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(Carl Cronan is editor of Real Estate Florida.)

ORLANDO-The theme-park capital of the world is adding attractions this year, and hoteliers are unlocking more rooms to accommodate those vacationers who can still afford to make the trip. Another 4,100 rooms are being added to the second-largest US hotel market that were planned in past years when the economy was still in sound shape.

Openings in the Orlando market for 2009 range from the new 1,500-room Waldorf-Astoria at Bonnet Creek to Fairfield Inn and SpringHill Suites at SeaWorld, with 200 rooms each, according to the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Future openings call for more than 1,500 new rooms in 2010, followed by another 800 in 2011. Last week, Holiday Inn Express opened its fourth area location at Orlando-Ocoee East, with 104 rooms.

Orlando’s current supply of hotel rooms has grown to 125,500 at 500 locations, with a growth rate of 1,500 rooms or 2% in 2008, based on figures from Portsmouth, NH-based Lodging Econometrics. Another 8,000 rooms are under construction, plus 5,000 starting over the next 12 months and 1,100 in early planning.

All of this added capacity should be cause for concern among Orlando hoteliers, especially after reaching only 66% occupancy in February, according to Hendersonville, TN-based Smith Travel Research. Yet those managers remain upbeat about their prospects this year, given the new attractions and discounts being offered by major theme-park operators.

“Vacationers who can still afford to travel are still traveling, and there are values to be had,” says Paul Tang, vice president and managing director of the 750-room Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress near Walt Disney World and chairman of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association. He tells GlobeSt.com that the most significant change the group has noticed is that trips are now being booked only weeks in advance, rather than months.

Additions to theme parks this year include an “American Idol” attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the Manta flying coaster at SeaWorld and Universal Studios Florida’s special-effects Rip Ride Rockit. Also, the traditional Cypress Gardens park in nearby Winter Haven is scheduled to reopen this spring.

Meeting and convention bookings are down 5% to 10% this year as groups scale back meeting plans because of the recession and banking organizations receiving federal funding are nervous about booking anything that may be perceived as extravagant, Tang says. Yet he stresses the importance of face-to-face meetings in building business and hopes to see that segment rebound over the coming year.

“For the short term, people have to scramble and be creative to get whatever business is out there,” says Tang, a 40-year hotel industry veteran. He noted that the current recession seems more complex than prior ones because of the various industry segments involved.

Besides quickly gaining recognition as the nation’s largest convention center east of the Mississippi River, Tang points out that Orlando is also building its standing as a major medical center. The Burnham Institute for Medical Research is set to open this spring near Lake Nona and will serve as an anchor for local meetings and conferences.

Although new hotel rooms opening this year were planned three to five years ago when times were still good, they create added competition for existing hotels at a less-than-optimal time. Yet Tang takes it in stride: “It always forces you to try to excel beyond your competitors.”

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