Orlando is leading Florida out of recession and expanding so briskly the city best known for theme parks is poised to push aside Miami as the state’s fastest-growing metropolis for at least a generation.

Beyond globally famous Disney World and a massive lodging sector, Orlando in central Florida is benefiting from above-average job growth, booming health science complex, and cheap housing prices.

“People think I’m gushing about Orlando,” said Mark Vitner, a senior economist specializing in regional economies for Wells Fargo Securities LLC. “But I’ve got to believe the city will be one of the fastest-growing cities in the country over the next 25 years.”

Dr. Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Competitiveness, sees Orlando and central Florida as “the new breadbasket for the state.

“It’s the location in the state that’s going to have the most growth in the next decade or two,” Snaith said.

Orlando’s Economic Evolution: Shifting Perceptions and Job Growth Trends

Perceptions persist that Orlando is mostly a Mickey Mouse town compared to south Florida’s image as a home to the international glitterati and Latin America-oriented investors.

But recent jobs data underscore a northward shift in the economic gravity of Florida, a state of 18.8 million which was especially hard hit by the U.S. housing collapse that still overhangs Florida’s economic growth, employment, and politics.

In a mash-up of 23 economic measurements, Orlando ranks 27th out of 366 metropolitan areas across the United States, and No. 1 in the fourth most populous U.S. state, according to William Fruth, president of the economic research firm POLICOM.

“Orlando’s the strongest economy, which is the long-term tendency for an area to consistently grow in size and quality,” Fruth said.

Orlando’s Economic Ascendancy: Job Growth, Biomedical Advancements, and Changing Dynamics

Metro Orlando added 23,000 jobs — a 2.3 percent increase – in the year ended February 2011, which accounted for almost half of the total 50,000 jobs that Florida’s slowly healing economy added, according to U.S. Labor Department data.

As a percentage of the Florida economy, Orlando has grown and Miami declined in the early 2000s, according to figures from the Brookings Institute.
“There is a shift slowly underway as far as jobs go, and there is a shift as far as income and output goes,” Howard Wial, a fellow economist at Brookings Institute, said. “Orlando is growing a lot faster than Miami.”

Despite the Mickey Mouse aura, Orlando is home to the Medical City at Lake Nona, which along with Port St Lucie on the state’s Atlantic coast, is one of two burgeoning biomedical complexes in Florida. Snaith described Lake Nona’s expansion as “explosive.”

The synergies at the Medical City have the potential to change the structure of Orlando’s economy, according to Henry Fishkind, founder of the economic and financial consulting firm Fishkind & Associates.

“You drive around Lake Nona and there’s cranes everywhere,” Fishkind said.

Medical City at Lake Nona: Transforming Orlando’s Economic Landscape and Biomedical Sector

A little more than three years ago, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute broke ground in a 600-acre Lake Nona pasture, once called Science & Technology Park.

Since then, a University of Central Florida College of Medicine, M.D. Anderson-Orlando Cancer Research Institute, Nemours Children’s Hospital, Orlando Veterans Administration Medical Center, and University of Florida Research and Academic Center have opened, or are in the works.

The city projects the life sciences cluster to have a nearly $8 billion impact by 2020.

“Typically we think of economic development and evolution as being more glacial in nature. But this has just occurred at a pace that is really astounding,” Snaith said.

To be sure, by many measures, the Miami metropolitan area, population 5.5 million as of 2009, towers over metro Orlando, with 2 million people. Miami and Orlando are the most vibrant cities in the state, Vitner said.

But Orlando’s economy is becoming more diverse than Miami’s, according to Vitner. It has greater ties to the global economy compared to Miami, which is primarily a conduit to business in Latin America.

And Orlando appeals to relocating companies because of its “screaming bargain” real estate prices as well as economical, direct flights to almost anywhere in the world, Vitner said.

“Orlando seems to be very much one of those cities of the future that’s still very young at heart and has a lot of growth ahead,” Vitner said. (Additional reporting and writing by Michael Connor in Miami; Editing by Andrew Hay)