I-Drive 360: Construction continues on the Orlando Eye

By Scott Fais, Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 3:47 PM EDT
ORLANDO EYE FACTS

Drivers on I-4 passing through Orlando's attractions have a new icon to watch climb to the sky.

The new Orlando Eye observation wheel and its name will anchor a new development, now called "I-Drive 360 at The Orlando Eye."

"You can see it for miles around as it already is,” Project Manager James Paulding says in his English accent.

Stretching 18-stories skyward between International Drive and Universal Blvd. in Orlando is a foundation that's ready to double in size.

"At the moment, we are at the 200-foot stage,” says James, who is the head of openings for Merlin Entertainments.

When done, Merlin's Orlando Eye will top out at 400-feet, anchoring the space that once held the former Mercado Shopping Village entertainment complex.

"The whole thing will be up and skyward later this year,” James says.

The complex is Merlin Entertainments second entry into the Orlando attractions market. The U.K.-based firm is responsible for taking Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven and creating Legoland Florida on the site along Lake Eloise.

However, wearing a hard hat, James wants you to know the Orlando Eye is no theme park Ferris wheel.

THE WHEEL
"It's actually an observation wheel over a Ferris wheel," James says quickly.

"With a Ferris wheel, it's a free swing gondola. This is a stabilized-driven (capsule) that gives you a really smooth experience on the way around, so it doesn't feel like when you're at 400-feet, that you're swinging around in mid-air," he explains.

As of mid-April, none of the gondolas are on site. Only the supports that will hold the ride's "hub" are in position. The hub unit is expected to arrive in Jacksonville from Europe aboard an ocean freighter in late May. The 180,000lbs hub is then expected to be driven down I-95 and I-4 to the complex.

Once lifted into place, the wheel will be built out, arm by arm.

"It's the weight of a Boeing 737. It's a pretty big chunk of metal we're putting up there," James says with a grin, while looking over his shoulder at the wheel.

Once the frame is in place, each of the 30 gondolas will be attached to the wheel. When complete, each gondola will hold 15 passengers comfortably.

"Each has got its own controller," James explains. "It sends feedback to the main control point, so we make sure it keeps completely stable, and that is driven around as it goes."

Each gondola will feature two air conditioning systems. James explains the redundancy is needed to keep passengers comfortable on a warm Central Florida afternoon.

Condensation is expected to build in each cabin, therefore the climate control system will remove the humidity and hold the moisture in a separate tank, according to James. When the cabin returns to the boarding area, the waste water will be deposited and recycled.

"I would say over engineering is a good term to be used," he says.

Merlin is already planning ahead for Orlando's trademark afternoon thunderstorms. Lightning will close the wheel. To prevent having passengers on board when a summer storm approaches, an onsite radar will be monitored.

Engineers over in Switzerland spent extra time designing the wheel to be able to withhold any of Central Florida's summer storm patterns, including hurricanes.

"It's built to withstand that by way more than what we will be throwing at it,” James says. "The foundations need to be fairly resilient to withstand that."

Switzerland-based Intamin Amusement Rides, the same company who designed Busch Garden's soon-to-open Falcon's Fury, won the contract to construct the Eye.

"We have looked at other options and alternatives, but that was the right company we felt were the right company to deliver on this," James says.

At 400-feet-tall, the Orlando Eye will provide views of other attractions like Universal, SeaWorld and Epcot. And that's the idea.

"Fireworks are around the area, as well. It's a great vantage point for that,” James said, adding that the Orlando Eye will offer different experiences by day and night.

The entire ride experience is expected to take 20 minutes from load to unload. Much like The Haunted Mansion and Peter Pan's Flight at the Magic Kingdom, the Eye will remain continually moving during the loading process. Yet, the forward motion can stop to accommodate passengers who need extra time boarding.

Before entering their gondola, riders will see a 4-D movie spotlighting Florida places.

"The 4-D effects may include wind, sprays, lighting effects, smells," he said. "This is currently being shot all around Florida, to highlight what's great around the state."

The purpose of the preshow is to add extra value to the experience and build anticipation.

