Much of the world knows East Central Florida for its two most highly visible economic assets: mega theme parks and real rockets. And while there is no doubt that these industry sectors are impressive, they alone do not fully represent this dynamic region. In addition to thrill rides and T-minus countdowns, East Central boasts a workforce of 1.9 million, plus four commercial airports, one seaport, a spaceport and 118 miles of Atlantic coastline. In addition to tourism and aviation/aerospace, East Central is home to thriving technology, distribution and life sciences sectors too.
In May, the U.S. celebrated its historic return to human spaceflight as two American astronauts lifted off from Cape Canaveral for the first time since NASA retired its shuttles in 2011, aboard a Falcon 9 rocket built by the privately owned company SpaceX. Two months later, these astronauts came back to Earth, and for the first time, their splashdown took place in the Gulf of Mexico. In all, Florida hosted 31 successful space launches in 2020, the most in any single year since 1966.
In 2021, all eyes at NASA are on Artemis, with the ultimate goal of landing the first woman and another man on the moon by 2024, a feat that will be accomplished in three stages: Artemis I, an uncrewed test flight of NASA’s SLS rocket and its Orion spacecraft scheduled to take place in 2021; Artemis II, the first crewed mission with the goal of positioning Orion, with astronauts aboard, into orbit around the moon; and Artemis III, the actual landing of Orion on the moon in 2024. In April, NASA named SpaceX its sole contractor for the Artemis missions.
Many other private companies are at work supporting the systems and technologies needed for this industry sector:
• Blue Origin, the rocket company created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is making plans to expand its manufacturing campus on Merritt Island by 70 acres as development of the firm’s heavy-lift New Glenn rocket continues with an anticipated debut in late 2022.
• Boeing has landed a $916-million contract extension from NASA to provide support services for the International Space Station through 2024. Some of the work will be performed at Kennedy Space Center.
• Lockheed Martin opened its new 55,000-sq.-ft. Spacecraft Test, Assembly and Resource (STAR) Center at Kennedy Space Center in July 2021 to facilitate assembly of the Orion capsules that will carry astronauts back to the moon in NASA’s Artemis program.
• Melbourne-based L3Harris Technologies has won a $6-million contract from NASA to develop advanced weather imaging technology for satellites. Capable of providing immediate snapshots of potentially dangerous storms approaching Earth, the satellites are expected to begin orbiting above Earth in the early 2030s. Meanwhile, in 2020, despite the pandemic, L3Harris added 450 jobs, bringing its full footprint across Brevard County to 7,750 employees.
• German air taxi company Lilium Aviation has announced plans to bring its on-demand, electric air taxi service to Orlando by 2025 as the firm builds its first U.S.-based “vertiport” on seven acres in Lake Nona. If all goes according to plan, consumers will be able to book Lilium flights from Orlando to nearly all of Florida’s major cities using a smartphone app.
KEY PLAYERS: Blue Origin, Kent, Wa.; Boeing, Chicago, Ill.; Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, Fort Worth, Tex.; SpaceX, Hawthorne, Ca.
Tourism has been a prominent driver of East Central Florida’s economy pretty much from the moment Walt Disney World came to town 50 years ago. And every year since the park first opened here in 1971, Disney’s footprint and the crowds that are drawn as a result have swelled. In 2019, one year before the pandemic struck, Orlando logged a record 76 million visitors. A year later, as COVID-19 spread across the region, visitor counts plummeted by more than half to a total of 35.3 million in 2020. Ouch! Tourist attractions all across the region that had been overflowing with visitors the year before suddenly found themselves empty. And with no prospect of filling these spaces up again any time soon, there was nothing for the big three — Walt Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld — to do except shut down operations in March 2020 … but not for long. Universal Orlando and SeaWorld reopened in June with added safety protocols, and all four of Walt Disney World’s theme parks were up and running on a limited basis in July.
A little more than a year later, operations at all three parks are moving toward normal and some new attractions are coming back on line. Sea World Orlando’s long-anticipated Ice Breaker, its first new coaster since Mako debuted in 2016, is on target to open in February 2022 featuring a 93-foot tall spike banked at 100 degrees. At Universal Islands of Adventure, VelociCoaster is finally open in Jurassic World and, after an eight-month pause, construction has resumed on the resort’s highly anticipated fourth theme park — Epic Universe.
