And there are signs of improvement.
Tourism and health care are driving the recovery, though the state has recovered only about 20 percent of nearly 925,000 jobs lost during the downturn, says Chris Lafakis, senior economist at Moody's Analytics.
Construction jobs, long an economic mainstay here, have dropped 56 percent since mid-2006 and they're still declining. And some jobs — including those in the canceled U.S. space shuttle program closed last year — are gone for good.
But Lafakis says about 75 percent of tourist-related jobs are back. Parking lots are crowded at Busch Gardens, Disney World, Universal Studios (home to a Harry Potter world) and other attractions along this road stretching from Tampa on the Gulf — site of this month's Republican National Convention —to Daytona Beach on the Atlantic side .
Still, there's a long way to go.
There are more than 371,000 open foreclosure files and more than half a million Florida mortgages are delinquent for 90 days or more, says Jack McCabe, an independent housing analyst. "You can make a case that we're just a third or halfway through the foreclosure crisis," he says.
McCabe says home prices are still down 35 percent to 55 percent across Florida. Growing numbers of foreign investors from places including Latin America and western Europe are gobbling up property.
And though unemployment is below the double-digit highs posted in 2010, a recent state report found nearly 70 percent of the decline from last December to this past May was because people had dropped out of the job market.
The jobless rate won't fall below 8 percent until the last quarter of 2014, according to a July report by Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness.
This is uncharted territory.
"Florida always has been one of the first states out of the economic downturns," says MacManus, the USF political scientist. "We're not only lagging behind but we're among the slower states to recover. It's a situation Floridians just find unacceptable. We've always been ahead of the curve, not behind."
In the past, Florida depended on a "one, two punch" to escape recession — population growth and construction. "This time we didn't get either to claw our way out of this particular hole," Snaith says.
During the boom of 2004-05, for example, net migration — those moving in minus those leaving — was 352,000. By 2008-09, it was just 15,000, according to the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research. As for housing, Snaith says: "We have more rooftops than people to put under them."
Snaith says population growth is gradually recovering and should pick up, but for now, the economy seems frozen.
"I think the presidential election is sort of keeping people standing still," Snaith says. "We're at the fork in the road and each candidate represents a path. Unless business knows what road we're on, it's just a waiting game."
There are, of course, exceptions — new entrepreneurs along I-4.
Walt Mazie knows it was risky launching a business during hard times.
He and his wife, Nicole, left solid jobs and on July 4, 2010, opened a small place in Flagler Beach, on Florida's northeast Atlantic Coast, selling snowballs, iced treats. That blossomed into the Big Easy Cafe, which serves Cajun food in the tradition of New Orleans, Nicole's hometown.
Business was so dismal at first that on some Friday nights, Walt Mazie says, they sat outside because there were no customers. After about a year, his wife was so frustrated and upset, "I said, 'Tomorrow after we close up, leave the keys on the table and we'll never go back. I'm willing,'" Mazie recalls.
They held on, though, and about six months ago, there was a turnaround.
Mazie says business has increased about 65 percent over last year, thanks to positive publicity and an improved economy, Competition is arriving with two restaurants going up within a block but Mazie sees it as a sign of a broader recovery.