A Look at the Region’s Largest Economic Engine
“This is your captain speaking. We’re currently cruising at 36,000 feet over the theme park capitol of the world.”
“Now, if you look out either side of the aircraft, you’ll see that in addition to fantastic new attractions at the parks, the I-4 corridor is seeing explosive growth in a number of other significant tourism clusters. I’ll be turning off the fasten seatbelt sign in just a few minutes, so sit back, relax and enjoy the flight!”
This is the region’s new reality. Major theme parks may anchor the visitor draw, but future growth will likely come from the wide range of visitor options offered. From a mile high, this year’s view of the Central Florida visitor industry does reveal exciting new attractions from the region’s major theme parks. But even here, parks are not just focused on rides, they are focused on creating entire immersive experiences.
Orlando’s Big Three
As expected, the starting line-up showcases Orlando’s “big three.”
The Walt Disney World Resort plans the largest expansion in Animal Kingdom’s history with a new Avatar-inspired land featuring floating mountains, bioluminescent rainforests and a flying attraction. For families, Typhoon Lagoon will be opening Miss Fortune Falls and Disney has announced two other themed expansions — Star Wars and Toy Story at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The Universal Orlando Resort has watery plans of its own with Volcano Bay, a highly-themed experience in a completely immersive environment inspired by the rugged beauty of tropical islands. Universal is also set to open Race Through New York, Starring Jimmy Fallon. The ride will invite guests to join the Tonight Show’s studio audience on the streets and in the skies of New York City.
SeaWorld Orlando will begin an end-of-day event called Electric Ocean and will debut the digitally-enhanced Kraken roller coaster, a virtual reality experience. The Dolphin Nursery at SeaWorld is also undergoing updates to become more interactive; guests will now have the opportunity to engage mother and baby dolphins face to blowhole.
Not to be outdone, the Legoland Florida Resort announced Lego Ninjago World, a new immersive land coming in 2017. In addition, the brick makers will be offering new overnight accommodations with the opening of the Legoland Beach Retreat.
It’s no surprise theme parks continue to evolve to heighten guest experiences. But the icing on that cake is the myriad of other visitor opportunities developing around the region.
For Locals and Visitors
Orlando has pushed the boundaries in a number of tourism clusters, and “helping those who help themselves” was the mantra when public and private efforts brought the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and the Amway Center into existence, along with the renovation of the Orlando Citrus Bowl, now named Camping World Stadium.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer says, “The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts has become an iconic symbol that inspires all of us to be proud of our city.” In 2017 the city’s arts and entertainment offerings will be further enhanced when the center starts construction to complete Steinmetz Hall, which includes a 1,700-seat theater.
“The acoustical theater for music, ballet, dance and other performing arts that depend on the purity of sound is a key component of the complex,” says Kathy Ramsberger, CEO and president of the center. In addition to the theater, Steinmetz Hall will house a rehearsal space and classrooms promoting the development of creative musical programming in the region, and will be home to the Orlando Ballet and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra.
Central Florida is also known for racing. At the east end of I-4, the Daytona International Speedway has a full slate planned in 2017.
For the second year in a row, the “world center of racing” will become the “world center of entertainment” with the Country 500. Daytona International Speedway President Chip Wile says, “The lineup of artists for the 2017 Country 500 music festival is going to be another ‘who’s who’ of entertainers.”
Along with events at the state-of-the-art Amway Center, these venues will bring a wide variety of events to the region, pleasing visitors and locals alike. But sports may be the real “feather in the cap” of the Orlando tourism machine this year.
Historically held in Honolulu, the NFL Pro Bowl game returns to the traditional NFC-AFC Conference All-Star matchup at Camping World Stadium in 2017. Along with the game, a brand new Pro Bowl Week will be hosted by Orlando, including accessible team practices at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and with a variety of youth football and family activities around Orlando.
Meanwhile, plans are in place for the 2017 opening of the privately-funded Orlando City Stadium, host of the city’s professional soccer teams — the Orlando City Soccer Club and the Orlando Pride.
The Natural Draw
Culture and sports covered, Central Florida finds opportunity in adventure and ecotourism as well. Where else can visitors fly in an open cockpit biplane, ride an airboat through a swamp or learn to waterski and wakeboard? Of course we can’t help but mention the area’s oldest and most significant tourist draw, with Brevard and Volusia counties boasting over 110 miles of coastline. Kayaking and stand up paddleboarding through the region’s estuaries and backwaters brings visitors closer to the “real Florida” in a sustainable way. Ziplines are snaking their way through the region’s tree lines and tour operators are setting anglers on largemouth bass, redfish and tarpon.
Throw in more than 150 golf courses, numerous tennis facilities and hundreds of lakes for water sports and boating, and the region is an established outdoorsman’s paradise.
Those seeking a more laid-back experience can opt for a stroll through one of many gardens and parks or an early morning hot air balloon ride over the Central Florida treetops. A growing number of high-end resorts across the region offer any number of relaxing spa packages, while fine art and history museums abound throughout the area.
Where tastes lean away from the highbrow and sublime, yearning for glitz, flash and glamour, Central Florida offers International Drive. SKYPLEX Orlando is set to break world records on I-Drive in coming years by bringing the world’s tallest rollercoaster to Orlando. The 570-foot-tall structure will feature the first Polercoaster, a vertical ride dubbed the Skyscraper. A second ride, called Skyfall, will accompany the Skyscraper and will be the world’s tallest drop ride, dropping riders at 90 miles an hour.
I-Drive is always alive, and Topgolf Orlando is bringing its unique take on fun to the game in 2017 with its 65,000-square-foot entertainment center. Andretti Indoor Kart Racing & Games plans a multi-level go-karting, laser tag, rock climbing and bowling facility. iFLY Orlando Indoor Skydiving will present its total immersion experience featuring two wind tunnels simulating freefall, while Starflyer at Vue 360 will open the world’s tallest spinning swing ride at 425 feet tall. Golf, go-karts, bowling and a nod to the classic playground swing, all on steroids and all found on I-Drive.
Speaking of International Drive, the self-proclaimed “tourism corridor of Orlando” is anchored at its south end by the Orange County Convention Center, which is in the midst of its largest renovation to date. Boasting 2.1 million square feet of space and connected by covered walkways to more than 5,100 hotel rooms along International Drive, the convention center was recently named a top meeting destination. “We are honored to be named the number one meetings destination in the country by Cvent,” said Visit Orlando President and CEO George Aguel. “This recognition is a testament to the investment we make in marketing and selling Orlando as the ideal location for meetings and conventions at all levels.”
Rounding out Central Florida’s tourism economy is an ever-expanding medical industry. Medical research and development, as well as new hospitals offering specialty services, are creating a destination for the medical tourist with sights set on Orlando for treatment, training and much more.
Add that to a growing interest in Central Florida’s destination wedding industry, as well as a rising tide for the cruise industry at Port Canaveral, and the view is not too shabby from 36,000 feet.