What It's Like to Live in a Tourist Town
Locals share the ups and downs of living in five world-famous vacation destinations.
Once a city of cattle ranches and citrus groves, Orlando is now an international vacation destination. Known for tourist attractions and theme parks like Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, and, of course, Walt Disney World, the Orlando metropolitan area sees close to 50 million visitors each year. Pete Schreiber, an Orlando resident of four years, shares what it's like to live in the city that Mickey built.
Getting around: A native of New York, Schreiber is no stranger to maneuvering through tough traffic. Those skills come in handy in Orlando, where congestion is common on Interstate 4 and in the tourist district south of downtown. While vacationers may be the source of some of this traffic, Schreiber says plenty of people visit the Orlando area but never see the city itself, since Disney and other companies offer transportation straight from the airport to the resorts.
Owning a home: Orlando has many diverse neighborhoods to suit a wide range of tastes -- even those looking for a Disneyesque atmosphere. Celebration, a master-planned community developed by the Walt Disney Company, offers a picture-perfect appearance reminiscent of Disney's Main Street USA. A road called World Drive connects the community to Disney, so Celebration residents can get to the parks without using busy highways.
Celebration may make a convenient home base for Disney World employees, but Orlando residents who don't want the squeaky-clean Disney vibe have plenty of other neighborhoods to choose from.
Finding fun: For some residents, Orlando’s popular tourist attractions are the reason they call the city home. "I've heard of people deciding to move to Orlando because they were such a fan of the theme parks," Schreiber says.
Even for locals who aren't avid park enthusiasts, it's hard to avoid the presence of the parks. Schreiber enjoys going to concerts, and the two main music venues in the city are Hard Rock Live, located at Universal Studios CityWalk, and House of Blues at Downtown Disney. "There's really no escaping it," he says.
Tallying the cost of living: Schreiber says there’s definitely some price gouging for people vacationing in Orlando: One-day, adult tickets are priced upwards of $75 for the area's most popular theme parks, and chain restaurants tend to get more expensive closer to the resorts.
But tourist destinations aside, Schreiber says Orlando's cost of living is moderate compared to other areas in the state and other cities he's lived in. "The cost of living may outweigh some places, but it's not as expensive as other places like Miami or New York. It's all relative," Schreiber says.
Most famous for the four-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard known as the Strip, Las Vegas draws in more than 35 million visitors each year in search of nonstop gaming, world-class cuisine and fabulous shopping. Despite the millions of visitors the city receives, Alyssa Anderson, a Las Vegas resident of eight years, thinks of the Nevada city as "a big small town."
"We have all the great advantages of living in a big city -- amazing food, great entertainment -- but when you live here, it's like six degrees of separation. Everybody knows everybody somehow," she says.
Getting around: During major holiday weekends, Anderson says Las Vegas locals abide by one important rule: Avoid the Strip. Last year, Anderson made the mistake of forgetting this rule two days before New Year's Eve, when she attempted to drive from one hotel on the Strip to another for a business meeting.
"Normally, the drive would take less than five minutes, and it took me more than half an hour," she says. "I thought, 'What a rookie mistake I just made. Why did I think I could just hop in the car and get from point A to point B two days before New Year's Eve?'"
Owning a home: The words "Las Vegas" often conjure images of glittering lights, casinos and quickie wedding chapels. But venture beyond the neon lights into the neighborhoods surrounding the Strip -- where most Las Vegas locals live -- and you'll find classic suburbia, Anderson says.
"You've got your malls and your shopping centers with your grocery stores," she says. "Sure, you go to the gas station and there might be slot machines on one side, but after you've lived here awhile you sort of block that stuff out."
Finding fun: Anderson first moved to Las Vegas when she was 22, hoping to get a small market under her belt in the television news business. "It's a great place to be in your 20s -- every weekend you have the opportunity to be a tourist," she says. Now, she still enjoys an occasional night out on the Strip.
