Want to know where you can get a whole heaping helping of Father Christmas this year, and have some fun rides to boot? Head for the park – ICON Park, that is.
This truly iconic destination at the heart of Orlando’s International Drive is positively chock-full of the spirit of the season and it is definitely a prime location for some serious Santa activity. Recent years have marked this impressive complex out as one of Central Florida’s most exciting eat-shop-and-play entertainment centres, but this year’s Christmas presentation adds an extra dimension of family appeal.
But wait. Before we get to all the fun of ICON Park, let’s take a little look back in time at this site and its history as a genuine tourist mega-attraction. Because before the 400-foot Wheel was even a twinkle in an architect’s eye, this was the home of some of the most alluring and Brit-friendly attractions in the whole of Orlando. It boasted a host of one-off shops, restaurants, live music and a dinner show, plus the genuine home-away-from-home style of The Cricketers Arms pub. It was The Mercado, or the Mercado Mediterranean Village, to give it its full name.
Built in 1985, it lived by the motto ‘Food! Shop! Party!’ and it more than lived up to that reputation as a melting pot of excitement and entertainment. As well as the British-owned Cricketers, there was the Mardi Gras dinner show (which then became Blazing Pianos rock ’n roll piano bar), and several high-end dining options, like The Butcher Shop and speciality Italian restaurant Bergamo’s.
At one point it was the home of the first incarnation of the Titanic Experience (now located further up I-Drive) and the short-lived Guinness World Record Experience and the Hard Rock Vault, as well as around 50 shops.
Sadly, more competition along this 12-mile tourist corridor, plus the tourism down-turn in the wake of September 11 spelled doom for The Mercado. By 2006, it had lost most of its key businesses, and the neighbouring Goodings supermarket – a popular shopping spot for I-Drive visitors – had closed, leading to a prolonged death spiral. First came the chain-link fencing and the bulldozers, and then a near three-year period of looking utterly sad and derelict. Several new properties were proposed and fell by the wayside, until, in 2011, Unicorp Developments announced a big future for the 30-acre site.
Four years later, I-Drive 360 opened, headlined by The Orlando Eye. Yes, those were the original names for ICON Park and The Wheel, and they were soon changed, but the all-round entertainment of this modern venue hasn’t. Which brings us right back to the start. Because, with the advent of the Christmas season, it takes on an added lustre that really puts the ho-ho-ho in the Holidays (as the Americans call this time of year).
Both SeaLife Orlando and Madame Tussauds add some suitably festive touches, and regular appearances by ‘Scuba Claus’ at the former are well worth catching for an eye-popping twist on the usual formula. And, yes, he really does don full scuba gear!
The Museum of Illusions offers a unique new dimension to its series of visual and physical challenges with ‘Elves Off The Shelf’ each Friday in December, with two of Santa’s helpers turning up to provide a fun extra element to the attraction.
The child-friendly Pearl Express train is nicely decorated for the season as it continues to chug around the whole complex, and there’s also the recently added classic ride experience of the Carousel on the Promenade, which is another one for the kids to enjoy.
However, the real jewel in the crown for 2022 is undoubtedly the big Santa-fest opportunity that is tucked away in the main building. The Santa Workshop Experience is a beautifully presented journey to the North Pole (well, it’s Florida offshoot) for a meeting with St Nick himself. There are photo opportunities and selfie spots aplenty, and then families get some serious one-on-one time with the Head Elf in all his finery. It’s a truly lovely set-piece of classic Christmas style and wonder, and with package prices from $20-$80, it makes for a highly memorable headline option for ICON Park’s holiday season.
While it also looks splendid during the day, the whole complex positively glows with festive spirit at night, giving it that ‘winter wonderland’ feel even if the temperature remains well above freezing!
Oh, and don’t forget there’s also the mouth-watering restaurant line-up that now includes the Key West style of Sloppy Joe’s, the all-out Country style of Blake Shelton’s Ole Red and the mouthwatering barbecue of Brother Jimmy’s. In all, ICON Park now boasts 15 highly contrasting dining locations, plus the food court style of The Wheelhouse Market in the main building, while the recent addition of the In The Game arcade centre and the more dynamic Max Action Arena, with its interactive virtual reality games, adventure rooms and axe-throwing sessions, offer even more possibilities for active fun.
As a one-stop-shop for family entertainment, it really takes some beating, especially with all the Christmas additions this month, and we think this should definitely be in your plans for your next Orlando holiday, whether it’s this year or 2023!
PS: If you’d like a quick snapshot of all the festive offerings in store, we have a new highlights video, and don’t forget you can buy the all-important ICON Park Play Pass in advance for access to seven different attractions and discounts on dining and shopping.