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Home Sweet Home

A look at Central Florida’s top towns and buzzing neighborhoods.

Ask someone what they love about living here and undoubtedly you’ll get a mix of responses with one common theme: lots of civic pride. The surrounding communities have lots to offer, from tranquil park settings and buzzworthy restaurants to top-notch schools and cutting-edge medical facilities. With so many great resources at our disposal, it’s easy to see why this area is a great place to live, work and play.

In order to better understand what makes our top towns tick, we dug deep into these areas to compile a ranking using key data compiled from the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida Department of Education as well as county tax offices and Zillow, the online real estate marketplace. We then devised a weighted formula that combined property value, median household income and high school performance (consisting of average SAT scores and graduation rates).

Furthermore, we are shining a spotlight on several neighborhoods that are experiencing exciting periods of growth and activity. The bottom line is the sum is greater than the parts and it’s just another example of why we love calling this place home.

1. Windermere
The town of Windermere holds tightly to it quaintness with its purposely unpaved roads and small-town charm. This isthmus was settled by British settlers in the late 1800s and has gone on to become one of the most coveted zip codes in Greater Orlando. That was evident in our research as Windermere’s average residential property value topped our list at about $412,500 and, subsequently, the town also holds the top slot for median income at $127,344.

It should be noted that the actual town of Windermere is quite small and does not include Isleworth or Lake Butler; however the areas are often conflated and collectively referred to as Windermere. In 2007, there was an attempt to annex Isleworth in to Windermere but the motion failed. Located among the Butler Chain of Lakes, Windermere takes great pride in keeping its waters beautiful and, if for this reason alone, this town will continue to be a prized place to live.

2. Dr. Phillips
The Dr. Phillips name holds a lot of weight in Orlando. So, it’s no wonder that the census-designated area called Dr. Phillips has long been a desirable zip code. That was reflected in our lists this year as Dr. Phillips nabbed third place for median income. Education in this community is also a serious draw for families. The local high school consistently has a 98 percent graduation rate. And, with Restaurant Row and the proximity to Universal Orlando, I-Drive, top golf courses and more, there is no lack of excitement in this locale.

The landscape of Dr. Phillips is always changing and there is currently plenty of development going on that indicates the area will only be moving up in terms of quality of life and livability. Current plans include the building of a relief high school, the creation of several new subdivisions that will provide hundreds of new family homes, and the addition of a $75 million senior living and health care center to debut in the heart of the community on Della Drive.

3. Winter Park
The city of Winter Park is one of the major success stories in Greater Orlando’s history. Originally created as a resort for wealthy snowbirds, the city blossomed into a center for culture, arts, shopping and dining. Education is a huge boon for this area as well. The city is home to the private liberal arts school of Rollins College. This dedication to education is shown in the area’s SAT scores for which Winter Park easily leaped over this year’s competition with an average score of 1076.

The city of Winter Park is dedicated to continuing its legacy as a Central Florida gem. The longstanding sidewalk art festival, the annual Dinner on the Avenue and its holiday happenings (Santa takes a ride around the neighborhoods in a “sleigh” to say hello to the kids and an ice rink is set up each year during Christmas- time) still attract thousands. Additionally, the city is routinely ranked on national lists for its dining scene and vibrant living. That’s not likely to change, considering the city recently made a renewed commitment to continuing to be a destination by updating its vision to say it is “the city of arts and culture.”

4. Celebration
Famously known as the community that Walt Disney built, Celebration is a stone’s throw from the Walt Disney World Resort. This master- planned community was built to be an antidote to the seclusion of the suburbs and in that regard it succeeds with its quaint Main Street, walkability and hyper focus on family.

This census-designated area is still growing with new development coming to the area’s southernmost parcel. Homebuilder Mattamy Homes entered an agreement with The Celebration Company to purchase 350 acres of the Island Village section of the community last year and is working to add single-family homes and apartments, as well as setting aside land for parks, civic use, neighborhood commercial space and a K-5 school.

5. Alafaya
Alafaya is the largest place on our list at 38 square miles and with a population of about 78,000 people. This shouldn’t be surprising considering the census-designated area dominates much of East Orlando. Positioned just below the University of Central Florida, Alafaya is a mix of apartments marketed toward students and subdivisions with family homes.

Two of the area’s most prominent neighborhood communities for families, Waterford Lakes and Avalon Park, stand out in Alafaya for their amenities and design. Avalon Park possesses live-work spaces, townhomes, single-family homes and a walkable “downtown” area. Meanwhile Waterford Lakes, which consists of 25 subdivisions, has the Waterford Town Center that features a movie theater, dining and shopping. Featuring a lot of relatively new construction (much of the housing here was built in the last 20 years), East Orlando still has more development to come. Florida Hospital recently announced a new 24-bed freestanding emergency room to be built nearby and a $45 million luxury apartment complex is set to go up in this area as well.

