BY BARBARA SCOFIDIO
A new and unique offering for convention attendees is the Orlando Health Virtual Care Center at the Orange County Convention Center, located in the West Concourse on the first floor near the Visit Orlando Welcome Center. Medical providers are available via virtual visit 24 hours a day and, during major conventions, it will be staffed by Orlando Health clinicians. The clinic was created through a partnership between Visit Orlando and Orlando Health, a not-for-profit healthcare organization.
As always, Orlando is changing and evolving, with new attractions and hotels for meeting and incentive groups and others opening soon. Waldorf Astoria Orlando recently debuted the new Central Park Ballroom, part of an expansion featuring the elegant 8,436-sf ballroom, 2,565 sf of pre-function space, and an 8,712-sf tented pavilion. Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace also completed a renovation of its entire 120,000 sf of meeting space.
The new Drury Plaza Hotel Orlando Lake Buena Vista began a phased opening in October. The property features 602 guest rooms and 2-room suites, 10 meeting rooms, and more than 17,000 sf of meeting and pre-function space.
Caribe Royale Orlando, with 1,215 one-bedroom suites and 120 two-bedroom villas, has completed a $125 million renovation, including the lobby and a new 50,000-sf ballroom. Opening in May 2023 is a 19,000-sf outdoor event space located adjacent to the ballroom called The Grove, where groups will have the option in the off season to meet in a large, air-conditioned tent. “Customers will have the option to use it in the off season and not worry about being outside in the cooler weather. For anybody who wants to be outside, it’s beautiful, with artificial grass and very lushly landscaped,” says Amaury Piedra, managing director, Caribe Royale Orlando.
The new Stadium Club, a 550-seat high-end sports bar and grill with a wraparound 360-degree immersive video wall, will also open in May, and be available for a buyout of either of its two floors, or in its entirety. There’s also a VIP suite on the upper level. “It’s set up like a suite at a stadium, overlooking all the action, good for ‘seeing and being seen,’” says Piedra.
The 349-room Walt Disney World Swan Reserve is a 14-story upscale boutique hotel located across the street from the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin and steps away from EPCOT. In addition to 15,000 sf of meeting space, including two ballrooms, 12 meeting rooms and more than 13,000 sf of outdoor event space, it features a picturesque top-floor venue, The Vue. There’s also Amare, the signature Mediterranean restaurant, and a pool area with elevated deck and firepit. The hotel also shares many of its sister hotels’ amenities, including watercraft rentals.
Coming soon are the Conrad Orlando at Evermore, which will debut in 2023 with 433 rooms, including 51 suites; 66,000 sf of indoor meeting space; a spa; dining options including a signature rooftop experience. Fairmont Orlando is slated to open in early 2025 in the heart of Orlando’s entertainment district with 550 rooms; seven dining experiences, including a specialty Mediterranean restaurant and an upscale steakhouse; a spa and wellness center; three swimming pools; and more than 44,000 sf of meeting space. Set for completion in late 2023 or early 2024, Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek’s Waterside expansion will add 90,000 sf of meeting space, including a ballroom and a screened lanai with views of the Walt Disney World fireworks.
Groups will be happy to hear that Orlando International Airport has added airline capacity with its new South Terminal. The terminal also includes the Intermodal Terminal Facility, which is designed to accommodate up to three train systems, including the high-speed Brightline train. “With nonstop flights from more than 140 destinations, Orlando is easily accessible for meeting and convention groups year-round,” says Casandra Matej, president & CEO, Visit Orlando. “The recent opening of Orlando International Airport’s South Terminal Complex and an increase in domestic flights to the destination combine to provide planners with even more travel options for their groups in 2023.”
A couple of years ago, Rosen Hotels & Resorts updated its guest rooms and meeting space at Rosen Centre, and now the renovations on its 12 VIP Suites will be complete by the first quarter of 2023. The hotel has 1,334 rooms and 150,000 sf of meeting space. At Rosen Plaza on International Drive, right near the convention center, 3Nine is a one-of-a-kind nightclub venue available for corporate events and buyouts for up to 800. It includes two bars, one inside and one outside; ample high-tech signage for branding; and a VIP lounge with a great view of the stage.
For groups visiting Orlando, the possibilities for integrating theme park magic into their programs are as limitless as the imagination.
