Say Orlando and what comes to mind? Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World, restaurants, shopping, golf, tennis, professional sports. Now, say culture. Did Orlando come to mind? If not, it will. Just as Las Vegas expanded its tourism base to include those who don't gamble, Orlando is reaching out to those who find "magic" in music and art, as well as in Disney World.
A public-private partnership was formed in late 1996 to promote Orlando's arts to visitors, spearheaded by Maureen Brigid Gonzalez of the Peabody Orlando Hotel, with the Civic Theatres, Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Enzian Theatre, LYNX Jazz Festival, Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando Philharmonic, Charles Hosmer Museum of American Art, Maitland Art Center, Crealde School of Art, Orlando Opera Company, Orlando Science Center, Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival, and Southern Ballet Theatre. Also new is Orlando's CultureQuest shuttle service, with 26-passenger buses that stop (with hop-on, hop-off privileges) at more than 15 of the area's top art, science, and historical attractions.
The new Orlando Science Center, with 42,000 square feet for permanent interactive exhibits, has a 310-seat CineDome for large-format films and Cosmic Concerts (laser light shows) and is the largest Digistar II Planetarium in the world.
The Orlando Museum of Art (Newsweek called it "one of the best museums in the South") is hosting the world-class Imperial Tombs of China exhibition through September. This is the last stop in the U.S. for this collection from seven dynasties of Chinese emperors, which were shown at only four other museums in the country. Visits are by appointment.
A new Orlando Performing Arts Center, a 350,000-square-foot project with a theater; recital hall; three film and video theaters; and a hall for music, ballet, and opera, will open in the year 2000.
For the legions who can always absorb more theme attractions, Universal Studios is expanding to become Universal City Florida, a complete destination resort with more than 300,000 square feet of convention and meeting space. Additions will include a new theme park, Universal's Islands of Adventure, opening in 1999; and the E-Zone, a 12-acre entertainment complex, opening in early 1998. There will be four world-class hotels, including two Loews hotels: the Portofino Bay Resort, opening in 1999, and the Royal Bali Hotel, opening in 2000. Other additions: a Tom Fazio-designed, 18-hole championship golf course; a championship tennis center; state-of-the-art convention and meeting centers; and expanded film and television production facilities.
A new entertainment center, Pointe Orlando, opens its first phase late this summer. Along with many specialty retailers will be nightclubs and theme restaurants where companies can hold dine-arounds and theme parties.
Large groups that need to get down to business have lots of venues to choose from. Orlando has more than 86,000 guest rooms, and its meeting facilities include a 733,000-square-foot convention center that will expand to 1.1 million square feet of exhibition space in 1998; the 23,600-square-foot Tupperware Convention
Center; an 110,690-square-foot Expo Center; and about 1.7 million square feet of meeting space in hotels and cultural venues.
Hotel News Disney's Coronado Springs Resort, a moderately priced convention hotel with 1,900 rooms and suites and a 95,000-square-foot convention center, opens this summer.
* The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin will complete in early 1998 a $15 million improvement program. Soft good are being replaced in more than 2,000 guest rooms, and 72 meeting rooms are being renovated.
* The 1,500-acre Grand Cypress Resort: The Villas of Grand Cypress recently completed a $1.3 million renovation. The resort features 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus-designed golf (recently proclaimed "spikeless") and the world-acclaimed Grand Cypress Academy of Golf, with private clinics for groups as large as 70 persons or as small as ten. The Villas of Grand Cypress is a Mediterranean-style complex with 146 club suites and one- to four-bedroom villas. It has its own plush, 14,000-square-foot Executive Meeting Center.
* The 750-room Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress has completed a $7.5 million renovation of guest rooms. The hotel has a half-acre swimming pool with 12 waterfalls and access to the Grand Cypress Resort's golf, racquet club, health club, and sailing and canoeing on 21-acre Lake Windsong.
* The mezzanine-level meeting space at the 814-room Hilton at Walt Disney World Village has been completely renovated. The Pavilion, popular for theme parties, breakfasts, and meetings, gained 4,000 square feet for a total area of 14,000 square feet.
* The 891-room Peabody Orlando is offering packages to the Imperial Tombs of China Exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art through September and special room rates for performance seasons of Southern Ballet Theatre and Orlando Opera Company.
* The 216-room Castle Hotel, with its towering spires and rooftop gardens and 7,600 square feet of meeting space, became a Doubletree-franchised property in December of last year, keeping the same management.
* At the Buena Vista Palace Resort & Spa, refurbishment of 500 of the 1,014 rooms and suites is complete, and the rest will be renovated starting in August. A new dialing system lets guests receive faxes and e-mail in their rooms without going through the hotel's operator.
* Recent expansion of meeting space at the Caribe Royale to 60,000 square feet now provides facilities for 20 to 1,000 attendees. The all-suite hotel has three towers, each with 406 suites.
* Marriott's Orlando World Center will complete a $13 million renovation of all 1,503 sleeping rooms in September.
* The 298-room Renaissance Orlando Hotel-Airport has a Let's Get Acquainted meeting package through August 30. At $89 a room (minimum 30 guest rooms for two nights), it includes welcome reception, complimentary meeting room and complimentary audiovisual. The hotel, with 22,000 square feet of function space including two ballrooms, has a new 65-person amphitheater conference center.
After Hours Downtown Disney (formerly the Disney Village Marketplace) includes Pleasure Island and the forthcoming Disney's West Side, with plenty of shopping, eating, and nighttime fun.
This year the multimillion dollar Walt Disney World International Sports Complex opens, with professional caliber training, competition,, and festival-events facilities; a 7,500-seat baseball stadium; and 5,000-seat fieldhouse.
