What you should know
More than 10 million meeting and convention attendees come to Orlando every year. The convention center and most convention hotels are clustered around International Drive (also known as I-Drive), which is anchored by Universal Orlando Resort to the north and SeaWorld Orlando and the Walt Disney World Resort to the south. Three airports serve the area: Orlando International Airport (MCO), Orlando Executive Airport (ORL) and Kissimmee Gateway Airport (ISM). Downtown Orlando, just north of the convention district, offers a quieter alternative to I-Drive. Interesting neighborhoods and attractions like Winter Park and Lake Osceola offer planners cultural venues, fun group activities, and locally owned shops and restaurants. Orlando is well known as a destination for large conventions, but there are many properties and venues that cater to small groups. In addition to the creative resources available to meeting planners from companies such as Disney, there is Medical City, which is home to M.D. Anderson Orlando Cancer Research Institute and Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute. Other facilities in or coming to Medical City include Nemours Children’s Hospital and Research Campus, Orlando VA Medical Center and the University of Central Florida College of Medicine and the University of Florida Research Center.
- 2.1 million square feet of exhibit space in the Orange County Convention Center
- 116,000+ guest rooms
- 447 hotels
- 168 golf courses
- 90+ attractions
- 60+ convention hotels
- Downtown — Victorian houses and high-rises, trendy art galleries, restaurants, nightclubs along Orange Avenue, Church Street and Wall Street Plaza.
- Thornton Park — Lake Eola, eclectic retail and dining, Celia Lane Little House, Fern Creek, Dickson Azalea Park.
- Little Saigon — One of the largest Vietnamese-American communities in the state (Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue).
- Winter Park — “Orlando’s Rodeo Drive,” Rollins College (Annie Russell Theatre and Cornell Fine Arts Museum), Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, scenic boat tours of mansions.
- Lake Buena Vista — Walt Disney World Resort.
- Eatonville — Birthplace of Zora Neale Hurston, annual January African-American festival, walking tours of historic district, soul food and Caribbean restaurants.
Where to meet green
More than 700 local hotels are Florida-certified Green Lodging hotels, and several restaurants use locally grown and sourced ingredients. Solar panels on the roof of the Orange County Convention Center generate enough energy to power 100 homes, and the convention center has been nationally recognized for its eco-friendly initiatives. In addition to being a certified Florida Green Lodging Property, the Hyatt Place Orlando/Convention Center partners with Clean the World, which turns those little bars of leftover soap into life-saving donations. The soap is sanitized, remolded and shipped to Haiti, where a bar of soap costs more than a family lives on each day and preventable sanitary diseases kill thousands every year). The Hyatt program has inspired hotels around the country to look into forming similar partnerships. A skybridge links the Orange County Convention Center to the Hyatt conference center, which has a 54,652-sq. ft. column-free grand ballroom and an airy 75,000-sq. ft. rotunda with floor-to-ceiling windows. Other amenities include a full-service spa, 1,641 guest rooms and complimentary Wi-Fi.
Where to eat
If you’re looking for a restaurant with meeting space, Dave & Buster’s on International Drive not only has private banquet and meeting space, it also has group team-building and entertainment packages. Be sure not to overlook hotel restaurants — that’s where y0u’ll find some of the city’s best. Other restaurants near the convention center include The Capital Grille, The Oceannaire Seafood Room and Tommy Bahama’s Tropical Café. Chain restaurants such as Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood have private dining areas and room for entertainment. To get away from chain or themed eateries, head to an Orlando neighborhood such as Thornton Park or Winter Park; some restaurants, such as Luma on Park, have private dining areas for small groups.
Where to meet at one of the ‘big 3’
At SeaWorld Celebration Orlando, groups can dine surrounded by sharks, take in one of the water- and land-based shows, throw a themed party or have catered functions with fireworks. Venues include the 12,000-sq. ft. Ports of Call banquet facility, Sea Harbor Pavilions (capacity: 1,500) and Discovery Cove (capacity: 100-400). SeaWorld’s Aquatica waterpark offers all-you-can-eat entertainment day passes for groups of more than 15 and evening event venues for gatherings of 500 people or more. Universal Orlando Resort and its entertainment district are home to Blue Man Group, three hotels, golf and spa programs, nine soundstages, five themed amphitheaters and unusual team-building programs. In addition to Walt Disney World Resorts’ four parks (Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom), the resort has four championship golf courses, a waterpark, spas and entertainment complexes, as well as professional development workshops and unusual venues such as the 10,000-sq. ft. Stage 17 Hollywood-style soundstage. Groups can stay at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, which has 2,265 guest rooms, 84 meeting rooms, two boardrooms, four ballrooms and 110,500 contiguous square feet of exhibit space.
