New destinations in the world offer both large and small association groups so much: a long list of economically priced hotels (with a total of 86,000 rooms at last count), themed restaurants and attractions, a temperate year-round climate, and easy access. Among the large groups slated to meet in Orlando this year are the Professional Golfers Association, with 45,000 attendees, and the Association for Computing Machinery, with 25,000 attendees.

Among the elements that make it an attractive choice for meetings: several world-class golf resorts, 75 courses within a 30-mile radius; and beach access an hour away. While Mickey Mouse, King Kong, and Shamu the Whale will always be the star attractions, Orlando is much more than the "theme park capital of the world." The city has a thriving, rejuvenated downtown area with many new dining and entertainment options. And growing suburbs such as Kissimmee and Altamonte Springs attract a sizable number of smaller groups seeking economically priced properties with easy access to the tourist corridor.

Disney's long-awaited fourth Orlando theme park opened this spring. Called Disney's Animal Kingdom, the 500-acre, live-action park is five times the size of the Magic Kingdom. Highlights of the new park include more than 1,000 live animals, a safari thrill ride, a 1,500-seat theater that houses a show based on the film The Jungle Book, and the world's largest Rainforest Cafe.

Also debuting this spring at Port Canaveral, a one-hour drive from Orlando, is Disney Cruise Lines' 1,750-passenger ship, the Disney Magic. Land-sea packages for groups will feature three- and four-day cruises with the balance of the week at the Walt Disney World R esort. Ports of call will include the Bahamas and Castaway Cay, Disney's private island. A second ship, the 1,750-passenger Disney Wonder, is scheduled to begin sailings in March 1999.

Seeking to keep pace with the Disney juggernaut, Universal Studios Florida will open a second theme park in 1999 called Universal's Islands of Adventure, part of a multibillion expansion that will open in phases over the next four years. Also opening in 1999 at Universal is a 12-acre entertainment area called CityWalk, with restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels with meeting space. A centerpiece of CityWalk will be a new Hard Rock Cafe, which will seat 600 people and include a multipurpose concert venue.

Sea World of Florida is expanding the scope of its theme park too. Over the last six years, Sea World has added more than 20 new shows and attractions. Scheduled to open in mid-1998 is "Journey to Atlantic," an attraction that spans nearly six football fields and will feature a high-speed water ride/roller coaster. In addition, Sea World has introduced a guided one-hour tour of its rehabilitation facilities, where animal rescue teams save manatees, sea turtles, aquatic birds, and seals.

Last year, two impressive retail/entertainment complexes opened--Downtown Disney West Side and Disney's Pointe Orlando. A 66-acre addition to the Disney Village shopping/entertainment area in Lake Buena Vista, Downtown Disney West Side encompasses restaurants such as Bongos Cuban Cafe, the Wolfgang Puck Cafe, and the House of Blues. Slated to open in 1998 at West Side is the 1,650-seat Cirque du Soleil theater and DisneyQuest, a 100,000-square-foot interactive adventure. On International Drive, one block from the Orange County Convention Center, Pointe Orlando features upscale shops and its own IMAX-3D theater.

Ground transportation is an important concern as the area's growth continues at a meteoric pace. A trackless trolley service debuted last October on International Drive, with eight fully enclosed, air-conditioned trolleys operating year-round from Sea World to Belz Factory Outlet Mall, including stops near the Orange County Convention Center. Also in the planning stages, with service expected to start in 2001, is a 5.5-mile light rail system that will run from the Orange County Convention Center to Sea World.

Convention & Exhibition Centers In January, the Orange County Convention Center completed the final phase of a $500 million expansion, bringing the total contiguous exhibit space to 1.1 million square feet. The facility features the nation's longest covered loading docks (with 125 loading bays), a business center, 49 meeting rooms, 138 breakout rooms, a 140-seat lecture theater, a 60,000-square-foot multipurpose room, and a 2,641-seat auditorium. Located within five minutes of nearly 20,000 hotel rooms on International Drive, the OCCC is a 15-minute drive from the Orlando International Airport and is 11 miles southwest of downtown. Among the hotels located within a block of the OCCC are the 1,334-room Omni Rosen Hotel, 891-room Peabody Orlando, and 810-room Clarion Plaza. Recent announcements by developers have revealed plans for an additional 4,000 upscale hotel rooms to be built near the OCCC by the year 2002.

