If you were in the Orlando region a year or two ago and think you know the destination, think again. Greater Orlando is relentlessly reinventing itself. There are few meeting destinations in the country developing at such a rapid pace—furiously adding lodging, meeting facilities, attractions, services, infrastructure and transportation options.
There is so much going on that Visit Orlando now produces a monthly 30-minute webinar exclusively for meeting planners to keep them abreast of all that is new.
“The amount of growth on a regular basis is mind-boggling,” says Fred Shea, senior vice president of sales and services for Visit Orlando. “In the attraction and theme park business, you have to constantly reinvent yourself in order to get repeat customers and attract the next generation.”
Expansion is not just taking place at the theme parks. According to Shea, one particular focus of growth is dining. It used to be a category where Orlando lagged behind other convention cities. That has changed dramatically; there are now countless fine-dining restaurants throughout the city.
Neighboring Kissimmee is laying its own claim to reinvention, especially when it comes to accommodations. Experience Kissimmee Director of Sales Michelle Moore says, “We have become known as the vacation home capital of the country, which means there is an incredible number of options for unusual meeting venues in private homes of every size and category, with more being added all the time.”
With so much in the works, it is hard to narrow down the list. Here are 15 great new attractions, and 10 more to be on the lookout for.
15 Fresh Attractions
1. Disney Springs
The former Downtown Disney is nearing completion on its largest expansion, emerging as an exciting waterfront district for world-class shopping, unique dining and high-quality entertainment.
Inspired by Florida’s waterfront towns and natural beauty, Disney Springs has four distinct outdoor neighborhoods—The Landing, Marketplace, West Side and Town Center—all interconnected by a flowing spring and vibrant lakefront. For planners, Disney Springs offers several unique venues for private events, including The Boathouse, Morimoto Asia and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar. Conveniently located just minutes from Disney convention hotels, Disney Springs can be accessed via complimentary bus transportation.
2. Coca-Cola Orlando Eye/I-Drive 360
The 400-foot-tall Coca-Cola Orlando Eye observation wheel is the new centerpiece of the convention district. Its 30 capsules hold up to 450 passengers and offer stunning 360-degree views. Special group events, such as a private champagne capsule, are available. The I-Drive 360 district is continually expanding with new restaurants and entertainment venues. Check out Madame Tussauds Orlando and Sea Life Orlando Aquarium, which features shark encounters.
3. Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando
Barb Bowden, managing director for the Loews complex, notes this is the first time two Loews properties have been connected, marking the birth of the Loews Meeting Complex at Universal Orlando. Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and Loews Royal Pacific Resort offer a combined 2,000 guest rooms and nearly 250,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.
“The last five years have been a period of epic growth on both the hotel side and in the theme parks,” Bowden says.
4. Mako Roller Coaster at SeaWorld Orlando
This 200-foot-tall coaster is Orlando’s tallest, quickest and longest coaster. It is also the centerpiece of a newly themed, 2-acre plaza perfect for private events. In May, adjacent DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld broke ground on a project that will add 40,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
5. Skull Island at Universal Orlando Resort
Universal’s Island of Adventure is home to the new Skull Island: Reign of Kong, which takes guests on a thrilling excursion into the island’s mysterious jungles, where they confront gargantuan dangers as they enter the lair of King Kong. During the ride, guests come face to face with King Kong, getting so close that they feel his breath sweep across their skin.
6. Whisper Creek Farm, The Kitchen and The Brewery at Grande Lakes Orlando
This culinary complex, which includes a farm, a farm-to-table restaurant and a brewery, opened last year and set new culinary standards for the destination. It will continue to reinvent itself. Jim Burns, vice president and managing director, says, “We have to come up with something new every nine months to a year if we want to remain leaders.”
7. Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
This is the home for Broadway productions and Orlando Ballet, among other performing troupes. Located in the heart of downtown Orlando, the center includes two performance theaters, a 300-seat community theater, an outdoor plaza and a banquet room.
8. Frozen Ever After at Epcot Center
The newest attraction at Disney’s Epcot Center is based on the wildly popular animated film Frozen. Fans are waiting in line to experience a boat ride through the enchanted world of Arendelle.
9. Drone Racing at Waldorf Astoria Orlando
Participants can test their piloting skills and enjoy the competition by completing a drone maze race across the resort’s cabana lawn.
10. Dining and Nightlife in the Convention District
New options in the I-Drive 360 retail, dining and entertainment district include Mango’s Tropical Cafe, a 55,000-square-foot nightlife entertainment destination; Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, with five private dining rooms; Lafayette’s Music Room; and Itta Bena Orlando fine dining at Pointe Orlando.
11. Expanded Wi-Fi in Disney Meeting Spaces
Groups can take advantage of free or low-cost Wi-Fi throughout the ballrooms, meeting rooms, exhibit halls and convention foyers of Disney resorts. Standard connectivity is complimentary in guest rooms and common areas of the resorts.
