Orlando and Central Florida Offer More Excitement Than Ever

Morimoto Asia Restaurant in Disney Springs

Thanks to its central "off-beach" location and pancake topography, Orlando might be mistaken for a sleepy southern destination -- albeit, with one of the world's busiest airports. That's until you see the Orlando Eye, a 400-foot Ferris wheel with observation pods that debuted in 2015 between International Drive and Universal Boulevard. Groups convening at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) can be on the watch for this attraction as they travel to the OCCC and its nearby hotel facilities, as the Eye is at the center of a new retail, dining, and entertainment complex, I-Drive360, which opened last spring. With a Madame Tussauds, SEA LIFE Aquarium, and a sampling of shops and restaurants -- with more on the way -- planners might consider the venue, as it is a short hop from the OCCC.

"Orlando is recognized as the top meetings destination," says George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando. "We look forward to ensuring we remain in a leadership position. To stay on top, we're continually evolving."

Speaking of "more on the way," not only is the OCCC reporting a meetings boom (175 events and counting), but signature expansions at Disney and Universal theme parks have the masters of invention, well, reinventing themselves. "We really have so much to offer when it comes to meetings of any size, meeting professionals will be amazed at all the things there are for their attendees to do before, during, and after the conference," notes Aguel.

Not to be outdone, Orlando's foodie explosion seems to have restaurants opening every five minutes. The latest is a Steampunk-inspired chocolate factory, called the Toothsome Chocolate Factory, which opened in March at CityWalk.

The overall theme for new ventures, however, is mid-century design -- the type of aesthetic in style when Walt was first envisioning the theme park. From Disney's Bora Bora Bungalows to Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, it looks like it's back to the future.


The OCCC Campus
Orlando's ongoing success has set into motion plans for future triumphs. "Our convention center has been going through an extensive renovation," says Aguel. "We have an incredible diversity of hotels and all of our retail, dining, and entertainment complexes are upgrading or adding venues."

Ongoing improvements at the OCCC include the conversion of Hall WF into a 48,000-square-foot ballroom and four boardrooms called the Hamlin meeting rooms. The former W340 is now the Sunburst Terrace, with wood flooring, bamboo ceiling, and a scenic outdoor-entertaining mezzanine deck.

The master plan for the OCCC (already the second-largest convention center in the U.S.) proposes a 1,500-space parking garage and a 130,000-square-foot multipurpose hall with seating for 12,000, and more is under consideration. International Drive is being modernized with new construction.

Meanwhile, in March, the 1,470-room Hilton Orlando unveiled 11,000 square feet of new meeting space, including the Key Largo and Key West meeting rooms (which can be divided into eight meeting rooms adjacent to the existing 15,000-square-foot Florida Ballroom), pre-function space, and an additional registration desk. The renovation adds 11,000 square feet to the venue, which also features a 50,000-square-foot promenade.

 

The OCCC meeting hotel community has won several accolades in the past year. In March, the 1,639-room Hyatt Regency Orlando Convention Center garnered the No. 8 spot on Cvent's annual "Top 100 U.S. Meeting Hotels" list (12 Orlando venues made the list altogether). Last September, the 1,334-room Rosen Centre was among three Orlando properties (the other two were the 1,501-room Rosen Shingle Creek and the 800-room Rosen Plaza) awarded the APEX designation for sustainable meetings standards.

"Groups and meetings are as important to us as are our company's green efforts," says Leslie Menichini, vice president of sales and marketing for Rosen Hotels & Resorts. "Marrying our environmentally sustainable business philosophy to those groups who want to make a positive eco-impact at their meetings is just another way we strive to exceed our clients' expectations."

At the 800-room Rosen Plaza, there is a new indoor/outdoor space that hosts up to 1,500 guests. The all-new Club 39 At The Plaza is inside the Rosen Plaza hotel on International Drive. The club has 5,000 square feet that can be extended to the patio and pool deck.

Within walking distance of the OCCC are two new eateries: Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, which has several dedicated private dining rooms for up to 10 diners in the Eagle's Nest, and up to 110 in the Grand Cru wine cellar; and Lafayette's restaurant and bar, located on the second level of PointeOrlando with three semi-private dining areas that can accommodate an intimate dinner or a large festive party (including full venue buyout).


