ORLANDO, Fla. — Often touted as the "tourist district" of Orlando, International Drive is seeing a bright rebound in business as tourists return to the area.

What You Need To Know

  •  Businesses along International Drive in Orlando have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Tourist Development Tax revenues have started to increase

  • Some businesses are expecting record income as domestic and international tourism picks up

This week, Orange County Convention Center is hosting Amateur Athletic Union’s junior volleyball championship.

With 3,500 teams from across the U.S. competing, the event will draw in nearly 135,000 people over eight days, and is touted by some as the largest event in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic.

With the convention center booking a “rock solid” schedule for the rest of the year, it is welcome news for the restaurants, resorts and attractions lining International Drive.

“It was very difficult, restaurants were forced to close and thankfully we’re in a state that reopened quickly,” said Icon Park President and CEO Chris Jaskiewicz.

Jaskiewicz oversees an entertainment complex with more than 40 restaurants, attractions and shops.

During the pandemic, he led efforts to forgo rent as some tenants found few customers.

But, then came the rebranding that Jaskiewicz says led to a rebound even faster than the state as a whole.

“It really is an entertainment district we’re in the middle of,” he said.

Icon Park marketed itself heavily to locals during the pandemic as shutdowns elsewhere restricted travel.

Those efforts, drawing in locals and returning tourists alike, has helped Icon Park and the area not just survive, but thrive, Jaskiewicz said.

“We’ve added 12 new concepts and tenants in the 12 months of the pandemic, and when we do a good job of bringing people to Icon Park and keeping existing tenants healthy, new tenants want to come here,” he said.

Among the new tenants is celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s self-titled Fish & Chips restaurant, which is set to open a quick service location in Icon Park in August.

“This is our first one in Florida,” said Norman Abdallah, CEO of Gordon Ramsay North America. “… We’re expecting really big volume out of this. The Fish & Chips Las Vegas is incredible and we think this one will beat it in sales, and we’re excited about it.”

Tourism Picks Up

The return of tourists and events at the nearby convention center is welcome news for restaurants and resorts across Central Florida.

Vassilis Coumbaros owns Taverna Opa at Pointe Orlando and Tapa Toro at Icon Park. There were points he and his wife were alone running the restaurants and he said there were days they would only have a single table.

“It’s not as easy as people think,” Coumbaros said. “… We made it, we’re still here, we’re still alive.”

The challenge for businesses is making sure they are ready — that includes ensuring hiring enough staff.

Coumbaros said it has been anything but easy, but he’s making strides in the right direction. He’s hiring daily to fill out his staff of 50.

A hiring blitz has been on going for resorts as well, including Wyndham Orlando Resort on International Drive at Sand Lake Road.

Gino Marasco, director of sales and marketing, said there were points managers and staff were working multiple roles, including front desk and housekeeping.

Like most resorts, Wyndham Orlando Resort saw furloughs and layoffs.

With staff back and new members hired, Marasco said they think 2021 may be a record-breaking year.

“From the leisure side, phenomenal,” Marasco said. “We’ve really taken advantage of the unfortunate situation of cruise lines not cruising right now and a lot of American citizens not being able to travel abroad. So many are traveling to Florida.”

When cruise ships do start sailing again and foreign borders open, Marasco said research is showing demand will even out, but remain just as high, as there is pent up demand from domestic and international visitors to come to Orlando.

Why It Matters

International Drive is just one area of Central Florida that drives extensive sales tax and tourist development tax revenues.

Those dollars are used to pay for programs and services across the region. Tourist Development Tax revenues were used to develop the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, Amway Center and other facilities.

In April 2021, the tourism tax revenue was $17.1 million, compared to $10 million in February.

Mark Tester, Executive Director of the Orange County Convention Center, said June could generate $20 million in Tourist Development Tax dollars.

“In a normal month it was about $25 million, so that recovery has gone much quicker than we had seen and we’re outpacing goals we had,” he said.