Orlando's legendary appeal to meetings and incentive groups of all ages is due to its magical blend of resorts, venues, dining, air accessibility, activities and -- naturally -- its theme parks and attractions, like the ever-popular Epcot at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Getting Here and There
Orlando International Airport, about 13 miles southeast of downtown Orlando and 14 miles east of the Orange County Convention Center/International Drive. Transfer cost by taxi, $38-$45 to downtown, $38-$45 to the convention center/ International Drive, $52-$68 to the Disney Resorts area; by shuttle, $20-$32 to downtown, $21-$33 to the convention center/International Drive, $23-37 to the Disney Resorts area.
• The Orange County Convention Center in Orlando is expanding its 7 million-square-foot campus with a $605 million project. Among the additions will be new meeting and exhibit space for the North and South concourses. The enclosed Convention Way Grand Concourse will be built to connect the North and South buildings. The new concourse will feature an 80,000-square-foot ballroom, while a new 200,000-square-foot, column-free multipurpose venue will provide seating for 18,000 to 20,000 people. Currently, the OCCC welcomes more than 200 conventions and events each year for 1.4 million attendees. In the past five years, walkability and connectivity have been enhanced throughout the facility and its surrounding district. Five pedestrian skybridges now connect more than 5,200 guest rooms to the convention center.
debuted last fall near the Orange County Convention Center. The venue offers more than 100 climate-controlled hitting bays using technology that tracks the accuracy and distance of players' shots. The facility has a full-service restaurant and five rooms for private events; full buyouts are available.
• Making its debut in spring 2019 is the 184-room Margaritaville Resort Orlando. The 300-acre property will feature a wide range of amenities, including 30,000 square feet of meeting and function space, 200,000 square feet of retail space, a dining and entertainment district, a 12-acre waterpark, a wellness center, wooded fitness trails, bike trails, a water-taxi system and a three-acre swimming area.
• The Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center in Kissimmee, Fla., is undergoing a $150 million expansion. The project will add 303 guest rooms to the resort's current 1,416 room inventory and 90,000 square feet of meeting and prefunction space, which will give the property a total of 490,000 square feet of convention, meeting and prefunction space. Included in the work are a new 30,000-square-foot ballroom, 30,000 square feet of breakout space and approximately 30,000 square feet of prefunction space. Other enhancements include a new multi-level parking structure, an expansion of the property's resort pool (a new lazy-river feature will be added) and a new events lawn. Construction on the meeting space, rooms expansion and pool enhancements is expected to begin in spring 2019 and completed by spring 2021.
• The 2,267-room Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, which recently completed a three-year, $150 million renovation, is adding a new 349-room, 14-story tower that will offer features and amenities designed for groups. The groundbreaking for the new structure, which will be built next to the Swan Resort, is set for this fall, to be completed in fall 2020. Among the new tower's offerings will be more than 22,000 square feet of meeting space, including two ballrooms, 12 meeting rooms and a rooftop reception space that will provide views of the nightly Walt Disney World fireworks. Once the new tower opens, the resort will feature more than 2,600 guest rooms and 350,000 square feet of meeting space. The new guest-room inventory will include 151 suites with separate working and private spaces, a built-in A/V system and large conference tables. A landscaped 16,800-square-foot elevated deck with a fire pit and pool will be built; a 90-seat restaurant and a 50-seat lounge will serve refreshments; and guests will have access to a health club, a business center, a grab-and-go market and an upscale craft cocktail lobby bar.
• The 516-room JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort will open during the first quarter of 2020 at Bonnet Creek, a 482-acre mixed-use resort community near the city's famed theme parks. Eighty guest rooms will be suites, including 16 two-bedroom units with optional connections to create four-bedroom family suites. The hotel will have 50,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 23,000-square-foot ballroom. Other property offerings include an indoor/outdoor restaurant; a rooftop bar that will provide panoramic views of local evening fireworks; two pools; a spa with 10 treatment rooms; a fitness center; and an amenity deck where guests can play tennis, basketball and shuffleboard.
