By Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel
In Florida, a bridge can be a rare hill to conquer, an overlook for great views, a place for a social outing or a workout — and one of the best ways to connect with the state’s unique water world.
“We talk about it all the time,” said Renata Cherapay, who meets with her mother three times a week on the Max Brewer Bridge in Titusville, about 45 miles east of Orlando. “My dad asks, ‘Why do you go?’ You get a cool breeze, clean air, you can look at the water and you can talk while you walk.”
As they set out on a recent afternoon, her mother, Bobbie Burgamy, added: “It eases your mind.”
Bridge trekkers go to experience the outdoors the way it can’t be done on a neighborhood sidewalk or park path.
Many adventure bridges have sidewalks protected by steel or concrete barriers, outlooks that extend as small stages over the water and public parking.
The thing about the Brewer, and what a lot of its fans proclaim, is the venue is good day and night, 2 p.m. or 2 a.m. and during warm weather and blustery.
As with perhaps all adventure bridges, Saturday mornings are jammed.
“It’s our town’s track,” said Margaret Thompson of Titusville, who was logging laps with her husband just before sunset recently.
Not unlike the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges, Florida’s adventure bridges complement the personalities of their settings.
Fitting for Jacksonville’s blue-collar roots is its Main Street Bridge, a throwback to the days when riveted steel was the real way to cross Florida waters.
St. Augustine’s Bridge of Lions is a museum centerpiece. Sarasota’s Ringling Bridge feels like part of the classic sun, sea and sky of a Florida vacation.
Affluent Fort Lauderdale has its 17th Street Bridge, the state’s tallest drawbridge, which opens like car hoods. It can accommodate yachts of lowly millionaires when closed, but it must open occasionally for billionaires’ behemoths.
Tampa and Clearwater, as of late last year, can brag about the only high bridge that looks like it can carry cars but is dedicated to recreation and to the burgeoning network of trails in the Tampa Bay area.
In all, about a dozen Florida bridges are in the top tier for adventure. Others include the Melbourne Causeway in Brevard County, Veterans Memorial Bridge in Martin County, Rickenbacker Causeway in Miami, Old Seven Mile Bridge in the Keys and the Albert Gilchrist and Barron Collier bridges in Charlotte County.
All stand out in different ways and are locally famous; trekkers at one bridge are often unaware that other bridges offer as much enjoyment.
The vast majority of the state’s thousands of bridges have little or no safe room for walking or biking, or otherwise don’t encourage recreation, and there is no program to create more adventure-worthy bridges.
“It’s case by case,” said Bob Crim, manager of the Florida Department of Transportation Production Support Office. “If sidewalks and bike lanes lead up to a bridge, then they’ll probably be on the bridge, too.”
FDOT also has no online page or printed brochure that showcases the best bridges for recreation.
Among the newest — and the closest to Central Florida — is the Brewer Bridge. It was rebuilt and opened in 2011, transformed from a low and inhospitable drawbridge to a span of concrete with an arch not quite like a rainbow but with an apex of more than 70 feet.
It rises from the edge of Titusville, flies over the Indian River and lands at the foot of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which abuts Canaveral National Seashore.
In the most visual way, it is the doorway between two worlds, one of civilization’s hustle and bustle and the other of celebrated marsh and migratory birds.
The view from the high bridge, like the scene from other bridges, casts a kindly patina on distant features. Everything comes off as scenic, including Kennedy Space Center’s giant box of a building once used to assemble moon rockets.
A few weeks ago, during the hottest part of a weekday afternoon, Rosalio Cenobio of Titusville strode across with purpose. Why? He patted his belly to indicate he wanted to knock off a few pounds.
Another man didn’t slow to talk but explained his motivation was: “Maybe more for my mental health than my physical health.”
By 5 p.m., the bridge scene was energizing. Anglers were arriving, setting up on a fishing pier and nearby banks.
Colorful kites of kite surfers performed aerial pirouettes in the near distance, and business picked up at a restaurant below the bridge at the west end
As the sky gathered for sunset, Cathy Flick and Dolly Hieronimus arrived. The two, well into their retirement years, used to come daily. But Hieronimus, the slacker, started yoga twice a week, so now they trek the Brewer only five days a week.
The payoff from the Brewer, said Flick, is that the gossip and scenery combine to obscure the exertion.
“You don’t know it hurts because you are talking,” she said.
Mary Hughes showed up, as she often does, to walk and stalk sunsets with her camera.
“I’ve gotten some gorgeous photos,” she said.
