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Getting people to downtown in Central Florida

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There's more to Florida than theme parks and beaches.

Floridians know that, but state tourism officials figure that many out-of-state visitors don't.

So later this month, the agency responsible for promoting tourism throughout the state will begin testing a multiyear campaign to steer tourists to some of Florida's quaintest towns and classiest urban centers.

Visit Florida hopes the campaign -- dubbed "Downtowns and Small Towns" -- will build on the success of "Culturally Florida," another off-the-beaten-path promotion that highlighted the state's artistic and historical attractions.

The timing of the new campaign is right, they say, because many Florida towns and cities have revitalized their downtowns in recent years.

"Visitors always want to go where the locals go," said Kerri Post, Visit Florida's vice president of new product development. "We are kind of a mature destination, so we started to look around the state and noticed that the downtowns were really coming back all over."

Apalachicola, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa and Winter Haven are among the cities that have made an effort to redevelop their downtowns during the past decade and, as result, could be among those featured in the early rounds of the new campaign, Post said.

Later, smaller towns with less name recognition among travelers from out of state -- such as Mount Dora, Winter Garden and DeLand in Central Florida -- could be included in the campaign, she said.

Message: Stay longer

Florida isn't about to stop promoting its beaches and attractions, Post said. Visit Florida said it spends roughly $12 million a year in state and private funds on advertising -- enough, a spokesman said, to promote mainstream destinations while experimenting with less-conventional campaigns.

Rather than urge tourists to forgo sunbathing or theme-park hopping, the "Downtowns" campaign should get them thinking about other parts of the state and perhaps extending their vacations to explore them, Post said.

There are indications that some tourists are already doing this. A recent Visit Florida survey of U.S. visitors to the state found that half had visited a cultural attraction, such as a museum, during the previous year -- a 3.2 percent increase from the year before. Half also said they had visited a historical site, up 6.5 percent from the previous survey. This year's summer-travel forecast by the Travel Industry Association found that 61 percent of all Americans planning a vacation trip this summer were including a city or urban area as part of the itinerary, while 65 percent said they were including a small town or rural area.

Suzanne Cook, the trade group's senior vice president of research, said the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., prompted some travelers to start avoiding big attractions and major sightseeing cities. So the marketing of unconventional destinations -- particularly quaint, safer-feeling towns -- makes more sense, she said.

"Also, as the traveling public becomes a little more sophisticated, they are looking for more to do," Cook said.

Expert: Campaign fills niche

Some travel experts, however, are ambivalent about a state like Florida not playing to its strengths when selling itself to the rest of the world.

"I'm not sure you can go into the hearts and minds of literally hundreds of millions of travelers and change their mind-set of why they would go to Florida," said Carl Winston, director of the hospitality and tourism-management program at San Diego State University.

Winston points to the high-profile failure of Las Vegas in the 1990s to change its "Sin City" image to that of a more family-oriented destination. Backed by various marketing campaigns, casinos spent hundreds of millions of dollars building rides, shows and attractions that catered to families -- with little success. The city has since decided to promote itself with the slogan "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas."

Still, even Winston thinks that a niche campaign might be effective if aimed at travelers who have already visited Florida several times. He includes himself in that category.

"I might like Florida, but I'm done with Mickey," he said.

Frequent visitor

Dan Eberhardt, a Sunnyvale, Calif., resident who has visited Orlando's theme parks eight times since 1996, represents both the good news and the bad news for tourism officials hoping to expand Florida's image.

During his recent trips here, Eberhardt has rented a car and ventured to other parts of Florida, checking out the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota and spending a night on Longboat Key. That's the good news.

The bad news is that Eberhardt has driven right past or through Celebration, Windermere and the Dr. Phillips section of Orlando -- as well as the city center itself -- but has never stopped to look around.

"In general, downtown areas large and small are not all that different around the country, except maybe for the architecture," said Eberhardt, 48. "I've had a bit of an urge to see it [downtown Orlando], but it is not really a strong urge."

