It seems like everybody knows somebody coming here for vacation. And that’s no illusion.
Orlando, Fla., is the No. 1 U.S. destination booked by travel agents, according to a fall survey by the giant travel agent group Travel Leaders. And that doesn’t even count all the vacationers booking their own trips.
With more than 59 million visitors a year, this city’s crowded peak seasons are family vacation periods — Christmas, winter and spring breaks, Easter and summer. Home to major theme parks and a growing city, Orlando is synonymous with vacation in many people’s minds.
So if you are headed to Orlando in 2015 and haven’t visited for a year or more, you’re in for a treat. Here’s what’s happening:
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The elegant Orlando Eye rising over International Drive is more than pie in the sky.
At the moment, the 400-foot-tall cantilevered observation wheel has a pie-shaped slice missing at the top while it’s being constructed, but by spring 2015 when it opens it will create a rather romantic signature attraction for the city.
It is being built by Merlin Entertainments Group. Those are the same folks who own Legoland and Britain’s London Eye. Forty feet shorter than the original Eye, its glass cabs will hold 15 instead of 25 passengers but still are sure to awe riders.
That’s not all. Next to the Eye will be a new Madame Tussauds Orlando plus a small aquarium called Sea Life Orlando. The redeveloping “I-Drive 360” area also has new restaurants and amazingly enough, free parking.
“Our goal is to be a destination so people can take a break from the parks,” said Andrea Alava, Merlin spokeswoman.
International Drive meanders next to the Interstate 4 freeway near all the major Orlando theme parks, so most visitors drive it sooner or later to get around.
With champagne sunset rides, the Eye likely will do just that, as will the nice, ongoing upgrade of the once-tacky International Drive (www.internationaldriveorlando.com).
Yes, this park is unpopular with animal rights activists because of its orca whale exhibit. I could see the impact at the One Ocean show the first week of December — about a third of Shamu Stadium was empty. I witnessed a rather wooden performance by the handlers, who are no longer allowed to go in the water with the massive black and white orcas since one killed a trainer here in 2010. I also saw less orca merchandise, with a lot more turtle, manatee, dolphin and flamingo souvenirs on the shelves.
However, SeaWorld Orlando itself is a wonderful park. The joyful Blue Horizons dolphin show with its divers, acrobats and flying birds was exactly what a live show should be. The sea turtle TurtleTrek exhibit was inspiring. I liked the moody Manta coaster swooping overhead in the park’s center, and the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin exhibit had 30-minute lines. That indicates to me that although park attendance has indeed fallen (down 5.2 percent in the third quarter alone, after a yearlong swoon), visitors are still coming.
Some may shun SeaWorld because of pressure they feel from animal rights activists, but balance that with the fact that the scenic park has rescued tens of thousands of sea creatures in the last decades, including from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and that the fees you pay the park help fund this work and research (www.seaworldparks.com, 888-800-5447).
Walt Disney World
The happiest place on Earth heard some anxious muttering when it switched over to a new high-tech ticketing system last year and completely changed how the FastPass system works.
But things are now smoothing out as guests become used to it, said Phil Holmes, vice president for the Magic Kingdom, as we watched people entering the park simply by waving a wristband that contains all their information.
Beyond that, those who have not been to Disney for at least a year will feel a chill in the air because of more “Frozen” activities everywhere. The mega-popular animated film has swiped Cinderella Castle, turning it into a nightly holiday ice palace. I also saw the Frozen Sing-Along Celebration, with little girls shouting out every word of every song — including hard words such as “fractals.” At a “Frozen” character meet, small visitors stood in mute awe when they met Anna and Elsa, even though some had waited an hour in line.
A new “Frozen” ride is coming to Epcot in 2016. Elsewhere, Downtown Disney is transforming into Disney Springs by 2016 with new shopping and entertainment.
In the meantime, the zesty Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which opened in May, is worth waiting for. It has had decent reviews from coaster enthusiasts, even though it’s tame enough for youngsters (www.disneyworld.com, 407-939-5277).
The big word here still is Harry Potter.
Diagon Alley opened in July, and within a month, a million people had ridden the four-minute-long Hogwarts Express train between Diagon Alley and the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade venue. A million!
When I visited last month, I was surprised at how many adults — some in capes and pointed black wizard hats — were wandering the streets. Diagon Alley has plenty of places to buy magic wands and then use them, making quill pens levitate or making writing magically appear on a scroll. A fire-breathing dragon atop a tower makes its scary appearance every hour; I saw a toddler burst into tears when he saw it.
The new Diagon Alley ride, Escape from Gringotts, a combination simulator-indoor coaster, has had some reliability issues, but if it stops, you get to ride it again. Is there some kind of spell on it? It even stopped briefly when I rode it.
Meanwhile, Universal Orlando and its companion Islands of Adventure look clean and shiny and feel fun. Universal opened Cabana Bay Beach Resort last year and plans a 1,000-room Loews Sapphire Falls Resort for 2016. One more tip: Visitors passing the Simpsons Lard Lad Donuts booth will inexplicably find parked nearby the original DeLorean from the 1985 film “Back to the Future,” one of the coolest cars ever made (www.universalorlando.com, 407-363-8000).