Orlando Update

From the convention center to the Magic Kingdom, Orlando is rolling out new venues and improving old ones

George Aguel Steps In
George Aguel Steps In
In January, Visit Orlando announced that meetings industry veteran George Aguel had taken over as the president and CEO of the convention and visitors bureau, following the death of its longtime leader, Gary Sain. Aguel had served as senior vice president of worldwide sales and services for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts for 22 years and was chairman of Visit Orlando’s board from 2009 to 2010, as well as a past chairman of Meeting Professionals International. “It’s an honor to have the opportunity to lead this highly respected team toward ensuring that Orlando not only remains the vibrant travel brand it is today, but continues to be positioned for prosperity in the decades to come,” Aguel says. “After nearly 23 years as an Orlando resident, my desire to serve this community has never been stronger.”

With Orlando having attracted more than 50 million visitors for the third straight year in 2012, it's not surprising that central Florida's convention and tourism giant is seeing heavy investment in its convention center, theme parks, hotels, and other venues.

"The Orange County Convention Center is starting a five-year capital improvement plan that is absolutely amazing," says Tammi Runzler, senior vice president of sales and services for Visit Orlando, the county's convention and visitors bureau. "The building itself is getting a significant facelift, making the center more contemporary [and] improving technology to keep up with the attendees' and meeting planners' needs. We are even adding more green spaces, making sure that our food options have plenty of healthier choices, and putting walking routes throughout the building so people can get some exercise while they're attending a conference."

The $187-million plan also includes dedicated bus lanes to ease traffic flow around the convention center and new, more relaxed furniture groupings. A variety of resources targeting international attendees, such as digital signage in many languages, will be added, and the CVB is working with Orlando International Airport on plans to create a dedicated customs area for international convention attendees, she says.

That's not the only piece of Orlando that's changing. Opening in the fall of 2014, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts will be a substantial addition to the area's cultural scene. Phase one includes a 2,700-seat theater with facilities for large concerts and plays, and a 300-seat theater designed for performances and education. There will be a public performance plaza able to accommodate up to 3,000 attendees.

"We're seeing more and more entertainment growth coming in and around the International Drive area, it's not just happening around the parks," says Runzler. "There's a tremendous amount of entertainment options, shopping and dining - that's where the Orlando Eye [a 425-foot observation wheel] is going to be. It will also include a 25,000-square-foot Sea Life aquarium."

Right next to the aquarium is I-Shops Orlando, a new retail development on the Wyndham Orlando Resort's property that will include many shopping and entertainment venues, and 10 new restaurants.

East of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex will unveil a $100-million home for the space shuttle Atlantis this summer. The new facility will also house more than 60 interactive exhibits telling the story of the entire shuttle program. It will be available for group events.

Property Update
The Orlando World Center Marriott completed phase one of a major renovation project in February. The North Tower's 504 guest rooms and 10 suites have been completely renovated, as have 110 other guest suites and 27 meeting rooms. The newly renovated pool deck now facilitates larger group events. The property has a total of 450,000 square feet of function space.

The Wyndham Orlando Resort wraps up a major renovation of all 613 rooms in May, adding resort-chic decor and a new lobby, expanding the event lawn, and adding 25,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, for a total of 60,000 square feet.

The Villas of Grand Cypress resort renovated its 146 rooms and suites, which are spread across 48 villas overlooking its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course. The property has 10,480 square feet of meeting space, and more will be added. The Omni Orlando Resort at Champions Gate has a new 5,000-square-foot conference center.

A Whole New Disney World
Walt Disney World Resort has unveiled a number of new 
attractions this year, from the massive and long-awaited expansion of Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom to the announcement that, beginning in March, the Downtown Disney area will be “reimagined.” Rolling out in phases through 2016, it will double in size to 150 restaurants, shops and entertainment venues, many designed with group events in mind. 

One of the first is Splitsville Luxury Lanes, a retro upscale bowling venue. “There is more than 50,000 square feet of entertainment space, so if you’ve got a group of up to 25 there’s an opportunity; if you’ve got a group of 1,500 for a buyout there’s an opportunity,” says Amy Pfeiffer, director of resort sales at Walt Disney World Resort. “It’s a unique, fun way to do a networking event or some teambuilding.”