The best additions to Orlando's tourist district in 2015


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While the local theme parks themselves didn’t have a lot of new attractions opening this year outside of the parks, we saw major new additions to the local tourism scene. Many of these new additions will forever change the local tourism scene, while others aren’t as significant but help showcase new trends in the local community.

I-Drive 360

The biggest local tourism news item of 2015 is easily the opening of I-Drive 360. With its opening, we saw four new attractions, multiple new restaurants and what has essentially become the ‘front lawn’ of I-Drive. The biggest addition is obviously The Orlando Eye observation wheel. The 400 ft. tall wheel has forever changed the skyline of I-Drive while also becoming a beacon for the millions of passing motorists.

The wheel isn’t the only attraction to call I-Drive 360 home. Merlin also opened the Sea Life Aquarium and the Madame Tussauds wax museum in the Eye’s terminal. The new attractions add globally recognized attraction names to the already impressive lineup of I-Drive offerings. Each attraction being one that countless cities would dream of getting, but here Merlin has created its largest entertainment complex. I-Drive 360 isn’t just Merlin though, Skeletons adds a new educational museum to the line-up and dining options like Tin Roof have proven to be popular hangouts for tourist and locals alike. In less than 9 months, I-Drive 360’s new attractions have helped bring the former Mercado back into the forefront of I-Drive’s entertainment offerings.

Disney Springs

Over at Walt Disney World, the shopping and entertainment complex formerly known as Downtown Disney transitioned into Disney Springs this year. With the transition we have a number of new dining, entertainment and retail outlets open. Boathouse, Morimoto and Jock Lindsey’s all opened in the former Pleasure Island area (now known as The Landing). Each of these new establishments has already gained their regulars and each has stood up well against the ever-critical local theme park bloggers.

The World of Disney megastore added another 6,000 sq. ft. of retail space, a new ‘bridge’ makes walking around Disney Springs much easier and an impressive lineup of retail concepts (that ranged from hats to shaving equipment) made Disney Springs the downtown that the former place never could be.

With amphicars now cruising the lake, music wafting from Jock Lindsey’s and delightful smells from Morimoto (come on and open the walk-up window!) Downtown Disney, er Disney Springs, hasn’t felt this alive in years. The new high-tech parking garage, direct ramp from I-4 and the new pedestrian bridges have also finally helped alive a traffic nightmare that has gone on for way too long.

We have a whole new district, the Town Center, which will open in phases throughout 2016. Plus, even more new stuff including a cocktail lounge, live entertainment venue and much more. With all this coming it’s easy to overlook the dramatic changes that 2015 brought to Disney’s retail Mecca but it was this year that we finally got to see glimpses of the great improvement that will be Disney Springs.

Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto

Staying at Disney World, we can’t talk cool new bars in Orlando and not mention Trader Sam’s. The beloved West Coast tiki bar made its’ East Coast debut at the end of March. The new bar, which was ranked as "Best New Place to Get Drunk at Disney" in our Best of Orlando, has quickly become the local hangout for Disneyphiles. The bar is filled with references, animatronics and gags while being staffed with what many would argue are the best bartenders at Disney World since the closure of Pleasure Island. The nightly hijinks have kept the bar in local social media almost daily. The decent collection of take-home mugs has meant that this bar will be remembered for years to come, similar to how Rosie O’Grady’s continues to live on via local yard sales and antique stores.

Trader Sam’s is Disney theming done right. This year, with so many closures and bad news for theme park fans, it was the perfect time to open a place for locals to forget about all that over a few drinks with #SkipperJames (who did recently move over to Jock Lindsey’s).

CityWalk’s New Food

While most of the culinary focus in the tourist district has been on Disney World, this year we can’t forget about the impressive new additions that Universal added to CityWalk. In the spring it was Cowfish, a North Carolina-based burger sushi fusion concept that Universal took a gamble on by bringing it to Orlando. The concept proved to be a hit here; making Cowfish a new tradition for many visiting Universal Orlando, especially for the more engaged fans that come out of the woodwork during Halloween Horror Nights.

Most recently, Universal unveiled its brand new NBC Sports Grill & Brew. The sports grill is topped by a 120-foot-wide HD stadium screen that plays the very latest from NBC Sports channels. Craft beer and an updated, modern take on pub grub have made the NBC Grill a popular spot for not just Universal guests but for the nearby community as well.
The culinary updates that began last year took a major step forward this year with these two new additions.

Gator Spot at Fun Spot

One of the more surprising tourism stories of 2015 was the introduction of the new partnership between two signature local attractions; Fun Spot and Gatorland. The new mini-Gatorland inside Fun Spot America’s I-Drive area location has quickly proved to be a popular evening spot for many. The resident white gator, Bouya Blan, is even more of a celebrity since the move and is now a must see for any Fun Spot visitors. With over 100 gators, from tiny hatchlings to full-grown adults, Gator Spot gives a great taste of what Gatorland offers. Live macaws, on point theming and a full Gatorland gift shop makes this new attraction a stronger contender in its own right.

Beyond being an excellent new attraction, Gator Spot also provides a great example of how smaller local attractions can partner together. The attraction gives many tourists their first opportunity to interact with alligators beyond the smaller ones found at area mini-golf courses.

Crayola Experience

Florida Mall helped its dominance in the local retail scene this year with the introduction of the Crayola Experience. The brand new concept is a new take on the interactive museums typically attached to visitor’s centers. For Crayola, this new attraction is a slightly updated take on the visitor’s center in Easton, PA.

The new attraction includes a number of fun crayon inspired experiences and even a live show that demonstrates how crayons are made. A large gift shop is just outside the museum features plenty of Crayola-branded items. The new attraction could also be used as a case study for other regional headquarter visitor attractions looking to expand. What M&M World missed with their gift shop only model Crayola finally brought to the region. The low annual pass prices (as of this writing they were only $34.99) also mean that the new attraction is an easy way to get the kids excited for visiting the mall.

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