One fat wedge of metal frame at a time, like a pie being reassembled from its slices, the Orlando Eye rose on International Drive until the full wheel was completed around the new year. At 400 feet, it is taller than most structures on the street and is ready for the installation of the glassed-in gondolas that will carry passengers.
On one side, Madame Tussauds is under construction; on the other, Sea Life Aquarium. All are due to open in the spring, a triple by Merlin Entertainments, operator of Legoland parks.
Made in the image of the London Eye, the wheel is the most obvious evidence of the changes taking place on the busy tourist corridor.
This summer, within walking distance of the Eye, construction will begin on another entertainment center, Skyplex, that will be anchored by the world’s tallest roller coaster, the 500-foot Skyscraper.
And between the Orlando Eye and the Skyscraper, the Orlando development company Unicorp plans to break ground later this year on StarFlyer, a giant swing carousel that will stand feet high.
With about 42,000 hotel rooms and the massive Orlando Convention Center, I-Drive is at the heart of Orlando’s tourism industry. Over the years, this stretch of International Drive has filled in with smaller attractions aimed at diverting tourists who come here for conventions or the theme parks — attractions like CSI: The Experience, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium and Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows.
In any other city, the addition of the Orlando Eye, the Skyscraper and the StarFlyer “might be the cornerstone of their destination,” said Mark Jaronski of Visit Orlando.
Orlando, however, with its eight theme parks (four Disney, two Universal and two SeaWorld), drew 59 million visitors in 2013, Jaronski said, although not all were leisure travelers.
And although the new attractions will ratchet up the area’s tourist appeal, that section of I-Drive was already considered a tourist entertainment zone. The Skyplex will go where several longtime recreational facilities once stood, World Bowling Center, an ice arena and Fun ‘n Wheels, which had an arcade and go-cart racing. The Merlin attractions are going up on the site of the Mercado Shopping Village, a dining, retail and entertainment center that catered to tourists. StarFlyer will be outside Kings Bowl Orlando, which, in addition to 22 bowling lanes, has billiards, bocce ball and other games.
The new attractions “won’t bring tourists to town, but they might bring tourists to that part of town. ... It will certainly reinvigorate International Drive,” said Duncan Dickson, associate professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida. “But I can’t see someone planning a trip to Orlando just to see Madame Tussauds or Sea Life or the Eye.”
The attractions will complement the theme parks rather than compete with them, Dickson said. “They will allow someone who arrives on a 10 a.m. plane and doesn’t want to spend a full-day ticket price for a half-day in a theme park ... a good three- or four-hour diversion.” They’ll also provide entertainment for convention-goers looking for something to do nearby in the evening.
Although the attractions will almost certainly draw more people to the already clogged streets, Jaronski said, improvements are in the works that will ease congestion. “All these projects have parking garages coming with them,” he said, plus bus lanes will be created on what is now the median.
First to open will be the trio of attractions from Merlin Entertainment. Stand facing the complex with your back to I-Drive and you’ll see the Orlando Eye wheel straight ahead, towering over a building that encompasses Sea Life Aquarium to the right, Madame Tussauds to the left and a lobby that serves all three attractions in the middle.
The three are planned to open simultaneously in the spring; a date has not been announced.
Also part of the $200 million I-Drive 360 complex are several restaurants and a free 1,650-space parking garage on the left that have been operating for months, shops and restaurants under construction on the right, and a fountain that will have water shows with lights and music.
“It’s a great place for locals as well as the tourist market,” said James Paulding, Merlin’s head of new openings for North America.
Back in 2011, when Merlin was getting ready to open Legoland on the site of the former Cypress Gardens theme park, the company also made plans to bring some of its other entertainment venues to Orlando. Merlin, a British company that is better known in Europe than in the United States, runs more than 100 attractions in 22 countries, including Madame Tussauds, which the company bought in 2007.
Worldwide, Merlin drew 59.8 million visitors to its attractions in 2013, second only to Disney among amusement park operators.
The company will sell combo tickets for all its central Florida attractions. A shuttle runs between the I-Drive complex and Legoland, about 45 minutes away. And if there were any doubts about the synergy among Merlin attractions, a miniature version of the Eye made out of Lego bricks is to be installed at Legoland.
Paulding, giving a reporter a hard-hat tour of the complex, leads the way first into what will be Sea Life Aquarium and ticks off the highlights of the 30 or so exhibits that will have more than 5,000 sea creatures: shipwrecks; a “touch pool,” where visitors can stroke sea stars, anemone and more; a sea horse habitat; aquariums representing the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and local waters; and a walk-through tunnel with water halfway around it.
The centerpiece will be a second walk-through tunnel with a clear floor, 10 to 12 feet wide, surrounded 360 degrees — top, bottom and sides — by water and fish.
“We try to be quite intimate and up-close with the fish,” Paulding said. “It’s educational, but it’s fun.”
On the opposite side of the lobby is Madame Tussauds — “artistry and history,” Paulding says.