Slated to open in 2000 is a new Orlando Performing Arts Center, a 350,000-square-foot facility with a main theater, recital hall, three film and video theaters, and a hall for music, ballet, and opera.

Central Florida will set its sights on even larger groups with the World Expo Center, a $1.1 billion, mixed-use development in Kissimmee that will include a 2.4-million-square-foot exhibition hall, a 120,000-square-foot convention center, three hotels with 5,000 rooms total, and a one-million-square-foot entertainment/retail complex. Pending further approvals, the World Expo Center is expected to open in the early part of 2000.

Hotel News *The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin have merged the sales, marketing, and reservations functions of the two hotels. The merger provides association meeting planners with easier access to the combined resorts' 254,000 square feet of meeting space, 2,267 guest rooms, and amenities and services.

*The 394-room Hotel Royal Plaza has completed a $25 million renovation that included the complete refurbishment of all public areas, guest rooms and suites, and meeting facilities. The hotel has 16,000 square feet of meeting space.

*The 1,014-suite Buena Vista Palace Resort & Spa has introduced a new business center for meeting planners.

*The 244-suite Embassy Suites Hotel on International Drive recently completed a $500,000 renovation that included complete refurbishment of the ballroom, lobby, lounge, and atrium.

*The 1,218-suite Caribe Royale Resort Suites in Lake Buena Vista is opening a new 50,000-square-foot convention center this spring. The center will include a 26,000-square-foot meeting room and 18 smaller rooms.

*The 490-room Wyndham Safari Resort, formerly the Days Inn Resort Lake Buena Vista, has undergone an extensive renovation. The property has 4,000 square feet of meeting space, and it will add 8,000 square feet of meeting space this year.

*The 578-room Inn at Maingate has been renamed Doubletree Resort Hotel & Conference Center. As part of a $15 million renovation, the property will add a 25,000-square-foot conference center, slated for completion in the summer of 1999.

*The 891-room Peabody Orlando will break ground late this year on a 700-room expansion. The hotel, located across the street from the Orange County Convention Center, also will add 75,000 square feet of new meeting space, bringing total meeting space up to 125,000 square feet.

*At Universal Studios Florida, the 750-room Portofino Bay Resort is set to open in 1999.

*The Grosvenor Resort has just completed a renovation of soft goods, carpeting, and furnishings in its 626 rooms. The resort has 17,000 square feet of meeting space, and can accommodate groups of up to 1,200 people theater-style.

FOR MORE INFORMATION Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau Bill Peeper, director of convention sales and services *(800) 345-9845 Fax: (407) 370-5013 www.orlando.digitalcity.com

Getting There The Orlando International Airport is served by more than 30 scheduled airlines. Over the next five years, a planned $760 million expansion will add a fourth runway and a fourth terminal. Taxi transfers from the airport to downtown run from $15 to $25; to the Walt Disney World resort and theme park areas, $25 to $35. Shuttle and limousine fares from the airport to Lake Buena Vista or downtown cost $10 to $25.

Tax and Money Matters There is a five percent resort tax and a six percent sales tax, for a total of 11 percent.*

Association Meeting Planners Say Donna Mangold, president of Pittsburgh, Penn.-based L&M Special Events, staged a three-day meeting at the Omni Rosen Hotel in Orlando for the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, attended by 215 industry executives and graphic artists. Mangold says Orlando is an excellent site for all group sizes because the city has numerous hotels in every price range. "You can spend a lot or a little on accommodations in Orlando," she says. She also calls the Orlando/Orange County CVB "one of the most impressive CVBs I've dealt with in my 10-year career."