50 Most Powerful in Orlando 2022: Tourism & Transportation
1 Jeff Vahle
President, Walt Disney World Resort
Jeff Vahle has spent 32 years with The Walt Disney Company, including the last two as Walt Disney World Resort president in Orlando.
He is often out and about in the theme parks, interacting with Disney employees. His Instagram account, which has 47,700 followers, typically exhibits selfies and videos he’s shot with Disney workers.
With a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Vahle wedged his foot in the door at Cinderella Castle in 1990 as a senior engineer in the Magic Kingdom. His management skills soon put him on the track to the top.
Along the way, Vahle earned a master’s degree in business management from Rollins College, where he now serves on the Board of Trustees.
Most recently, he announced Walt Disney World intends to build more than 1,300 affordable housing units on roughly 80 acres near its collections of theme parks. The units would be Disney’s first foray into affordable housing in a region increasingly short of such units.
2 Mark Tester
Executive Director, Orange County Convention Center
Growing up in the industry (his father operated trade shows), it makes sense that Mark Tester would land in Orlando. Tester oversees the planning, operations, marketing, and activities of this award-winning convention center. The OCCC hosts over 200 events annually, bringing fun (and about $3 billion in economic impact) to Orlando, and Tester’s goal is to ensure nothing but high-end service to visitors of The City Beautiful.
3 Kevin Thibault
CEO, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority
Business is taking off (industry pun intended) just as Kevin Thibault settles in as the chief executive officer of Orlando International Airport and Orlando Executive Airport. He began his tenure in March after serving two years as Florida’s Secretary of Transportation.
Thibault is leading OIA as several key expansions open to the public, namely the $2.8 billion South Terminal C and the Brightline connection at the MCO Gateway Train Station to all points south.
“The entire Terminal C results from years of ‘lessons learned,’ from technological advances like biometric screening at every gate to a state-of-the-art baggage handling system,” Thibault says.
Thibault notes that the new terminal will reduce the pressure put on Terminals A and B, developed to handle 24 million annual passengers but typically see 47 million a year. Everybody wants to come to Central Florida, and now OIA can comfortably welcome the masses.
Thibault, who has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, counts his wife, Rose, as the most influential person in his life. “She has not only supported me at every step of my career but has taught me so much during our 38 years of marriage.”
4 Casandra Matej
President and CEO, Visit Orlando
Casandra Matej stepped into her role as head of Orlando’s official marketing organization with three decades of experience in destination promotion and fresh eyes. As a mom who used to plan family vacations to Orlando, “I have a new perspective on how to sell and market the destination,” she says.
To accomplish her organization’s goal of 80 million visitors in 2024, Matej is leaning heavily into partnerships. Visit Orlando worked with TripAdvisor to create an immersive audio tourism experience. It maximizes dollars by working with Visit Florida and Brand USA, promoting U.S. tourism. A collaboration with Orlando Economic Partnership resulted in the new “Unbelievably Real” brand platform designed to appeal to a broad cross-section of audiences.
“This is the first time these two organizations partnered together for a comprehensive brand story,” Matej says. The next MICHELIN Guide will feature 34 Orlando-area eateries, four of which have earned stars. Visit Orlando is also working to promote the area’s culinary scene.
Meanwhile, Matej—the organization’s first female head—feels the significance of her role. “This is the number one job in the destination organizations. Orlando is the number one most-visited destination.”
5 Harris Rosen
Hotelier and Philanthropist
Harris Rosen’s legacy as Florida’s most prolific private hotelier began with purchasing a single property, the Quality Inn on Sand Lake Road, in 1974. He lived in that hotel for 16 years and isn’t too proud to say it was his phone that rang in the middle of the night to unstop a guest’s toilet.
Over the next 48 years, Rosen Hotels & Resorts opened or bought seven other properties and dove into the lucrative convention business. A self-made son of immigrants, Rosen remembers the day that changed his life. “I was sitting here quietly, and I thought I heard a voice that said, ‘Harris, it’s time for you to offer a helping hand to others because I’ve blessed you beyond anything you ever imagined.’” Rosen immediately began looking for ways to pass on the blessings. He started by providing preschool education and college scholarships for residents of Tangelo Park and Parramore; helping found the UCF Rosen College of Hospitality Management; rebuilding 100 homes destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, the homeland of many hotel staff members; and supporting the Jack and Lee Rosen Southwest Orlando Jewish Community Center, named for his parents. “There’s such incredible gratification in what we’ve done. But none of that would be possible if we also didn’t have some success in the private sector. It’s a great combination: Love what you do, and then offer a helping hand to others.”
6 Karen Irwin
President & Chief Operating Officer, Universal Orlando Resort
As a member of its opening team in 1990, Karen Irwin has long had a vested interest in Universal Orlando. Over three decades later, after years of high-profile roles with Universal Parks & Resorts, she is at the helm of the park where it all began. “It has been an amazing journey that speaks to the culture and the opportunities for growth within this incredible company,” she says. Irwin oversaw the development and opening of The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash at the Hollywood Park. Universal Orlando plans to open its fourth park in the summer of 2025. The 750-acre Universal’s Epic Universe features a theme park with a Super Nintendo World, hotels, shops, and restaurants. Despite the challenges of her role, Irwin maintains a sense of awe when she walks the parks’ streets. “Being a leader in the themed entertainment industry takes an appreciation for evoking that sense of wonder in our guests,” she says. “Watching their reactions when they taste Butterbeer, walk through Hogsmeade and capture a glimpse of Hogwarts Castle, or see a lifelike velociraptor for the first time is magical. Frankly, it’s as thrilling for us as it is for them.”
7 Laura Kelley
Executive Director, Central Florida Expressway Authority
The future is electrifying. A $4 billion, five-year work plan through 2026 is a crystal ball into growth that promises to balance critical transportation needs with advancements in safety and environmental concerns.
She says that the authority worked through the pandemic, focusing on advancements in customer service, such as an E-PASS phone app and drive-up service at toll plazas. It also completed Orlando International Airport’s north interchange reconfiguration eight months before schedule.
Kelley credits advice from her father — “work hard and treat people with respect” — and past job experiences with developing the mindset needed to oversee a significant component of Central Florida’s ability to function.
8 Maria Triscari
President and CEO, International Drive Resort Area Chamber of Commerce
The International Drive Chamber had just 30 members when Maria Triscari began leading it at its inception in 1989. Now her organization boasts hundreds of members along the tourist corridor, with its $2 billion in new and planned development.
Recently, Triscari helped spearhead an I-Drive mass transit station for SunRail and Brightline passengers. That, combined with the completion of the master plan for the Orange County Convention Center, “will be the two biggest game changers for the I-Drive corridor,” she says.
“One thing you learn is that it all must work together for us to be successful,” she says. “Tourism is a team sport, and the I-Drive corridor and Central Florida have an outstanding team.”
Home | Val Demings | Politics & Government | Business | Entertainment, Sports, & The Arts | Philanthropy & Community Voices | 10 Over 50 | Tourism & Transportation | Hall of Power | Education | Ones To Watch