• Infinity Falls, a new attraction that aims to bring the thrill of white-water rafting into a family-friendly experience, has debuted at SeaWorld Orlando. Featuring a 40-foot waterfall drop, the ride is being called the tallest drop on a river-raft attraction. The ride is the centerpiece of a newly themed area designed to resemble the base camp of an expedition for explorers and scientists. After riding Infinity Falls, the entire family can wander through the camp and take part in interactive experiences that combine play with education about preserving natural freshwater ecosystems, part of SeaWorld's mission to help guests understand some of the challenges facing the planet.
• Ray Rush, a new waterslide ride, is set to debut at Aquatica, SeaWorld's Waterpark, this spring. According to SeaWorld representatives, Ray Rush "promises to be a fully loaded water adventure that will combine three unique slide elements into one action-packed attraction." The 60-foot-tall waterslide launches rafts through several sets of tubes, including a colossal translucent sphere that spins the raft around the slide walls. The watery trip continues with a drop into an open-air halfpipe that resembles the shape of a manta ray, where the rafts soar back and forth on the manta's wings.
• One of Central Florida's most beloved symbols has a new name: The Coca-Cola Eye is now known as the Icon Orlando. New this summer is a nightly light show, synchronized with the Icon's plaza fountains.
• More TSA security officers, bomb-detection dogs and screening lanes are popping up at Orlando International Airport for the spring and summer rush of passengers. Still to be resolved is the airport's preliminary push to replace TSA screening officers with a private workforce. In other news, the facility will complete the $2.1 billion construction of a south terminal -- said to be one of the most expensive public-works projects ever in Central Florida -- in the fall of 2020.
• A 28,000-square-foot expansion of the convention center has been completed at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resort. The new convention area includes a 16,000-square-foot ballroom that can be divided into eight breakout spaces, as well as three prefunction areas and two gathering rotundas designed to promote networking.
• The 1,910-room Disney's Coronado Springs Resort at Walt Disney World Resort will add 545 new guest rooms and expand its meeting and event spaces over the next two years. As part of the expansion, a new 15-story tower is now under construction and eventually will house a rooftop restaurant and lounge with panoramic views. On the events front, two multipurpose meeting rooms and a boardroom will be added to the resort, which currently has 220,000 square feet of meeting space. The property also plans to upgrade its guest rooms and grounds; among the enhancements will be the addition of floating gardens and an island oasis connected by a series of bridges to surrounding areas.
• Two new properties set to open at Walt Disney World: Disney Lakeside Lodge, a 900-room, nature-inspired resort, and Disney's Riviera Resort, which is “inspired by the European grandeur Walt Disney experienced in his travels along the Mediterranean coastline.” No opening dates have been set for the hotels.
Good to Know
Convention Center: Orange County Convention Center; exhibit space, 2.1 million square feet; number of meeting rooms, 74; (407) 685-9800 or (800) 345-984
Taxes: Orlando/Orange County: room tax, 6%; sales tax, 6.50%; total taxes on hotel rooms, 12.5%
Walt Disney World Resort hotels in Orange County: room tax, 6%; sales tax, 6.5%; total tax on hotel rooms, 12.5%
Disney properties in Osceola County: room tax, 6%; sales tax, 7%; total tax on hotel rooms, 13
Contact: Visit Orlando, (800) 643-0482
Two rides, new hotels and more are on tap at the resort.
The ever-expanding Universal Orlando Resort has new accommodations and exciting theme-park attractions set to open in the coming months. Among them are the following:
• The sleek Universal's Aventura Hotel debuted last August with 600 guest rooms and a rooftop pool. Also on-site are a lobby bar, the rooftop Bar 17 Bistro, a game room and a "food hall" with other dining options.
• Also coming to Universal is the 2,025-room Endless Summer Resort comprising two properties: the Surfside Inn and Suites, which will debut in summer 2019, and the Dockside Inn and Suites, opening in 2020.