EPCOT, a group favorite, is always evolving, and the next major milestone in its multi-year transformation will be the completion of the World Celebration neighborhood in late 2023. EPCOT has been undergoing a massive re-creation, as the former Future World and World Showcase are transformed into four neighborhoods: World Celebration, World Discovery, World Nature and World Showcase.
New theme park attractions coming in 2023 include Journey of Water, Inspired by Moana, an exploration of the story of water on our planet, which will open in late 2023, and TRON Lightcycle/Run in the spring of 2023. And a brand-new nighttime spectacular will come to EPCOT’s World Showcase Lagoon as part of the Disney100 Celebration in late-2023.
The Disney Meetings & Events team works with planners to infuse aspects of the Disney experience into their meetings. “Recently we leveraged an Old Key West theme—and we can create games or digital experiences,” says Ramiro Vazquez, VP, meetings & event sales & services, Disney Destinations Sales Solutions-Gatherings. “We can also create concerts and Broadway-like performances. We have access to unique talent, which can become part of an event for even a small group. Clients can even buy out the park, and have unique fireworks, castle projections, or unique songs customized for their group. We design a unique experience based on the needs of the group or the character experience that they want to deliver.”
Universal Orlando’s three parks—Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal’s Volcano Bay—offer everything from private dining rooms to full venue buyouts. A popular choice is a block party at Universal CityWalk. Planners can also buy out a section of a park, such as the popular Jurassic Park, for groups. Or they can incorporate Universal characters into aspects of their events, from icebreakers to speaker introductions.
There are 9,000 rooms in all at Universal Orlando, spreading across eight onsite hotels. The Loews Meeting Complex—the combination of Royal Pacific Resort and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort—offers 2,000 rooms with 247,000 sf of meeting space, including two ballrooms connected by a dedicated walkway and a short walk to the parks.
The Loews Meeting Complex, says Shawn Sharma, VP, sales, Universal Orlando Resort, “is a beautifully designed venue and the proximity for the attendees is perfect. They can have their ballroom or meeting space within the hotels and they can still walk to the parks and have that immersive experience.” He adds that, “we’re very focused on having world-class cuisine that caters to what the attendees are looking for. We have our own in-house culinary team and they are extremely accommodating when it comes to groups.”
“Because each hotel is so unique and different and the sizes of each hotel are so different, we can do any kind of meeting, from a 10-person executive board meeting at Portofino Bay Resort to a 15,000-person meeting between Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls,” notes Allison Bolanovich, director, resort sales and marketing, Universal Orlando. “There’s the opportunity to have a huge meeting, almost like your own citywide, within our resort. There’s no one else that can accomplish that or has the ease of access and proximity that we offer.”
Fast forward a couple of years and Universal is constructing an entirely new park, Epic Universe, which will double the existing offering.
Nearby SeaWorld offers dozens of options for special events on-site, from a dining experience for up to 240 at Shark’s Underwater Grille, where attendees enter through an underwater tunnel surrounded by barracuda, venomous fish and sharks, to a reception for up to 1,200 at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, with more than 200 residents there to greet attendees. Nearby Discovery Cove can accommodate up to 1,000 guests on the Laguna Grill patio, where they can watch the bottlenose dolphins play by the beach.
Just 35 minutes from Orlando in Howey-in-the-Hills, the 176-room Mission Inn Resort & Club is one of Florida’s top golf destinations and home to El Campeon, one of the South’s oldest golf courses with elevation changes of more than 85 ft, and Las Colinas, whose signature hole, “Alligator Alley,” spans 493 yards along a tree-lined fairway. The resort is ideal for meetings of 20 to 400 attendees, with the largest room being the 5,000-sf El Nuevo Mundo Ballroom.
At the home of the World Equestrian Center in Ocala is the luxurious 248-room Equestrian Hotel, with 20-ft ceilings, crystal chandeliers, a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace and mahogany finishes. The hotel can host small events in its Paris Room, featuring a classical herringbone interior with gold-leaf detailing and a marble fireplace, as well as outdoors in the intimate Rose Garden or the covered Outdoor Terrace, with views of the Grand Outdoor Arena. World Equestrian Center-Ocala has two climate-controlled exposition centers totaling more than 250,000 sf of flexible indoor space.
