It's where the world is coming to
In 2010, Orlando became the first city in American history to welcome more than 50 million visitors in a single year. This happened because, among other reasons, Orlando is home to seven of the world’s top 10 most visited theme parks, as well as one of the busiest airports on earth. The city also offers the nation’s second-largest convention center and a 115,200-room inventory among its resorts and hotels. Perfectly placed in the heart of Central Florida, Orlando is only 45 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean and 90 minutes west of the Gulf of Mexico. Not only does a slate of international corporations call it home; nearly 400 arts and cultural organizations do as well. Per capita, Orlando has the country’s highest number of entertainers and artists ready to share their creative talents.
In addition to regional U.S. fare, Orlando restaurants feature international cuisine for an international clientele, and there are more certified wine sommeliers than in Paris. It’s quite likely, too, that the 176 golf courses and golf resorts surrounding the City Beautiful far surpass those found in the City of Light.
It’s difficult to see everything Orlando has to offer. But with advanced planning, incentive groups, midsize corporate groups and large associations can get a satisfying taste of it over three days.
Where to Book
Beyond its natural appeal for families, Orlando also leads a double life of effortless elegance—and that extends to lodging. According to Susan Lomax, the in-the-know vice president of global publicity for Visit Orlando, lodging options for small incentive groups include impressive in-house restaurants and perks such as VIP and custom team excursions at the theme parks, as well as Orlando Magic home game suites, golfing, spa treatments and special events at high-end stores such as Neiman Marcus.
The 498-room Waldorf Astoria Orlando features the bars and restaurants of the New York City original, and if its 28,000 sq. ft. of multifunction space isn’t enough, the hotel has thoughtfully added a 25,000-square-foot private island for outdoor events under the stars. The 1,226-square-foot Owners Lounge is ideal for a small conference for groups of up to 30 or up to 129 for a reception. Another iconic name epitomizing quality is The Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes. It has 582 rooms and more than 47,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space (and 64,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space) and is roughly equidistant to SeaWorld and the convention center. Near The Ritz-Carlton, the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes offers 1,000 rooms and 46 meeting rooms and boasts more than 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space—all surrounded by 500 acres of tropical landscaping.
Located as close as you can get to the city’s preeminent theme park—the fantastic Magic Kingdom—the Gilded Age-styled Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa overlooks the Seven Seas Lagoon and the spires of Cinderella Castle. It features 867 rooms and 40,000 sq. ft. of space, and dazzles diners with Orlando’s only Five-Diamond restaurant: Victoria & Albert’s. A Mediterranean theme flows through the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (it sits on a replica of the Italian Riviera at Universal Orlando). The hotel has 750 rooms, 42,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and a trio of tenors performing above the piazza in the evening serenade Musica Della Notte (Music of the Night).
With your group likely resting up after traveling (and working), treat them to tony Winter Park, where chic Park Avenue is akin to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Calif., or Worth Avenue of Palm Beach, Fla. Stroll along the brick-lined avenue, dropping in on shops and boutiques and sidewalk cafes en route to the world’s largest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany treasures, as well as American decorative arts from the 19th and 20th centuries, at the The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.
Small groups may swoon over the charming nine-hole course of Winter Park Country Club, here since 1914 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, for a relaxing afternoon. Nearby, the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour has been drifting through the chain of lakes since 1938, giving passengers a peek at magnificent waterfront estates and gardens from one of six 18-passenger pontoon boats. Wrap up the day with a casually elegant meal at Park Plaza Gardens for groups of up to 100 in the atrium dining room, perhaps reserving time for a nightcap at The Wine Room on Park Avenue, where the Vault (yes, it was a bank vault) is also available for groups of up to 25 for dinner and 40 for tastings or receptions.
After morning meetings, head to Discovery Cove, the SeaWorld park where one admission price covers swimming gear, wet suit, meals, drinks, towels, the luxury of lazing by a lagoon and, for an extra fee, swimming with an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin—always a favorite with guests as well as a who’s who of celebrities. If time’s tight, a little friendly competition will get motors running at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Walt Disney World Speedway. Attendees compete in time trials against their colleagues at the wheel of a 600-horsepower NASCAR race car. Petty recently introduced the Exotic Driving Experience for drivers who’d prefer a spin in supercars, including a Ferrari 458 Italia, Lamborghini Gallardo LP570, Lamborghini Gallardo 560, Audi R8 and Porsche 997S. End the luxurious day off of Sand Lake Road at Christini’s Ristorante Italiano, popular with dignitaries, celebrities and culinary connoisseurs. A private dining room seats 42–55.