New Fantasy Worlds
"We have an incredible array of new entertainment offerings available to groups meeting at Walt Disney World Resort this summer," says Amy Pfeiffer, director of resort sales for Walt Disney World Resort. "From all-new nighttime experiences at Disney's Animal Kingdom to the exciting transformation of Disney Springs into a unique waterfront destination for shopping, dining, and nightlife, these new offerings will provide even more entertainment options for attendees visiting Walt Disney World."

This month, Disney debuts the Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away experience, complete with Captain Phasma's First Order storm troopers and a nightly fireworks and projection show called Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. VIPs and incentive winners will clamor for the Bora Bora Bungalows in the Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort, which opened in April 2015. Part of the Vacation Club, these 20 bungalows (which can sleep up to eight guests each) feature 1,300-square-foot indoor space with a 300-square-foot deck that includes a small pool, chaise lounges, and two hanging basket chairs. Elsewhere at the mouse house, Disney Springs is rising from the metaphorical ashes of Downtown Disney. The newly reimagined dining and retail space, which will be opening in phases throughout this year, will double the number of shops, restaurants (including celebrity eateries from Rick Bayless and Chef Masaharu Morimoto), and other venues to more than 150 establishments.

Two new spring-inspired outdoor kitchens -- the Caribbean-themed La Isla Fresca and the farm-to-fork Cider House -- will join 11 others as part of the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, which runs until May. At Disney Springs, planners can leverage private event space at the all-new BOATHOUSE, where groups can eat, then cruise the lake in vintage Amphicars (mid-century amphibious convertibles).

At Universal this summer, premieres include Skull Island: Reign of Kong, where groups can board large vehicles and explore ancient temples. In addition, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has recently added London from a wizard's perspective. Says Eric Marshall, vice president of park sales for Universal Orlando Resort: "Planners may host an event in the spectacularly themed lands of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which features Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade in Universal's Islands of Adventure." Connected as they are by the Hogwarts Express, the two parks provide an "unparalleled, multi-park event experience."

 

Also at Universal, the 1,000-room, Caribbean-themed Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is expected to open in the summer of 2016, with 115,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 41,000-square-foot ballroom divisible into 12 sections, a 31,000-square-foot hall, 16 breakout rooms and 27,000 square feet of pre-function space.

"The hotel will be connected to the recently expanded meeting space at Loews Royal Pacific Resort, creating the all-new Loews Meetings Complex at Universal Orlando. Together, the two resorts will feature 247,000 square feet of meeting space and 2,000 rooms, offering entirely new options for planners." Marshall adds that 2017 will see 400 more rooms at the currently 1,800-room Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, so "we'll have more room offerings than ever before." The Universal campus also features the 750-room Portofino Bay Hotel and the 650-room Hard Rock Hotel.


Elsewhere in Orlando
Summer can get pretty sultry in Orlando. For receptions of up to 1,000, SeaWorld offers a Chill Zone Party at Antarctica theme, where guests can sip cocktails while observing penguins above and below the ice. (Groups of 5,000 or more are invited to buy out the park.)

The 146-room Villas of Grand Cypress has redesigned its stand-alone Executive Meeting Center, featuring 7,200 square feet of flexible indoor/outdoor event space as part of a $17 million renovation. The new space adds to the property's offerings, including its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.  



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.

ESSENTIAL Tool Box
CONVENTION CENTERS & FACILITIES
Orange County Convention Center
(2.1 million sf)

ROOM TAX
Orange County: 12.5 percent  
Osceola County: 13 percent

WHERE TO…
MEET - Wondermade Café
At this restaurant, groups can tour the kitchen and enjoy cocktails while decorating gourmet marshmallows and getting the lowdown from an official marshmallow agent -- on some days, shop owner and TED-Talker Nathan Clark.

STAY - Rosen Shingle Creek
This 1,501-room property received the APEX designation for sustainable meetings standards. A 230-acre, AAA Four-Diamond golf resort backending the OCCC, the Rosen Shingle Creek has 490,000 square feet of meeting space.