In 1998, Disney will open Copperfield Magic Underground, David Copperfield's 30,000-square-foot theatrical restaurant, at MGM Studios. Next year will also mark the opening of Walt Disney World Animal Kingdom, the largest of all Disney parks in the world, with thrill rides, exotic landscapes, and close encounters with wild animals.
Also in 1998, Walt Disney World will launch two cruise ships, the Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder, offering Walt Disney World visits and cruises in three-day/four-day combinations.
Orlando has thousands of restaurants, more than 150 golf courses within 45 minutes, megamalls, and discount malls, as well as numerous theme parks besides Disney. They are covered in the guidebook Orlando's Other Theme Parks: What To Do When You've Done Disney, by Kelly Monaghan (Intrepid Traveler Publishers), available at bookstores.
Sea World presents The Mickey Finn Show, with a five-man band starring Mickey Finn himself, for a limited engagement until August 28. The park has also added a Dolphin Interaction Program, where guests can wade in a shallow area with bottlenose dolphins. Another new feature is Rockin'Nights Sensations, an every-night-Fourth-of-July with fireworks and lasers.
In 1998, Sea World opens Journey to Atlantis, the largest expansion in all Anheuser Busch parks' history.
In and around Orlando, hot-air ballooning companies often include with a trip a champagne toast, picnic, and commemorative photos with the pilot. Area skydiving schools can have visitors airborne in just one day. Seaplanes take passengers on scenic rides to view alligators, eagles, deer, and other wildlife in their natural habitat.
Or, try a fighter plane as the guest pilot in a real Marchetti SF 260 fighter plane that reaches speeds of 250 miles per hour and engages in a dogfight. No previous flying experience is required; you get an hour of ground training, an hour in the air, and a souvenir video.
In Kissimmee, 12 miles southwest of Orlando, Splendid China is a $100 million theme park featuring more than 60 of China's most notable attractions, including The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Leshan Buddha, and the Stone Forest. It offers live entertainment, such as Chinese acrobats and dancers, and fine Chinese restaurants. The park's newest attraction is the Magical Snow Tiger Adventure, featuring such unique animals as the snow tiger, a lion, and the nearly extinct Florida panther. Groups of up to 800 persons can be accommodated in several venues throughout the park.
From Orlando, it's only a 45-minute drive to St. Petersburg, with its beautiful beaches, and two and a half hours to Sarasota and one hour to Tampa, each with its own broad range of cultural activities. Tampa's Busch Gardens has a new, 15-acre animal theme park, called Edge of Africa.
Seminole County, only five miles from downtown Orlando, has pine woods and oak hammocks, lush cypress swamps, marshlands, and hidden paths. Groups can take canoe rides on the Wekiva River, scenic pontoon rides down St. John's River, and airboat rides through alligator country on Lake Jessup.
Florida's Space Coast, 45 minutes from Orlando, is the site of NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center and the Canaveral Air Force Station's museums and exhibits. Groups can attend United States Space Camp Florida, or meet in the Astronaut Hall of Fame or the Valiant Air Command Museum.
Getting There Orlando International Airport is served by more than 30 scheduled airlines and 50 charters providing direct service to more than 100 cities around the world. The airport is located 15 miles from major attractions and downtown
Shuttle vans and buses, taxis, limousines, and rental cars are available. Taxi fare from the airport to International Drive or to downtown Orlando averages $23; to the Disney hotels, fare is about $35.
Tax and Money Matters There is a five percent resort tax and a six percent sales tax, for a total of 11 percent.
How's the Weather? The area's weather is warm all year. Temperatures from October to May range from the 50s to the mid 80s. Summer temperatures run from the upper 60s to the mid 90s. The busiest times for visitors are, of course, the school
Steven Sehmer, regional sales manager, direct sales activity, for ASC Incorporated, Southgate, MI, plans programs for the sunroof and convertible manufacturer to train technicians in best installation methods for their 185 distributors. The company brought 50 to 60 installers at a time to Orlando for the second year. After a Friday night cocktail reception at the Grosvenor Resort, they spent Saturday morning in sessions, then were on their own until their departure on Sunday. Their airfare is paid by their distributors; ASC picks up the hotel rooms and meals. The entertainment, be it theme parks or golf, is paid for by the attendees themselves. Nonetheless, about 30 percent of them brought spouses along, though only five percent brought the kids.
Sehmer's advice to others bringing meetings to Orlando: "Plan ahead. . . . six months out, at least. It is tough in the spring [to book] rooms and meeting space, especially if you have to meet over the weekend, as we do, because we don't want our people to miss work."
Stuart Gardner, of destination management company Gardner and Associates, Inc. in Pompano Beach and Kissimmee, worked with a small group from Time Share Integral Ownership of Johannesburg. The group, which had never been out of South Africa, was rewarded with a trip to Orlando in December 1996. When their 19-hour flight landed in Miami due to an air-charter bankruptcy, attendees had to board an upscale luxury motor coach for the drive to Orlando. They were so in love with the place, nonetheless, that they overlooked the jetlag and filled five days with visits to Disney and five nights with "near-Olympic" food and beverage consumption, with hosted events at Church Street Station and the Hard Rock Cafe.
Frank Matthews of Incentive Travel Solutions recently handled local arrangements for a Guiness trip for Budweiser, which included such important visitors and senior executives from Ireland that Augie Busch III himself came from St. Louis to host it. One special event was lunch at (Busch-owned) Sea World, followed by a VIP tour of Sea World. But the premier event was an eight-and-a-half-hour cocktail party at their hotel, the Radisson Twin Towers, as 90 visiting Irish pub owners sang along with a threesome called Dueling Pianos from a local club, Blazing Pianos.