I’m originally from central Florida, but my familiarity with it has waned in recent years. So when Visit Orlando invited Convene to spend four days rediscovering the destination during IPW 2015 — the U.S. Travel Association’s annual show for travel buyers — this past June, I was delighted to find a city whose identity is evolving far beyond a theme-park mecca.
On Saturday, I arrived at our host hotel, the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, which connects directly to the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. The properties, which together feature about 1,500 rooms and 174,000 square feet of meeting space, balance two roles well — offering both an upscale retreat for business groups and a chic resort for families who want to stay close to Disney without overindulging in Magic Kingdom ambience.
That evening, our group had dinner at La Luce, an Italian restaurant on the Hilton side, where we got to know the team behind the hotel. We chatted about IPW and how much Orlando has changed in recent years, all while trying to keep up with a revolving door of homemade pastas and hearty secondi courses, like my favorite, a tender lamb shank bathed in a Tuscan bean ragù and mint gremolata. The next morning turned out to be another indulgent escape. I tested out the Waldorf Astoria Spa’s signature treatment, the Honey Butter Massage, which is as warm and delicious as it sounds. Instead of oil, therapists use a Worker B Lotion Bar, which melts as it’s massaged into the skin, with any remainder put in a tin as a parting gift.
ALL ABOUT I-DRIVE
The next day, we arrived at I-Drive 360 for IPW’s official kickoff. The brand-new entertainment complex is about a mile and a half from the Orange County Convention Center, and is anchored by the 400-foot-tall Orlando Eye observation wheel, along with Madame Tussauds and SEA LIFE Orlando aquarium. Similar to nearby Pointe Orlando, a string of new or soon-to-open restaurants, shops, nightlife, and attractions surrounds the three main attractions. The complex is one of several new projects reshaping Orlando’s International Drive — in total, more than $1 billion in new development will open by 2017 within the area alone. One of these projects, Mango’s Tropical Café Orlando, a branch of the famous Miami nightclub on South Beach, will open later this fall. During a hard-hat tour of the massive, two-story space — formerly a TGI Fridays — owner Joshua Wallack told us that Mango’s will be the largest nightclub in the state. Wallack is also developing plans for another International Drive attraction, SKYPLEX, which will include the world’s tallest roller coaster, two other rides, a 350-room hotel, and close to a half-million square feet of retail, entertainment, and dining. Orlando’s other major tourist attractions seem to be following International Drive’s lead, reimagining facilities that have started to lag or adding new elements to appeal to a wider audience. Before an afternoon tour of Universal Orlando Resort’s newest rides, we were whisked into a foreboding jungle scenario that ultimately revealed the park’s latest attraction: “Skull Island: Reign of Kong,” which will open next summer. Also in Universal’s pipeline for 2016 is the opening of the 1,000-room Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, and for 2017, a third park — Volcano Bay water park.
DISNEY AND BEYOND
Walt Disney World Resort has been slowly tweaking parts of Downtown Disney over the past few years, but now the company is revealing plans for a more comprehensive transformation. We spent a morning “touring” a massive digital projection model, learning that the name soon will switch from Downtown Disney to Disney Springs, and that over the next few years the complex’s waterfront district will expand to include four neighborhoods and double the number of shopping, dining, and entertainment outlets. Many of the new additions are geared toward adults and groups. We spent a late afternoon at one of them: the newly opened Boathouse, an upscale, nautical-themed restaurant with indoor and outdoor spaces for groups of up to 200. The best part is that guests can take an Amphicar (part vintage car, part boat) tour of the lake via the restaurant’s marina. We spent our final day in Orlando touring parts often unknown to tourists — Downtown and Winter Park. As a former Orlando resident, these are my favorite neighborhoods, and I wish more visitors would venture out to explore them. The Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour, which launches just a few blocks from the boutique- and café-filled sidewalks of Park Avenue, is a quick and easy way to see the area’s natural beauty. The tour’s pontoon boats hold up to 18 people each (private groups are welcome), and it’s hard not to feel relaxed gliding through the Spanish-moss-draped canals. After lunch at Boca Kitchen, Bar, and Market — popular for its lively bar and hearty salads made with ingredients fresh off a vertical garden wall — we explored the restaurant’s sister venues: Park Social, a ’70s-inspired speakeasy just upstairs, and Atlantic Beer and Oyster, a slip of an oyster bar next door. The rest of our last afternoon, we visited more local culinary gems — East End Market in Audubon Park, which houses a dozen or so local businesses in a two-story space, and Quantum Leap Winery, which blends its eco-conscious wines at a facility in Orlando’s Mills 50 district a few minutes away. In a city that for so long was identified with chain restaurants, these locally owned successes all stand as an example of how Orlando is moving into an identity it can finally call its own.