Momentum Continues with Orlando Eye
By George White
The success of LEGOLAND in Winter Haven has provided the momentum for Merlin Entertainments to focus its attention on turning International Drive into a destination in its own right. With the opening of the massive Orlando Eye, Madame Tussauds Orlando and SEA LIFE Aquarium Orlando, the attention on I-Drive 360 is growing.
At 400-feet high, or nearly 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Orlando Eye is the tallest observation wheel on the U.S. East Coast. Each of the 30 air-conditioned capsules can hold up to 15 passengers for the over the top trip that takes about 20 minutes to complete.
Madame Tussauds showcases incredibly detailed and lifelike wax figures, from film and music celebrities to historical figures.
SEA LIFE Orlando offers visitors the chance to see the habitats for more than 5,000 sea creatures representing the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans, including colorful fish, sharks, seahorses, rays, sea turtles and more.
The ball got rolling for Merlin in 2011 with the opening of LEGOLAND in the former Cypress Gardens. It was one of the original Florida theme park destinations with a loyal fan base that wanted its heritage to continue. LEGOLAND was such an overwhelming sensation, Merlin saw incredible potential to include other enhancements for tourism including resort hotels and water parks. The idea: to have enough on hand to keep visitors in the area for days, rather than just hours.
“It certainly has moved quicker than I personally expected; that’s for sure,” said LEGOLAND Florida Resort General Manager Adrian Jones. “LEGOLAND Florida Resort is still in its infancy, and has grown incredibly fast in four years and will mature with new accommodation offerings, new lands and new experiences over the next five years.”
Merlin is Europe’s No. 1 and the world’s second-largest visitor attraction operator. It now operates 109 attractions, 12 hotels and four holiday villages in 23 countries and across four continents.
Seizing the Future, Preserving the Past
The conversion of the beloved and historic gardens was not without its obstacles. “The biggest challenges I’ve faced, project-wise, has to be the opening of LEGOLAND Florida and the conversion from Cypress Gardens. Everybody has been so supportive, but there were a considerable number of people who were convinced we would fail, and managing that has had its trials. But I have to say, it has been quite enjoyable watching these opinions disappear as we have grown,” Jones recalled.
And it’s that loyalty to the memory and history of Cypress Gardens that Merlin officials made a conscious decision to keep intact for the future. “We have an obligation to maintain, redevelop and preserve the historical botanical gardens here and we have always maintained that Cypress Gardens is very much a part of LEGOLAND Florida Resort. We could have easily retired the name but felt it had to be integral to who we are.”
“When we first arrived in Central Florida, we were instantly hit by the warmth and affection of the local community, not only for the gardens themselves, but for the fact as the new owners, we were going to protect them for future generations. We have since reopened the Florida pool and the oriental garden as well as installing permanent gas lines for burners to heat the Banyon tree on those rare few days when we have frosty conditions in January. Future plans in the gardens will continue to support the heritage of Cypress Gardens. Although we have no firm plans at present, we will replace aging assets from the Cypress Gardens days which need modernizing,” he said.
Investing in Central Florida
Merlin Entertainments’ Chief Executive Nick Varney said, “The success of LEGOLAND Florida has underlined to us the potential for Merlin’s high quality global attractions in Central Florida, particularly in Orlando, undoubtedly the best and most exciting location for family entertainment anywhere in the world. We believe that this is an exceptional group of attractions which will not only provide three quite different new experiences for visitors, but also together add an exciting new dimension to what is already available in the region,” he said.
James Paulding, head of openings for North America at Merlin Entertainments, added, “We are very excited to be bringing some of Merlin’s best-loved global attractions to International Drive. SEA LIFE and Madame Tussauds have already proven their popularity with audiences across North America, and in Europe and Asia. From 2015, these two, together with the unique views from the Eye, will become must-do experiences for every visitor to Orlando.”
Looking to the future, Merlin Entertainments wants to be at the forefront of a vibrant, growing and ever-improving future. “Orlando has been growing consistently and is now the No. 1 tourist destination in North America. There are huge plans on the table from all the theme park operators over the next five years and I can only see Central Florida growing,” Jones said.
“It is a big reason why visitors come in the first place, but also why they decide to come again and again. It is also worth mentioning that projects such as the expansion of Orlando International Airport, the I-4 Ultimate project, SunRail and other public transportation projects will be even more important over time. This also extends to the ‘super region’ and the links between all the major hubs of Central Florida outside of Orlando, particularly as we grow not only the number of tourists visiting our region, but our population. We expand to support this growth.”