|By Harry Wessel, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 20, 2005 - Rich Maladecki doesn't need to wait until April. He's already calling the first three months of 2005 "the best quarter in the history of Orlando tourism."
Hotel occupancy in January and February was up nearly 7 percent from the first two months of 2004.
The first half of March has continued that trend, and things are about to get better: The two weeks that bracket Easter Sunday "are always packed" with tourists, said Maladecki, president of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association.
Duane Vinson, with Smith Travel Research in Henderson, Tenn., said based on the data he has seen, the spring-travel season "will be phenomenal," with Orlando "one of the leading markets in the country in terms of demand growth."
In January, when more than 100,000 people attended the International Builders' Show at the Orange County Convention Center, 2.5 million hotel rooms were occupied in the Orlando market, Vinson said. "That's 222,000 more filled rooms than in January '04."
Among the many beneficiaries has been the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate. The 730-room property in west Osceola County, which opened in October 2004, has seen occupancy rates from 80 percent to 90 percent, said marketing director Paul Pebley, with a "significant increase in reservations" for March through June.
"We're about 25 percent above where we thought we'd be," Pebley said, noting that not only is occupancy high, so are room rates.
Jeff Brinda, general manager of the Sheraton Safari Hotel at Lake Buena Vista, said occupancy rates this month at his 489-room facility have been 96 percent to 97 percent. "Occupancy rates are higher than last year, and the rates are much higher."
Echoing the sentiments of many other hoteliers, Brinda said he had two main concerns beyond the spring-travel season: "Gas prices, and the word we don't want to say out loud, 'hurricanes.' You don't know how the national press is going to cover it when we get close to hurricane season."
John Kucik, who heads the 107-room Magic Castle Inn & Suites in Kissimmee, said he's optimistic the heady times will continue beyond the next couple of months.
"Typically, a good spring means a good summer," he said, predicting that tourists' memories will be short regarding last year's quadruple hurricane whammy.
Occupancy rates at his inn are running well above 90 percent this month, Kucik said, and "we're seeing a lot less of the low [room] rates we used to see."
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