As Rosemary Rose steps into the position of CEO at Orlando’s I-Drive 360 complex, a polished new retail and dining facility with a handful of ticketed attractions, she is switching from being a small fish in a big pond to a big fish in a small one. After many years with two of the area’s hospitality giants, the earnest executive now heads up one of the market’s more ambitious mid-level tourist draws. She says the still-expanding tourist facility is part of a desirable niche.
ABOVE PHOTO: I-Drive 360 and its iconic attraction, the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye. Photos courtesy of I-Drive 360.
“People come to Orlando for the big boys, Disney and Universal, and we acknowledge that,” she admits matter-of-factly. “Initially, they do not come here to ride the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye,” I-Drive 360’s iconic attraction. “We want to change that by offering a half-day park experience that is fun and doesn’t break the bank.” While a one-day theme park visit for two people can easily cost more than $300 for tickets, food and parking, she notes, I-Drive 360 offers smaller yet compelling activities at a far lower price point.
Rose brings to the complex a fitting background. She was born and raised in Florida – “I was actually at Disney World on opening day as a young child,” she recalls – and climbed the corporate ladder at major local enterprises including Disney and Darden, the restaurant company. During those years, she worked in finance, marketing, menu operations, merchandising, and food and beverage. Her most recent major position was seven years as the chief operating officer of Strayer University. “I believe my background helps make me uniquely qualified to understand who the I-Drive 360 guest is and what that person might be looking for,” Rose says.
Opened in spring 2015, I-Drive 360 is a $250 million, 19-acre destination that is best known for the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, a 400-foot revolving observation wheel that looks like an amusement park Ferris wheel but is far more pampering. Visible from great distances, the Eye invites guests into its 30 air-conditioned cars – with 10 panes of glass apiece – for a 22-minute revolution that reaps 360 degree views of Central Florida. The Eye is steady, with no swaying, and each car is equipped with a tablet for interaction plus audio and visual effects.
The Eye shares a ticket office and property with other attractions, and tickets are sold both a la carte and in bundles. A Madame Tussauds wax museum and the SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium are both owned by Merlin Entertainments, which also owns and operates the LEGOLAND Florida park in nearby Winter Haven. Other investors are behind the Skeletons – Museum of Osteology and Arcade City, additional sizeable draws. Merlin Entertainments, which owns the London Eye, operates the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye for its owners, who also own I-Drive 360 at large: Paul and Dayssi Kanavos and Adam Raboy of Flag Luxury Group, together with Brett Torino of The Torino Companies, and Chuck Whittal of Unicorp National Developments.
Beyond the attractions, I-Drive 360 is made up of restaurants, entertainment venues and stores, plus vast public spaces that are used for public and private events. The property is an easy walk, or trolley or taxi ride, from the Orange County Convention Center (the nation’s second-largest convention center and location of the annual IAAPA Attractions Expo) and the many hotels surrounding it.
Since I-Drive 360 came of age during the social media boom, many of its tenants cater to travelers of the modern age. Inside the SEA LIFE Aquarium, for example, fish tanks were designed with indents meant for visitors’ heads; guests simply duck down, pop their faces into these cleverly integrated nooks, and smile while friends or family members snap photos. The wax museum – one of two dozen around the world – has always been ripe for photos, but now that most customers have smartphones, the realistic models of, say, Hollywood A-Lister Brad Pitt and locally based basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, are more likely to show up on Facebook or Snapchat. Even some I-Drive 360 restaurants cater to the Instagram crowd. At Sugar Factory, an ice cream restaurant with food and a candy shop, sundaes meant for groups to share are delivered with sparklers. The Mexican restaurant Uncle Julio’s serves sweets inside a chocolate piñata that guests are invited to break open as it swings from a hook. Video social media posts are common.
Many international travelers come to town for 10 days or two weeks, Rose reports, and they often choose I-Drive 360 as their main destination for the day, since they have plenty of time for theme parks also. “Families with young children might go to a waterpark during the day, then come over to see us around 4 or 5 p.m. They’ll eat dinner at a neat restaurant, ride the Eye, or maybe buy a cluster of tickets so they can visit the wax museum or aquarium, then go home. If they have teens or kids in their 20s with them, they’d do the same museums, but maybe come later and have dinner afterwards, even take in some live music.”
I-Drive 360 is far from being the only multi-concept, Tier 2 attraction in the area, but it is the most talked-about as 2017 draws to a close.
Small and mid-size attractions are big business in Orlando. After all, 68 million people visit the destination each year. Theme parks, conferences and conventions may be the reason most folks buy their plane tickets or gas up their cars. Once they’re in the tourist area, though, out-oftowners have plenty of hours to seek out less-pricey, easier-to-reach attractions. Most of these options take two to four hours to visit and lack mammoth, expensive parking lots. These range from oddity museums to indoor go-kart racing or laser tag, from old-fashioned amusement parks to putt-putt courses. The vast majority, like I-Drive 360, are located on or near a grand strip called International Drive, referred to locally as I-Drive.