"The Strip is a huge part of our town -- it creates the majority of the jobs -- but most locals only go there if they've got people visiting from out of town or if they're having a special night out," she says.
Tallying the cost of living: Las Vegas was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, and the city’s home prices are now at their lowest levels since they peaked three or four years ago. Anderson and her husband currently own a condo, but they’re trading up to a house because of the great deals. But while buying a home may be affordable, the city's status as a top vacation destination makes other aspects of living in Las Vegas pricey.
"We get spoiled because we have such great dining and entertainment options, but at the same time, it's expensive because it's tourist prices," Anderson says. "In the neighborhoods it's much cheaper, but if you want to go out on the Strip, you have to pay a little extra to enjoy what the tourists do."
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y.
Straddling the international border between the U.S. and Canada, Niagara Falls is a destination for 12 million honeymooners, nature lovers and other vacationers each year. While the Canadian side offers stunning panoramic views of the falls, the New York side offers a distinctly intimate experience, says Susan Swiatkowski, a Niagara Falls resident of 36 years.
"You can really get up close and personal with each of the falls on the American side," she says. "You can actually feel the mist from the falls and dip your toes in the water."
Getting around: Between construction and an influx of visitors, summer traffic can get a bit tricky in Niagara Falls, particularly during major holidays. But it's nothing that locals can't handle. Swiatkowski says residents of the city are used to planning trips in advance and using GPS to navigate detours.
And instead of a grueling, unenjoyable commute, Swiatkowski's daily drive to work lets her gaze at the Niagara River, wildlife and -- about once a week -- a rainbow. ("When I catch a rainbow, I figure it's going to be a good day," she says.)
"You could get immune to it since you see it so often, but I try to see what tourists see with fresh eyes each day," she says.
Owning a home: Swiatkowski says property ownership tends to be more affordable in Niagara Falls than in other cities, making it a great place to live and raise a family. Besides owning a home, many residents are also able to own a boat, take vacations and afford other luxuries not necessarily feasible in other cities.
"I have a lot of friends who left during college and are bringing their families back here because they want to raise their children the way they were raised, with big backyards and knowing their neighbors," she says.
Finding fun: The Niagara Falls State Park offers miles of trail systems for hiking, cycling and running, making the city an ideal home for outdoor enthusiasts. "It's something people plan an entire vacation over, and we can do it practically every day if we want to," Swiatkowski says. During the summer, Swiatkowski tries to walk over to the falls at least once a week, and it's still breathtaking every time, she says.
Swiatkowski also loves the summer season because it's jam-packed with free and inexpensive events, including concerts, art festivals and food festivals. "Even though I love going on vacations, I never take them during the summer because I would rather stay home," Swiatkowski says.
Tallying the cost of living: Overall, Swiatkowski says the cost of living in Niagara Falls is extremely reasonable: The homes are affordable, the cost of dining out is on par with other cities she's visited, and there's always something free or inexpensive to do. Gas prices are sometimes higher than surrounding areas, but it's worth it for the other advantages of living in the city.
"I think the things we rejoice over are a lot greater than the things we nitpick about," she says. "I wouldn't have stayed otherwise."
WAIKIKI, HONOLULU, HAWAII
The two-mile stretch of Waikiki Beach -- with its glistening white sand, high-rise hotels and stunning Diamond Head backdrop -- is an iconic image of Hawaii. While Waikiki draws the majority of Hawaii's 7 million annual visitors, the area is also a vibrant neighborhood, home to more than 20,000 residents. Jerry Agrusa, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University, has enjoyed Waikiki's climate, clean air and convenience for nine years.
Getting around: Agrusa can easily walk or bike nearly anywhere he needs to go in Waikiki, but driving is another story. The community is a small peninsula with only two bridges in and out, so during rush hour and major events, you can often walk faster than you can drive. But even stuck in gridlocked traffic, road rage is somehow easier to suppress in Hawaii.
"It can take me 30 minutes to travel two miles -- but you look over to your right, and the beach is across the street," he says. "People wait their whole lives just to see that."