And with a monumental anniversary to celebrate in 2021, Walt Disney World is pulling out all the stops for its return to normalcy. In typical fashion, the park is not releasing many details except to say that “The World’s Most Magical Celebration” — aka, its 50th anniversary — will kick off on October 1, 2021, and last for 18 months.
While Orlando typically gets the bulk of tourist attention in Florida’s East Central region, some uniquely Florida attractions along this region’s Atlantic coast that were temporarily closed during the height of the pandemic have reopened to visitors. At the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Brevard County, all main attractions, including the IMAX Theater, Shuttle Launch Experience and Universe Theater, are open, however, face coverings are still required in all indoor locations.
Just up the coast in Volusia County, is Daytona Beach. Attractions here include the iconic beach itself, on which limited numbers of cars can drive during certain hours and in specified areas for a fee; there is no cost for pedestrians or bicyclists to access the beach and as long as you’re outside, no masks required. Over at Daytona International Speedway, famous for NASCAR’s Daytona 500 race, limits on the number of spectators due to fears about the spread of COVID-19 are beginning to ease. In late August 2021, for the first time in a year, fans were welcomed back on the field for pre-race ceremonies ahead of the Coke Zero Sugar 400. Indoors, however, face masks remain mandatory.
KEY PLAYERS:Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Merritt Island; SeaWorld Orlando, Orlando; Universal Orlando Resorts, Orlando; Walt Disney World, Orlando
Innovation & Technology
To think of Orlando as a great place to vacation is never wrong. It’s just not completely right. In addition to all those thrill rides, water slides and Cinderella’s castle, Orlando is widely known as one of the nation’s top metros for STEM growth. And on WalletHub’s list of “Best Cities for STEM Jobs 2021,” Orlando is among the top 20.
Ranked No. 77 on U.S. News & World Report’s “Top Public Schools 2021,” UCF is actively seeking to carve out a place among the nation’s 50 best public research universities and it is making good progress, steadily increasing its research activity over the past decade. In 2020, University of Central Florida received more than $204.5 million in research funding, up 53.3% from $133.4 million in 2010. Patent production is on the rise, too. Among the Top 100 worldwide universities granted U.S. utility patents in 2020, UCF ranked No. 60 with a total of 46 patents, two more than the previous year.
• Optical sensor manufacturer Ocean Insight is expanding in Orlando, investing $4 million in a new corporate headquarters and planning to create 100 new jobs over the next three years. Customized for maximum manufacturing efficiency, the 52,000-sq.-ft. space includes built-in safety features such as shields and partitions to separate workstations.
• 3D Media, a cutting-edge augmented and virtual reality immersive training technology company, has joined UCF’s Business Incubator in the Research Park Innovation District with plans to add 25 high-wage jobs in Orlando. Previously located in Thibodaux, La., 3D President Megan Roy chose to expand in Orlando for better access to military simulation and training commands and to take advantage of the robust modeling and simulation talent pool available through UCF and Full Sail University.
• Red 6, a high-tech fighter jet training firm, has opened a technology hub in Orlando as part of a plan to relocate all of its operations from California to Florida. The defense startup firm plans to also relocate its headquarters from Santa Monica to Miami.
• Microvast, a Texas-based company that makes fast-charging lithium ion batteries for electric cars, is seeking to expand its research and development operations in Orlando. The company has participated in the University of Central Florida’s incubator program since 2017.
• In preparation for the opening of a new Advanced Technology & Manufacturing Center in April 2022, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is adding 10,000 square feet of production space at its research park in Daytona Beach. Half of the space will be occupied by WeatherFlow-Tempest, a company focused on weather observation, modeling and forecast technology.
• Global professional services firm KPMG has announced its intent to bring 350 new jobs to its new “Capability Center” in Lake Nona. This marks KPMG’s second major expansion in Orlando, just one year after opening the facility.
KEY PLAYERS: Electronic Arts, Redwood City, Ca.; Stax by fattmerchant, Orlando; SemTech IT Solutions, Longwood
Logistics & Transportation
East Central Florida is fortunate to have vibrant industry sectors like tourism, aviation, technology and life sciences. But it is the fifth industry sector that may matter most. Logistics and transportation — the easy movement of people and products into, out of and all across these seven counties. Four primary modes of transportation — air, sea, rail and road — keep East Central industries humming.