• An outpost of hip Voodoo Doughnuts has opened at Universal CityWalk. Among the delightfully weird and delectable offerings is the iconic Voodoo Doll doughnut, which comes with its own pretzel stake.
• Fast & Furious--Supercharged, based on the Fast and Furious racing-film franchise, zoomed into Universal Studios Florida in 2018. The ride transports guests through the underground headquarters of the Fast family, as music and scenes from the movies play. The attraction also includes a high-speed race on a tricked-out party bus and "visits" from classic characters from the films.
• Leaping wizards: A new roller coaster at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogsmeade at Universal's Islands of Adventure will debut in 2019. The attraction promises to take riders deeper into J.K. Rowling's alternate universe, where they'll encounter favorite Harry Potter characters and creatures. The theme park's creative team will collaborate with Warner Bros. and production designers from the beloved films to create the adventure, which will replace the now-shuttered Dragon Challenge roller coaster.
Whole New Worlds
The spotlight's on Toy Story, Star Wars and more at WDW Resort
Two beloved franchises in the Disney family -- Toy Story and Star Wars – began to take center stage at Walt Disney World Resort in 2018
• Toy Story Land, the 11-acre park at Disney's Hollywood Studios, is populated with favorite characters (Jessie, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, platoons of toy soldiers) and familiar scenes (Andy's backyard) from the Disney Pixar films. Highlights include the Alien Swirling Saucers ride, the adorable Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster and a kid-friendly dining outlet.
• This year, the highly-anticipated Star Wars-themed land is slated to open at Disney's Hollywood Studios, complete with its own resort. The out-of-this-galaxy property modestly promises to give guests a “one-of-a-kind experience, where a luxury resort meets a multi-day adventure in a galaxy far, far away.”
Four talented chefs showcase their culinary prowess in Orlando.
Mickey and Pluto can be forgiven if real-life characters with names like Wolfgang and Emeril are stealing the show in Orlando -- at least when it comes to eating. Here's the savory details of local eateries headed by these talented toque-topped denizens of fine dining.
• Emeril Lagasse: Emeril's Orlando at Universal Orlando Resort
This popular Universal CityWalk restaurant features the chef's gourmet Creole creations made and served in a stunning two-story space with an open kitchen. Dishes to try include Tuna Poke "Bam Bam," shrimp and grits, and gumbo.
• Rick Bayless: Frontera Cocina at Disney Springs
Eight-time James Beard Award-winner Bayless is a master of modern Mexican fare as amply demonstrated here. Try his version of ribeye steak, with ancho chile, crispy onion strings, Cotija mashed potatoes, caramelized plantains and other south-of-the-border ingredients for un comida mas excelente.
• Wolfgang Puck: Wolfgang Puck Express at Disney Springs
Superstar Puck serves up Italian favorites like rigatoni Bolognese, chicken alfredo and penne primavera. Opening this summer is the new Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill, also in Disney Springs, which will offer a Mediterranean-influenced menu with an ambience "inspired by California." Okay, we'll bite!
• Melissa Kelly: Primo at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes
Melissa Kelly, who rose to fame with her original Primo in Maine, crafts dishes here using ingredients from the resort's on-site organic garden. Try the sautéed scaloppini of pork saltimbocca with garlic mashed potatoes, prosciutto, spinach and sage-infused mushroom madeira jus.
The Stella Awards Winner 2018
Guest Rooms - 1,501
Meeting Rooms - 74
Largest Conference Room - 95,000 sq. ft.
Total meeting room space - 490,000 sq. ft.
Room Rate Range - $162-$206
Guest Rooms - 2,009
Meeting Rooms - 77
Largest Conference Room - 105,000 sq. ft.
Total meeting room space - 317,323 sq. ft.
Room Rate Range - $210-$333
Guest Rooms - 1,639
Meeting Rooms - 99
Largest Conference Room - 54,638 sq. ft.
Total meeting room space - 315,000 sq. ft.
Room Rate Range - $175-$1,000