Orlando was once described to me as "the world's biggest airport terminal," and I've never been able to shake that image. Its skyline in the popular imagination consists of the Epcot ball, the Cinderella Castle, and a sprawling procession of souvenir shops, chain restaurants, billboards, and 10-lane boulevards sweeping across Central Florida. In sum, one hucksterish blob of generic America, plus mouse ears.
But -- and there is a but! -- Orlando has quietly been growing beyond its theme-park roots. No longer a mere glut of vacationers and every chain restaurant in history, it's one of America's most surprisingly dynamic places. Almost 50 years after Disney put training wheels on Orlando, you'll find a real city there -- in one of the country's 30 largest metro areas -- with a real identity. And it's attracting young, creative people looking for a cheap place to set up shop, amid a town that's uncommonly savvy about how it wants to evolve.
The next time you're going to see Goofy, set aside time to visit Orlando proper. The city is a living graduate course in how smart urban planning can create a vibrant, creative landscape equally fun to live in or visit.