Orange County moving forward with $700 million convention center expansion

Orange County will continue pressing forward with — and spending money on — a nearly $700 million convention center expansion, though the project is likely to be slowed because tax collections have collapsed amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a presentation to county commissioners Tuesday, Orange County staffers said they may have to split the expansion into two phases. The overall project involves two physically separate additions: A multipurpose venue that would add more exhibition space and another section that would add a big ballroom and more meeting rooms.

But in the meantime, they said they plan to dip into budget reserves in order to continue designing both sections, which together would add nearly 1 million square feet to the Pentagon-sized meeting facility, which is already 7 million square feet overall and has 2 million square feet of exhibition space.

That’s because the funding source for the project — Orange County’s 6 percent tax on hotel stays — has essentially evaporated during the global travel collapse caused by the COVID-19.

County tax collections fell 97 percent in April — from more than nearly $26 million a year ago to less than $800,000. Budget officials now think the tax, which generated $284 million last year, may only produce $150 million this year. And they think collections could take up to five years to fully rebound.

Still, convention center leaders made it clear they remain committed to the project, which is a top priority for the tourism industry. Though the center typically operates at a deficit — taxpayers have spent $180 million to subsidize its operations over the years, in addition to several billion spent on construction and debt payments — private-sector businesses profit off it by selling hotel rooms, theme park tickets, meals and more to convention attendees.Advertisement

“We feel like we’re in a real good place with the timing of this expansion,” Mark Tester, the convention center’s executive director, told commissioners.

The bills are multiplying: Last week, Orange County paid more than $3.7 million to the design contractors.

Mayor Jerry Demings and county commissioners will ultimately have to vote on whether and how to proceed with construction, once the tax begins generating meaningful revenue again. Staffers said Tuesday they will likely recommend proceeding first with the multipurpose venue, and Tester said he’s still hopeful that construction could begin by September. Construction could take about three years.

Much of the staff presentation Tuesday was aimed at opponents of the expansion who have urged county leaders to spend their hotel taxes in ways that provide more benefits to tourism industry workers and the broader community. The county currently spends the vast majority of the tax in ways meant to generate more tourism business — either through the convention center or Visit Orlando, the publicly subsidized advertising agency.

Commissioners have other options. For instance, state law allows counties to use hotel taxes to build roads or other public infrastructure projects or to clean rivers and lakes. And local politicians in other communities — from Brevard County to the Panhandle — have also successfully lobbied state lawmakers to expand the law over the years, despite intense tourism industry opposition.

Mark Tester is the new executive director of the Orange County Convention Center.

County commissioner Emily Bonilla said county leaders need to rethink their spending priorities.

“I appreciate the hospitality industry. They’ve brought a lot of jobs to this area,” Bonilla said. “But this hospitality industry has also brought down wages in the area and has caused a perpetual poverty in our community.”


Virgin Atlantic Flights to Orlando From UK Set to Resume in July

Virgin Atlantic has announced that flights between the UK and Orlando will be resuming starting on July 20.

Last month, it was announced that Virgin Atlantic had suspended all their operations from London Gatwick, a major hub for Orlando passengers. Caused by the sharp impact of Coronavirus on the travel industry, this also resulted in over 3,000 job losses for the company, throwing the future of transatlantic travel in doubt. Now, Virgin has announced that their flights will soon be resuming from London Heathrow Airport, and Orlando is one of the first destinations on the list.

In a tweet posted by the airline, passengers are assured of the strict safety protocols being carried out for all flights, to ensure the wellbeing of guests. These include health screenings and social distancing precautions (including boarding in smaller groups), ‘meticulous’ onboard cleaning (including disinfectant fogging), and the distribution of health packs including masks given to each passenger.

The other destinations included in the new timetables are New York, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, so if you’re an international Disney Parks hopper, this could be the good news you’ve been waiting for.

Manchester is the other major UK airport serviced by Virgin Atlantic, however timetables including that destination are yet to be released. Of course, it still remains a question of when non-US citizens are being permitted entry to the United States. Therefore, if you’re a UK resident planning a holiday, it might be best to check with your travel operator for the best guidance before assuming or confirming plans.


