Let’s Wrap Up
It could take you years to accumulate all the information that longtimers learned by trial and error, and we know we couldn’t fit it all in here. But we hope this guide has been useful and answered at least some questions you have and maybe some you didn’t know to ask about Lakeland.
Like all cities, Lakeland has its idiosyncrasies, our one-of-a-kinds and even our secrets.
“I explain to my new neighbors that they now have the best of both worlds,” said Bill Mutz, longtime Lakeland businessman and current mayor. “They live in a close-knit community with beautiful, tree-lined neighborhoods, but they also can travel to the Gulf beaches, Central Florida theme parks and two major international airports in about an hour drive.”
To wrap up, here’s a little more info on our fair city.
Outside city limits: You are a Lakeland resident whether you live inside the city limits or live in unincorporated Lakeland. The main differences are your trash pickup, law enforcement agency and ability to vote in city elections.
Population growth: Lakeland’s combination of friendliness is beauty are becoming widely known and sought, and the city is booming. From 2010 to 2020, Lakeland’s population grew by 20 percent, according to the Central Florida Development Council. That growth is projected to continue. “If there is a real issue impacting the community, it would have to be growth. The Lakeland/Central Florida area is one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country,“ Mayor Mutz noted. “With the fast growth comes growing pains in the way of increased traffic and a bustle that certainly impacts the slower pace that many long-term residents enjoyed for decades.”
Age-Friendly Lakeland: In 2017, Lakeland received the designation of Age Friendly; the designation is administered through AARP in the United States and is a program of the World Health Organization. Age Friendly Lakeland’svision is to create a community where older adults and their families are equipped with the necessary resources to comfortably and safely age in place.
Downtown: This focal point of Lakeland has had many heydays, and downtown Lakeland returned to its splendor with a renaissance that began in the late 1990s and continues today. From eclectic eateries to theaters and businesses, downtown Lakeland comes to life during lunch hours, with families after school, and adults enjoying live music and nightlife. “There is a lively buzz around the downtown area with numerous events that take place each month,“ Mutz said. “Downtown Lakeland is a vital and enjoyable place for residents and visitors. It has been dubbed ‘Lakeland’s living room’ and truly embodies the community spirit of Lakeland.”
Lakeland Electric is a public power utility, meaning it is owned not by a private company but by the city of Lakeland. Its revenues help fund city amenities.
Local landmarks: When Lakelanders say ‘by the birthday cake’ they mean the birthday cake-shaped water tower by the Publix dairy processing plant. The Southside cleaners sign on Florida Ave with its pithy sayings is a local treasure. The Southgate Shopping Center arch with its mid-century modern design is as iconic to the city as the swans.
Public transportation: Public transit in Polk County is provided by the Citrus Connection, a service of the Lakeland Area Mass Transit District. Bus routes are all available digitally and can be tracked by GPS on a mobile browser or the MyStop mobile app. In addition to intercity buses, Greyhound Lines provides service from Lakeland’s Amtrak station with stops at nearby Winter Haven and routes to Tampa and Miami. Citrus Connection also provides transportation services for those with disabilities. In addition, Amtrak operates a train station on Main Street in downtown Lakeland.
I-4 corridor: Lakeland is advantageously situated along Interstate 4. This highway travels from Tampa to Daytona Beach and has played an important role in transportation, shipping and business. I-4 and its surrounding counties are often dubbed the “high-tech corridor,” referring to the universities, entertainment venues, sports, aerospace industry, agriscience and information technology that have relocated and thrived here in the last several decades.
Bicycling: Lakeland is ranked as a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. This means the city has high-speed roads with bike facilities, bicycle-friendly laws and bike events. To reach a higher level of bike friendliness, the league urges the city to reduce its bicycle crash rates and provide road buffers for bicyclists.
North Lakeland vs. south Lakeland: If you haven’t heard someone refer to south or north Lakeland, give it a few minutes. As much as city leaders work to unify the city, its physical expanse along with the two areas’ unique characteristics and style make the designations persist. You’ll find that residents on either side of Memorial Boulevard tend to stay in their part of town, unless they need to work or visit friends.
History: The city of Lakeland maintains a brief history of Lakeland as does the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority. The Lakeland History Room at the Lakeland Public Library is also a great source of city history, photos and artifacts.
Publix and Mr. George: You may hear people mention Mr. George. They are talking about the late George W. Jenkins, founder of Publix Super Markets Inc., one of the largest grocers in the Southeast. Lakeland-based Publix provides a helpful history.
Agriculture: While agriculture is not as large an industry as it once was in Polk County, it is still the biggest sector here. That includes citrus, cattle and aquaculture. About 30 percent of Polk County’s business revenues come from agriculture and agriculture-related industries, according to the Central Florida Development Council. Nearly half of Polk County land belongs to groves, pastures and agricultural land.
County seat: Though Lakeland is the city with the largest population in Polk County, the county seat is found in Bartow, the city to the southeast of Lakeland. Former history columnist Cinnamon Bair shares the interesting taleof how this came to be.
Reputation: Between Lakeland’s rustic roots and its white supremacist history, Lakeland has long battled a reputation as a backwoods city. Its diverse population, ethnic grocery stores and dining establishments, and progressive cultural offerings tend to defy that image. Still, be prepared to hear some good jokes about Lakeland!
The Hispanic Festival, hostedby The Hispanic Club of Lakeland, is a celebration of latin culture at Lake Mirror usually happens in October.
Christmas Parade: From small town to big city, Christmas festivals and parades are a big deal. Nothing, however, quite compares to Lakeland’s Christmas Parade, presented by the Junior League of Greater Lakeland. It’s a THING — so much so that parade-goers were putting chairs out along on the parade route three to five days before the parade before city leaders said only day-of chair placement would be acceptable.
Annual Events and Festivals
First Fridays: Every month, Downtown Lakeland shuts down several streets for its First Friday events. Thousands of visitors every month enjoy a classic car show, a makers market with crafters and artisans, and over 60 First Friday exhibitors with goodies, giveaways, and special deals. The theme of first Friday varies month to month.
PigFest in January is a must for BBQ lovers.
Flipping for Charities Kiwanis Pancake Festival in February is a chance to enjoy pancakes and games while raising money for local charities.
Mayfaire by-the-Lake: This popular two-day art festival takes over Lake Morton during Mother’s Day weekend.
Up Up and Away Florida Hot Air Balloon Festival in May: this annual event is an educational and community exposition for residents and visitors that includes hot air balloon launches, twilight glows and tethered rides; live music, vendors, food, and a myriad of activities for attendees of all ages.
Red, White and Kaboom is Lakeland’s Independence Day celebration, but don’t expect it on July 4th; the celebration, which includes fireworks over Lake Mirror, traditionally happens on July 3rd.
Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo: The annual Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo, launched in 1974, is the second largest fly-in in the United States. Each April, 200,000 aviation enthusiasts descend on Lakeland, filling hotels and RV parks for this week-long festival. Don’t miss the nighttime air shows, the Blue Angels and the sunrise hot air balloon launch. Map out your drive to consider traffic around the Lakeland Linder International Airport and the Sun ‘n Fun campus.
Swan Derby: Swan Derby, hosted by Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine is an annual “Derby-syle” event, traditionally staged on beautiful Lake Mirror in downtown Lakeland. Teams compete in swan boat races on the lake while local bands play in the amphitheater.