They had been virtual friends for years, playing “Call of Duty” online, until they decided to meet in person for the first time and vacation at Universal Orlando Resort with their loved ones.
On the final day of their vacation, Rydge Ansley, a 23-year-old construction worker from Georgia, and Corey Glenn, 22, an EMT from North Carolina, wandered onto International Drive to visit the Madame Tussauds wax museum.
“It was a great way to spend time, especially if it’s raining outside,” said Ansley’s wife, Lacy, after they marveled at some of the wax celebrities such as the surprisingly tall Leonardo DiCaprio.
They are among the growing number of tourists who come to Walt Disney World or Universal for several days but also carve out at least a few hours to spend on International Drive, which until recently was known mostly for its hotels, restaurants and miniature golf courses.
In recent years, more attractions have arrived, including virtual-reality gaming centers, the giant Ferris wheel known as Icon Orlando 360 and the nearby Andretti Indoor Karting & Games Orlando. Further north, developer Josh Wallack, who opened Mango’s Tropical Cafe about three years ago, on Thursday touted the debut of an 880-space parking garage next door.
All the growth has I-Drive starting to compete with Orlando’s major theme parks for tourists’ time, said Dennis Speigel, president of the Ohio-based International Theme Park Services. He described the rivalry as “low level” but serious nonetheless.
“If you could put a fence around” I-Drive, it has almost become its own theme park gate, Speigel said. “I-Drive is part of the conversation now.”
Universal and Disney declined to comment for this story.
International Drive runs for about 10 miles, bookended by the former site of Artegon Marketplace on the north and State Road 417 to the south. It has seen its most-visible growth on a short stretch near its halfway point.
A glowing 400-foot Icon Orlando 360 — formerly known as the Orlando Eye — churns slowly around, catching the attention as tourists drive on Interstate 4 or fly overhead to the airport.
“The Eye is a visual icon that draws people that way and makes people want to say, ‘Let’s see what’s going on,’” Speigel said. “It draws the moth to the flame.”
The arrival of Icon Orlando has brought a renaissance to the area, said Visit Orlando CEO George Aguel.
“You can add in the obvious fact that we have the convention center here,” Aguel added.
The 1.5 million annual attendees who come to the Orange County Convention Center for trade shows and expos on everything from surfing to MegaCon to plastics also filter onto I-Drive.
The evolution of I-Drive began, decades ago, as land in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by a dirt road. An Orlando attorney-turned-developer Finley Hamilton wanted to capitalize on Disney’s announcement it was building Magic Kingdom, so he built a Hilton Inn.
“And so International Drive was born,” the Orlando Sentinel wrote in a 2005 story, saying the road quickly became a “Wild West of capitalism” as more businesses from restaurants and T-shirt shops followed and hotel baron Harris Rosen invested millions to shape the future of the area.
Now, “it’s a world-class boulevard,” said Chris Jaskiewicz, president of Icon, which sits on a $250 million, 20-acre site that houses attractions, restaurants and bars.
It’s unclear exactly how many visitors come to I-Drive.
Visit Orlando, which reported that an estimated 72 million tourists came to Orlando in 2017, doesn’t track numbers for I-Drive specifically.
But more people are staying at hotels on I-Drive, according to Visit Orlando, a publicly funded marketing agency for the region. Hotel occupancy rates on I-Drive have jumped from 72 percent to about 81 percent in the past five years.
The number of hotel rooms has risen 12 percent in five years to about 43,300 rooms. Construction for more hotels is underway, including on the site of the former Wet ‘n Wild water park that’s being redeveloped by Universal.
I-Drive still draws folks in search of souvenirs, including a family from Chicago that started their vacation at the Magic Kingdom and spent about $650 on tickets.
“The kids, they’re the ones who tell us where to go,” said Sonia Limón, who works in a call-in center for a doctor’s office.
Some who work on I-Drive say business is growing.
The novelty of an upside-down house couldn’t contend with the fact that foot traffic in the area was sparse when Brian Wayne first started working at WonderWorks 12 years ago.
“We would look out the front door and there would barely be anybody on the street,” Wayne said of his early years at the attraction, which features wacky science experiments. “But people are definitely exploring more now.”
The developer has been thinking up ideas for the next stage of the area, with one of his latest being a music festival.
“We’re always looking for the world’s tallest something,” Whittall said.
Some of the quirky attractions play into the impulsive tourist who might decide to sign up for indoor skydiving or pose with a wax Justin Bieber at Madame Tussauds.
“With Disney, you kind of know what you’re going to get,” said Hannah Grise, Orlando marketing director for SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology, home to the skeletal remains of more than 500 animals.
“But on I-Drive, it’s exciting. You can go around a corner and say, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know that was there.’ There are a lot of little hidden gems.”
Russon, Gabrielle, and Marco Santana. “New International Drive Attractions Compete More with Disney, Universal for Tourists’ Time.” Orlando Sentinel, 27 Dec. 2018, www.orlandosentinel.com/business/tourism/os-bz-idrive-themepark-competition-20181218-story.html.