The upper end of International Drive is getting some eye-popping additions.

International Drive has long been known as Orlando’s “tourist corridor.’’ But with an explosion of development, locals just might want to consider joining in the fun too.

All the activity is at the thoroughfare’s northern end, where more than $600 million in new projects are slated. Merlin Entertainments’ observation wheel, the Orlando Eye, will open next spring, rising 400 feet above an entertainment and dining complex. The 12-acre SkyPlex, being built by the Wallack family, includes a 570-foot tall vertical roller coaster called The Skyscraper. Farther north, retail and restaurants will make the 42-acre I-Shops on I-Drive their home, anchored by Cooper Hawk Winery & Restaurant and a Wawa. And an ambitious reshaping of the old Festival Bay mall will create a craft artisan marketplace and farmers market called Artegon Marketplace Orlando. 

Scheduled to open Nov. 20, the Artegon project is a fascinating blend of mall commerce and the “shop local” movement, modeled on New York’s Chelsea Market. Joining national chains such as Ron Jon Surf Shop and Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill (and Gods & Monsters, the country’s second largest comic book store), some of Central Florida’s finest craftspeople will offer hand-crafted art, crafts, clothing and food from 160 booths. Artegon’s Oak Ridge Market will showcase local and regional farmers and producers for both tourists and local shoppers.

Restaurants and amusements abound in this new age. Alongside the Eye, Merlin is building I-Drive 360—including the Orlando Sea Life Aquarium and Florida’s only Madame Tussauds Wax Museum—with Orlando’s second Shake Shack, Café de Paris and Yard House nearby. (Yard House opened earlier this year.) SkyPlex, opening in 2016, will feature a restaurant at the top of the tower, and a massive Mango’s Tropical Café. 

The numbers for all this work may sound staggering, but considering the $1 billion price tag on the various downtown Orlando arts and sports venues projects, $600 million seems like an I-Drive outlet mall bargain. Another project in the early stages of planning could bring the I-Drive work near the cool billion mark: Orlando developer Abdul Mathin has proposed the $300 million-plus I-Square, a mall and 729-room hotel development that would inhabit a 26-story undulating glass building and feature an observation deck with a revolving restaurant and an ice-skating rink.

There’s even more on the tower-filled horizon. A proposed 175-room Hyatt House would bring a boutique hotel to the north end, while a major re-shifting of Kirkman Road will aim an I-4 flyover road directly at the main Universal Studios gate. Meanwhile, speculation grows around what might be built on the 50-plus acres Universal owns around Wet ’n Wild.

For certain, nothing has transformed the 11-miles of I-Drive quite like this since real estate developer Finley Hamilton, keen to cash in on the soon-to-open Disney World, built the area’s first hotel, the Hilton Inn South, in 1970. When Hamilton paved the dirt road fronting his hotel, I-Drive was born. Three years later, 11 hotels would spring up to join his.

And why did Hamilton name his road International Drive? Because, he told the Orlando Sentinel, “it sounded big and important.’’ 

Categories: Art & Entertainment, Community