During a recent trip to Orlando, I was finally able to experience for myself why the world-famous destination is consistently ranked No. 1. Last year, Orlando was named the top meeting city by Cvent in 2015 and is among the most visited cities in the United States.
A sense of fun and adventure permeates Orlando and its popular theme parks, including SeaWorld, Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. Excitement and anticipation is in the air as several new attractions and venues are proving to be game-changers when it comes to hosting meeting groups.
All Things Disney
Walt Disney Swan & Dolphin Resorts is a unique Disney partner property that is operated by Starwood, which means that business groups can experience as much or as little Disney magic as they like. The two swan and dolphin buildings are in the midst of a $125 million renovation, which includes refreshed guest rooms and updated meeting spaces, as well as lobby enhancements that will continue over the next few years.
Our group had a taste of one of the resort’s best features—a five-star gastronomic experience courtesy of the food and beverage team. We feasted on a five course menu that included dishes such as Yellow Fin Tuna carpaccio with Iberico Ham chutney and lemon verbena caviar; crispy black sea bass with braised veal cheek and roasted garlic jus lie; and for dessert, a lemongrass coconut panacotta served with candied pineapple, pulled sugar, passion fruit beignet and Grand Cru ganache. The delectable dinner was paired with equally stellar domestic and international wines.
Amazing food and culinary trends continued as we toured the latest Disney expansion, Disney Springs. The free-to-enter grounds are already proving to be a big hit with locals and tourists alike. Retail, dining and entertainment venues line the outdoor complex and surround spring water pools inspired by Florida’s own natural springs. Several more private-event spaces and dining venues will open in various phases throughout 2016.
Morimoto Asia is one of the first fine dining restaurants to arrive in Disney Springs. The creation of Iron Chef Winner Masaharu Morimoto offers a Japanese-style setting for groups to feast on artful sushi platters and tempura delicacies. The two-tier restaurant also has outdoor lounge space, an intimate bar and a private dining area.
Even more creative dining concepts are in store for the new complex. This summer, Chef Rick Bayless, six-time James Beard Foundation winner, will open a gourmet Mexican restaurant called Tablas Frontera. Disney Springs will also receive its own modern steakhouse later this year. STK will be a two-story establishment with signature dining and nightly entertainment.
The Food Fest Continues
As more visitors flock to Orlando, the rest of the city is also seeing a surge in culinary talent and independent restaurants. Urbaine 40 is a dining hotspot decked out in retro glamour and comfortable elegance. Our group dined on cast iron skillet roasted mussels, and European-inspired dishes such as bass meuniere, wild mushroom risotto and slow-cooked Bolognese.
Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant serves authentic Spanish dishes in a rustic setting with high wooden beams. Of course, ceviche is on the menu, but there are also more than 50 different tapas and traditional dishes, such as paella that’s made four different ways.
Around the corner, our group headed to The Rusty Spoon, a chef-owned restaurant by three-time James Beard Foundation Nominee Kathleen Blake. Her menu is based on Southern cuisine made with local ingredients, such as slow-roasted chicken with Italian sausage, pickled hot house peppers and grit fries.
On the other side of the spectrum is Sugar Factory Orlando—the place to be for anyone with a sweet tooth. The menu is filled with sweet treats, such as couture pops, smoking goblet drinks, candy infused cocktails and a sundae with 16 scoops of ice cream. Photos of celebrities who have graced the restaurant adorn the walls and menu as pop music pumps from the speakers.
Entertainment Worth the Hype
The Sugar Factory is one of many new restaurants to open up at I-Drive 360, the year-old entertainment complex located just past the convention corridor. I-Drive 360 is anchored by the 400-foot-tall Orlando Eye, which offers views across Greater Orlando inside 30 capsules that combine to hold up to 450 passengers.
After taking a whirl around the Eye, visitors can pose among celebrity look-alikes in Madame Tussauds wax museum, located on the ground floor of the complex. The Orlando location holds statues of President Barak Obama, Elvis Pressley, Madonna, Taylor Swift and more prominent figures. Across the way, Sea Life Orlando’s aquarium includes a 360-degree underwater tunnel where groups can stand face-to-face with sharks and other ocean creatures.
Skeletons: Animals Unveiled! is another museum in I-Drive 360 that explores the fascination with bones and skeletons that have been humanely collected from more than 450 animals. Skeletons are arranged in poses and dioramas to educate visitors about the lifecycles of various species. The museum makes no bones about its appeal as a unique offsite. It is available for corporate buyouts or even sleepovers with the skeletons.
Meeting attendees can let loose after hours at Mango’s Tropical Café. The newly opened venue brings Latin flavor to International Drive. Performers on stage dance to everything from Michael Jackson hits and Top 40 songs to swinging salsa beats. The two-level club can host private events for up to 2,000 and has outdoor dining space, a dance floor, indoor restaurant and nightly musical performances.
Our visit to Orlando was capped off with a show-stopping performance of Kinky Boots, the Tony-award winning Broadway musical that tells the story of an English shoe manufacturer who teams up with a transvestite to construct a racy line of boots. The popular musical showcased the brand new $400 million Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, a stunning theater and arts center that should not be missed during a visit to Orlando.