6. Conway
Just a few miles southeast of Downtown Orlando, the Conway area provides suburban living with easy access to the nightlife and entertainment venues located in Downtown Orlando. Considered one of Orlando’s first suburbs, this census-designated area like much of early Central Florida was once dotted with orange groves.

Although largely strip malls and subdivisions, this locale has seen a bit of a renaissance during the past couple of years with craft breweries like Ocean Sun Brewing moving in and new eateries like Pizza Bruno and Cork and Fork opening up. In fact, Orange County and local developers have also caught wind of the potential of this area and are working to establish the “Hourglass District” at the corner of Curry Ford Road and Bumby Avenue. The plan, as told by the district’s developers, is to create a more walkable neighborhood akin to the successful Main Streets found in communities like Winter Garden and Winter Park.

7. Maitland
Arts and culture are a part of the fabric of Maitland, one of the first suburban cities in Greater Orlando. Just north of Downtown Orlando, the city of Maitland contains an impressive number of artistic and cultural attractions: the Enzian, its independent movie theater; the Maitland Art Center; the Maitland Historical Museum; the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida; and the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, to name a few.

With its location just below Winter Park and just above Downtown Orlando, Maitland transportation has been strained, but this year the city has started to upgrade traffic signals and road engineering to accommodate the traffic burdens while also making more space for bicyclists.

The city’s most recent exciting development, the six-story Maitland City Centre has brought new dining and shopping space to the area, in addition to housing. Set smack dab in the middle of this city, the mixed-use development is an effort to bring more energy to the downtown area, but with Maitland’s established history as a premier community, the city will no doubt continue to shine.

8. Hunter’s Creek
Located on the edge of the city of Kissimmee, the planned community of Hunter’s Creek is notable for its more than 50 housing neighborhoods, which is a significant feat for a place that is just shy of 4 square miles. In a region where single-family detached homes have long been the norm, Hunter’s Creek should be lauded for the myriad of different living arrangements offered including townhomes, apartments and condos.

Although the main throughway in this area is dotted with dining, shopping, and dentists and doctors offices, Hunter’s Creek is often noted as a great place to live not because of what is located in it, but for what is just outside of it: Walt Disney World Resort, I-Drive, and the city of Kissimmee. This may be part of the reason this region was ranked 21st by Money magazine’s 2011 Best 100 Places to Live in the United States list. Today, Hunter’s Creek is still one of the best places to live in Central Florida and that was reflected by our research. Education is a top priority with a 98 percent graduation rate for the local high schools and the average residential property value hovers around $297,000, a value that puts Hunter’s Creek smack dab in the middle of our list for property values.

9. Belle Isle
Belle Isle is a city that has been established in 1924 to protest the Conway Chain of Lakes from being used for drainage by Orange County, but the town was only around for about four years before it was annexed back into the county. Twenty years after its first founding, residents reformed their municipality to protect the Conway Chain of Lakes once again from the county’s plan to use them for drainage.

Today Belle Isle still maintains its pristine lakes, which are edged by million dollar homes and are popular for recreational activities such as boating, fishing and jet skiing. Belle Isle is a deceivingly small community. It has the second-smallest population on our list but it is not the smallest in square miles—that’s because most of this city is water, which is fitting for a locale that was formed because it wanted to keep its bodies of water. While it is small in size and somewhat sequestered from the surrounding communities, Belle Isle is not insular, being located near The Florida Mall and the Orlando International Airport.

10. Winter Garden
Between the weekly events (the farmers market is every Saturday and there is a car show held quarterly, too) and the top-notch dining and shopping found in Winter Gardens Historic Downtown, the streets here are always bustling with activity. This city, like many others in this area, can attribute a lot of its current success to at one time being hooked up to the railroad, which allowed it to become a major shipping center for oranges. Today, the West Orange Trail, the 20-mile pathway that flows through Winter Garden, still has remnants that hint to its former life as a railroad track.

As far as future development goes, the city’s commission recently issued permits for construction of a new mixed-use development in the city’s core that will have apartments and a ground floor open to commercial use. This new addition will add another layer to the city’s already successful downtown in the rapidly growing West Orange area.

11. Ocoee
The city of Ocoee is eyeing its future, but that doesn’t mean it’s forgotten the past. In fact, the city’s annual Founders Day Festival, now in its 25th year, is one of the biggest events in West Orange. The event celebrates the history of the city while also throwing a raucous party with big name music acts, carnival rides, fireworks, food vendors, history tours, a classic car show and much more.

But Ocoee’s downtown pales in comparison to its neighbor, Winter Garden. The city commissioners have decided to address that with its Downtown Master Plan that has been approved and is currently underway. The plan includes tearing down City Hall and selling the waterfront property to a developer who will put in shopping or dining and creating a bike trail that will connect the West Orange Trail with downtown.