As the span’s lights began intruding into sundown’s fading reds, Angela Scully propelled her 2-year-old daughter in a stroller, beaming when asked about the bridge.
“After a long day at work, it’s just relief to be here,” she said. “This is what Florida is about.”
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Orlando tourism gets sunny treatment in New York Times
The paper highlights hotelier Harris Rosen and singles out Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter for keeping Central Florida tourism hot during the downturn. One excerpt:
“What happened was Harry Potter — there’s no doubt about it,” said Anthony Crocco, Central Florida regional director for Metrostudy, a new-home industry consulting firm.
Can’t help but wonder how that played at the happiest place on earth.
Home prices highest since 2008
Prices of existing homes in the core Orlando market edged up to $163,000 in April – the highest median price since 2008, according to a new report.
Prices in an area that includes mostly Orange and Seminole counties increased for the third consecutive month, according to Orlando Regional Realtors Association. Home prices were up more than 13 percent from a year earlier but remain far below the peak of $264,000 in July 2007.
Interest rates dropped to 4.39 percent in April from 4.43 March, helping drive an increase in sales to 2,630 from 2,435 a month earlier. The listings grew slightly to 10,647, which was the largest amount in three years but the months of inventory actually declined slightly to a supply of only 4.05 months because increased sales activity ate into the available listings. A six-month supply is considered normal.
Orlando area’s outlying neighborhoods see biggest home-price recovery
To find the Central Florida neighborhoods where home prices have bounced back the most in the past year, look at newer communities at the region’s outer edges.
Growth pockets in Eustis, Paisley and Montverde in Lake County showed price gains of about 30 percent from February 2013 until the same month this year. So did portions of St. Cloud and rural parts of south Osceola County, including Harmony.
Overall values in the four-county Orlando metropolitan area increased 20 percent during that period, according to a new Homes.com study that compared sales of the same homes over time by ZIP code.
“Those were the hardest-hit, so of course they’re going to see the most recovery,” Keller Williams agent Lawrence Bellido said of homes in the outlying areas. “At Bella Collina in Montverde, they weren’t selling anything out there, and it would be the same for Harmony.”
Throughout Central Florida, recent price gains have varied greatly from one community to the next. For example, growth areas south of St. Cloud have shown gains of about 30 percent during the past year, but prices grew by only about half that amount in older parts of St. Cloud, where streets are named for states and some homes were built in the 1920s.
Similarly, long-established areas of Oviedo, Casselberryand Kissimmee saw price appreciation of about 15 percent during the past year — a heady recovery by most standards but lagging the rest of the region.
One reason prices have increased faster in some neighborhoods than in others: Foreclosures hit hardest in newly developing areas because owners of houses built just before the real-estate crash in 2007 had little or no equity in their homes.
They were more likely to walk away from the debt, end up in foreclosure or go through a short sale, which happens when lenders approve sales prices that are less than the mortgage owed. Values dropped the most in those foreclosure-impacted neighborhoods, so the bounce-back also has been more dramatic.
“Those markets where prices got so low were where the prices increased the most in the last three years,” said Mike Timmeran, president of Naples-based MJT Realty Economic Advisors, which advised Homes.com on the price analysis.
Homes.com is one of the country’s largest real-estate-data companies and analyzes same-home sales, which are considered a more consistent gauge of market conditions than overall monthly sales reports.
The wide swing in price recovery — even in neighboring areas — can be confusing for buyers.
Houston resident Mike Raab said the mix of appreciation among neighborhoods has made his hunt for a house in Orlando challenging because it’s difficult to figure out fair market value: Are owners basing the price on sales in nearby areas that are rebounding quickly instead of close-by communities that have been slower to recover?
Sellers can take advantage of out-of-town buyers who don’t know the shifting Orlando market, he added.
“You’ve got to be very, very careful that someone doesn’t say, ‘Here’s some outside money coming in, and we can really pull one over their eyes,'” Raab said. “Prices can bounce tremendously from block to block. It’s really a disparate recovery.”
The Homes.com price index shows that Metro Orlando’s market recovery lags the nation’s other Top 100 metro areas. All metro areas started with an index level of 100 in January 2000. As a group, they peaked in July 2007 and then bottomed out about three years later. By February of this year, they were back near their peak-level pricing.
But in the Orlando area, prices remain far below their peak, according to the index and other price reports. A report released last week by the Orlando Regional Realtors Association showed the median price in the core Orlando market reached $163,000 in April — about $100,000 below the peak levels.
The realities of the long recovery ahead are not lost on Central Florida suburbanites.
