By ATD’s Florida experts Susan & Simon Veness
It’s already a major landmark all over the International Drive area, but the new Orlando Eye – which will be part of the fabulous I-Drive 360 complex next year – is fast shaping up as one of the most exciting new developments in recent years.
Many locals think the Eye is at its maximum size with the completion of the main interior structure, but that is only HALF the story so far. The current construction is just the inside part of the full creation; the exterior part of the wheel-like attraction will now be added, taking it to its full 400-feet height.
As good as it looks now, this eye-catching edifice will truly tower over the surrounding landscape and offer views as far as the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, 50 miles away.
But it is only the most visible part of what promises to be the new heart of International Drive, which has long been a tourist attraction in its own right and is now set to give everyone a 360-degree enhancement.
I-Drive 360 is an impressive joint project between local developers Unicorp, Britain’s Merlin Entertainments (owners of LEGOLAND Florida) and several private investors. The land is owned by Unicorp, Merlin are putting up the Eye, Madame Tussauds and the Orlando SeaLife Aquarium, and part of the financing comes from the private group.
It all makes for a unique collection of attractions, all neatly wrapped up under the 360 label and with the Eye as the iconic element. All the main attractions are due to open in the spring, but we had an exclusive tour of the current development last week as part of the BritWeek Visits Orlando event, and it is clear to see there will be a LOT to enjoy here.
First of all, the central plaza area is practically complete and features a large fountain based on that of the famous Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, with eight-minute water-shows every half-hour and seasonal variations for things like Halloween and Christmas.
Behind the fountain is a grassy Courtyard area that will stage periodic special events and other functions, while to both sides is a smaller fountain-and-stream effect that gives the whole plaza a very gentle and welcoming ambience.
Spreading out to either side of the Courtyard is a series of shops, restaurants, nightlife and other attractions that are all in various stages of construction, while others are due to get under way in the next few months. They include smaller kiosk-type venues that will feature a wine bar, Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream parlour, Café de Paris for breakfast and lunch, and a cookie/pretzel shop.
Already open are an Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill and the Yard House, a combination restaurant and craft brewhouse boasting more than 100 beers and ciders on tap, with Happy Hour 3-6pm Monday to Friday and a pleasingly elegant vibe.
Taking shape fast and due to open December 8 is Tin Roof, a live music venue from Nashville, Tennessee, featuring both local and international musicians (just not heavy metal or hip-hop!), while nearby will be Cow Girls Inc, a self-confessed ‘party venue’ from Seattle, with mechanical bull-riding, signature drinks and their Cow Girl dancers and servers.
In between, will be the Sugar Factory – “a confectionary store on steroids”, according to our Unicorp guide John Stine – which is based in Las Vegas and has celebrity customers like Justin Bieber and the Kardashians, as well as another restaurant with a Middle Eastern theme and cuisine.
Also under way is Dick’s Last Resort, a bar-restaurant chain (like the one down by Orlando Premium Outlets on Vineland Avenue), famous for its outrageous, surly and energetic servers, who hand out sarcasm and abuse as well as food and drinks. For tapas food fans there will be Coca Boca, with live music and dancing to go with its Spanish cuisine and atmosphere.
Next door will be Skeletons, a unique attraction from Oklahoma City that is part museum of osteology and part outright curiosity, boasting several hundred human and animal skeletons, some with an interactive element and all hugely popular with existing visitors from its home state.
Just about to start construction are the Shake Shack, a hugely popular burger-and-milkshake joint that hails from New York, and another outlet of the Buffalo Wild Wings sports bar chain, both of which will open later in 2015. Also on the slate is a sushi-themed restaurant and four smaller-scale attractions and retail outlets, plus a unique Walgreens store, concentrating purely on gifts, souvenirs and other merchandise, rather than the pharmacy and general store approach of all their other outlets.
Then, at the centre of the plaza are the three headline attractions. Madame Tussauds should need no introduction to British visitors and will be a 60-90-minute self-guided tour through a series of rooms featuring famous waxwork figures.
The various rooms will include a history of the local area and key moments of American history (including the chance to visit the President in his Oval Office!); the authentic history of Madame Tussauds (dating back 200 years); a Sports room; a Music section, including Brit pop sensations One Direction; and finally the A-List Party area, with well-known Hollywood stars and other celebrities. Visitors will be encouraged to pose with the various ‘stars,’ and have their photo taken with them.
Merlin’s Head of New Openings for North America, James Paulding, told us: “We don’t want to be a museum, we want to be an interactive experience, so people can put their arms around the figures. It will be really immersive and really fun. We can also change things out and bring in new features to make sure we stay fresh and dynamic, while there is the potential to add a 4-D cinema in future.”
Another part of the Main Terminal area is the SeaLife Aquarium, the 50th centre of its type worldwide and another experience that should take 60 to 90 minutes. Like Madame Tussauds, it is a linear walk-through attraction, with sections for fresh water and Everglades, plus manatees and sea turtles, all with a strong educational component, as well as a unique plexiglass tunnel at the centre of the main aquarium, surrounding visitors with a 360-degree view of the inhabitants!
Then, the Orlando Eye itself will have its loading platform immediately behind the Main Terminal, with a special green-screen photo opportunity and 4-D film experience that showcases more of Central Florida before boarding for the 20-minute ‘flight’.
The giant wheel will boast 30 capsules taking 15 people each and will rotate clockwise under electric power (unlike the London Eye, which goes anti-clockwise and is powered hydraulically). Eye riders will be able to see all of Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld, as well as many of the area’s other attractions. And they will also be able to see how green and lush this part of Central Florida is – and how undeveloped in large areas.
Merlin will also sell tickets for each attraction as well as for all of them together, with the option to visit on different days so it doesn’t require a whole day of your holiday at any stage. Paulding says: “The whole idea is to offer multiple tickets and then guests can just fit them into their holiday schedule as and when they want.”
In addition, the Terminal will sell tickets for LEGOLAND Florida and have a special bus service at the back to the big attraction out at Winter Haven (about a 45-minute drive away). All four attractions can then be combined in one ticket. The other feature that should please all visitors is that it offers free parking, with a 1,600-space multi-storey car park, which ensures it is easy to get in and out of (our tip- use the entrance on Universal Boulevard).
And that’s the full I-Drive 360 story as it takes shape – which is all a long way away from its previous life as the derelict site of the former Mercado Mediterranean Village!