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It’s no coincidence that theme parks have also had a record year; however, Orlando’s deep-seated reputation as a family-friendly destination still stands at the root of its success.

The year after the Great Recession, the number of visitors to Orlando hit an all-time high. And the country’s No. 1 travel destination hasn’t looked back since.

Orlando welcomed 57 million people last year to set a third-consecutive record high, the area’s main visitors bureau announced this week. That included 52.9 million U.S. visitors and an estimated 4.1 million international travelers, for a 3.3 percent overall increase compared with 2011, Visit Orlando said.

George Aguel, Visit Orlando‘s president and chief executive officer, said the latest figures for 2012, which he described as “fantastic,” came in even higher than the bureau had expected.

Visit Orlando disclosed the latest head count at this week’s International Pow Wow, a high-profile tourism-industry gathering that took place this year in Las Vegas. The annual trade show and convention, often used for big announcements by theme parks, visitors bureaus and travel companies, was held in Orlando in 2010 and returns in 2015.

At this year’s Pow Wow, Aguel said, “Our destination probably had the most of all — by far — to talk about that was new.”

From new retailers at International Drive’s two Premium Outlets and at the upcoming Disney Springs — Walt Disney World’s renamed “downtown” — to new attractions in the works at all three major theme-park resorts, Visit Orlando used the area’s latest projects to draw a specific picture for the international tour operators and trade representatiives attending Pow Wow, Aguel said.

The message it sought to convey about Orlando to the industry reps, travel writers and tourism wholesalers at the show: “You’ve got to go there,” he said.

“We’re a destination where, literally, every year there’s something new you can look forward to doing,” the bureau chief said.

In 2008, the first full year of the recession, Orlando’s visitor total actually rose slightly, to 48.9 million, before tumbling to 46.6 million the following year, as the economic downturn officially ended. But in 2010, the annual head count jumped more than 10 percent, to a record 51.5 million, and continued rising in 2011 to a record 55.2 million.

About half of all visitors to Orlando come from elsewhere in Florida. An additional 7 percent come from other countries, while the remainder are from other parts of the U.S.

Orlando’s 2012 visitor tally could change again slightly in the next few weeks once Visit Orlando gets a final figure for international tourists. Its U.S. visitor count comes from travel-research firm D.K. Shifflet & Associates, but it relies on the federal government for the number of international travelers.

Those figures, generated by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, have not yet been released.

Aguel said Visit Orlando officials are confident that at least 4.1 million international travelers did, indeed, visit Orlando last year, and there’s a chance the final figure could be slightly higher than that.

“We don’t believe it will go down, that’s for sure,” he said.

(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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Tags: florida, orlando

Photo credit: Visitors walk through Epcot in the Walt Disney World Resort. inazakira / Flickr

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