Orlando North Seminole County Tourism has created a menu of authentic, hand-picked experiences created by locals that’s filled with hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path adventures, everything from Black Hammock airboat rides to an outing on to Wekiva Island, where attendees can play volleyball and corn hole and relax in private cabanas.
The majority of the region’s full-service hotels are either being renovated or have just completed renovations, with a popular group option being the Orlando Marriott Lake Mary, which just finished renovating its meeting spaces and restaurants. It has 20,267 sf of event space and can accommodate groups of up to 1,100. Other options include the Hilton Altamonte/Orlando, with 19,243 sf of event space in 14 meeting rooms, and the Westin Orlando Lake Mary North, with 14,797 sf of event space, accommodating groups of up to 810 guests.
Not far from Orlando, Kissimmee offers a respite from the high energy of the theme parks. The must-do for groups is the Sunset Walk, an entertainment district that just added the Brazilian steakhouse, BR77, to several other culinary options, including a Korean restaurant and, coming in 2023, Celebration Brewery.
A new option for small groups of up to 30 attendees is a sunset lake cruise on East Lake Tohopekaliga with Toho Riverboat Adventures, with two vessels.
Also new in Kissimmee is the Ette Hotel, with 126 guest rooms and a minimalist, but luxurious, design. Within walking distance of Kissimmee’s Sunset Walk, Margaritaville Resort Orlando has 40,000 sf of indoor/outdoor event space, and recently completed a guest room expansion, increasing the number of rooms and suites to 263, along with more than 300 cottages. Additionally, phase 1 construction has started on a mixed-use 224-acre development called Everest Place that will include two hotel resorts and a conference center, condo, shopping village and medical center.
Long before LEGOLAND Florida Resort called the banks of Lake Eloise in Winter Haven home, Cypress Gardens and its fabled water ski shows earned this Central Florida region the title of the “Water Ski Capital of the World.” Today, the area known as Florida’s Inland Coast is also becoming known for its growing meetings infrastructure. Both Winter Haven and Lakeland are home to many independent stores and restaurants, which can be used by groups for events.
In Lakeland, the largest city in Polk County, the RP Funding Center recently underwent more than $18 million of renovations, and just outside its doors is a new Marriott Spring Hill Suites, as well as the Hyatt Place Lakeland Center. Combined, both hotels offer more than 250 rooms, with an additional 2,500 hotel rooms within a 2-mile radius. A short walk away in the downtown area, the historic 88-room Terrace Hotel Lakeland, a member of Hilton’s Tapestry Collection, recently completed a renovation. The hotel, originally opened in 1924, can accommodate nearly 100 attendees for an event.
In Winter Haven, there’s also the AdventHealth Fieldhouse and Conference Center, which opened during the pandemic with nearly 60,000 sf of multi-use space and, in downtown Winter Haven, which is undergoing an urban rebirth, a Staybridge Suites with 108 rooms.
In 2023, the Bradenton Area Convention Center in Palmetto is undergoing an expansion and renovation to construct a 15,000-sf multipurpose room to accommodate up to 800 people. The renovated Center will have a climate-controlled connecting corridor to a new Marriott headquarters hotel, planned to open in early 2024. The hotel will feature 252 guest rooms, a rooftop lounge with a deck overlooking the Manatee River, and more than 10,000 sf of indoor meeting space and 32,420 sf of outdoor event space.
Also new: Attendees can hop aboard an open-air water ferry in downtown Bradenton and take a pleasant ride along the Manatee River to Anna Maria Island and its world-class beaches.
For an off-site group outing, the Tampa Riverwalk links together downtown Tampa’s top attractions along a 2.6-mile waterfront walkway bookended by two food halls. Sparkman Wharf is a new-age waterfront food hall where refurbished shipping containers house over a dozen unique eateries and eight attractions, including the Tampa Museum of Art and S.S. American Victory Ship. Another area favorite is a visit to Ybor City’s newly renovated J.C. Newman Cigar Factory and Museum, America’s oldest family-owned cigar factory, where groups can learn the art of cigar rolling and even try a hand-rolling class.
The Tampa Convention Center is in the process of expanding its space as part of its $38 million capital improvement plan. Scheduled to be completed in 2023, the addition will include renovated meeting rooms and a 16,000-sf, 2-level addition with 18 new meeting rooms overlooking the Hillsborough River.
