Theme Park of the Day: Islands of Adventure

The approaching Orlando tourism renaissance

April 11, 2010, 11:10 PM · When traveling the southbound lane of International Drive, near Wonderworks and Pointe Orlando, a break in the trees on the center median provides a dramatic view of an extraordinary new landmark. Rising 32-stories, the Peabody tower commands attention. Still under construction, with an opening scheduled for November 2010, the enormous hotel – supported by a new 250,000-square-foot convention center – will likely be counted among the most prestigious resort destinations in Orlando.


A few miles away, at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park, the much anticipated Wizarding World of Harry Potter will soon celebrate its grand opening. Developed by Universal Creative (the organization behind the groundbreaking ‘Amazing Adventures of Spider Man’ and ‘Men in Black: Alien Attack’) it seems a certainty that the attractions based upon the world’s most successful film franchise will be extraordinary additions to the popular theme park.

These two developments – the Peabody and Potter – are among a wave of expansive resorts and state-of-the-art attractions that have or will soon become a part of the Orlando tourist industry. This level of investment and innovation seem a harbinger of an approaching renaissance within Central Florida tourism.

This perfect storm (of sorts) is not lost upon Orlando tourism veterans. On March 30th, Orlando hotelier Harris Rosen addressed a breakfast gathering of the Central Florida chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. Having been on the opening management teams of the Walt Disney World Contemporary and Polynesian resorts, Mr. Rosen has more than 40 years of experience in the Orlando tourism industry. During a question and answer period following his speech Mr. Rosen was asked for his assessment on the future of Orlando tourism. Mr. Rosen responded, “In my heart of hearts, I am certain Central Florida tourism is going to come back with a vengeance.”

Clearly Mr. Rosen’s assertion already has some momentum. The Peabody is not the only resort project that has or will be built in Orlando. Over the past five years Hilton has opened three sizable properties – including the expansive Hilton at Bonnet Creek. The internationally famous Four Seasons Hotels, Inc. had enough confidence in the future of Central Florida tourism to have purchased 298 acres on Walt Disney World property. The company intends to use the property to open a luxury golf resort. Meanwhile Walt Disney World is now moving to complete its own Pop Century Resort, even as the company continues to seek financing for a retail, entertainment and resort development on the western edge of its property.

As the community of hotels grows so too has activity related to the region’s theme parks. In 2011, less than a year after Universal Orlando opens the ‘Wizarding World of Harry Potter,’ Walt Disney World will celebrate its 40th anniversary. In the fall of that year Disney Hollywood Studios will unveil Star Tours II – a revamped version of the original attraction using high definition 3D images and improved motion simulator technology. By 2013 Walt Disney World will welcome guests to the new Fantasyland -- the largest expansion in the history of the Magic Kingdom. It seems likely that the new addition will boast some of the interactive technology being developed as a part of Disney’s top secret, billion dollar “NextGen” project.

Of course, when it comes to investment in Central Florida’s theme parks Disney and Universal are not alone. This past January, Merlin Entertainment announced its intention to open a Florida edition of the Legoland franchise by the end of 2011. What’s more Merlin’s parent company, the Blackstone Group, was confident enough in Central Florida tourism to buy Busch Entertainment – the owner of Orlando’s Sea World, Aquatica and Discovery Cove parks.

While Central Florida is no stranger to sizable hotel and attraction development, the level of investment described herein is certainly exceptional. Considering the economic uncertainty that has gripped the nation (and indeed the planet) it is noteworthy that substantial quantities of corporate dollars continue to flow into Orlando’s tourist industry

Orlando tourism’s renaissance has begun. Over the next thirty-six months Central Florida will (once again) be home to something extraordinary.

Replies (13)

April 11, 2010 at 11:48 PM · I couldn't care less about more new hotels, but I am looking forward to the new attractions. That being said, WDW needs a lot more than just a revamped Star Tours and Fantasyland. They are good new projects, although badly overdue.

But Disney is still neglecting the majority of their parks. Animal Kingdom opened as a half day park (if that) and got only one E ticket since then. Downright stingy, not to mention that the yeti is still moribund. Epcot needs something -- not sure what, but something. I'm glad that DHS is getting ST II, although I'll never for the life of me understand why TDO had to be forced to move ahead with the new version -- did they REALLY think it was acceptable to keep the tired old Star Tours? Really?? Those 5-10 minute standby lines really impressed them?

