Orlando. The happiest place on earth. While some people rightly give that accolade to Tijuana, the Mouse, Harry Potter, Shamu, and restaurants with jousting arenas do actually put O'town in the top spot. The galactic infrastructure required to run the parks, feed, house, and sell timeshares to the area's 50 million annual visitors make up the Lion King's share of Orlando's spirit. But there is more. Banking, logistics, and aerospace all have a notable presence in Orlando, and let us not forget it’s home to our beloved Tupperware. Despite the many goings-on, Orlando is small. Only 200,000 people (a number closely matched by Disney World's daily attendance) call the city home, which means that the areas surrounding Orlando (Lake Buena Vista, Kissimmee, Celebration, and Winter Garden) are both thickly settled and very much part of the tourist and resident scene.
There is a common misconception that if you live in Orlando, you live near a theme park. Not true. You live near 10. Get used to it. But also revel in it. Tourist dollars make your dollar go further (plus local discounts). Additionally, if there is a restaurant or shop you liked in some other city, chances are it, or a reasonable facsimile, is somewhere nearby - you see, it makes a great deal of sense to ply one's wares in the most popular tourist destination in the Milky Way. So, now that you're over it, let's choose the best theme park, I mean neighborhood, for you.
Orlando proper: If you don’t work in the theme park industry (or simply don’t like being in its literal shadow), the city of Orlando itself can still be for you. It has become downright enchanting all on its own (or maybe with a little help from the vendors of magic and dreams a few miles away) & if it's breezy, old-school, orange grove mellow Florida you seek, it's here. If it's Manhattan-posh high rise living, lakes, farmer's markets, pro sports, performing arts, and dozens of hip, non-themed restaurants and bars that bring out the over-21 year old kid in you, get to Orlando. Thornton Park, Lake Eola, and the Central Business District make up the chicest core of Orlando's downtown area and the prices reflect this. $925 for a 1BR. $1,200 for a 2BR. $1,350 for a loft worthy of Michael Eisner.
Lake Buena Vista: Quite possibly the city with the most mysteriously intriguing pedigree of any in the country. LBV is the home of The Walt Disney World Resort (Walt bought up thousands of acres using phony names and shell companies so as not to attract attention and drive up prices for this once desolate Florida swampland). Lake Buena Vista is an exceptional rarity because, although an incorporated state municipality, it is privately controlled... by guess who. Also, LBV has a total population of 40. Lake Buena Vista is simply the de facto moniker for the general Disney area. LBV is the mostly heavily touristed region in the world, and has every imaginable store, souvenir, chain restaurant, theme restaurant, high-end restaurant, and lodging that exists or soon will. The apartments here are mainly big complexes with island motif names - resplendent with pools, fountains, artificial lakes, landscaped grounds, and they are all about the same. Seek opinions about management and maintenance in gleaning your best choice. $800 for a nice 1 BR. $950 for a 2 BR.
Kissimmee: Not dissimilar to Lake Buena Vista - a few miles south, less frenetic, and marginally less expensive.
Celebration: An entirely Disney designed (but no longer company owned) master community, Celebration is, literally, as though it is from a Disney movie. Directly connected to the Magic Kingdom (but not as close as LBV), the architecture, piers, post-office, movie theater, restaurants, and shops have a Twilight Zone eerie perfection. If you drop a gum wrapper on the ground in Celebration, you immediately become the town's public enemy #1 - it's that clean. There is a dearth of 1 BR accommodations here, so Celebration is best suited for families or roommates with a desire for an easy commute to Disney. Around $675 per month for a 1 BR (outskirts), $1,200 for 2 BR (central)and $1,500 for a 3BR (central).
Winter Garden: Winter Garden is a pleasant small city with a country feel, right on Lake Apopka - Florida's third largest. Just west of Orlando, Winter Garden has a little bit of everything and lots of fishing. $600 for a 1 BR, $800 for 2.
Dr. Phillips/Bay Hill: All this talk about Disney, what about Universal? Okay... the communities of Dr. Phillips (Ever wanted a town named after you? Apparently, Phillip Phillips, MD did and got his wish) and Bay Hill are the closest to Universal (and Seaworld), and this is some of the priciest real estate in the metro region (Tiger Woods lives one town over). Very few apartments, several house rentals though - mostly 3 BR, some 2BR from $1,300 - $2,500.
Orlando isn't the most pet friendly rental scene in the country. While it's all-systems-go for pets in some developments, you'll find many high-rises have a no-pet policy or strict weight restrictions and/or fees. "Conditional" or "Considered" are terms you will come across when searching for pet-friendly apartments in Orlando.
As Walt Disney himself once said, "If you can dream it you can do it, but in Orlando you will need a car for all that." Well, he said the first part anyway.
Comfortable shoes, a hat, sun screen, bottled water... check. Oh wait, that's for a day at Blizzard Beach, what do I need for my apartment hunt?
Due to the abundance of transient job seekers (the theme parks alone employ almost 100,000 and many such workers treat these gigs as a crossroad) and Florida is just that way, expect to be asked to prove job security, savings, or positive multi-year rental history. Upscale Orlando rentals can be priced slightly high for overall market conditions - that's due to a lot of economic factors way too boring to discuss here - so there's often incentives to be seized. If you're willing to sign a lease of at least 12 months, and you don't see an incentive advertised, ask or negotiate for it - reread the previous sentence.
The truth is that living in Orlando and its surrounding neighborhoods, you will feel no more imposed upon by the plethora of parks than the people of Las Vegas do by the Strip: it's there, everyone's aware it’s there, and it’s generally avoided whenever possible. The theme parks can't be seen from the apartment enclaves, wherever they may be, but they are nice to have. They're fun to visit (locals discounts and specials are generous) and, when your relatives are coming down with the kiddies and insist on staying with you, at least they'll be out of your place for 14 hours a day - waiting in lines.