On the hotel front, the Floridan Palace Hotel recently joined the Hilton brand’s Tapestry Collection and announced a $25 million renovation plan. This 212-room property is located in the heart of downtown Tampa Bay. Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel was recently purchased by Mast Capital with plans to make extensive renovations. The resort has 540 suites, 45 tennis courts, two Arnold Palmer–designed golf courses and 100,000 sf of meeting space.
This area offers a variety of art-inspired activities for visiting groups, the most well-known being a visit to The Dali Museum. The museum also offers Innovation Labs, which combines Dalí’s art, philosophy and methods with state-of-the-art research on creativity, creative problem solving and organizational management to offer programs that jump start creativity and improve innovation outcomes. The city’s street art scene has also taken off, with urban murals of all sizes, shapes and styles and even an annual mural festival called SHINE St. Pete, which takes place each October. Guided walking tours are available.
Open in January, the 172-room AC Hotel St. Petersburg by Marriott is a fresh option for meeting groups, with two meeting rooms totaling 1,605 sf. On the other end of the Marriott spectrum, a new 166-room JW Marriott is slated to open this year with two restaurants, a spa and 166 guest rooms. The rooms and restaurants will all overlook a private beach, which faces Sand Key across an inlet and looks out toward the Gulf of Mexico. This will be the first JW Marriott in Pinellas County. The 72-room Hotel Zamora is slated to undergo a $7 million renovation of its guest rooms, lobby and reception area, pool bar, rooftop deck, and 11,232 sf of meeting space, to be completed in early 2024. Its Stay Well rooms include air purification systems, aromatherapy, dawn simulator alarm clocks and other wellness features, and many have balconies overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway or the Gulf.
A group favorite, the elegant, 362-room Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, has been undergoing a year-long renovation of its verandah, porte cochere, main lobby, guest rooms, spa, restaurants and meeting space, as well as its signature chandelier, designed by Dale Chihuly (whose Chihuly Collection is located in town). The new ballrooms were unveiled in November 2022. The resort has 60,505 sf of event space, with the largest room accommodating 1,500.
The Don CeSar, with expansive views of the sparkling Gulf of Mexico and St. Pete Beach, has also recently completed a full-property renovation, marked by a transformative redesign of its 277 rooms and suites and introducing a new pool bar with a rooftop deck, new full-service restaurant and a complete restoration of the iconic, palm tree-lined front drive. From its inception in 1928, the “Pink Palace” has been a landmark of Florida’s Gulf Coast. It has 38,000 sf of customizable indoor/outdoor event space, including a grand ballroom and foyer with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
Tradewinds Islands Resorts, also on St. Pete Beach, consists of the Island Grand, with 545 rooms and villas, and the Rumfish Beach Resort, with 352 rooms and villas. The focus here is on the beach, with a new seasonal 15,750-sf floating water park located just off the shore of Island Grand, new floating loungers big enough for four people, stand-up paddleboards and other water sports. The resort has 70,770 sf of indoor and outdoor event space, including the Island Ballroom, which can accommodate 950, and The Pavilion, a blank canvas ideal for exhibits, which can accommodate 1,200.
In nearby Clearwater Beach, the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach is the newest hotel lining the scenic Gulf shore. All of its 343 rooms overlook either the ocean or the nearby marina. It is home to the Dunes Ballroom, the largest special event venue in Clearwater Beach, with 10,632 sf of elegant space for up to 720 guests. Opal Sands Resort, the site of Prevue’s 2023 Meet Well Summit, is a chic retreat situated right on the Gulf, with 230 rooms with private balconies and upscale amenities, and 17,000 sf of sleek, artistic indoor and outdoor space.
Just north of Tampa, the area known as Florida’s Sports Coast is home to rolling green hills, scenic coastlines and a virtual playground of outdoor activities: nature trails, zipline courses, hot-air balloon outings, nearby islands with artificial reefs, year-round recreational fishing, paddleboard excursions and a network of kayak trails. A popular activity in season is scalloping for the bay scallops that hide in the seagrass along the Gulf of Mexico—and of course having the chef prepare them for the evening’s event.
The 40-room Hacienda Hotel in New Port Richey just completed a massive restoration of this historic venue, opened in 1927. New Port Richey was known back then as “Hollywood East,” since the rich and famous chose it as the location for their second homes, often spending their evenings at the Hacienda. A couple of private rooms are available for intimate events.