Bleisure travel shows Orlando parks not just for kids

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

A helicopter manufacturer landed a new model chopper at Walt Disney World. A tech conference booked Universal's Harry Potter park.

Those are just a few examples of how conventions and conferences take advantage of Orlando, Florida's theme parks when they hold their meetings there.

The parks are obviously a big attraction for families, but those rides aren't just for kids: Orlando is also a very popular destination for conferences, conventions and other types of business travel.

While most of the 62 million people who visited Orlando in 2014 were leisure travelers, the city is also the No. 1 destination for meetings, including 5 million convention delegates annually, according to Visit Orlando CEO George Aguel.

Business travelers find two ways to enjoy the parks and other attractions. Some come in a few days early or stay a few days later, often bringing their families along to enjoy time at the parks. Since the business traveler's plane fare is already paid for, that makes the trip that much cheaper. Hotels will usually extend conference room rates for attendees who want to stay a couple of days longer, Aguel said.

But many conventions and conferences work with theme parks to plan an exclusive, customized outing for their participants, often in the afternoon or evening. The events typically include catered food and drinks, and exclusive access for a period of time to rides and attractions in that section so they don't have to wait on lines.

"Instead of doing a traditional banquet in a hotel ballroom, they see the opportunity to gather the group and take them into a theme park one evening and take over a land or a section of the theme park," Aguel said. "The goal is to have time for the attendees to spend together and network, but adding the entertainment component really enhances the experience."

For example, Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference held a party at Walt Disney World's Epcot with private dining and access to the rides after they closed to the public. A Helicopter Association International event in March included a manufacturer landing its newest chopper at Disney's Hollywood Studios, then putting the model on display for guests for the rest of the night.

Another exhibitor from the helicopter group's Heli-Expo trade show in Orlando hosted an event at Universal Studios' theme park that included exclusive access for their guests to Transformers: The Ride 3D. And last year, Tech Data Corp. hosted 500 attendees at its Channel Link conference at Universal Orlando with an after-hours reception at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley. Guests had the Escape from Gringotts attraction all to themselves.

Other groups have gone to SeaWorld for team-building exercises that involve completing various themed missions.

In addition to Disney, Universal and SeaWorld, Orlando has numerous golf courses and Point Orlando, a retail dining and entertainment district with restaurants, shopping and more. Orlando's convention center building is located near a number of hotels, a few minutes' drive from the parks. Aguel said the city is also the car rental capital of the U.S., thanks to all those visitors driving between the airport, hotels and the parks. A trolley also serves the main route connecting those sites, known locally as the "I-drive."

But even those whose Orlando meetings don't include organized outings at the parks find ways to take advantage of the location. Marti Mayne, a consultant for the travel and B&B industry with her own business, Maynely Marketing, booked extra days and brought her family along when B&B industry meetings took her to Orlando and to Anaheim, California, where Disneyland is located.

"My kids love amusement parks," she said.