East Central Florida boasts four international airports: Orlando International; Orlando Sanford; Melbourne Orlando International; and Daytona Beach. Despite the pandemic, Orlando International remained Florida’s busiest airport with a total of 29.1 million travelers moving through in 2020. That sounds like a worthy accomplishment but, due to the pandemic, international traffic was down 57%. And domestic travel, with 26 million passengers, declined 39%. In neighboring Seminole County, Orlando Sanford International Airport recorded losses too — just 1.5 million passengers in 2020 compared to 3.3 million the year before.
A $60-million upgrade at Orlando Sanford International, that includes an expanded ticketing area, state-of-the-art technology, four new gates and a new baggage claims area, is up and running. And at Orlando International, the new South Terminal is taking shape with 15 gates, an automated baggage system and a TSA checkpoint featuring facial recognition technology and iris scans for international arrivals and departures. The new terminal will be truly multi-modal with a six-level parking garage and a train station to accommodate the high-speed Brightline trains that are scheduled to begin service in late 2022.
Over on the Atlantic Coast, it seemed as though Port Canaveral was poised for another banner year. The world’s second busiest cruise port had logged a record 4.6 million multi-day passengers in 2019 and, at $110 million, total port revenue was up 6%. Canaveral’s future was looking great … until COVID-19 and what had been a thriving industry in East Central Florida — to put it bluntly — pretty much tanked.
Cruising returned to Port Canaveral on July 31, 2021, with the debut of Carnival’s new ship Mardi Gras. By mid-August, another three ships had sailed from Canaveral’s shores, with several more on tap, 2022 is shaping up to be a banner year for cruising. In fact, the port is projecting $85.1 million in cruise revenue for the fiscal period beginning Oct. 1, 2021, and ending Sept. 30, 2022, well ahead of FY 2019’s record $81.9 million.
Elsewhere, in railroad news, construction is finally underway on the long-anticipated “Phase 2 Northern Expansion,” an extension of SunRail out of Orlando to include one new commuter SunRail station at DeLand and approximately 12 miles of expanded commuter rail service between the DeBary Station and the DeLand Amtrak Station in Volusia County. The project is expected to open by summer 2024.
As Floridians quarantined at home in 2020, I-4 Ultimate, the $2.3-billion, 21-mile construction project begun in 2015 in Orlando, made significant progress. With fewer cars on the roads, crews accelerated construction on a dozen sites, and for the first time since I-4 opened in the 1960s, drivers were traveling on brand new pavement across 21 miles in Orange and Seminole counties. General use lanes are now pretty well complete, and the managed lanes that will provide more driver options and reduce peak congestion could open by the end of 2021.
Life Sciences & Health Care
AdventHealth Orlando retained its position as Florida’s No. 3 best hospital for another year with top 40 rankings in three specialties on U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals 2021-22”: diabetes & endocrinology (No. 40); neurology & neurosurgery (No. 47); and gastroenterology & GI surgery (No. 48). Headquartered in Altamonte Springs, AdventHealth operates more than a dozen hospitals across Florida’s East Central region. Its Orlando-based pediatric hospital — AdventHealth for Children — was also recognized by U.S. News & World Report with a No. 35 nationwide ranking in neonatology. In May 2021, AdventHealth Fish Memorial in Orange City opened its new patient tower with 72 beds, an intensive care unit and “The Baby Place,” providing expanded obstetric services in west Volusia County.
Orlando Health’s Orlando Regional Medical Center moved up a notch to No. 8 in U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Florida Hospitals 2021-22” rankings. Its Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children earned top 50 scores in five pediatric specialties: pediatric diabetes & endocrinology (No. 29); pediatric cardiology & heart surgery (No. 40); pediatric orthopedics (No. 48); pediatric urology (No. 49); and neonatology (No. 50).
With the acquisition of Bayfront Health St. Petersburg in October 2020 and the opening of the new Orlando Health Horizon West Hospital in Winter Garden in January 2021, Orlando Health’s roster of wholly-owned hospitals in central Florida has risen to 10.