Anyway, considering the glacial pace of new projects, I can only hope that the current ones will live up to expectations. Please please please, no more budget cuts!!

April 12, 2010 at 4:35 AM · To be clear, the column above was making note of the sudden level of investment in Central Florida tourism (measured in billions of dollars) and how it serves as an indication of a bullish perspective on the industry's future.

I found it interesting that at a time of economic uncertainty major tourist industry leaders (Disney, Merlin, Belz [ Peabody], Hilton, Universal, Four Seasons, Blackstone, etc.) are still willing to invest substantial sums of capital in Central Florida.

That level of investment and the assessment of Mr. Rosen provide sound reasons for being very optimistic about the future of Central Florida tourism.

April 12, 2010 at 8:18 AM · TH has been revealed!!!!!!!!!!!

Of course, I knew it for years :)

But yeah, I think Orlando is hoping that people will be coming back to go on vacation in FL because they either saved/have money..

Also something that I have noticed is that the theme parks or Orlando have become more "adult friendly"' with conventioneers doing stuff at Disney and Universal Resorts who not only have great parks, but golfing, dancing, sports, and, especially, drinking!

April 12, 2010 at 9:09 AM · Attractions are great, and we're all big fans here. But hotels are where a local community makes its money. Major hotel investment provides a strong statement of faith in a tourism economy.

What I find most interesting about Orlando is its conversion from a low-end to mid- and high-end destination, as seen in the continuing struggle of low-end properties along 192, as new, higher-end hotels go up and prosper in other, now more-desireable areas of the community.

April 12, 2010 at 11:01 AM · It should be noted that Blackstone also owns Hilton and 50% of Universal they are a big player in Orlando.
April 12, 2010 at 11:13 AM · Great article, TH.

A sign of good things, for sure. Coincidentally enough, I just finished reading this article regarding the improving market, comparing Obama's economic strategy to Rubinomics.

I always find comparisons between Las Vegas and Orlando, which are surely (though don't quote me) the two most visited American tourist cities. Strangely, though, while Orlando seems to be preparing for a boom, Vegas seems to be preparing for a collapse, or at least a minor downfall. Flights to Vegas have gotten ridiculously cheap; hotels, too. One thing I always notice when exploring Vegas is new hotel construction. However, conversely to Orlando, these new hotels are not the result of expansion, but rather replacement of previous hotels and casinos that have failed.

Any thoughts regarding this?

April 12, 2010 at 11:48 AM · Aren't the hotels along 192 more centrally located, i.e. closer to the major attractions and theme parks? That's what they have going for them, right?
April 12, 2010 at 12:29 PM · I found this piece interesting "Meanwhile Walt Disney World is now moving to complete its own Pop Century Resort"

I haven't heard anything on the completion of the legendary years in quite sometime. Did I miss a fairly recent announcement somewhere?

April 12, 2010 at 12:56 PM · Good article. On a related note, I wrote a similar piece about the attendance growth at WDW and how I think they're un-prepared for it. Attendance at WDW has increased on average, just over 3% annually, which means in 10 years, we could see over 63 milion visitors just at WDW, which which would put the daily average at 173,000 guests, or 44,000 more than than presently. That's a lot more people to feed, house and transport. See the full article here
April 12, 2010 at 4:08 PM · Our anonymous poster writes: "I found this piece interesting "Meanwhile Walt Disney World is now moving to complete its own Pop Century Resort." I haven't heard anything on the completion of the legendary years in quite sometime. Did I miss a fairly recent announcement somewhere?

I Respond: Several sites have made note that it's been renamed the Disney Animation Resort.

Construction/bid documents are being prepped for circulation in the very near future.

April 12, 2010 at 4:52 PM · Thanks TH I that one must have somehow gotten by me. Can't wait to hear more details about it...

Too bad it will be a Value resort, WDW should really look into creating another moderate, it always seems like the mods are the first to fill up and anytime you are in an overbooked value they bump you to Saratoga or OKW and I am guessing the reason is a lower guest occupancy rate.

April 12, 2010 at 8:28 PM · So when does the book come out :)
April 13, 2010 at 3:45 AM · September 23, 2010

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