By: Patrick Peterson
Like dividing the history of the Americas between Pre-Columbian and Post-Columbian eras, Central Florida’s 1492 occurred in 1971 when Walt Disney World Resort opened its doors and forever changed not only the region but the vacation experience itself. SeaWorld followed in 1973 and Universal Studios in 1990. Capitalizing on the tourist draw and international interest in space, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex began evolving into a major attraction as well. Then in 2011, Legoland Florida opened on the former grounds of one of Florida’s oldest attractions, Cypress Gardens.
Alongside these world famous destinations, the shopping, resort, convention and restaurant industries grew luxuriously in the fertile soil of this tourist mecca. Springing back from the 2009 recession, these theme parks have grown steadily and this year looks to be another when amusement parks, Orlando’s most formidable economic asset, will continue to lead the region’s economy.
Most of the major attractions are opening new exhibits and foreign tourists, aided by favorable exchange rates and regular direct flights, will flock to central Florida this year. Since 2009, the number of leisure visitors to central Florida has increased 23 percent to 57.1 million.
“We’ve hit records since 2009,” Visit Orlando Corporate Communications Director Brian Martin said. “We’ve had an incredible bounce back.” Some 58.5 million visitors were expected in 2013. The $32 billion in direct spending that the attractions bring to central Florida has a $50 billion economic impact. Attendance in central Florida parks grew between 2.5 and 4 percent in 2012, according to the TEA/AECOM Theme Index. From creating new rides to hosting events that attract diverse guests, the major attractions are pulling out all the stops to lure visitors in 2014.
Walt Disney World Resort
The Walt Disney World Resort, informally known as Disney World, is the most visited attraction in the world with an attendance of 52.5 million annually. The property covers 30,080 acres (47 square miles), in which it houses 24 themed resorts, four theme parks, two water parks, and several additional recreational and entertainment venues.
The New Fantasyland – the largest expansion in the 41-year history at Magic Kingdom – was designed to showcase a new generation of stars that are box office sensations but weren’t represented in the park. Millions of little girls and boys grew up in the 1990s with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, yet these characters had, as one writer said, “neither ride nor realm” in the Magic Kingdom until now.
“It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world,” Walt Disney once said. At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney and filmmaker James Cameron will bring the world of Avatar to life. Floating mountains and a jungle of bioluminescent plants will be part of the show and guests can even soar on a Banshee.
Downtown Disney will double to 150 shopping, dining and entertainment venues, along with being rebranded as Disney Springs. It will include four outdoor neighborhoods connected by a flowing spring.
Lest you forget that the park, tucked into 40 square miles off I-4 in south Orlando, really drives the local economy, remember these statistics: 66,000 employees, 35 resort hotels, 81 holes of golf and more than $566 million paid in state and local taxes.
It has been called the “Harry Potter Effect” and soon Universal Orlando guests will be able to follow his trek from London to Hogwarts in the coming year. Fans of the young wizard will catch the train in magical Diagon Alley and be carried to another dimension, actually to another park, to arrive at Hogwarts where Potter had his adventures.
“I’m sure that the attention to detail in creating the new Diagon Alley area will make this an even better experience,” said author J.K. Rowling, who created the Harry Potter character and wrote seven books that have sold 450 million copies. Tom Williams, chairman of Universal Parks & Resorts, added, “We are continuing the journey and adding an entirely new level of adventure, and we are bringing the same drive, commitment, enthusiasm and innovation to this project as we did to the first.”
Since opening in June 2010, the Harry Potter-themed attraction has drawn millions to Universal Orlando. The expansion is expected to draw millions more. In addition to Harry Potter, Universal Orlando also has rides that feature Spiderman, Shrek, Men in Black, Jurassic Park dinosaurs and The Mummy. The park launched a major expansion in 2013 with the opening of The Transformers 3D ride.