Richard Petty Driving Experience
Wrap things up with aerial thrills. At iFly Orlando, an indoor skydiving center near International Drive, attendees can suit up and step inside an enclosed chamber where a huge column of wind suspends divers in mid-air. Out in the country, tandem hang-gliding at Quest Air gives guests the unforgettable pleasure of soaring like an eagle. Ready to up the ante? In nearby Kissimmee at Warbird Adventures, guests take the controls (really) of a restored T-6 Texan single-engine aircraft, the premier U.S. fighter/trainer in World War II.
Back on terra firma, plan a shopping spree spousal program at the magnificent Mall at Millenia, highlighted by retailers of distinction including Emporio Armani, Yves St. Laurent, Prada, Brooks Brothers, Louis Vuitton and Rolex. That evening, conclude your Orlando experience on Sand Lake Road, Orlando’s restaurant row in the upscale Dr. Phillips district. The nearly 50 full-service restaurants include Morton’s The Steakhouse, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Seasons 52—all perfectly suited to executive dinner meetings or gatherings for 20-plus guests. For a frigid finale, on nearby International Drive, Icebar Orlando’s subzero lounge, cleverly enclosed by blocks of ice, may require donning a parka prior to enjoying a late libation.
Where to Book
For midsize corporate groups, Visit Orlando’s Lomax suggests the ever-popular Orlando World Center Marriott, the towering resort of 2,000 rooms and an astounding 450,000 sq. ft of meeting space located near the south entrance of Walt Disney World Resort. On Disney’s east side, the classic Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is highlighted by three challenging Jack Nicklaus Signature courses, 815 rooms and 65,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and conference facilities. And right at Disney, the towering Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa has commanding views of Lake Buena Vista and the Downtown Disney entertainment complex. The hotel offers 1,014 rooms and 90,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. The Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin hotel is even closer to the theme park action, with 2,265 guest rooms and 329,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including four ballrooms. Near Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a serene Southwest atmosphere flows throughout the 1,915 rooms and 220,000 sq. ft. of flexible function space at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort.
Adjacent to the convention center and a block from the Point Orlando shopping and entertainment complex is the Rosen Centre Hotel, which not only is convenient, but comes with 1,334 rooms and 100,000 sq. ft. of meeting space right on International Drive.
For groups who want to stay focused on the work at hand but also have to be near excellent golf and resort amenities such as an 850-foot lazy river and spa, the 720-room Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate fits the bill. It has 82,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, splendid outdoor event areas and access to the David Leadbetter Golf Academy. An additional 46,000-square-foot conference space and ballroom in a new adjacent building is slated for completion in January 2013.
Introduce your group to the Orange County Regional History Center, where 12,000 years of history reveal a new look at “old” Orlando, from cattle drives and alligator wrestling on downtown streets to the big boom of Disney and the theme parks. More than a museum, the former courthouse has spaces created from courtrooms and a spacious courtyard for meetings, concerts, festivals, receptions and parties for up to 4,650 attendees.
For a charitable team-building experience, downtown’s Clean the World is on a worldwide mission to provide lifesaving soap to Third World nations—and can always use a hand. At Kissimmee’s Give Kids the World Village, terminally ill children and their families enjoy an all-expenses-paid weeklong vacation, and volunteers are always welcome.
Give Kids the World Village
Carve out time for attendees to bond at one of Orlando’s big three theme parks: SeaWorld. Its tranquil paths and colorful landscaping are soothing, while its highly entertaining shows feature sea lions, otters, dolphins and penguins. At the show One Ocean, the park’s biggest star, Shamu, takes the lead with fellow killer whales. For a burst of adrenaline, choose from three rocket-fast roller coasters: Kraken, Manta or Journey to Atlantis. Groups of 30–230 can lunch at Sharks Underwater Grill, an upscale subterranean restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows that reveal the fascinating underwater world of sharks.
SeaWorld planners can even arrange a dinner in a private park venue, then add touchable toucans, sloths, hawks and other exotic animals brought in by handlers to the event. Another option: a fiery, festive grand finale feast at SeaWorld’s South Pacific-style Makahiki Luau.
Another off-site option is to round up the troops for time at Universal Orlando Resort, giving them their pick of Universal Studios, the movie-themed park, or Islands of Adventure, in essence a theme park variety show. At Universal Studios’ back lots and attractions, attendees can experience an earthquake, meet Shrek, ride a roller coaster through an Egyptian tomb, fly through Springfield with the Simpsons and see a hilarious Hollywood horror makeup show.
Islands of Adventure, which long appealed to baby boomers with lands centered on characters from Marvel comics, Dr. Seuss books and The Dudley Do-Right Show, reached a new level of popularity with the premiere of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. An incredible re-creation of the village and wizarding school, this is the only place on earth where your group can enjoy a customized event in the village of Hogsmeade or the halls of Hogwarts.
Available without the assistance of an events team is Universal’s CityWalk, a collection of themed clubs, restaurants and the world’s largest Hard Rock Cafe and concert hall, all at the entrance to both parks.