I-Drive 360 is just a bit north of the similarly conceived Pointe Orlando, a multi-level facility with a multiplex plus clubs, restaurants and designer goods. Its Main Event arcade and café with a virtual-reality element joined the line-up last year. Pointe Orlando has had its struggles at times, despite being even closer than I-Drive 360 is to the city’s convention center and convention hotels.
Three other newbies are going for the same customers. To the north, a $500 million, 14-acre entertainment complex called Skyplex Orlando is scheduled to break ground soon. It will include an indoor theme park with three thrill rides – one claiming to be the tallest roller coaster in the world. Predicted opening: 2019. Its developers, Joshua and David Wallack, are also engaged in building the Hollywood Plaza Entertainment Complex, with a bigdollar Circo restaurant, a Hulk Hogan-themed store and an 880-space parking lot. Those will open incrementally through 2018. The Wallacks already own Mango’s Tropical Café, a large nightclub and event venue. In the same area, another cluster is home to Kings Bowl, a bowling alley with cocktails and restaurant food, as well as several large restaurants. [Editor’s Note: On 11/1/17 the Orlando Weekly reported that Circo restaurant will not be opening on I-Drive.]
That’s just the new development. Elsewhere on International Drive, Fun Spot and Magical Midway draw families with classic thrill rides. And a host of one-feature vendors beckon with escape rooms, dinner theaters and a host of other tourist-geared storefronts.
Given the amount of competition, despite a strong lineup of tenants and a central location, I-Drive 360’s future success is not a given. Rose will need to embrace and effectively market what she inherited, and expand the offerings wisely. After all, travelers have plenty of other choices for their half-day entertainment.
Rose expresses confidence that I-Drive 360’s foundation poises it for success. “Extreme high-intensity thrill rides won’t be for everyone,” Rose points out, referring to some competitors. “You’d be hard-pressed to say that the Orlando Eye, aquarium and bone museum don’t work for everyone. My mother is not going to go on a thrill ride, but she would definitely ride the Eye, she would definitely go through the aquarium. I think that’s the difference.”
The 56-year-old is poised to make her charge that much more attractive. The main parts of I-Drive 360 are essentially built out, but Rose sees plenty more opportunity. “We have three undeveloped pads totaling 48,000 to 50,000 square feet,” she says. “In addition, pads right behind us are parking lots but don’t need to be. We have aggressive plans to make use of our space.” Some of that land is spoken for, she notes, saying lease negotiations are underway, but that does not shut out newcomers with on-target ideas and resources. In fact, a small trackless kiddie train recently started up because a kiosk suggested adding it. “Bring all good ideas and our team will vet them to see how they fit,” Rose encourages innovators.
One slice of that opportunity may be the sizeable courtyard at I-Drive 360’s center, which has lush waterscapes and a dancing fountain and hosts events. “I love the courtyard,” Rose says. “It’s a beautiful … a beautiful piece of grass. I look at it and say, ‘Ooh, what else could that be?’” For now, she’s eyeing additional events, “You know, maybe every Sunday afternoon I-Drive 360 will do X.” Its events, such as a Latin fiesta held in the northeast parking lot, attract as many as 5,000 people, providing opportunities for food and beverage, telecommunications and entertainment sponsors and purveyors. Rose is even open to the idea of capitalizing on the “terminal building” – the cavernous ticket office. “When you walk in, there’s not much going on,” she admits. For now, she hints at the addition of “some special greeters from a thematic standpoint that will better connect guests to their options as they walk in the door.” Does that mean costumed characters? She didn’t rule it out.
Private events are a natural add-on business for I-Drive 360. One favorite venue is a secluded room near where riders load on to the Eye. “We have a very private space for up to 100 guests in our Sky Lounge on the ride platform. It has a catering kitchen,” Rose notes. That’s only one of many venues, and enhancements are on the way. “I think we’ll see expansion in terms of special events for convention guests,” Rose speculates. “We’re designing options that I call pop-up and permanent, plus we can make better use of our indoor and outdoor event spaces.”
Rose is also savvy enough to know that sometimes competition is helpful, that a variety of similar destinations can reap a larger influx of potential customers. “With more of a mix of quality offerings, all boats will rise,” Rose predicts. “It’s a positive when there are quality opportunities for all of us. This part of International Drive is almost like a glove that fits around the big theme parks.”•
InPark is pleased to welcome new contributor Rona Gindin (email@example.com), who writes about tourism, business, travel, restaurant and lifestyle issues. Her work has appeared in Zagat, foodnetwork.com, Brides, Parenting, Endless Vacation and other publications and websites.
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