The giant observation wheel planned for International Drive is supposed to rival the world-famous London Eye. But will the view from an Orlando Eye rival the well-known panorama provided by its English counterpart?
Turns out you can see almost everything in Central Florida from 425 feet up in the air above I-Drive — from a tiny version of Spaceship Earth in Epcot to the downtown skyline to the OUC power plant partway to the Space Coast.
But you can't see any of it particularly well.
The iconic images that visitors associate with Orlando — Walt Disney World's Cinderella Castle, for example, or Universal's roller coasters — are mere points on a flat horizon when viewed from high above the site chosen for the Orlando Eye, a vacant lot that once held the Mercado shopping-and-dining complex.
An Orlando Sentinel reporter and photographer took a helicopter flight recently to gauge the view from above the Mercado property on a blue-sky day.
The trip revealed pleasant views of nearby lakes and a surprising amount of greenery. From the sky, the highways and main roads clogged with tourists day and night look a bit more picturesque. And there's a postcard-perfect view of the Orange County Convention Center's newer, North-South Building — the more striking north end that most tourists miss from International Drive.
But there are also lots of big, flat, dull rooftops and parking lots, such as the sprawling Lockheed Martin Corp. complex that predates the arrival of Disney and the development of a tourist corridor.
The Orlando Eye is part of a proposed retail-and-entertainment development, to be called "I-Walk Orlando," that is supposed to rise from the Mercado's ashes about a mile north of the convention center.
It's not the first giant wheel proposed for the I-Drive area.
In 2008, a company called Great Wheel Corp. announced plans for a similar attraction just south of the county-run center, near the intersection of Interstate 4 and the BeachLine Expressway. But that project never got off the ground.
This time, the planned wheel has a powerful partner: the world's second-largest attractions operator, Merlin Entertainments Group. Merlin already operates the London Eye, which, perched on the banks of the River Thames in the heart of England's famed capital city, provides those who ride its giant cars a bird's eye view of such landmarks as Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster.
"They're the rising star in our industry right now," said John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors, an attractions-consulting company in Richmond, Va. "That's a plus in the situation."
When it comes to observation platforms, location is key, Gerner said. Generally speaking, he said, a successful attraction offers views of a natural wonder such as Niagara Falls, which can be viewed from several different towers, or a human achievement such as New York City, best viewed from the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan. Some attractions offer visitors both, such Seattle's Space Needle, which has sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and Mount Rainier as well as the city's striking downtown and waterfront.
Those climbing aboard an observation wheel in Orlando, Gerner said, are "going to be looking for the manmade attractions that they're familiar with, starting with Disney and Universal."
"In addition to that, you have some nice scenic beauty," he said.
But seeing Orlando's key attractions from 425 feet above the heart of International Drive is a bit deflating, at least without the use of binoculars. The Epcot dome is recognizable but unimpressive at such a distance, and with just a slight haze on the horizon, the Magic Kingdom's castle is all but indistinguishable.
Merlin said it is in the early stages of planning the attraction and still has "a lot of work to do" on the final experience, including mapping the view. But the company said it expects the I-Walk location to be a great one for an Orlando Eye.
"At 425 feet high, it will be almost as high as the London Eye and will give magnificent views of the area surrounding Orlando — we will be detailing this nearer the time of opening," Sally Ann Wilkinson, a Merlin spokeswoman, said via e-mail. "As well as the view itself, the attraction will, for example, almost certainly include interactive capsules that will bring the viewing experience alive through film/facts and images for the millions of guests we expect to welcome each year."
In addition to Disney and Universal, famous landmarks will include Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building, one of the largest buildings in the world, said Chuck Whittall, president of Unicorp National Developments, one of three companies involved in the observation-wheel venture.
Gerner said that judging such views, and balancing them against the price of admission, is a subjective experience.
"It's in the eye of the beholder as far as the 'wow' factor," he said after looking at aerial photographs taken by the Sentinel during its helicopter flight. "At least you can see Disney in some way, and that's a definite plus."
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