“Slo-cala.” “No-cala.”

The The Marion Theatre is shown on North Magnolia Avenue in Ocala, Fla. on Friday, July 2, 2021. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted July 30, 2021 | By Sadie Fitzpatrick, sadie@ocalagazette.com

The The Marion Theatre is shown on North Magnolia Avenue in Ocala. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

Editor’s Note: Sadie Fitzpatrick uses this space to explore the character and quirks that make Ocala uniquely wonderful and occasionally irksome.

If you live in Ocala, chances are you have heard these rather harsh nicknames for our city.

As a dramatic teenager, I only referred to my hometown as “Slo-cala,” certain that its complete lack of big city amenities made it akin to Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.

In my mind, Ocala was a place from which to escape, only to be returned to for holiday visits with family. I was convinced that Ocala would remain small and out of touch.

Fast forward 15 years later, it is safe to say that Ocala can now be referred to as “Go-cala.” Its record growth in population, industry and cultural arts is astounding, landing it at #58 in U.S. News and World Report’s 150 Best Places to Live in the U.S. in 2021.

The big city amenities I craved as a teenager are now right out my front door. My husband and I can tuck in to a delicious gourmet meal at any of our downtown restaurants before enjoying the beautiful sounds of the Ocala Symphony Orchestra at the Reilly Arts Center.

We can view artwork by talented local and international artists at both the NOMA Gallery and the Brick City Center for the Arts, located in the downtown area.

A short drive takes us to the World Equestrian Center, a venue that will put Ocala on the world’s stage for years to come.

These additions, and many more, have made Ocala a place for people around the globe to live, work and play. It has slowly transformed our town into a melting pot of different cultures and practices, something I once thought one had to travel to a large city to experience.

For this Ocala native, it is a joy to see my beloved hometown reaching its full potential. Ocala’s steady rise to success is similar to other small towns that have made it big in recent years; however, I believe we are different (and, I’m biased, better) because we have held tight to the traditions that make us uniquely Ocala.

The quirky, idyllic mainstays of Ocala are what I love most—like the folding chairs on the Boulevard placed a week in advance of the annual Christmas Parade, the long, snaking line outside Tas-T-O Donuts every Saturday morning and the road closures to allow for the cattle to cross the road for the annual Cattle Drive & Cowboy Round-Up.

I particularly love that my children can now participate in these time-honored Ocala traditions I did as a child.

We recently took our kids to ride the glass bottom boats at Silver Springs, something my brothers and I often did when we were children. Peering over the railing at the glass below, our babes shrieked with delight as fish and turtles came in to view. My husband and I smiled at each other over their heads, reveling in their pure elation.

Experiencing these traditions through my children has given me a renewed appreciation for the small-town aspects Ocala has maintained despite its explosive growth. We have welcomed big city progress yet we have not let it taint our small town heart.

I once swore I would never return to “Slo-cala,” determined to leave it behind. Love and family, however, drew me back. That’s the thing about this place we call home—it captures your heart.

May our sweet city continue to grow socially, culturally and economically all while remaining true to the small-town values that make us Ocala.

And may Tas-T-O’s never run out of chocolate-glazed donuts.

Have your own observations about Ocala? Share them with Sadie at sadie@ocalagazette.com.

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