Set aside this final day to get business done. Executives can meet in the Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando Admiralty Boardroom, which can accommodate up to 20. Attendees and vendors, meanwhile, can gather for general sessions or a trade show in the elegant Pacifica Ballroom and its 41,503 sq. ft. of space—or, if the weather is right, outdoors at the Wantilan Luau Pavilion. The Four-Diamond hotel has 1,000 guest rooms and 85,000 sq. ft. of meeting and function space.
Wrap up three delightful days with a laugh downtown at the nationally known Sak Comedy Lab, where improv troupes consult with planners to include attendees (and their services or products) at the heart of improvised sketches, songs and tributes. Performers can also be hired to provide yuks at off-site events.
Where To Book
Orange County Convention Center
The anchor facility for large groups is often the Orange County Convention Center. The massive full-service venue encompasses 2.1 million sq. ft. of exhibition space, 479,190 sq. ft. of meeting space featuring 74 rooms and 232 breakouts and the 62,182-square-foot Valencia Ballroom. The campus includes eight food-court areas, a 2,643-seat theater and established ancillary partners such as LMG for audiovisual services.
Assuming large groups benefit from easy access to the convention center, Lomax narrows her suggestions to impressively large resorts offering everything on a meeting planner’s wish list. Smack-dab across the street from the convention center, and attached via aboveground walkways, The Peabody Orlando is a local classic, and the 2010 addition of a second tower increased its size to include 1,641 rooms and 300,000 sq. ft. of meeting space. Also attached to the center via a skywalk, Hilton Orlando complements the convention center with its own 175,000 sq. ft. of versatile meeting space and 1,417 guest rooms. Approximately one mile from the convention center, Renaissance Orlando Resort at Sea World completed a five-year $35 million renovation last October and is ready for business with 781 rooms and 185,000 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space.
Perfectly placed on the corner of International Drive and Sand Lake Road and just a block from Interstate 4, Wyndham Resort Orlando is a tropical-themed option with 39 meeting rooms, 70,000 sq. ft. of meeting space and 1,052 rooms. A few miles from the convention center at the end of Universal Boulevard, Rosen Shingle Creek is well-known for its golf and is especially renowned for meetings. It offers 445,000 sq. ft. of meeting and event space and 1,500 guest rooms.
Orlando, arguably the national capital of golf, is an ideal locale for a morning of attendee competition. With 176 courses to choose from, Florida golf writer Tim McDonald recommends five tournament-ready courses, most attached to resorts offering convention facilities of varying size: Shingle Creek, ChampionsGate, Bay Hill (the legendary Arnold Palmer club), Bonnet Creek and the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress.
Nongolfing attendees can choose from a host of theme parks: SeaWorld, Universal, Disney’s Epcot, Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom. Perhaps the most manageable is Animal Kingdom, where regions replicating Asia and Africa feature top attractions including the Kilimanjaro Safari, It’s Tough To Be A Bug 3-D, Festival of the Lion King and Expedition Everest, a rocketing roller coaster that races forward—and backward! Some groups may opt for the special treat of an evening watching Cirque du Soleil’s surreal spectacular La Nouba at Walt Disney World Resort.
For programs that require attendees to gather for a welcome reception or keynote address the first evening, the Disney Event Group can arrange special group functions staged at any of the parks—otherwise you can simply give the group free rein to visit Downtown Disney’s shops and restaurants before the kickoff event.
It’s likely this day will revolve around the convention center, so with limited time consider something close and colossal for the evening: buying out nearby Pointe Orlando on International Drive. The dining/shopping complex features more than 40 individual restaurants, stores and attractions as well as one of the largest theaters in Orlando (it has Imax, too). Groups can dig the music at B.B. King’s Blues Club or, c’mon, get happy at the Improv Comedy Club. An abundance of outdoor areas can be themed for group private functions, meetings, dine-arounds and receptions.
Spaceship Earth with Monorail, courtesy of Disney
Of course the final day should go out with a bang, which means today’s the day for the Magic Kingdom. What Walt Disney envisioned in the 1950s has only improved with age, and you won’t soon forget seeing your group grow visibly younger as they parade through Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Fantasyland. Stick around after dark for Wishes, a colorful fireworks and laser display ignited by Tinkerbell and set to a lovely musical score. Check into special afternoon ticket programs geared toward convention attendees.
Whatever the age, size or type of group, Florida’s magical center is sure to deliver the perfect conference venue, off-site experience, dining extravaganza, action-packed adventure or 18 holes of pure relaxation on a rolling green fairway.
Visit Orlando: orlandomeeting.com
Orlando International Airport (MCO) is nine miles southeast of downtown Orlando, 13 miles from the convention center and 20 miles from Walt Disney World Resort.