10 Central Florida Attractions You Can Visit TODAY

We want all of our guests to enjoy their stay in Central Florida! We understand during the current climate, because of COVID-19, a lot of your favorite local attractions are not open. But we have good news! Listed below are plenty of Orlando/Kissimmee attractions OPEN for you and your family to enjoy TODAY! (For more information such as hours of operation please visit each attraction website)

  • Wild Florida – Just 45 mins from the Disney area, we offer beautiful airboat rides, exciting gator park tours and a breathtaking drive-thru safari. At Wild Florida you can ride, walk or drive through the adventure of your choice! Travel deep into the protected swamps, marshes and rivers that make up the Headwaters of the Everglades aboard an airboat tour. Get an in depth look at the gators, birds, eagles, trees and plants as you glide through endless miles of beautiful wilderness. See for yourself how good it feels to be in the middle of nowhere and what Florida looked like 1,000 years ago!
  • Gatorland – Get ready for down-home family fun at “The Alligator Capital of the World®” –  Gatorland!  There isn’t a better place to see alligators and crocodiles of all sizes, from babies, also known as grunts, to the 14-foot monsters that call our Breeding Marsh home. We even have the largest collection of extremely rare white leucistic alligators.  But, Gatorland is more than just a gator park!  Our free-flight aviary, petting zoo, one-of-a-kind animal shows, thrilling Screamin’ Gator Zip Line and new Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure ensure your day will be chock-full of fun, smiles and special memories!
  • Shingle Creek – Spanning 1,000 acres over four locations, the Shingle Creek Regional Park corridor follows the historic headwaters of the Florida Everglades. Here, nature and history are preserved in an urban Kissimmee, providing a connection to the past and a place to play. Water flows from Shingle Creek down to Lake Toho and the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, then onwards to the Florida Everglades and the Gulf of Mexico. All told, the water from upper Shingle Creek travels over 350 miles before reaching its final destination at Florida Bay.
  • Fun Spot America – There is something to do for everyone at Fun Spot America. Whether you are a thrill seeker who wants “Bigger! Faster!” or someone who prefers the lights and sounds of the arcade, we have exactly what you are looking for. Come #FindYourFun at Fun Spot!
Legoland Florida Resort Continues to Spur Growth in East Polk ...
  • LEGOLAND Florida – LEGOLAND® Florida Resort is a multi-day vacation destination built for kids 2-12. Located in Central Florida’s Winter Haven, just 45 minutes from Orlando and Tampa, the resort includes an interactive, 150-acre theme park with more than 50 rides, shows and attractions inspired by popular LEGO® brands and characters, LEGOLAND Water Park and a world-famous botanical garden. LEGOLAND Hotel, located just steps from the theme park entrance, features 152 rooms and suites, each with its own LEGO theme. LEGOLAND Beach Retreat is a lakefront resort with 83 themed bungalows offering 166 separate rooms.
  • TopGolf Orlando – the premier entertainment destination in Orlando. And by entertainment destination, we’re talking about a place where you can come for birthday parties, bachelor or bachelorette parties, corporate events, date nights, or just a night out with friends, and everyone will have a great time. No matter the occasion or who you share it with, we believe that every great time starts with play, is fueled by food and drinks, moved by music and all made possible through community.
  • Icon Park (Orlando Eye) – Wondering where to take your next vacation? Orlando, FL is a dream destination for many travelers with numerous attractions throughout the city. Even if you’re an Orlando local, there’s plenty to do and see in this magnificent city. As you plan your itinerary for a day in the city, don’t forget to pencil some time to visit ICON Park. We’re an entertainment complex featuring fun and games for the whole family. You can spend your day exploring our over 40 amazing restaurants, funky bars, boutique shops and amusement park rides. Whatever your interests or favorite ways to have fun, ICON Park is the place for you. Learn more about how you can spend your well-earned vacation at our premiere attractions.
  • Falcon’s Fire Golf Club – Falcon’s Fire Golf Club is recognized both regionally and nationally as one of the finest public golf courses in Orlando. This Rees Jones designed championship golf course and the spacious Clubhouse offer guests a spectacular venue for any occasion. From an immaculate golf course featuring the highest level of service and amenities, to the exquisite dining at the Falcon’s Nest Restaurant, to the latest technology, equipment, and apparel at the award-winning Golf Shop, Falcon’s Fire Golf Club is a premier Florida golf destination, conveniently located just steps from the Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando International Airport, and the Orange County Convention Center.
  • Andretti Indoor Karting and Games – There are tons of games, rides, and excitement-filled activities waiting for you, all under one roof! We take our adventure activities to new heights, with zip lining, rock climbing, and a rope obstacle course where you can conquer your fears and master your skills. From the full-immersion experience of the Dark Ride Motion Theater to both the classic and latest in arcade gaming, there really is something for everyone. Top that all off with some of the freshest and tastiest food at Andretti Grill and the full service bar at Skybar and you’ve got everything you need for a great time. Plus you can really impress your guests by having your next party, meeting, or special event at Andretti. It really is the place for making great memories and for excitement at every turn!
  • Clearwater Marine Aquarium – We are excited to welcome you back to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the home of Winter the Dolphin and many other rescued dolphins, sea turtles and other marine animals! We offer many animal experiences and several tour options. We believe in preserving our environment while inspiring the human spirit through leadership in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine life; environmental education; research; and conservation. we are a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.