Where to stay near one of the ‘big 3’
The 216-room Castle Hotel is a medieval-themed palace on International Drive and a short ride to the Disney parks, plus has 10,000 square feet of function space, including two ballrooms and rooftop terraces. The 115-room, AAA Four-Diamond Bohemian Hotel Celebration is five minutes from Disney magic. The boutique property has 5,000 square feet of indoor meeting space with panoramic lakeside views and two lakeside terraces for outdoor functions. Free shuttle service to Disney theme parks is provided. The International Palms Resort and Conference Center has 652 guest rooms/suites and 26 meeting rooms, including a 10,000-sq. ft. ballroom that seats up to 1,400 people. The hotel, near SeaWorld Orlando and the other theme parks, has 24-hour fitness and business centers, same-day dry cleaning and complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi.
Where to meet creatively
Fantasy of Flight’s historic aircraft museum offers banquet and reception space for up to 5,000, interactive flight simulations and conference facilities. The Harry P. Leu Gardens has indoor and outdoor meeting space as well as classrooms. The Mall at Millenia has an airy rotunda surrounded by high-definition panel screens and is available for small banquets and receptions. Mall gift packages offer meeting attendees free valet parking, a gift, coupons and a free cocktail just for visiting the upscale shopping center. WonderWorks, an upside-down “museum of the mind,” is a fun alternative for a reception or evening function for up to 1,200. It has a laser tag arena, a dinner-theater magic show and more.
Where to golf
Reunion Wyndham Grand Golf & Spa Resort is home to three golf courses designed by Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. The luxury resort includes villa accommodations, elegant conference space, a rooftop pool/patio venue and a 4,700-sq. ft. ballroom overlooking natural wetlands. The El Campeon course at the Mission Inn Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills is one of Florida’s Top 10 courses; the neighboring Las Colinas course was designed by Gary Koch and recognized by Golf Digest when it opened. Walt Disney World Resort has four championship golf courses, a nine-hole walking course and fantasy mini-golf courses for families. Other top-ranked Golf Digest courses include the National and the International at ChampionsGate and the Lake Nona Golf & Country Club.
Where to play
The Atlanta Braves hold spring training at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in February and March. Replicate the NASCAR experience by having attendees ride along with professional drivers from the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Walt Disney World Speedway. Driving lessons are available.
Where to find locally made gifts
Orlando Brewing Co. brews a wide variety of organic beers and coffee. Winter Park‘s boutiques sell specialty goods and foods. Visit Orlando sells Magicards, offering savings at 67 attractions, shops, hotels and restaurants. Florida’s Natural Brand Co-Op has a gift shop with branded merchandise, food and gift items as well as an online store.
Where to team-build
iFly Orlando offers a free-fall skydiving adventure in a specially constructed indoor wind tunnel. Teams of eight to 12 go every 30 minutes. A viewing platform lets waiting groups watch each mission. The Kennedy Space Center offers Astronaut Training Programs (ATX).
How to surround your group with culture
The 250-room Grand Bohemian Hotel has 9,600 square feet of function space, including the rooftop Bohemian Garden. Amenities include a gallery of more than 150 works of rare art; live nightly entertainment featuring an Imperial Grand Bösendorfer Piano (one of only two in the world); and AAA Four-Diamond, DiRoNA dining at its Boheme Restaurant. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park has the world’s most comprehensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany works, including jewelry, lamps, art glass and the chapel interior he created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Other exhibits include late 19th- and early 20th-century American paintings, pottery, graphics and decorative arts. Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College has six galleries displaying modernist and contemporary art. Mennello Museum of American Art focuses on American masterworks and public arts programming. The Orlando Shakespeare Theater is the only professional, classical theater company in Central Florida. In addition to Shakespeare, it produces new plays and theater for young audiences in its mainstage and black-box spaces. The Orlando Philharmonic presents classical, pop and chamber music.
How to shake up a meal function
Send attendees on a scenic boat tour through the lakes and canals of historic Winter Park. Disembark at the Albin Polasek Museum and Gardens for a lunch or evening reception in the sculpture garden, which holds more than 300 people. Polasek led the Art Institute of Chicago’s sculpture department for nearly three decades before retiring to Winter Park to build a home for his “children” — life-size sculptures he arranged in his garden overlooking Lake Osceola. What’s remarkable about the museum’s collection is that many of the large sculptures were created by Polasek after he had a stroke, which left him wheelchair-bound and with the use of only one arm. Groups can tour a smaller chapel and indoor house museum with galleries.