Known worldwide as a tourist and meeting mecca, Orlando is now making its mark as an incentive destination. Among the elements that make it an attractive choice for insurance groups: several world-class golf resorts, 75 courses within a 30-mile radius, beach access an hour away, and numerous themed restaurant attractions. And with a rapidly growing hotel room inventory (86,000 at last count), an expanding international airport, and more new theme parks set to debut during the next two years, Orlando is constantly reinventing itself.

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 economical properties with easy access to the tourist corridor.

Disney's long-awaited fourth Orlando theme park will open this spring. Called Disney's Animal Kingdom, the 500-acre, live-action theme 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 will house 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, 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 Resort. 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 the next four years. Also opening in 1999 at Universal Studios Florida is a 12-acre entertainment area called CityWalk, with restaurants, bars, and 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 Atlantis," 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, featuring a circus-style theatrical show, and DisneyQuest, a 100,000-square-foot interactive adventure. On International Drive one block from the Orange County Convention Center, Pointe Orlando features such upscale shops as Armani Exchange and Abercrombie and Fitch, and even has its own IMAX-3D theater. It hosts group receptions, dinearounds, and private functions.

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 stage, 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.

Hotel News * The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin have merged the sales, marketing, and reservations functions of the two hotels. The merger provides 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 146-unit Villas of Grand Cypress recently completed a soft goods renovation.

* 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 with seven meeting rooms. It will add 8,000 square feet of meeting space in 1998.

* 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 Peabody's total meeting space to 125,000 square feet.

* At Universal Studios Florida, the 750-room Portofino Bay Resort is set to open in 1999. Reportedly, Hard Rock Cafe International will build an on-site hotel as well, to open in the year 2000.

Getting There Eight miles southeast of downtown and 15 miles east of Walt Disney World, 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.

James Wolfe, special events coordinator for the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Boca Raton, Fla., stages an annual meeting every April in Orlando. Attended by 800 top-level executives, CEOs, chief underwriters, regulators, and politicians, the one-and-a-half-day meeting has been held at the Grand Cypress Resort, Peabody Orlando, and Renaissance Orlando properties in recent years. Wolfe says a sizable percentage of attendees arrive two to three days early to take advantage of Orlando's activities and attractions. A golf tournament on the Monday afternoon before last year's Tuesday/Wednesday meeting was hugely successful and well attended. "This was the first year we've done a golf outing and everything worked flawlessly," says Wolfe. "The Grand Cypress Resort does hundreds of tournaments a year, so they have the logistics down pat."

Orlando Convention & Visitors Bureau Jerry Pfeiffer, director of convention sales and services (407) 363-5843 Fax (407) 370-5013 www.orlando.digitalcity.com