By Adam Roth
As home to more than 75 shops, restaurants and up-charge attractions, The Mercado was once a beacon for tourist experiences along Orlando’s famous International Drive. Hosting Titanic: The Exhibition, The Guinness World Records Experience, the Hard Rock Vault and street entertainment, the open air shopping development was especially popular at night. But with the onset of competition from new outlets and malls in Central Florida, The Mercado fell behind, closing in 2007 in favor of a bold new vision from Unicorp National Developments.
Despite demolition taking place in late 2007, the former Mercado plot has sat dormant, waiting for new plans to be finalized and approved by local legislators. Over five years after the closure of the staple shopping center it was announced that Unicorp had received the go-ahead to begin construction on a new set of developments known as I-Drive Live and the I-Shops. Created in partnership with Merlin Entertainments, the amusement operator giant behind Legoland Florida, the project plans to bring three of Merlin’s key brands to Orlando in addition to several new restaurants and shops.
At the heart of the new project is the Orlando Eye, a long-in-the-works observation wheel inspired by the iconic London Eye found along the Thames Embankment. A 425-foot tall observation wheel (actually three feet taller than its London counterpart) will serve as the centerpiece of the entertainment district, allowing guests to experience a near-30 minute journey into the Orlando air to see the city’s unique skyline.
Anchored by two more Merlin staples, I-Drive Live will feature a 25,000 square foot Sea Life aquarium in line with similar properties from the established chain as well as a Maddam Tussauds Wax Museum. (Click Here to take a survey about which wax figures you’d like to see in Orlando.)
And while shopping tenants have not yet been announced, early signees in the food and beverage department have begun to reveal themselves. Red Robin, Outback Steakhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings and Carrabba’s Italian Grill are existing Central Florida franchises that will have new locations within I-Drive Live. Concepts new to the area include Cooper’s Hawk Winery, Chuy’s Tex-Mex Restaurant, and Seafood Republic, Orlando restaurateur Bobby Moore’s latest project for the area.
I-Drive Live and the new I-Shops are sure to bring new life to International Drive when it opens. With a proposed construction timeline of 24 months or less, Unicorp’s work will change the Orlando skyline forever, bringing with it a new icon to stand alongside Cinderella Castle, Spaceship Earth SeaWorld’s Sky Tower and the Universal Studios arches.
Construction on the plot has begun in a sense, with land clearing on the plot of the former Mercado already started. The work on the I-Shops where Goodings grocery store used to be has not yet begun (at least visibly) but that should follow soon. The project is expected to be totally complete within 24 months of its official start.
Below and above are some concept drawings which were part of a presentation given to local legislators.