Anita Grove, executive director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, acknowledges that persuading out-of-state tourists to try something different is difficult.

"A huge section of the population doesn't want to come here for anything else than the classic beach or Disney environment," Grove said. "But there are people who are looking just as hard for natural beauty, or historical experiences, that Florida can also offer."

Visit Florida officials say the "Downtowns and Small Towns" campaign will start out small, with spots in promotional guidebooks and maps available at welcome centers and through the agency's Web site, www.visitflorida.org. But it will probably be expanded to include print and broadcast ads later in what most likely will be a five-year run. Officials say they don't yet know how much the effort will cost. The total price tag, they said, will depend on how many communities participate and whether the quasi-private agency finds a corporate partner to share the expense.

The "Culturally Florida" campaign, for instance, included a corporate partner, American Express, which sent promotional material to its charge-card customers.

Which cities to select

For now, Visit Florida is concentrating on which cities and towns will be chosen for the first year's promotion, Post said.

The agency will probably play it safe in the first round by choosing well-known cities or downtowns that have a lot to offer to tourists, she said. Early contenders include St. Augustine, Key West, Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, Tampa's Ybor City section, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale and nearby Delray Beach.

The next round of cities would likely include those with smaller downtowns or city cores that are still working on their redevelopment. Orlando would fall into this category, she said, as would Apalachicola and Panama City in the Panhandle.

"We can only promote the towns right now that really do provide a quality visitor experience -- ones that have been clearly focusing on their downtown areas and have a critical mass of products there," Post said.

Frank Billingsley, executive director of Orlando's Downtown Development Board, acknowledged that downtown Orlando's status as a tourist draw took a serious hit with the decline of Church Street Station in the 1990s.

But Billingsley said he has noticed more tourists now that new shops, restaurants and residential buildings have sprung up around Lake Eola and in other parts of the city core.

"Many people are convinced -- and I am, too -- that, by creating a vibrant city center, tourists will naturally follow," Billingsley said. "I think people are looking for the heart and soul of who we are, and downtowns provide that."

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Downtown Orlando will not be a destination until a few things get done..1) the Plaza, to bring in the movie theater and whatever else its doing...2) Church St, though it will never return to its former glory...3) cultural draws like the Performing Arts Center, or it would be nice to have a "real" museum right in downtown Orlando with good exhibits that could draw people down there. And 4) and most important in my opinion, it just needs to continue growing at a fast pace and as more and more people move down there and the infrustructure grows, it will just become more unified and interesting and a place to walk around, which will create a buzz. The greatest cities are great because of their buildings, architecture, and people, thats what we need.

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I don't see how this contradicts advertising for theme parks, but anyway...

Can we get a list going of our favorite florida small city/town downtowns?

Winter Park

Deland

St. Augustine

Homestead

Delray

Hollywood

Venice

Appalachicola

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There is really nothing in downtown Orlando for tourists to go. Maybe the nightlife with locals...

We have Museum of Art and big and beautiful Sience center, just some stupid idiots build them in the wrong place. And a lot of locals that i know have never ever step foots in those places....

All we need is just a grand scale entertainment complex like downtown disney or universal city walk, we will be all set.

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I actually like the Loch Haven Park area but like most areas in Orlando it hasn't reached its full potential. It needs to be connected better to the Orange Ave antiques district, and I actually think that the performing arts center would work well over there considering that they have focused a lot of the arts in that area, or at least a large theater to attract big shows (a pipe dream of course).

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Gainesville's downtown is looking up these days. There is now about a 10 block area that is very charming. Plus, for nightime entertainment, Gainesville has more to do than many of the other mentioned cities combined. Give us ten years. Many visitors will be suprised.

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I don't see how this contradicts advertising for theme parks, but anyway...

Can we get a list going of our favorite florida small city/town downtowns?

Winter Park

Deland

St. Augustine

Homestead

Delray

Hollywood

Venice

Appalachicola

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Dade City

Tarpon Springs

Dunedin

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