Elsewhere in the region:
UCF Lake Nona Medical Center opened in March 2021, providing full-service health care to Lake Nona and surrounding communities. Located adjacent to the UCF College of Medicine, the 64-bed facility expects to serve 17,000 patients in its first year of operation.
The rehabilitation category of the health care sector in Florida’s East Central region is getting a boost:
• Jacksonville-based Brooks Rehabilitation plans to begin construction of a 60-bed hospital in Lake Nona in late 2021.
• Encompass Health, based in Birmingham, Ala., plans to build a rehabilitation hospital in two stages — a 50-bed first phase, to be followed by a 30-bed addition at a site just outside Kissimmee.
Healthcare solutions company InnovaCare Health is moving its headquarters from White Plains, N.Y., to Orlando’s Lake Nona Medical City with the expectation of creating 60 new, high-paying jobs. A national leader in integrated and value-based health care services, InnovaCare is known for providing practice management solutions and coordinated patient-provider engagement.
TogetherHealth, an insurance technology company, is opening a new office in Lake Mary with the expectation of hiring 300 new employees over the next three years.
Life & Leisure
No. 1 Again
Oops, we did it again … According to census data released in August 2021, The Villages in Sumter County is once again the fastest growing metropolitan statistical area in the U.S. According to the latest Census Bureau data, The Villages has added another 36,332 residents since 2010 and here’s a new twist — opening the gates to millennials. Community developers are pushing for a charter change to create designated living areas within The Village of West Lake for younger people who work in the community.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s this: Mother Nature can be a good source of entertainment. With 118 miles of Atlantic coastline, including Canaveral National Seashore, and the nearly 1,000 inland bodies of water, there’s plenty to see and do in Florida’s East Central region. Pay a visit to the bald eagles, armadillos and otters residing at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge who are so laid-back, they barely notice the ground shake when a rocket lifts off at Kennedy Space Center just next door. Take a walk in the sand at sunrise — Daytona and Cocoa are good beach options. Find a river with a tongue-twisting name like Ocklawaha or Withlacoochee, or just ditch civilization altogether and take a walk in the woods.
Paddle a Kayak
But not just on any old stream. Brevard Zoo in Melbourne offers guided kayaking tours around animal exhibits. You can follow a guide through Expedition Africa where you might see a giraffe or a ring-tailed lemur, or you can head off on your own. Also in Melbourne: Treetop Trek aerial adventures will have you zipping through acres of lush Florida landscapes!
Boasting an enrollment exceeding 67,000, Orlando-based University of Central Florida offers more than 230 different degrees, including, for the first time this fall, an MS in Themed Experience. Designed in cooperation with leaders from Disney, Universal and the Orlando Magic, this degree program aims to prepare students for careers as art directors, show producers, designers and other creative roles in the entertainment industry.
Ranked No. 77 among “Top Public Schools” by U.S. News & World Report in 2021, UCF receives high marks for its affordability and wide range of innovative programs and was named the No. 16 most innovative university in the nation — ahead of Harvard and Princeton — by U.S. News & World Report.
Elsewhere in this region, three private universities continue to earn accolades from U.S. News & World Report. Named to its 2021 list of “Best Regional Universities South” are Rollins College in Winter Park (No. 1), which recently opened its new Lakeside Neighborhood student residential community on the shores of Lake Virginia featuring a 250,000-sq.-ft. dormitory; Stetson University in DeLand (No. 4) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach (No. 9). Embry-Riddle was also singled out for its online courses: No. 1 Best Online Bachelor’s Programs; No. 1 Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Veterans; and No. 7 Best Online Bachelor’s in Business Programs.
And on the high school level:
Three East Central schools were named among the nation’s top 300 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of “Best U.S. High Schools 2021”: West Shore Junior/Senior High School in Melbourne; Edgewood Junior/Senior High School in Merritt Island; and Osceola County School of the Arts in Kissimmee.
The School District of Osceola County has begun offering a high school class to students interested in a cybersecurity career. Titled cyber-security essentials, the course was designed by Cyber Florida and USF’s Florida Center for Instructional Technology and is available to school districts throughout the state along with teacher training and free access to Florida CyberHub, a cloud-based resource providing cybersecurity software tools and training.