12. Kissimmee
Before Kissimmee came to be defined by its proximity to Mickey Mouse, it was very much a city of cattle ranching and orange groves. Today, cattle ranching is still very much a part of this community’s identity. In fact, each year Osceola County School students do not get Presidents Day off like most other districts. Instead they get Rodeo Day off, so they can attend the county’s annual rodeo. Kissimmee is a city and a census-designated area that covers much of the county. This area by far had the lowest average property taxes on our list at about $1,900.

The city of Kissimmee will eventually be linked to the city of Orlando by the SunRail. The train’s southern expansion project saw the construction of a rail to connect Osceola with Orange County, but Kissimmee’s station and the new 17.2-mile segment of this track have yet to open. Additionally, a $65 million project to add townhomes, commercial space, a hotel and a new 400-space parking garage is currently underway in downtown Kissimmee, just two blocks away from city’s new SunRail station.

13. Azalea Park
When it was built in the 1950s, Azalea Park was designed for young families just starting out and today it is still an affordable option, coming in at the bottom of our lists for average property values and median incomes at $181,000 and $38,000, respectively. Built on what was a grassy airfield next to the Orlando Executive Airport, this area saw some tough times starting in the ‘90s (Semoran Road boarders Azalea’s western edge and, unfortunately used to attract heroin dealers), but this crime has moved away, allowing the neighborhood to rebound significantly in the last 10 years. That has allowed companies like Florida Hospital East to invest in the area with the $80 million expansion of its Azalea Park adjacent hospital and it has also brought newcomers in who enjoy the area’s prime location of being only about four miles from downtown and having easy access to State Road 408.

This census-designated place includes two Orange County public parks: Capehart and Yucatan. Capehart is great for little ones, offering playgrounds and a splash pad, while Yucatan has sports courts and shaded playgrounds and picnic tables. The locale includes public and private high schools including Colonial High School and the faith-based Good Shepherd Catholic School. With Orlando’s real estate market rebound and more people than ever looking to move closer to downtown, Azalea Park is primed to continue its revitalization.

Around the Way
Orlando is blessed with many neighborhoods that residents are happy to be part of. Below is just a small snippet of some worth checking out.

Baldwin Park
Baldwin Park Set on Lake Baldwin, the neighborhood of Baldwin Park was formerly a military training base. The base was closed in the ’90s and developed into residential housing, public parks and retail space. Today Baldwin Park is a successful ex- ample of new urbanism and attracts lots of young professionals and families. Our research showed the median age to be just 31, the lowest of this bunch.

College Park
The neighborhood is the setting for several special events including the Beard in Baldwin Food and Wine Festival. College Park Lauded as a close-knit community that’s held on to some of the oldest buildings in Orlando, College Park is a part of Orlando’s Main Street program, which works to revitalize older commercial districts. Despite the name of this neighborhood, it does not actually have a college of its own. The title was bestowed upon the district because the names of its first streets referred to the Ivy League, hence Princeton Street, Harvard Street and Yale Street, etc.

This area, just northwest of Downtown, is broken into north (above E. Colonial Drive) and south (below E. Colonial Drive) regions. Colonialtown is hemmed by the intersection of Mills Avenue and State Road 50, an area sometimes referred to as “Little Vietnam” due to the number of Asian food stores and restaurants that have proliferated here.

SoDo (South of Downtown)
Downtown South was officially renamed SoDo (South of Downtown) in 2016. Anchored by the SoDo shopping center that holds Target as its key tenant, this neighborhood is also a member of the Main Street program, although this area is considered an emerging market. SoDo is home to the former nightclub of Pulse, which has just opened its interim memorial that honors the 49 people who were massacred here in 2016.

Lake Eola
The Lake Eola area is home to the Lake Eola Heights District and South Eola that are spread around Lake Eola Park, Orlando’s most iconic green space known for its fountain (the one in the city’s logo and on the street signs) and its non-native swans. Lake Eola Heights is a historic district with brick-lined roads and a range of architectural styles, while South Eola is more of a colloquial way to refer to the area south of lake that blends into Thornton Park.

Lake Nona
Billed as a place of and for the future, Lake Nona is one of Orlando’s newest neighborhoods. This planned community took off after the creation of Medical City, which is a biomedical and educational hub partnered with the University of Central Florida.

Audubon Park
The Audubon Park Garden District has made a name for itself as a leader in promoting organic food production and sustainable living. This neighborhood is bordered on the left by the beautiful botanical oasis that is Harry P. Leu Gardens and is home to the East End Market, which has brought much more attention to this area after it opened five years ago.

Horizon West
Located in southwest Orange County, Horizon West is a planned community that was started about 20 years ago. The creation of this neighborhood was focused on limiting the urban sprawl that had creeped ever westward from the east. The community includes five mixed-use villages clustered around a town center of retail and dining.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s June 2018 issue.