At the base of the three-million-pound observation wheel will be one of Merlin's Sea Life Aquariums and a Madame Tussauds celebrity wax attraction.

MADAME TUSSAUDS
The famed Madame Tussauds from London is being imported to Orlando. At the left side of the observation wheel will sit a 25,000 square foot building holding celebrities made from wax, displayed on sets, where visitors can snap photos.

"Ten, 15 years ago, we had ropes around the figures, it was more like a museum, it’s not like that anymore," James says about the new vision for Madame Tussauds. “It's all about getting up close, and personal."

Celebrities confirmed for the Orlando installation are Florida residents like Tampa professional wrestler Hulk Hogan, Miami singer Pit-bull and even the man who founded Orlando's largest theme park resort, Walt Disney.

James says it takes anywhere from three to four months to create just one figure for a Madame Tussauds attraction, at a price tag of $300,000 each.

Sculptors take more than 100 photos of each celebrity, do side-by-side comparisons, mix colors by hand and can take six weeks to insert each hair follicle.

"That is why we are the number one in the world at making them," James boasts.

The Madame Tussauds will usher guests into the attraction through a "Florida porthole." Visitors will see an airboat and swamp, before meeting the likes of Abe Lincoln, Miley Cyrus and Ryan Reynolds in different settings.

SEA LIFE AQUARIUM
On the right side of the Orlando Eye will stand a Merlin-branded Sea Life Aquarium. More than 5,000 creatures are anticipated to be on display.

Sharks, rays, sea horses and turtles are all mainstays of other Merlin Sea Life Aquariums already open.

"Children will be able to pop their head in a pop-up tank and see fish swimming all around them," James says.

The highlight will be a submerged 360 degree tunnel, similar to the one found in SeaWorld's Shark Encounter. Yet, the Merlin tunnel will feature a Plexiglas floor.

"You'll get an unparalleled view where you'll get everything swimming above, below and around you," James explains.

In order to keep Sea Life fresh, an area referred to as "the black box" will host exhibits that will change every year or two. The idea is to give local visitors a reason to return.

"We always make sure it stays fresh and a little bit different, so there's a reason to come back and see something different," James comments.

Even with SeaWorld Orlando less than five minutes away, James is not worried.

"The way that makes us different from other aquariums is that we are really immersive, we are well themed, hands on interactivity and conservation," he says.

LEGOLAND'S ORLANDO PRESENCE
Once I-Drive 360 at The Orlando Eye officially opens, the completed gray and red parking garage onsite will become an extension of the Legoland Florida parking lot in Winter Haven. Merlin plans to have shuttle busses leaving the complex for Legoland daily.

"We're proud to be the sister attraction to the Winter Haven Legoland theme park," James says, mentioning combo tickets for admission to the attractions at I-Drive 360 and Legoland will be sold at the property.

James also hints there will be a Lego influence at the site.

"I am sure you'll see a few little nods toward Lego."

OPENING PIECE BY PIECE
The previously planned opening on New Year’s Eve was pushed back. Crews will need more time to complete tasks. Merlin is now offering a Spring 2015 as a debut date.

In the meantime, dining establishments will begin opening in phases. By May 1, Dardin Restaurant's Yard House concept is expected to be open. Training is currently underway at the diner known for offering more than 125 taps of imported, craft and specialty ales and lagers.

The new parking garage on the north side of the complex is already open. John Stine with Unicorp National Developments says the developer plans to keep the parking garage open as a free-to-park structure in the beginning. The amenity bests the Pointe Orlando parking garage located a few blocks south which collects a fee upon exiting.  One price tag that Merlin isn't sharing: how much their investment in I-Drive 360 is totaling.

"We don't have a figure to put to it," James says.  But he does drop a vauge hint.

"It's an awfully big investiment to be bringing into Orlando."

Prices and hours of the attractions have yet to be established. However, Merlin hopes daytime riders will return for a second visit at night, when the wheel will be bathed in different colors thanks new advances in LED technology.

"We want to make sure it is classy and nice. We don't want to make it look like a disco or carnival," James concludes.