In rural Osceola County, Tina Snow bought a house in the Harmony community in 2004 and said that, although prices may be on the rise, they’re still not what they were when she purchased. Prices in that ZIP are still down about a third from their peak in November 2006.
“You know what hurt them the most? You walk in and it’s so beautiful it takes your breath away, but then 2008 came along, and the real-estate crash hit us,” Snow said. “We’re so far out that just to get anything from a store, it’s 7 miles.”
St. Cloud native Melissa Godwin, a real-estate broker, said home prices in that town didn’t see huge gains because prices didn’t decline as much.
“Houses in downtown St. Cloud — yeah, some of them went through short sales — but a lot of them were built before I was born, and they didn’t take such a heavy swing,” she said. “They’ve had much more sustainable increases.”
USTA unveils plans for new tennis center at Lake Nona
The United State Tennis Association announced this morning that it will build the “new home of American tennis,” with more than 100 courts, at Lake Nona by the end of 2016.
The USTA unveiled plans Wednesday morning for the $60 million center, which will have more than 100 courts — about double the playing space of a Mobile, Ala., center now considered the nation’s largest tennis facility.
On Wednesday’s announcement at UCFs College of Medicine at Lake Nona, Orlando MayorBuddy Dyer said, “I think we can honestly say that we have become the sports Mecca in the United States.”
The 63-acre project will house the USTA’s Community Tennis and Player Development divisions and foster the growth of tennis with training and events for youth, recreational players, college athletes and professionals.
“This new home for American tennis will truly be a game-changer for our sport,” said USTA President David Haggerty. “This world-class facility will be an inclusive gathering place for American tennis and will allow us to impact our sport at every level, from the grass roots to the professional ranks.”
As envisioned, it would become the site for everything from league matches and training camps to collegiate tournaments and national-level competitions. The center also would become the home of the University of Central Florida varsity-tennis program.
It’s expected to employ about 150 people, many of whom now work at the association’s existing Community Tennis Division headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., and a training center that USTA has leased at the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton.
The USTA considered locations in the Southwest, North Carolina and elsewhere in Florida but settled on Lake Nona in southeast Orlando, in part because of incentives that included a 30-year, $1-a-year lease on land from the Tavistock Group, developer of Lake Nona.
Financial details of the deal have not been disclosed, but Tavistock is expected to bear much of the cost, USTA officials said Tuesday. North of Lake Nona Boulevard and south of the body of water called Lake Nona, the center is planned as the initial piece of a 100-acre cluster of sports and human-performance businesses. Lake Nona already is home to a collection of hospitals and research institutes called Medical City.
“This USTA deal is meant to ignite the sports and human-performance cluster in the same way the UCF Medical School and Sanford-Burnham ignited Medical City,” said Rasesh Thakkar, senior managing director of Tavistock.
UCF is about to embark on a $5 million fundraising campaign to build 12 team practice courts at its campus in east Orange County and an equal number at the Lake Nona center. Plans for the college-level facility at Lake Nona include mast lighting for televised events and elevated seating for about 1,200 spectators. It also will feature a two-story pavilion for concessions, restrooms, locker rooms and office space.
“This is an opportunity for us to enhance tennis in the Orlando community, which is already a rabid tennis city,” said UCF Athletics Director Todd Stansberry. “Having a center of this magnitude is just going to enhance the opportunity to play tennis and bring the greatest players from around the world to Orlando, which is going to elevate Orlando as a tennis destination.”
The city will pay for a new road to access the site. On Tuesday, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyerwould not say how much the roadwork will cost but said funds will come from transportation impact fees, which are charged on new construction. In addition, the city is offering more than $200,000 in tax incentives. Orange County and the state are also providing incentives, but the details were not available Tuesday.
“The city, county and the state played a role, but Lake Nona, with the contribution of the land and the capital construction costs, was major,” Dyer said. He said the project “cements our reputation as one of the leading sports cities in all of America.”
In addition to the Orlando Magic NBA team, Orlando is home to Disney’s Wide World of Sports, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Golf Channel and college bowl games. The city also is planning to build a professional soccer stadium.
Work on the tennis project is scheduled to begin by the third quarter of this year. The USTA’s current lease at Evert Academy in Boca Raton is about to end, officials said.
Haggerty said he did not expect the new center at Lake Nona to rob clubs and tennis centers elsewhere of significant tournament business.
“We think a facility like this will host major events but not every year,” he said. “We will be transparent and communicative. We aren’t trying to put clubs or great facilities out of business.”
