Even if you’re a regular at FETC and know the Orange County Convention Center and surrounding theme parks and hotels well, a lot has changed in the past year. The recession is officially over and Orlando is booming with new places for tourists to part with their money and locals like me to laugh at them.
Prehaps the biggest transformation is Downtown Disney’s rebirth as Disney Springs. Yes, there really is a meandering spring over what was once parking lots. Parking is much improved with the addition of two enormous decks including direct access into the Orange garage from I4 exit 67. There are new restaurants, an entire open air mall full of pricey, up-scale Worth Ave. (Rodeo Dr. of FL) worthy shops and even more square footage devoted to Disney souvenirs. The cupcake ATM at Sprinkles bakery is a big hit but lines remain 30 minutes plus.
Universal is also building as much as their landlocked city slice allows. Citywalk has new stuff including a steam punk chocolate factory in what was once NBA City. There’s a new hotel open, one under construction and a giant volcano now gracing the skyline. The Volcano Bay Waterpark won’t open until the summer but it already looks incredible and they’ve promised no lines via a Magic Band type system.
As for food, Sand Lake Rd. is still the best destination for conventioneers and those on expense accounts. Try The Whiskey with great burgers and drinks; Mangos on I Drive for a taste of South Beach or the swank new club in the Rosen Hotel. There are walkable options from all convention center hotels but a quick Uber may get you better food, service and prices.
The coolest place and a reason to pack crap clothes for the trip is DRIP. It’s a performance art bar where dancers fling paint on each other. It’s very under the radar but right on I Drive in an ugly warehouse. It’s a better option than Senor Frogs, Howl at the Moon or the manager’s happy hour at Embassy Suites.