EAT - AAA Diamond Restaurant
In Orlando, where dining venues are used to catering to large groups, there are too many top-notch restaurants to choose from. Planners can book the Queen Victoria Room, or even a Chef's Table for 10, at the AAA Five-Diamond Victoria & Albert's (pictured). Elsewhere, AAA Four-Diamond venues including Luma on Park (Winter Park), Bull & Bear and Capa (Lake Buena Vista), A Land Remembered, Cala Bella, Christini's Ristorante Italiano, Norman's, Primo, The Venetian Chop House and Todd English's bluezoo (Orlando) are available. Dine-around, anyone?


New Fantasy Worlds
"We have an incredible array of new entertainment offerings available to groups meeting at Walt Disney World Resort this summer," says Amy Pfeiffer, director of resort sales for Walt Disney World Resort. "From all-new nighttime experiences at Disney's Animal Kingdom to the exciting transformation of Disney Springs into a unique waterfront destination for shopping, dining, and nightlife, these new offerings will provide even more entertainment options for attendees visiting Walt Disney World."

This month, Disney debuts the Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away experience, complete with Captain Phasma's First Order storm troopers and a nightly fireworks and projection show called Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular. VIPs and incentive winners will clamor for the Bora Bora Bungalows in the Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort, which opened in April 2015. Part of the Vacation Club, these 20 bungalows (which can sleep up to eight guests each) feature 1,300-square-foot indoor space with a 300-square-foot deck that includes a small pool, chaise lounges, and two hanging basket chairs. Elsewhere at the mouse house, Disney Springs is rising from the metaphorical ashes of Downtown Disney. The newly reimagined dining and retail space, which will be opening in phases throughout this year, will double the number of shops, restaurants (including celebrity eateries from Rick Bayless and Chef Masaharu Morimoto), and other venues to more than 150 establishments.

Two new spring-inspired outdoor kitchens -- the Caribbean-themed La Isla Fresca and the farm-to-fork Cider House -- will join 11 others as part of the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, which runs until May. At Disney Springs, planners can leverage private event space at the all-new BOATHOUSE, where groups can eat, then cruise the lake in vintage Amphicars (mid-century amphibious convertibles).

At Universal this summer, premieres include Skull Island: Reign of Kong, where groups can board large vehicles and explore ancient temples. In addition, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has recently added London from a wizard's perspective. Says Eric Marshall, vice president of park sales for Universal Orlando Resort: "Planners may host an event in the spectacularly themed lands of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which features Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade in Universal's Islands of Adventure." Connected as they are by the Hogwarts Express, the two parks provide an "unparalleled, multi-park event experience."

 

The Loews Royal Pacific Resort connects
to form part of the new Loews Meetings
Complex at Universal Orlando
The Loews Royal Pacific Resort connects to form part of the new Loews Meetings Complex at Universal Orlando

Also at Universal, the 1,000-room, Caribbean-themed Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is expected to open in the summer of 2016, with 115,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 41,000-square-foot ballroom divisible into 12 sections, a 31,000-square-foot hall, 16 breakout rooms and 27,000 square feet of pre-function space.

"The hotel will be connected to the recently expanded meeting space at Loews Royal Pacific Resort, creating the all-new Loews Meetings Complex at Universal Orlando. Together, the two resorts will feature 247,000 square feet of meeting space and 2,000 rooms, offering entirely new options for planners." Marshall adds that 2017 will see 400 more rooms at the currently 1,800-room Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, so "we'll have more room offerings than ever before." The Universal campus also features the 750-room Portofino Bay Hotel and the 650-room Hard Rock Hotel.


Elsewhere in Orlando
Summer can get pretty sultry in Orlando. For receptions of up to 1,000, SeaWorld offers a Chill Zone Party at Antarctica theme, where guests can sip cocktails while observing penguins above and below the ice. (Groups of 5,000 or more are invited to buy out the park.)

The 146-room Villas of Grand Cypress has redesigned its stand-alone Executive Meeting Center, featuring 7,200 square feet of flexible indoor/outdoor event space as part of a $17 million renovation. The new space adds to the property's offerings, including its Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course.  



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.