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Orlando tourism industry expects strong spring
5:10 p.m. EDT, March 13, 2014
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.”
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International travelers to move more quickly through OIA
Ten electronic kiosks were put into operation that allow travelers to enter information such as the size of their party, the purpose of their visit and other administrative data and have it electronically transmitted to Customs officers rather than show them paperwork.
Airport and Customs officials estimate the kiosks could cut the time dealing with an agent from 2-and-a-half minutes to as little as 30 seconds.
“This is a pretty historic day for us,” said Phil Brown, executive director of Orlando International.
Brown said Orlando International is the first airport to offer the service, which is available to American and Canadian citizens, as well as visitors from 37 countries who do not need a visa to enter the United States. That would include the United Kingdom and much of Europe, along with Japan and South Korea.
Other airports, among them Chicago, Miami and Houston, employ similar kiosks, but only for Americans and Canadians.
Airport officials are constantly looking for ways to get travelers through Customs more quickly because the federal agency typically does not have enough officers on staff to handle the flow of international passengers, the fastest-growing segment of visitors at Orlando International.
The paucity of officers has lead to complaints about long, tedious waits at Customs that can exceed an hour for passengers getting off international flights.
John Wagner, the acting deputy assistant Customs commissioner, said his agency would like to place more officers in Orlando, but he lacks the resources.Congress recently agreed to add 2,000 more officers to the 21,000-member force, but Wagner said there is no way to know if any of them will end up in Orlando.
Orlando Grand Prix fulfills need for speed with 50 mph karts
Who knew a go-kart could go so freakin’ fast?
In what looks like a cluster of boring warehouses in south Orange County, there’s one 70,000 square-foot attraction that puts the pedal to the metal.
Orlando Grand Prix is an indoor go-karting facility with two European-style tracks built for karts that can go up to 50 mph.
For my latest ‘Central Florida Adventure”, I threw on my racing gloves, put on a helmet and got behind the wheel an electric kart.
Like anyone who’s lived in Orlando long enough, I’ve driven my fair share of go-karts. But Orlando Grand Prix isn’t even in the same league as some of the rinky-dink karting tracks in Central Florida.
The entire experience is much more life-like with lap times recorded to the thousandth of a second, karts that drift when taking sharp turns and a track marshal who waves a checkered flag at the end.
Racers even receive a printout of personalized race results.
If you go:
Orlando Grand Prix
Where: 9550 Parksouth Court, Orlando, FL
How much: Adults are $16 for 14 laps; Kids $12 for 10 laps (An annual $5 license is also required)
Tip for Locals: If you can sneak away at lunchtime, Orlando Grand Prix offers a lunch hour special of 12 laps for $12.
Info: www.orlandogp.com or 407-434-7500
Orlando near top for home-price gains in Florida
Homes prices grew more throughout Central Florida than prices statewide during 2013, according to a new report released by Florida Realtors.
In the Orlando Metropolitan area, which includes Orange, Seminole, Osceola and Lake counties, the median home price rose 20 percent to a median price of $165,000 – exceeding the 15.9 percent statewide increase and edging the region closer to the statewide median home sales price of $168,000, according to a report released Tuesday by Florida Realtors.
Nearby Orlando, home sales prices in both Volusia and Polk counties outpaced statewide gains for the year. In Volusia, the median price rose 17.2 percent to $124,250. And in Polk County, sales prices rose 16.2 percent to a midpoint of $122,000.
Throughout Orlando and its surrounding areas, only Brevard County showed nominal growth. Prices in the area, which has been hard hit with NASA closings, increased only 6.8 percent and reach a median of $125,000 for the year.
Of about 20 metropolitan areas throughout the state, only Punta Gorda and Destin/Fort Walton Beach showed greater gains in sales prices than Orlando. Price in both of those coastal areas grew about 21 percent during 2013.
The pace of sales was actually slower in Metropolitan Orlando than throughout the state. The four-county area had 27,381 sales of single-family homes last year, a 6.4 percent increase from a year earlier. Statewide, the number of sales increased at double that pace.
Metropolitan Orlando’s condominium and townhome sales prices showed even greater gains than the area’s home prices. The prices for multi-family homes in the metro area rose 25 percent during the year to reach a median of $95,000. Statewide, condo prices increased 20 percent to a midpoint of $128,000 last year.
About five years ago, Orlando condo prices were the lowest in the state. By the end of 2013, about a half dozen other metro areas in the state had condominium prices equal to or lesser than Orlando’s.
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