NBA is back in ORLANDO ⛹⛹


Florida moving into phase 2 of reopening on Friday

Click here to see video from Governor DeSantis Phase 2

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday that Florida will be moving into a second phase of reopening that will allow bars to reopen.

The order will be signed today and take effect on Friday, DeSantis said. DeSantis made his announcement at Universal Orlando Resort, which opened to passholders for Wednesday and Thursday, and will open to the public on Friday.Advertisement

The phase two reopening does not include Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

In Florida’s other 64 counties, restaurants can now seat people at a bar, and bars and pubs can open at 50% capacity with social distancing and sanitation.

“You’re seated to get served. People go, enjoy, have a drink, that’s fine, We want to kind of not have huge crowds piling in,” DeSantis said.

Retail establishments may operate at full capacity, movie theaters and bowling alleys can open at 50% capacity.

Florida allowed restaurants and retail shops to open at 25% capacity on May 4 and expanded that later in the month.

Chief National Consumer Correspondent Jeff Rossen put together a guide on the top summer activities to see what’s low risk, medium risk and high risk.

Playing tennis or baseball with others: Low risk

Basketball with others: Medium risk

Rental car: Relatively low risk

Hotel and Rentals room: Low risk in your room

Haircuts: High risk

Universal Orlando theme parks have reopened to the public for the first time since mid March

Passholders for Universal Orlando Resort had a chance to go inside and experience the new safety procedures before it opened to the general public Friday.

Proving passholders have been eager to get back to the parks, cars poured into Universal garages.

Right away, thousands of new directional and social distancing markers can be seen pointing people toward something new.

Before you can get to CityWalk, or the gates to Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios, you’ll have to pass a temperature check. It takes only seconds.

WESH 2’s Greg Fox said it took longer to get through the usual bag check areas that have been used for years.

“The team members here are being nice and helpful and making sure that everyone is keeping their face masks on,” Johnny Childers said.

Childers and his wife Jenny are from Palm Bay. They provided video in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, including the ride areas, as well as some of the busier walking areas. They say Universal personnel were constantly reminding people of COVID-19 precautions.

“A lot of places are social distancing, labeled and marked, and it’s just a great thing overall and very clean and we feel very safe here,” Jenny Childers said.

“I think we are keeping people safe,” Universal Orlando Resort’s CEO John Sprouls said.

Sprouls said they worked hard to create contactless payments in stores and restaurants to protect visitors and guests.

“We are trying to do the things that we promised which are not only making people feel safe, but more importantly, making them safe,” Sprouls said. “We think, as long as we can do that, we’re putting more people back to work and trying to get our economy in central Florida moving in the right direction.”

On Tuesday, Universal reopened most of its resort hotels.

Temperature checks and masks in common areas are required inside, just as they are for people entering the parks.

Universal opened to the public on Friday.