Reprint from original publishing on December 4, 2014
The introduction of Walt Disney World in 1971 changed the Central Florida landscape forever, and since then, Orlando has continued to evolve as a top vacation destination. With the latest and greatest amusements and attractions constantly springing up around us, it’s no longer a one-trick pony. Universal Studios and Sea World compete heavily with the Walt Disney World Resort. Midway style amusement centers like Fun Spot are making great strides in the tourism industry, and wildlife parks like Gatorland (which was here well before Mickey Mouse) are always a favorite. We’ve got unique adventures, historical tributes, scientific exhibits, and we’re making fantastic progress in the performing arts. Orlando has it all… or does it? Brace yourselves – residents and visitors alike – because here we grow again!
Photo: I-Drive 360 aerial rendering. Courtesy, Unicorp
My earliest memories of Disney vacations (that’s what they were back then – visits to Magic Kingdom, maybe Epcot, and eventually what was then known as MGM Studios) centered on the Kissimmee area and the long strip we drove in on, US 192. I remember being drawn to the span of hotels, gift shops, restaurants, and every other tourist necessity. I loved the drive through Kissimmee almost as much as the visit to the parks, especially at night, when it was all aglow. While Kissimmee still has its charm, it doesn’t lure me the way it used to. My eyes now reserve their twinkling for International Drive. International Drive (or, I-Drive, if you want to use the local lingo) is just over 11 miles long. It’s the main drag of the tourist corridor, straddling both Universal Studios and Sea World, but that is only the beginning! I-Drive is home to more than 100 hotels, over 150 restaurants, movie theaters, amusement centers, convention centers, and more shopping centers and outlet malls than you can shake a credit card at. In other words, I-Drive is simply the place to be! I’ve watched I-Drive grow over the years, and I’ve slowly made my way to living within walking distance of the start of the strip. My timing, though coincidental, was perfect. Plans have been announced in waves, detailing a landslide of new developments in the works for the I-Drive area – to the tune of over $800 million! With a price tag like that, you know we’re in for some very big things. Speaking of “big things”, it’s impossible to miss one of the biggest developments of them all – The Orlando Eye.
Photo: The Orlando Eye rendering. Courtesy, Unicorp
The Orlando Eye will be the pinnacle of I-Drive 360, a fresh, new entertainment complex that is rapidly creating more buzz than an angry hive of yellow jackets! Unicorp National Development Inc., are the masterminds behind this impressive new mass-attraction center. If you’re familiar with Unicorp’s work (such as the exquisite Dellagio of Dr. Phillips), you know we can expect mind-blowing magnificence.
I-Drive 360 is rapidly taking shape – and guests! Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Outback Steakhouse, and Yard House Orlando have already opened their doors for business. A collection of restaurants, bars, and snack shops will line the edge of the complex. Some are brand spankin’ new to Orlando, but they all have unique offerings that combine to provide a flavor for every appetite. Soon to be added to the menu at I-Drive 360: Buffalo Wild Wings, Dick’s Last Resort, Pretzelmaker, Shake Shack, and Sugar Factory – for starters! Next to open is Tin Roof.
Photos: Tin Roof Bars
Based out of Nashville, Tennessee, this will be the 14th Tin Roof location. At 5,000 square feet, this high-energy bar and restaurant is built around rustic, Southern comfort with seating for over 210, both indoors and outdoors. Live music ranging from rock to alternative and country will be featured, and Tin Roof loves showcasing local talent. Introducing their tantalizing, one-of-a-kind “TennMex” menu to Orlando, Tin Roof is also promising a few new twists. Regional Manager William Hodges was proud to fill me in on one of those new menu items during a recent tour of the site. Tin Roof will be offering their own take on Butterbeer! Now THAT is the way to introduce yourself to Orlando!
Keep watch for more details and a full review when Tin Roof opens later this month! For information on the Tin Roof chain, visit their website. Joining Unicorp on this ambitious venture is Merlin Entertainments. Known worldwide for their remarkable theme parks and midway attractions, Merlin is the force behind the innovative Legoland parks. Their I-Drive 360 contributions will include the world-famous Madame Tussauds wax attraction and the Sea Life Orlando Aquarium.
Photo: Madame Tussauds
Madame Tussauds will span 25,000 square feet, divided into themed rooms featuring life-size, wax recreations of celebrities, sports heroes, and historical figures. Sea Life presents over 5,000 deep sea creatures representing the inhabitants of three oceans in more than 30 displays and interactive exhibits. Perhaps the most impressive feature of Sea Life Aquarium, the 360 degree undersea tunnel will surround guests in an immersive environment teeming with sharks and turtles.
Photo: Sea Life Orlando Aquarium rendering
Recently announced to be joining the list of attractions is Skeletons: Animals Unveiled! Spawned from the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City, this exhibit will feature over 400 complete skeletons on extraordinary display demonstrating the complexity and diversity of the animal kingdom. Observe specimens in various three-dimensional, “action” poses through painstakingly detailed dioramas.
A fifth I-Drive 360 attraction has yet to be revealed, but Unicorp’s John Stine, Director of Marketing and Sales, informed me that it will be an “indoor attraction experience” set to appear at the southern corner of the property.
Right at the center of it all stands the “Eye”. Undoubtedly the towering focal point of the complex, this 400-foot observation wheel will toss everything we ever knew about ferris wheels right out the window. 30 air-conditioned, glass enclosed capsules will feature color-changing, LED lighting and Bose audio systems creating a luxurious 30-minute flight experience. The views from high above Orlando will certainly be well beyond spectacular, and the views from below aren’t anything to scoff at either!
The pathways of I-Drive 360 wind to a beautifully landscaped central garden area. Front and center stands a fountain, modeled after the famous Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas. While our version may be scaled back a wee bit, it will still provide an incredible show. Jets of water will shoot up to 80-feet in the air, dancing in colorful streams to themed tracks such as Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky”.
This brings me to what ultimately makes I-Drive 360 so very unique and appealing. When touring the complex recently, I couldn’t help but notice the enthusiasm that John Stine displayed on behalf of Unicorp, and that enthusiasm was sincerely stemming from what the complex stands to bring to both tourists and locals. He seemed honestly thrilled to be introducing me to a place for everyone, and an a place where option is key.
While I-Drive 360 will offer so much, it is designed to be as much or as little of an experience as you want it to be. You will have the option to do it all, but you will also have the option to grab a pretzel, ice cream, or glass of wine and simply enjoy the fountain show and the mesmerizing lights of the Orlando Eye at the end of a long day. There will be no admission fees to visit the complex. There will also be no parking fees, for valet or self-parking in the adjacent parking garage. And for the locals, there seems to be one unifying concern regarding the influx of I-Drive additions – the addition of more traffic in an already congested zone. Never fear – a massive improvement project is already in the planning stages for International Drive itself. This will include road widening, landscaping, and dedicated lanes for trolleys, buses, and bicycles. Under the eager eye of Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Orlando’s new developments are really paving the way for perfection all-around. As I ended this most recent visit to the swiftly emerging I-Drive 360 complex, my first peek behind-the-scenes left me giddy with anticipation. The moment I started my car, the song that greeted me was “Wheel in the Sky” – how apropos! Look for the attraction openings to begin in the Spring, and I will absolutely be there – with bells on! A few quick glances from the “hard hat zone” at The Orlando Eye…