12. Wild Florida Airboats in Kenansville
The new Gator Pavilion, a 2,400-square-foot covered deck, is open for business. With plenty of rocking chairs, high-top bar seating and tables, the deck can accommodate 100 people. The attraction is adding crocodiles to its unique wildlife park.
13. Reprise Brewing in St. Cloud
Osceola County’s first brewery opened its doors this spring in downtown St. Cloud. Run by local music instructors Jas Kigos and Steve Reid, the musical theme comes alive in not just the name of the brewery, but also in the decor and how beer flights are served on wooden quavers (musical notes). The brewery features rotating beers on tap.
14. Red Lion Hotel Orlando-Kissimmee Maingate
This 516-room hotel has 5,000 sq. ft. of event space and is set on 23 acres with lush landscaping, stunning fountains, water views and community fire pits.
15. The Docks at Shingle Creek
Adding to Kissimmee’s ecotourism options, this new facility located within Marsh Landing Regional Park is operated by The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek. It adds more water access for kayakers and paddlers.
10 Coming Attractions
1. Avatar-Inspired Land in Disney’s Animal Kingdom
The mythical world of Pandora, inspired by the blockbuster film Avatar, will open in 2017 with features such as Flight of Passage, which will allow guests to soar on a banshee over a vast alien world. Also coming to Disney are Star Wars-themed lands.
2. Margaritaville Resort Orlando
A 175-room hotel in Kissimmee with 30,000 sq. ft. of function space, 12-acre water park, wellness center and water taxi system is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2017. A 3-acre swimmable freshwater lagoon will feature sand beaches surrounded by cabanas and water activities, including paddleboarding and snorkeling.
3. Island Grove Wine Company at Formosa Gardens
This facility will open late this year with wine demonstrations, a micro-brewery, French pastry shop and more than 3,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. A 5-acre botanical garden will boast organically grown fruits and vegetables.
4. Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando Resort
Universal Orlando Resort will open this new water park in 2017. A themed, completely immersive environment is planned, inspired by postcard-perfect tropical islands.
This entertainment complex on I-Drive will house the world’s tallest roller coaster. Opening in 2018, the 570-foot-tall Skyplex will showcase the Polercoaster, a vertical ride weaving in and around the tower. A second ride called Skyfall will be the world’s tallest drop ride. The Skyplex tower will also offer views of the city via an observation deck, restaurant and lounge.
6. Main Event Entertainment in Pointe Orlando
A state-of-the-art bowling experience will open late this year at Pointe Orlando with 48,000 sq. ft. of space. It will feature bowling, multilevel laser tag, high-ropes adventure courses, billiards, and interactive and virtual video games. Dining experiences will range from fast-casual to chef-inspired casual.
7. Topgolf Orlando
Expect an early 2017 opening for this 65,000-square-foot entertainment center that will include private event space and 102 climate-controlled hitting bays.
8. Race Through New York With Jimmy Fallon
This fun attraction at Universal Orlando is scheduled to open in 2017. It is based on the comic’s celebrity races on The Tonight Show.
9. Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate
The property is expanding its meeting space by 81,000 sq. ft. The new space will be called Osceola Conference Center. In addition to new villas, there will be a great room with terrace and patio—the first of its kind at an Orlando resort—designed specifically for weddings, special events and celebrations.
10. Brightline High-Speed Rail Service
This high-speed rail service promises to connect Miami and Orlando. The first leg will connect downtown Miami and downtown West Palm Beach in mid-2017. Plans are to extend the rail to Orlando International Airport (MCO) in several years.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to exciting theme parks and tourist attractions, Greater Orlando has planners covered. Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and other attractions are perennial favorites that delight planners and attendees alike. But Greater Orlando is not content to rest on its laurels. To the joy of everyone, the destination is constantly reinventing itself and coming up with something new.
Orlando on Foot
While 2-mile-long I-Drive 360 in Orlando’s convention district is technically referred to as a drive, it can be explored on foot. Home to more than 75 restaurants and many unique sites, the stretch offers a delightful stroll for meeting attendees with a little free time.
I- Drive 360 is the place to find cool attractions such as Icebar Orlando—the largest permanent ice bar in the world, made from more than 70 tons of hand-carved ice—and Minus 5° Ice Experiences, an evolving collection of ice sculptures and themed rooms.
Afterward, it is an easy walk to 42 hotels. With 5,202 guest rooms in the four main hotels connected to Orange County Convention Center, the city offers more convention center-connected rooms than any other American destination.
A Dominant Sports Center
Greater Orlando is on its way to becoming a dominant sports center. Already home to the NBA’s Orlando Magic at Amway Center, the city also boasts the totally renovated (at a cost of $207 million), 60,000-seat Camping World Stadium downtown, giving meeting professionals a superb venue with a 20,000-square-foot deck. The 104,000-square-foot stadium field can also be used for events.
Orlando is home to Orlando City Soccer Club, the first Major League Soccer team in the city’s history. During 2016, Orlando City will play home matches at Camping World Stadium while the team’s own soccer stadium is under construction. In 2017, the team will move to a new $110 million, 25,000-seat facility in downtown Orlando.