Owning a home: Honolulu has the third-most expensive homes in the nation and the second-highest rental rates, according to a ranking by audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG LLP. Agrusa says even modest homes in Waikiki can easily cost upwards of $600,000.
The high cost of owning a home combined with Hawaiian customs has led to an atypical housing solution: An AARP analysis of census data showed that Hawaii has the highest share of multigenerational households in the country. Agrusa says it's common for children, parents and grandparents to all live under one roof.
Finding fun: Thanks to the large volume of tourists that come through the Waikiki area, diverse restaurants, shopping areas and other businesses are able to thrive -- a benefit for visitors and locals alike. One of the world's largest open-air malls, the Ala Moana Shopping Center, is located in Honolulu.
When it comes to finding fun, Agrusa says there's a lot of overlap among residents and vacationers. "It's an outdoor place," he says. "If you do outdoor things -- go to the beach, go surfing, go boogie boarding -- then that's what the tourists are doing too." He also says it's not uncommon for locals to interact with tourists, helping them find their way around the island and recommending areas to visit.
"I think that's part of the Aloha Spirit," he says.
Tallying the cost of living: Several factors make Hawaii one of the most expensive places in the U.S. to live: Real estate prices have soared, the state has the highest utility costs in the country, and most food and other goods must be imported from the mainland. While locals have found ways to alleviate the high cost of living -- such as buying food in bulk at warehouse clubs like Costco -- Agrusa says this issue needs to be addressed, or Hawaii will become unaffordable for average residents. "Tourism is the number one industry, and it's so labor intensive," Agrusa says. "How are you supposed to get people to work?"
Spanning more than 800 square miles over Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park welcomes up to 10 million visitors per year, making it the most-visited national park in the U.S. Alissa Bosley Rayfield, who has lived 10 miles north of the park in Sevierville since 1999, says the Great Smoky Mountains area is a beautiful place to live, and she hopes it stays that way.
"The only downside is that the more people who come to visit, the more commercial it gets," Rayfield says. "There are always two sides to the coin -- you have more and more people coming to visit because of the natural beauty of the area, but you don't want it to be destroyed in the process."
Getting around: Traffic is nearly always a concern when living next to the Smoky Mountains, Rayfield says. The area experiences a short off-season between Valentine's Day and spring break, but every other weekend it's filled with visitors. And since businesses in the area are mostly tourist-oriented, locals sometimes have to drive a long way in the heavy traffic to partake in non-tourist activities, such as seeing a movie. There's only one movie theater in all of Sevier County, located on the northern edge of Sevierville.
"So, if you're in Gatlinburg and you want to go to the movies, you have to plan ahead for time consideration or you may not make it to the movie you want to see," Rayfield says.
Owning a home: Rayfield currently rents, but she spends a lot of time looking at local real estate. In her searches, she's noticed a lot of cabins for sale in the area -- great if you're looking for a vacation home, but not necessarily practical if you're a full-time resident.
"If you're looking for a home to buy -- especially a starter home -- you don't want to buy a one-bedroom, one-bathroom cabin on the side of a mountain," she says.
Finding fun: One perk of living near the Smokies, Rayfield says, is there's always something fun to do.
"Even if you don't have a lot of money -- especially in the economy right now -- you can always go to the mountains and hike or just walk around all the nature trails," she says. The park is a hiker's paradise with more than 800 miles of maintained trails, but there are also areas for fishing, picnicking and wildlife viewing.
Tallying the cost of living: Between sales taxes, entertainment taxes and hotel taxes in Sevier County, the Smoky Mountains area can be a pricey place to live or vacation. But finding a job is fairly easy thanks to all the restaurants and attractions, Rayfield says, and being employed in Sevier County can come with perks.
"The city governments have been good about helping locals do things that tourists get to do," she says. "If you work for a business that advertises Dollywood [a theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., owned by country music singer Dolly Parton], you can get free tickets to Dollywood. So, certain businesses do give back."