I-Drive hopes to attract locals with upscale nightclubs, entertainment?

Entrepreneurs, leaders hope to lure locals to area more often

By Sean Lavin - Producer

ORLANDO, Fla. - It's no secret that many Central Floridians tend to avoid the traffic and tourists on Orlando's International Drive, unless family is visiting from out of town.

But I-Drive entrepreneurs and local government leaders are hoping to lure locals to the area more often.

"We are looking to bring the locals back to International Drive," said Joshua Wallack, who plans to open the largest nightclub on the East Coast of the United States on I-Drive by October and Skyplex, the world's tallest roller coaster by 2018.

Wallack has run Mango's Tropical Cafe on Miami's South Beach for years, and believes the 55,000 square foot Orlando location will be "a game changing facility" for I-Drive.

"This club is bigger than anything you'd see outside of Las Vegas," Wallack said, adding that hip hop artist Pitbull was impressed by its size when he toured the construction site recently. Wallack partners with Pitbull to sell his Voli vodka, and he says Pitbull will visit the Orlando Mangos and interact with fans as often as his schedule allows.

"The locals are finally going to have unbelievable, world class night life," Wallack said, pointing out the clubs live entertainment, dining, and separate rooms for dancing upstairs. Mango's lighting and video technology is being put together by the best, including a crew that also did work on Universal's Harry Potter attractions, he said.

Mango's, as well as other new and planned attractions on I-Drive being put together by Wallack and others, has caught the attention of the man who risked his entire life savings to help pioneer I-Drive 41 years ago.

"I've watched I-Drive transform into something I've never imagined," said Harris Rosen, who opened up a hotel back when the entire drive had about 3,000 hotel rooms. "Today, we have about 40,000."

Rosen is optimistic about I-Drive's future and for the next generation of business leaders following in his footsteps.

"I welcome these folks," Rosen said. "They are transforming International Drive, there's no doubt about it. I just hope what they do is tasteful."

[WEB EXTRAS: Raw video interviews of I-Drive leaders coming soon | Mango's job fair info]

Harris Rosen's son, a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality, is part of the future of I-Drive. Joshua Rosen was recently named concept developer for Club 39 at the Rosen Plaza Hotel, and says growing up learning from his dad will be a huge help in his business life.

"Oh man, it's definitely been a thrill ride," Joshua Rosen said, adding that "sitting in his passenger's seat in the car listening to him on phone calling up every property, every day" had an impact on him.

But Harris Rosen is also benefiting from his son, whose fresh, new perspective helped transform what Harris Rosen called "an old disco" into an upscale modern nightclub. Joshua Rosen said he is also working to attract local residents, offering free parking for residents who buy a drink at Club 39. He also hopes to see more upscale clubs on I-Drive.

"Usually when competition opens up right next door, some might get scared," Joshua Rosen said. "But we embraced it, we want the culture of International Drive to bend more towards what we're going for."

While tourists are important to the economy and remain a focus for both business and government, Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs is helping to lead efforts to make I-Drive appeal more to locals. She has a committee at the county working on ways to develop special I-Drive districts for entertainment, and even residential areas.

"During the day you could go to work without commuting a long distance, and then in the evening you can go to the jazz club, take in a show, that would be a really cool lifestyle that we ought to have and we're working towards," Jacobs said.

And while the county and business leaders work towards new I-Drive ideas, the man who helped pioneer it all is excited to see what the future brings.

"My place now is to keep an open mind, to listen to what folks have to say and not be afraid to experiment and do new things," Harris Rosen said.

Wallack is building a large parking garage to attract local residents and hopes plans for a pedestrian bridge will also become a reality in the near future.

"The more walkable a city is the more money it makes," Wallack said.

The mayor's team is looking at the pedestrian bridge concept and Jacobs sees the benefit, calling it "iconic." But she wants to do further analysis on how it would be funded and believes tourist tax dollars should pay for it, rather than local taxpayers.

"I'm not going to ask moms and dads working hard to put kids through school to pay for it," Jacobs said.

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