Orlando will soon become home to American tennis when the United States Tennis Association (USTA) headquarters moves to the Lake Nona area. The complex, slated to open in fall 2016, will feature more than 100 tennis courts.
Harvey Chipkin is a freelance writer who has been covering the hospitality and meetings industries for many years.
Major Meeting Venues
B Resort & Spa Lake Buena Vista
394 guest rooms; 25,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; two ballrooms; 11 breakout rooms.
Disney’s Contemporary Resort
650 guest rooms; 115,000 sq. ft. of event space; four ballrooms; monorail transport stop.
DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld
1,004 guest rooms; expansion will add 40,000 more sq. ft. of meeting space for a total of 100,000; walking distance to convention center.
Four Seasons Resort Orlando
AAA Five Diamond resort; 443 guest rooms; 37,750 sq. ft. of meeting space; Tranquilo Golf Course.
Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center
1,406 guest rooms; 400,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 178,500-square-foot expo hall; glass-enclosed gardens; event lawns accommodate 1,100.
Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando
650 guest rooms; 7,200 sq. ft. of indoor meeting space, including Avalon Ballroom.
AAA Four Diamond property surrounding Disney World; 11,000 sq. ft. of new meeting space; 50,000-square-foot outdoor promenade connected to Orange County Convention Center; 1,470 guest rooms and suites; spa; salon.
Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
1,001 guest rooms; 132,000 sq. ft. of event space; two ballrooms; 10,000-square-foot pavilion; 28 breakout rooms; outdoor venues include private island.
Hyatt Regency Orlando
1,639 guest rooms; 315,000 sq. ft. of event space; spa; 105 meeting rooms; five ballrooms.
JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes
1,000 guest rooms; more than 100,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting and event space; 15 minutes from Orlando International Airport (MCO).
Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando
750 guest rooms; 42,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; three ballrooms; complimentary transport to Universal Orlando theme parks and CityWalk.
Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando
South Pacific-style property; 1,000 guest rooms; 132,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 41,503-square-foot Pacific Ballroom; complimentary transportation.
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando
New property; 1,000 guest rooms; 115,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space, including 41,000-square-foot Grand Caribbean ballroom; complimentary transportation.
Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate
AAA Four Diamond property; 720 guest rooms and suites; 128,800 sq. ft. of meeting space; conference center; function space for up to 1,900; Greg Norman-designed championship golf course.
Orange County Convention Center
LEED Gold facility; more than 2 million sq. ft. of exhibition space; 479,190 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 62,182-square-foot Valencia Ballroom; $187 million in improvements will be complete by 2017.
Park Inn by Radisson Resort & Conference Center
Minutes from Disney; 434 guest rooms; 30,000 sq. ft. of flexible space can host up to 1,300 guests.
Radisson Resort Orlando-Celebration
In Kissimmee; close to theme parks; 718 guest rooms; 6,800 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.
Reunion Resort and Club
AAA Four Diamond Salamander property; 360 guest rooms, suites and villas; 25,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; three top-rated golf courses.
Rosen Centre Hotel
1,334 guest rooms and suites; 150,000 sq. ft. of event space, including 35 meeting rooms; three ballrooms; connected to Orange County Convention Center; nine restaurants; spa.
Rosen Plaza Hotel
800 guest rooms and suites; 60,000 sq. ft. of event space; connected to Orange County Convention Center; Club 39 nightclub; green lodging program.
Rosen Shingle Creek
1,501 guest rooms and suites; 490,000 sq. ft. of total event space, including 95,000-square-foot, column-free ballroom; golf; spa; 15 dining options; four pools.
The Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes
582 guest rooms; 47,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 20,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space; fruit and vegetable garden; spa; Highball & Harvest restaurant.
Villas of Grand Cypress
AAA Four Diamond resort; 146 luxury villas; 7,200 sq. ft. of meeting space, 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus Signature-designed golf; Grand Cypress Academy of Golf; redesigned Executive Conference Center.
Waldorf Astoria Orlando
498 guest rooms; 42,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; ballrooms with sweeping views; 12 restaurants and lounges; championship golf; luxury spa.
Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel
2,267 guest rooms; more than 329,000 sq. ft. of event space; 84 meeting rooms, including four ballrooms; 110,500 sq. ft. of contiguous convention/exhibit space; 17 world-class restaurants and lounges.
Westgate Lakes Resort & Spa
36,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space; 360-degree views of Orlando’s nightly fireworks; award-winning spa and fitness center; marina with boat and kayak rentals; game room.
Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek
Lakeside resort in Disney; 400 guest rooms; 25,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; private cabanas at lagoon-style pool; nearby Rees Jones golf course.
Wyndham Orlando Resort International Drive
613 guest rooms; 60,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; 18,480-square-foot Palms Ballroom; 34 meeting rooms; two pools, fitness center; three eateries.