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To understand why Central Florida may see an unusually heavy crush of visitors during the next several weeks, consider this:
In January, Pittsburgh had 14 days when the temperature dipped below 10 degrees. Detroit recorded 15 days, and Chicago experienced 16 days. That’s enough to send penguins in search of sun and sand.
The beneficiary is Florida’s — and Orlando’s — tourism industry, which has already racked up strong figures through the first two months of the year. Now, as the spring-travel season moves into full swing, industry leaders are predicting big numbers, courtesy of Northerners desperate to leave chilly temperatures behind.
“I think you’re going to see a record year,” said Paul Phipps, chief marketing officer of Visit Florida. “And certainly Orlando is right in the middle of that.”
During the winter, Phipps’ agency pushed a “Flock to Florida” media campaign in parts of the country gripped by a deep freeze. Featuring tourists flying like birds through a bright Florida sky, it included television, radio, print and online components.
In Chicago, Visit Florida wrapped commuter trains in Florida’s sunny message. In New York, the agency put mannequins — dressed in shorts and T-shirts — on top of taxis caked with road salt and slush.
“Luck is where preparation meets opportunity,” Phipps said. “And this winter really gave us a nice push.”
Phipps cites figures showing that from Feb. 10 to 28, the number of rooms booked in Florida rose 17 percent versus the same period last year. Statewide room occupancy, said Phipps, was up about 80 percent.
Locally, Visit Orlando figures show occupancy rates at Orlando hotels rose to almost 73 percent in January, up 4.3 percentage points from a year earlier. Revenue was up 5.1 percent, according to the region’s tourism-marketing agency. The figures aren’t in yet for February, but officials said it, too, appeared to be a solid month.
On the coast, bikers roared into Daytona Beach earlier this month, and spring breakers spread out on the sand in Cocoa Beach.
In South Florida, too, resorts are expecting big spring-break crowds and growth in the cruise industry.
“Demand into Fort Lauderdale has been very strong in January and February, and we expect that trend to continue through Easter,” said Donald Reilly, sales manager of the 360-room Embassy Suites Fort Lauderdale.
Looking ahead to the rest of March and April, industry officials said bookings are running ahead of last year’s, even though the Easter break will come late this year. Easter falls on April 20.
“We’re pretty optimistic,” said Daryl Cronk, Visit Orlando’s senior director of marketing research and insight. “This winter has been a bear.”
AAA’s Jessica Brady said that’s reflected in travel packages sold by the auto club. Those are up “substantially,” Brady said, though she could not quantify by how much. Many members are taking weekend getaways, she said, just to get a break from the cold — including visitors from Georgia and other Southern states slammed by unusually bad winter weather.
Neither Walt Disney World nor SeaWorld Orlando would discuss their expectations for spring travel. A spokesman for Universal Orlando, which will open its Cabana Bay Beach Resort in stages starting March 31, said only that “we feel good about where spring is headed.”
Steve Garner, though, was happy to weigh in. He’s director of sales and marketing at the Buena Vista Palace, a 1,000-room-plus resort near Walt Disney World.
He said the resort has seen “a huge uptick” in leisure travel heading into spring. There’s “no doubt,” he said, the numbers will top last year.
“We’ll be well into 90 percent [occupancy] through a big portion of March,” Garner said. “This is where Orlando should be.”