|By Mark Schlueb, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 29, 2011--Tens of thousands of football fans will pack the sold-out Champs Sports Bowl today, but Orlando businesses are more excited about the money those fans are spending outside the stadium.
Organizers won't have estimates until next month, but they say the economic impact from today's Champs Sports Bowl and the Capital One Bowl on Monday could make for the biggest Orlando bowl week ever.
"It's very important for our tourism economy," said Rich Maladecki, president and CEO of the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association. "The majority of the fans who travel to Central Florida for a bowl experience will stay for four, five or six days. Very few come in for just the actual game. They'll do the attractions, they'll do restaurants, they'll golf, they'll do the shopping."
So why is this year different? For the first time in its 10-year history, the Champs Sports Bowl has sold out, with more than 67,000 fans expected to attend, compared with last year's 56,000.
And three of the four teams playing in the two games are from out of state and have dedicated fan bases willing to travel. Perhaps none are more famed for their dedication to traveling with their team than Notre Dame fans.
Chris Kenney exemplifies the kind of fan who has the tourism industry salivating. Her family of five die-hard Fighting Irish fans arrived Wednesday from Omaha, Neb., and headed straight for a downtown restaurant. They planned to stay a couple of nights at downtown's Grand Bohemian hotel, then a few more nights at a resort near the theme parks.
Notre Dame will face Florida State University in the Champs Sports Bowl. Though out-of-town Seminoles aren't as likely to stay in Orlando as long as fans who traveled farther to get here, the sheer number of FSU alumni close by made it easier to sell tickets.
Tom and Carli Mani, for instance, drove to Orlando from Hudson in Pasco County and plan to stay two nights.
"I'm happy they're playing in Orlando," Tom Mani said. "If it was Atlanta, we probably wouldn't have gone."
The bowl games come at a critical time for Central Florida hotels. Leisure travel is strong in late December as families vacation while kids are out of school, but convention business dries up. Football helps fill that gap.
"This is pretty much a quiet time at the convention center, and that's why it's such a great fit for us," said Barb Bowden, general manager of The Peabody Orlando. "It's really the core of our business over the New Year's holiday. We are thrilled to be a part of it."
The Peabody is the official host hotel for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who are playing South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl. The team and its operations will stay for 10 days, and there will be plenty of team parents and alumni, too.
The bowl games are expected to generate 2,500 room nights just at The Peabody from Christmas to New Year's -- an impact of $500,000 to $750,000 for the hotel.
Fans are also hitting the theme parks. Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure and Legoland hit capacity Wednesday, and Walt Disney World had to temporarily restrict access to three of its four parks -- though it's impossible to say how many park-goers were in town for the bowl games.
Businesses were benefiting, too. The Dessert Lady eatery on Church Street was jampacked with football fans in the middle of the afternoon Wednesday.
"That's unusual for this time of year. It really helps a lot," owner Patti Schmidt said.
It's a welcome boost for Church Street business, which suffered through the NBA lockout and missing Orlando Magic fans.
Steve Hogan, CEO of Florida Citrus Sports, which organizes the bowl games, said Orlando will also benefit long-term from the exposure. People watching the games on television -- particularly those in colder climates -- will be enticed by scenes of sunny Florida, he said.
"Folks back home are looking at that and hopefully saying, 'Wow, maybe we should think about visiting Orlando this summer,' " Hogan said. "So the marketing and promotion are just icing on the cake."
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