Rope Drop [dot] Net Interview – Ken Storey (Part 3)

Today we conclude our 3-part interview with Ken Storey. Since Part 1 was about Orlando’s (and Ken’s) past, and Part 2 was about Orlando’s present, it seemed to appropriate that Part 3 would be about Orlando’s future. (It also is quite timely, with yesterday’s discussions and votes about some of the area’s future projects.) Since I know none of you are here to read my intro, let’s get right to Ken:

Ken, using his powers for good. (Screencap via Chad Reno)
Ken, using his powers for good. (Screencap via Chad Reno)

Disney and Universal have already made major announcements about how they will be expanding their parks (Volcano Bay, Sapphire Falls, Star Wars Land, Toy Story Land), but have also announced some price increases in advance of those expansions completing. How do you see the landscape of Orlando evolving over the next 10–20 years?

It can really be summed up in five major parts: new visitors, density, harnessing local non-tourism industries, sports, and celebrating the existing neighborhoods.

The next 20 years will see Orlando shift from a second (or third) tier city into a truly world-class destination. While that may be good for locals (higher pay, more options, better services) it will also mean major price increases that will limit many Americans from coming as regularly as they do now. Demand, lowering travel costs, and more world class amenities will mean Orlando will see more high-income international visitors.

Unlike the international guests we now receive, I believe the focus will shift away from budget travel groups (like the ones Brazilian high schoolers use to come here with), and instead will focus on more customized, small group options. Volcano Bay has released one official piece of artwork and in it we see private cabanas. I interpret that as signal of who Universal Orlando will soon to be going after. While Cabana Bay is focused on the ‘American family’, and Sapphire Falls will be focused on the convention crowd, I expect new investments in the resort to focus more on the untapped, higher income guests.

Disney has already begun slowly but surely rolling out new, one-of-a-kind options for these kinds of guests. The key is to keep the authenticity of the theme parks intact while also allowing for more up charge options. I believe in 20 years you won’t have a simple gate fee ticket option. Instead, every ticket will be linked to meals, cabanas, extra parks hours, etc… via up charge options. Options that are currently baked into the cost of the ticket will also be separated from it. I will hate it, but I won’t be surprised if Magic Bands someday means an up charge for unlimited rides.

For example, I think Discovery Cove is a smart way forward but unlike there—where they provide that ‘resort like’ experience by limiting the number of guests—Universal and Disney will provide that same level of quality via technology, crowd flow, and other tricks.

While many of the changes on property will be hard to see without a TouringPlans-style super computer, off property the changes will be much easier to find. We’re already seeing foreign investment. Skyplex is harnessing the power of EB–5, the iSquare megamall is funded by a group of foreign investors, and Asians are leading the pack in vacation home purchases in numerous major neighborhoods in the region. With more high-income foreigners coming, we’ll see more major foreign investment. The new direct flights to Dubai have caused at least two major business expos (one in Dubai with Florida companies and one here with Middle Eastern ones). These new direct flights and the expansions at MCO will also help make Orlando another hub option between Miami and Atlanta.

The location of Orlando is perfect for connecting the United States east coast with South America, Africa, and beyond. Africa’s emerging economies will be major players within the next 20 years, and Orlando is already positioning itself to embrace that African nouveau riche. Just as we saw with the Europeans over the past 30 years, we’ll soon see with the Africans, South Americans, and Asians.

All of that is not to say ‘mom and pop’ from Kansas still won’t be coming, but, instead of a yearly trip, their trip will be every five or ten years. Also, when they come, they will encounter more ‘worldly’ and ‘big city’ experiences. The shift in dining options at Disney Springs and in Epcot testifies to that. The Orlando that was a pure escape with no worries is already gone. An Orlando vacation already requires more planning than a similar trip to most other equivalents in the U.S. (Orlando currently sits in between Kansas City and Indianapolis in population). An Orlando vacation will soon look more like a foreign vacation, where more extensive planning is required.

That will also mean more opportunities for visitors to go offsite. Non-bus mass transit is already in the works to link I-Drive, MCO, Miami, and downtown. Disney showed it was willing to link up to mass transit if it was done properly (even though that high-speed rail project ultimately died due to Tea Party interests). Disney also seems to be shifting away from the model of doing everything themselves. The new Four Seasons and the 3rd party hotels of Flamingo Crossing seem to be a better model. I expect more of that type of model in the future both on and off-property. I-Drive will focus more on convention and special events. South Florida will likely get full fledge casinos and—despite what many say—I’d expect at least 2 or 3 major destination casinos in the Central Florida region, especially along the coastline and in declining areas like 192.

We’re already seeing a changing of the guard in many of the smaller attractions around town. The older, lower quality attractions are dying (like CSI) while new, high-cost ones are being built (like Skyplex). This will mean that ‘mom and pop’ from Kansas will suddenly find themselves in a much more urban Orlando. The new I–4 Ultimate project that will include congestion based tolling lanes, digital signage, artwork, and ramp meters might be enough in its own to scare ‘mom and pop’ from ever renting a car in Orlando again. While this might not be good for today’s Boomers, Millennials seem to love urban areas and Orlando will shift to address that new ‘big city’ vacation desire of that generation. A shift we’re already seeing in the new density that is occurring along I-Drive and throughout downtown Orlando (which has a 95% apartment occupancy rate).

There will still be plenty of suburban areas, but even those will be less organic. Places like Winter Park and Celebration are working hard to grow while keeping their small town charm. The difference is these smaller ‘towns’ mean the region will soon have large bases of locals and tourists to harness in creating large scale special events. Celebration has proven these to be successful already with things like the nightly snow fall. Other communities in the region will find their own voice and special events. We’ve seen an increase in local farmers markets, holiday events, and food truck gatherings. I expect these types of community gatherings to grow and to work their way into Central Florida based vacations. I see no reason why—with a strong non-bus mass transit system—local weekly events couldn’t be as much of a draw for visitors as they are in places like Paris, London, or Hong Kong.

Orlando’s booming tech scene will also play a major role in the future of tourism here. All those new tech companies are looking for cool ways to showcase their goods and what better way than with new attractions or partnerships with existing ones. This is the model the mag-lev train is using, the train here isn’t designed to be a huge profit driver but instead will be used as a working sales example that others can visit. Harris IT did a similar thing with the Amway Center where they ‘pimped out’ the arena with their tech and making it the most technologically advanced basketball arena in the nation. The cool tech means visitors (and lots of Brazilians seem to be going to those Magic games) will remember their experience for longer. With MLS, NBA and rumors of another major league sports team moving here, sports will become a major aspect of Central Florida tourism.

This new diversity will also mean Orlando will find its own voice, linking up in part with Miami but also moving beyond just being known as that strip of land in between MCO and WDW.

The biggest question for me—and I understand that 20 years out might be a bit too soon for this,but I’ve yet to find a satisfactory answer—is how will public space tourism affect Central Florida? With a major space port here, will we see Land and Space vacations like we now see Land and Sea ones?


Wow. There is a lot to unpack in Ken’s response, but I’ll save for another day. I think Ken’s thoughts deserve to stand on their own. Instead, I’ll simply offer a huge, huge thank you to Ken for sharing all of this information with us. It was great to read.

If you enjoyed reading Ken’s thoughts, I’d encourage you to check out his podcast (the Orlando Tourism Report), his Orlando Weekly columns, or follow him on Twitter. After all, when it comes to knowledge about Orlando, you’re not going to find anyone better than Ken.


Since y'all demand it, here it is, one last time.
Since y’all demand it, here it is, one last time.