crafts supplies and other things I don’t have much daily use for. The supermarkets are located on the outskirts of town, which means I spend more time in the car now than I did living in Miami.
And another thing about life in small towns: the Wal-Mart sucks you in! You can’t escape it. You may think you want to shop locally, but you ultimately wind up there. Outside IHOP and Denny’s, Wal-Mart is the only business in town that stays open 24 hours, which explains why its parking lot is the leading gathering place for wayward teens on weekend nights.
THE BENEFIT OF HINDSIGHT
Looking at the big picture, despite the mild disillusionment, I’m basically happy here—because, now, when I do start sweating the small stuff, I can gaze out the window and look at the squirrels jumping in the trees, the hummingbirds flitting from flower to flower, or the raccoons going after the neighbor’s garbage. If I were 20, I might feel the call of Miami’s bright lights a little more, but now, I’m okay with enjoying it only occasionally. It’s not that I couldn’t feel comfortable in a city again, but it would have to combine the mellowness of DeLand with the excitement of Miami. You get jaded in your old age…
You Deserve More Than an Ordinary Vacation.
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