Madame Tussaud was a real person who, at the end of the 18th century, made wax death masks of people who were executed during the French Revolution. Later, she took a traveling exhibition of her work to London, where the first permanent exhibition of her work was established. Today, there are Madame Tussauds all over the world. Orlando’s will be the sixth in the United States.
Most of the wax figures are expected to arrive this month from the London studio where all Madame Tussauds figures are created. Each figure takes three to four months to make, including six weeks just to insert the hair, and costs about $300,000. Among the figures in the Orlando exhibits will be Ricky Martin, Selena Gomez, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Brad Pitt, Serena Williams and Rihanna,
Madame Tussauds Orlando will include an exhibit on Florida history, a model of the Oval Office where guests can pose with the current occupant of the White House, a sports room where guests can shoot hoops or swing a bat with famous athletes, a display of historic figures, a music room and the “A-List Party,” the grand finale.
The figures are touchable. “We encourage people to interact with them,” Paulding says. “It’s an interactive wax experience, not a museum.”
Between Madame Tussauds and Sea Life is the Orlando Eye. which at 400 feet is 43 feet shorter than the London Eye — which Merlin acquired in its purchase of the Tussauds Group properties. The wheel will have 30 air-conditioned capsules, each of which will hold 15 people.
The wheel will move very slowly but won’t stop unless a passenger needs extra time to board. A circuit will take 18 to 20 minutes. “It doesn’t feel like you’re swinging around or moving,” Paulding said. “It’s not meant to be a scary ride. It’s meant to be an observation experience.”
On a clear day, visitors should be able to see Cape Canaveral. At night, they can watch the fireworks at the theme parks.
Part of the experience, shown before guests get on the wheel, is a five-minute 4-D moving showcasing Central Florida. It will have wind and rain effects and the scents of what’s on the screen.
Even a hardened roller coaster fan could get dizzy just watching a video simulation of a ride on Skyscraper, the roller coaster planned for the northeast corner of I-Drive and Sand Lake Road. The steel track will wind around the outside of the Skyplex, which will be topped by an observation deck and restaurant and have a large entertainment center at its base with shops, bars, restaurants and an arcade. With a spire, it will stand almost 600 feet tall. It will have a parking garage with more than 2,000 spaces.
The complex is being developed by the Wallack family, which owns Mango’s Tropical Cafe in South Beach and bought seven parcels of land totaling 151/2 acres for the project. The coaster is by US Thrill Rides, an Orlando ride developer that has more than 300 coasters and other attractions around the world. Groundbreaking is expected this summer, with the complex opening in late 2017.
It all came about because Mango’s needed a parking lot.
Joshua Wallack, chief operating officer of Wallack Holdings, said the family bought property on I-Drive to build a Mango’s similar to the one his father founded in Miami Beach 24 years ago. At 55,000 square feet, the Orlando Mango’s will be three times as large as the original, with space for its dinner show, The Vodou Room dance club, private parties and in a later phase, a rooftop terrace. Mango’s is due to open this summer. There’s also a plan for pedestrian bridges over the busy intersection, but that project is still years away.
Wallack and his father and business partner, David Wallack, bought property on the northeast corner of I-Drive and Sand Lake Road for parking for Mango’s, which is near the southwest corner. Then a year ago, the property immediately next to the Mango’s site became available. Wallack bought it for Mango’s parking.
As he pondered what to do with the corner property, Wallack said he was approached by US Thrill Rides with a proposition: They wanted to build a vertical roller coaster, which they call a polercoaster, on the site. The four-minute ride would climb a tower that would resemble Seattle’s Space Needle, then zoom down, twisting, diving, and turning upside down, then straighten out and run along a level stretch of track on I-Drive.
Although Bill Kitchen has designed coasters and other rides that have been built all over the globe, the Orlando ride would be the first polercoaster, said his son, Mike Kitchen, president of the company.
The ride itself would be more than 500 feet high, with about 6,500 linear feet of track, eight inversions, the world’s steepest drop at 123 degrees, a top speed of about 65 mph, and a ride time of about 41/2 minutes, Mike Kitchen said.
“We ran the numbers and decided if we could build the coaster and the observation tower, we would draw millions and millions of visitors,” Wallack said. The price for the complex: $250 million.
“We came here to do a restaurant-nightclub and we’re going to end up doing the fourth-largest entertainment facility behind Disney, Universal and SeaWorld,” Wallack said.
He said he’s pleased that Skyplex will be just a short distance from Merlin’s projects.
“The Orlando Eye and Skyscraper are as symbiotic as salt and pepper, peanut butter and jelly. One is observation, one is a total thrill ride.”
The StarFlyer is a giant circular swing set, a carousel 425 feet high from which 30 swings dangle. The ride will last four or five minutes and will rotate at up to 40 mph.
Although StarFlyer rides exist elsewhere, this one — to be called Vue 360 — will be the tallest in the world, said Chuck Whittall, president of Unicorp.
Whittall said he expects a groundbreaking later this year, and an opening in the first half of 2016.