Keeping an Eye on Orlando

Here’s the thing about Orlando: It’s big. I recently spent a week in the area and feel like I only scratched the surface in terms of its offerings for groups. When trying to sum up all of the news from the area, the big question is where to start, as there are new developments in almost every one of the city’s various districts.

The biggest news is coming out of Universal Orlando, both in the parks and at the Loews resorts. According to the Universal Orlando executives I met with, they’ve added 18 new attractions since 2010, can host groups of 20 to 20,000 and currently host hundreds of events a year just in the parks.

Current projects on the resort side include construction on a fifth hotel, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which will feature 1,000 guest rooms and more than 115,000 square feet of meeting space. Upon completion later this year, the resort will be connected via a covered bridge with the 1,000-room Loews Royal Pacific Resort, which recently completed an expansion of its meeting space to 132,000 square feet. Together, the complex will offer more than 247,000 square feet of space.

Nearby, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which opened in 2014, offers 1,800 guest rooms and its own bowling alley. The resort is expected to add another 400 rooms in 2017. Additional hotels at Universal Orlando include the 750-room Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, which offers 42,000 square feet of meeting space, and the 650-room Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando, which recently renovated its guest rooms and offers 7,200 square feet of meeting space.

In the parks themselves, venues available for group events include locations in its very popular The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. New offerings include Skull Island: Reign of Kong, scheduled to open this summer, and Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon and Fast & Furious: Supercharged, both scheduled for 2017. An entirely new park, a water theme park called Volcano Bay, is also scheduled for 2017. Over at Universal CityWalk, which is also available for group events big and small, new restaurants include NBC Sports Grill & Brew, The Cowfish, Antojitos and Vivo Italian Kitchen.

Over at Walt Disney World, Downtown Disney has been renamed Disney Springs as part of an extensive renovation and expansion project that is doubling the number of shops, dining and entertainment options. New restaurants include Morimoto Asia and the waterfront BOATHOUSE, both of which have event space for groups. The BOATHOUSE also serves as a launching point for the Venezia, an Italian Water Taxi that can be rented for up to 16 guests, and “amphicar” (yes, cars that drive from land into the water) tours.

The new I-Drive 360 complex, located near the Orange County Convention center on International Drive, offers groups event space at Madame Tussauds, Sea Life Aquarium, the Skeletons museum, the Sugar Factory restaurant and the Orlando Eye, which takes people 400 feet in the air for a bird’s-eye view of the area. Also on International Drive, Mango’s Tropical Cafe has opened with private (or buy-out) space for groups of up to 2,000 people and, for the foodies in your group, the new Urbain 40 on Restaurant Row is also nearby.

And, not to be outdone, in downtown Orlando the gorgeous Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts opened in November 2014 with a variety of space for events. The largest space, which hosts national tours of Broadway shows (among other events), can seat 2,700.