by Lisa A. Grimaldi | April 01, 2016
Why here?
Orlando offers endless ways to surprise, delight and impress groups of any size. Amid an ever-growing list of attractions is the new i-Drive 360 entertainment district, home of the Orlando Eye (above). Other draws include top-notch hotels and meeting facilities, and world-class dining and shopping.

 East End Market is a culinary food hub inspired by Central Florida's local farmers and food artisans. Here, Audobon Park Exchange is among many options for special events.

 A new addition to East End Market is Konbini, a Japanese convenience store and restaurant, serving Japanese rice balls known as onigiri, ready-to-serve ramen dishes, rice bowls and a few nontraditional Japanese dishes.

Local culinary stars Kathleen Blake (The Rusty Spoon), Scott Hunnel (Victoria & Albert's), and James and Julie Petrakis are semifinalists for the 2016 James Beard Awards, to be bestowed on May 2.

Downtown Orlando has a new burger joint -- Wahlburgers -- from actor brothers Donnie, Mark and Paul Wahlburg. The eatery serves up "wicked good" burgers, salads and more.
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Local Update
 The 1,470-room Hilton Orlando unveiled 11,000 square feet of new meeting space, prefunction space and an additional registration desk. The expansion encompasses the new Key West and Key Largo meeting rooms, which are divisible by up to eight separate spaces, all adjacent to the existing 15,000-square-foot Florida Ballroom.

 The Element Orlando is scheduled to open in mid-2016. The eco-friendly hotel, less than a mile from Universal Studios Orlando, will feature 151 guest rooms, a 750-square-foot meeting room, a fitness center, complimentary breakfast and free Wi-Fi.

 LakeHouse, a new restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, is now open for business, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. With soaring ceilings, natural light and views of Lake Windsong, the project is the result of a $2.8 million makeover of the former Cascades restaurant.

Universal Orlando 
 This fall, Universal Orlando will debut its fifth on-site hotel, the 1,000-room Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which will be connected to the Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Sapphire Falls will have 115,000 square feet of meeting space; together, the properties will offer 247,000 square feet for meetings and 2,000 guest rooms.

 Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort will open two new towers comprising 400 guest rooms, adding to the property's current 1,800 rooms upon projected completion in 2017. This expansion will bring the total number of rooms at Universal to 5,600. Cabana Bay amenities will include two swimming pools, a lazy river, a 10-lane bowling alley, and walking proximity to Universal Orlando's theme parks and Universal CityWalk.

 Universal's Islands of Adventure will reopen the Incredible Hulk coaster this summer. Closed for refurbishment in 2015, the ride will feature a smoother coaster experience, enhancements to its storyline and a more immersive and high-tech feel.

 Also debuting this summer is Skull Island: Reign of Kong. The return of this legendary character to Orlando will be experienced by park guests in a king-size ride vehicle that will traverse a colossal attraction without the guide of traditional ride tracks -- living up to King Kong's moniker of "Eighth Wonder of the World."

Walt Disney World 
 The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotel has completed half of its extensive, multiphase $125 million redesign. The Swan's 758 guest rooms and public spaces alrerady have been renovated, while the Dolphin's 1,509 guest rooms and public areas will be upgraded by 2017. The resort offers a total of more than 329,000 square feet of meeting space.

 The expansion of Disney Springs (the former Downtown Disney) is slated for completion this year. The outdoor venue has four distinct neighborhoods to explore -- The Landing, Marketplace, West Side and Town Center -- and will have more than 150 retail, dining and entertainment outlets. New restaurants that have recently opened include The Boathouse, Morimoto Asia, and the aviation-themed Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar.

 On Earth Day, April 22, a sweeping, immersive, animal-themed theatrical production, "Rivers of Light," will premiere as the first-ever nightly show at Disney's Animal Kingdom. With the the new waterside show, the park will transition from a day-into-night attraction, aglow with new experiences and entertainment celebrating marvels of nature, epic storytelling, innovative effects and a festive street party.