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ORLANDO-The 1.1 million-sf Orange County Convention Center, the 500-pound gorilla of the meetings and planners circuit here for years, is facing serious bookings challenges from an array of new hotels and attractions, including Walt Disney World.

Disney plans to convert the Millennium Village at Epcot into World Show Place, a 40,000-sf meeting center next summer. That will bring the park’s total meeting space to 800,000 sf. Disney’s convention space has doubled in the last 10 years when the park first entered the meeting space business. The company has satellite convention center locations at six of its 12 Lake Buena Vista hotels.

While current Convention Center expansion plans will grow the International Drive meeting fortress to 1.2 million sf shortly, county booking specialists are monitoring Disney’s meeting space growth plans intently. For example, not only will World Show Place accommodate 4,000 convention attendees, it will also offer a banquet kitchen and a backstage entrance with a private guest dropoff area. That amenity alone isn’t bringing smiles to managers of other theme parks and most independently-owned and chain-operated class A hotels, all competing for the same business.

Disney strategists feel the Epcot location for its newest meeting space is ideal, particularly when they are pitching convention space to foreign customers. The Millennium Village is a hub of international culture-depictions. The attraction was created for Epcot’s 15-month celebration. World Show Place will play up a similar theme. The new space will be sandwiched between Disney’s United Kingdom and Canada pavilions.

Disney’s newest meeting space plans come at a time when professional booking agents internationally are noting a new trend among corporate convention planners. The planners are hunting for entertainment, cultural and one-of-a-kind experiences for their corporate clients instead of the humdrum hotel conference rooms and swimming pool/golf amenities. Universal Orlando and Seaworld are also exploring the new trend seriously, as they scope long-range expansion plans.

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