Universal also will open a 1,800-room hotel in 2014, which will contain 900 family suites. The new hotel is the fourth in the attraction and will have a “classic, retro feel of beach resorts built during the 1950s and ‘60s.” The first section is expected to open in March.
The new resorts “will create an entirely new, value-driven option for families who want to stay within the Universal Orlando Resort,” said Alice Norsworthy, executive vice president of marketing and sales at Universal Orlando Resort.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex just opened a $100 million interactive exhibit for Space Shuttle Atlantis, including a redesigned entrance to focus on Atlantis, the uncontested star of the show. Attendance is booming, and that’s expected to continue this year, even though the shuttle program ended in July 2011.
“It’s a very emotional experience, especially when it comes to the reveal of Atlantis,” said Andrea Farmer, public relations manager of KSC Visitor Complex, which is operated by Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts. “It’s a view that only astronauts have been able to see. You can get up close and see the scratch marks from the 33 missions in space.”
Guests now enter through the rocket garden and get a view of some of the first space vehicles NASA launched before learning about the most recent space advances. “We’ve changed the way people begin their day,” Farmer explained. “It’s really transformed the park.” In March, the center added an Angry Birds encounter. The video game, loved by kids and adults alike around the world, has provided a way to reach younger audiences.
The excitement of shuttle launches, which formerly happened about twice a year, has been replaced by the thrill of commercial and national defense launches that now happen about once a month. Visitors who are interested in space travel have much to learn as they get one of the best seats for viewing a launch through the Visitor Complex. “There’s still nothing like a launch,” Farmer said. “That’s something you can’t experience anywhere else.”
The blockbuster movie Gravity has increased interest in the center and the science fiction film, Ender’s Game has also driven attendance. Interestingly half the visitors to the center are from outside the U.S.
On 150 acres of beautifully landscaped Florida property, LEGOLAND offers a park experience for kids and families who love the quintessential building toy that allows youngsters to use their imaginations to create their own toys, buildings and villages. LEGOLAND is owned by Merlin Entertainments Group Ltd, a British operator of over 70 amusement parks and other attractions. It is the largest such company in Europe and globally the second largest after Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
The park opens a new attraction in 2014 – DUPLO Valley, which will be aimed toward toddlers ages 2 to 5, who will enjoy the larger building blocks created for them. “DUPLO Valley will bring the LEGO DUPLO line of preschool building toys to life with new farm-themed attractions, an air-conditioned indoor play area, a train, a mini tractor ride and a water play area, all geared to toddlers ages 2 to 5,” LEGOLAND marketing director Samantha Lane said. “The affinity for the LEGO brand is very strong,” she added.
Located about 50 miles southwest of Orlando in Winter Haven, the attraction has been built around the former Cypress Gardens. “The amazing collection of native plants, including azaleas and camellias, has been reclaimed and combined with a range of exotic species to create a horticultural masterpiece,” Lane said. The park draws significant numbers of foreign visitors and even though it is only two years old, the attraction has drawn many repeat visitors, she added.
SeaWorld is one of the marine mammal parks, oceanariums, and animal theme parks owned by SeaWorld Entertainment with operations in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, with discussions about another park in Dubai.
The Orlando park’s biggest expansion opened in 2013 – Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, where guests get a flightless birds-eye view of the ice and the frigid habitat. The family ride includes close animal connections with interactive ride technologies for an adventure that is unique each time. Guests explore a massive penguin colony and experience the penguins’ lives above and below the surface.
SeaWorld is also known for its work rehabilitating wild aquatic animals, and in its 40 years in business, SeaWorld’s staff has helped more than 22,000 animals that were injured in the wild return to their homes.
With the amount of capital investment being made in the central Florida amusement industry, estimates running as high as $5 billion, the growth of the last 20 years could well be matched by what the area may experience in the next 20 years. Regional investments in infrastructure and technology, to ensure the tourist experience is second to none, will keep the golden goose continuing to produce the draw which makes our local economy possible.