By Susan Clary
When daredevil Nik Wallenda climbed to the top of the The Wheel in ICON Park in Orlando, the 400-foot centerpiece of International Drive, he held a truly unique view of the tourist district.
Wallenda, of course, was rightfully focused on balancing atop the rotating observation wheel. But from his vantage point it would be easy to see how a new International Drive (known by locals as I-Drive) has emerged from the T-shirt shops and fast food joints that dotted the area for so many years.
A string of attractions – including not only The Wheel but also a marine aquarium, a wax museum, several new roller coasters and thrill rides, and the latest version of famed South Beach nightclub Mangos – promise fun and adventure on I-Drive.
The area deftly mixes Vegas-style awe with world-renowned shopping and restaurants. In fact, Wallenda hatched the idea to perform his feat on the 400-foot wheel while vacationing with his family on I-Drive.
International Drive has grown from one man's adroit land purchase, first to a halfway hotel spot between Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Studios, and now to a distinct destination that offers visitors a range of options.
Today, the boulevard spans the gamut from fine dining and five-star hotels to family eateries and affordable hotel accommodations. The shopping is just as diverse, with gift shops, outlet centers and upscale retail.
And it started on scrub-filled land that appeared to have little value.
From the scrub
I-Drive traces its roots to 1968 when attorney and businessman Finley Hamilton, anticipating the impending construction of Disney's Magic Kingdom, purchased 10 acres near Interstate 4, between the planned theme park and the city of Orlando.
In 1970, Hamilton opened a Hilton Inn more than a year before Walt Disney launched his grand vision – Walt Disney World. It was the only hotel between downtown Orlando and the theme park. Friends thought Finley was crazy and jokingly called it Finley's Folly.
Hamilton ignored the teasing and partnered with another man to purchase another 28 acres. They turned around and sold the property for hotel sites at 20 times the original price of $10,000 an acre.
To give visitors to his hotel a paved street, Hamilton and partner R.F. Raidle built a road that tied Sand Lake to Road Kirkman Road, two thoroughfares that linked to I-4. After learning that Orange County already held a Hamilton Road, he chose International Drive, because it "sounded big and important."
Now I-Drive extends south, miles beyond its original length. It contains six theme parks, 20 attractions, 200-plus restaurants and more than 100 hotels.
On the north end, you’ll find shopping destinations including designer outlet stores such Saks Off Fifth, Neiman Marcus Last Call and a Bass Pro Outdoor World.
In between, you can target all manner of food and fun, including Dave & Busters entertainment/dining outlet, three stadium-style movie theaters, indoor skydiving, miniature golf and more shopping.
Visitors also can find go-kart racing, a wooden roller coaster and rides at the Fun Spot, and the chance to design your own rollercoaster at WonderWorks, an upside-down attraction that offers other interactive joys such as laser tag. Gatorland offers its 'Gator Spot' – which allows visitors to have their photos taken with a live alligator – on the grounds of Fun Spot.
"If you don't build something like this where people go holy cow, you're out of business before you start," said WonderWorks founder and well-known attorney John Morgan.
If you're more into perusing historic artifacts, the Titanic Experience brings memories of the famed ship's unfortunate fate to surface, while Ripley's Believe It Or Not presents exhibits that make the unbelievable real.
These are just some of the attractions that have outlasted the changing dynamics of the area. Others haven't, but I-Drive always seems to drive forward, finding ways to reinvent itself. McDonalds considered tearing down the world largest location here, but instead renovated the property – with the box of fries tall enough to see from the interstate.
ICON Park, with The Wheel at its center, is one of the newest attractions on the row and the reason why the resort area is a destination independent of the Orlando’s major parks.
The project features full-service restaurants, quick-service restaurants, nighttime entertainment and four attractions to complement the wheel: Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, Sea Life Aquarium, Skeletons Animals Unveiled and Arcade City.
The wax museum offers guests a chance to witness jaw-dropping wax replicas of celebrities, including NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, actor George Clooney and singers Beyoncé and Rihanna.
Sea Life offers views of more than 5,000 underwater creatures, including face-to-face encounters with sharks in an underwater tunnel.
Skeletons Animals Unveiled exhibits more than 400 skeletons in creative poses and dioramas. It will include eight human skeletons, exotic animals and interactive exhibits.
Mango's Tropical Cafe looks to bring South Beach cool north to I-Drive. The club has sparked partying atmospheres for Miami's hip and chic for 25 years on Ocean Drive. Now, Josh Wallach hopes to bring that same vibe to an old TGI Fridays Front Row sports bar that has sat dormant for years.
"I saw past all their Brady Bunch Formica and wood," Wallach said. "I saw where we could recreate Mango's."
It's telling that Wallach chose I-Drive over Las Vegas for his hot spot, which features Floribbean cuisine, tropical cocktails and an atmosphere that trades on the South American carnival craze. While Vegas certainly has a certain image, Wallach is convinced his mix of high-energy dance shows and Latin culinary delights will appeal to visitors.
”Mango's, it's such a grand show that it really needs a seven-day-a-week city," Wallach said. "It's not a place that can be slow during the week and then have big weekends.
"We want every night to be a Saturday night."