Florida is the 22nd largest state in the United States by land area, land covered in marshes and bayous, horse pastures, citrus groves and, of course, theme parks. The state’s seaside destinations get a lot of attention, but its inland cities are home to the state’s flagship universities, some of Florida’s most breathtaking natural scenery and some of its largest meeting venues.
Here are five inland destinations that make attractive hosts for meetings and events.
Kissimmee is a 30-minute drive south of Orlando, which means it’s “right next to those world-famous theme parks,” said Michelle Moore, Experience Kissimmee’s senior director of meeting sales and services. “But we’re also far enough away that [visitors] would never have to see a character or attraction if they don’t want to.”
The Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center is Kissimmee’s biggest venue, and it’s about to get bigger. The resort just announced an expansion that will add 300 guest rooms for 1,700 total and another 90,000 square feet of event space for a total of 490,000.
The 862-guest-room Omni Orlando Resort at Championsgate, which completed a renovation in October 2017, has nearly 250,000 square feet of meeting space. The 300-suite Embassy Suites by Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista South offers 40,000 square feet of event space. Though Reunion Resort has 25,000 square feet of meeting space, the property’s claim to fame is its three 18-hole championship golf courses.
Margaritaville Resort Orlando opened in January with 184 hotel rooms and 40,000 square feet of meeting space.
At Island Grove Winery at Formosa Gardens, groups can choose from a dozen indoor and outdoor event spaces, including a grand room that can seat 150 for meals.
Attendees can tackle the aerial ropes course at Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park, zip line over alligators at Gatorland and dine at six restaurants headed by James Beard Award-winning chefs at Disney Springs.
Gainesville is known for its gators, the University of Florida (UF) kind. As a college town and the seat of Alachua County, Gainesville provides plenty of big-city offerings while still being small enough to manage, said Elizabeth Reyes, sales and marketing coordinator for Visit Gainesville, Alachua County.
After a recent renovation and expansion, UF’s Reitz Union now offers more than 50,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor event space; the spaces include two ballrooms, two auditoriums, 20 conference/meeting rooms, the North Lawn and an amphitheater. The Reitz Union Hotel has 36 guest rooms on the union’s fifth and sixth floors.
At UF’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, groups of up to 450 can gather in Holloway Touchdown Terrace or enjoy seated meals in the Evans Champions Club; a variety of other spaces, including outdoor decks, work well for 100 to 200 guests. The 10,000-seat Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center is home to UF basketball and also hosts large-scale events.
At Celebration Pointe, groups will find restaurants, retail, a movie theater and a new 140-room Hotel Indigo near the pedestrian-only City Walk Promenade.
In downtown, the Florida Museum of Natural History can host seated meals for up to 200, and the Harn Museum of Art welcomes groups of up to 170. The Hippodrome Theater offers its main stage, a smaller cinema and the larger lower level for events.
The annual Frank conference uses all of downtown as its venue, holding sessions in restaurants and cafes rather than in a single space.
Tallahassee sits in the skinny part of Florida’s “arm,” with the Georgia border 20 miles north and the Gulf Coast 20 miles south. It’s the state capital, a thriving college town and a nature lover’s paradise, said Renee Jones, public relations specialist for Visit Tallahassee.
At Florida State University, the 47,000-square-foot FSU Conference Center has 11 meeting spaces, including a 350-seat auditorium, a 280-seat dining room and seven breakout rooms. FSU’s Donald L. Tucker Civic Center has a 13,800-fixed-seat arena as well as a 35,000-square-foot exhibit hall and six additional meeting rooms. Inside Doak Campbell Stadium, the University Center Club offers planners 64,000 square feet with outdoor decks overlooking the field.
The 242-room DoubleTree by Hilton has over 15,000 square feet of meeting space, and the hotel recently built a 17th-floor cocktail lounge and event space called Eve on Adams that opened this month.
The FourPoints by Sheraton in downtown has 8,000 square feet of event space, and the hotel recently opened a venue next door: Bricks and Brass. The renovated appliance store has a 3,500-square-foot ballroom and a 2,100-square-foot patio.
The 117-room Hotel Duval is another full-service property and offers 7,450 square feet of event space, the largest of which is the 2,700-square-foot ballroom.
Three new hotels opened in Tallahassee in 2018, and several more are in various stages of development or construction.
Florida may be known for alligators, but the city of Ocala and Marion County are known for horses. Marion County is home to more than 400 thoroughbred farms and training centers, and visitors will see horses grazing in green pastures on almost every horizon. Construction is underway on the new World Equestrian Center, and the first phase is set to open in 2021. Along with equestrian facilities, the 4,000-acre complex will have a luxury hotel, high-end shopping and fine-dining restaurants.
The Hilton Ocala has 40,000 square feet of event space, including a 4,200-square-foot ballroom and a 20,000-square-foot courtyard, and the 113-room Holiday Inn and Suites Ocala Conference Center offers 11,000 square feet of meeting space. A Holiday Inn Express opened in August 2018, a new Springhill Suites opened this February, and a Hilton Garden Inn is slated to open in January 2020.
At the College of Central Florida, the Webber Center can seat 130 for meals, and the Klein Conference Center provides 4,000 square feet of meeting space.
Circle Square Commons offers three event spaces. The Circle Square Cultural Center can accommodate 600 people for banquets, and smaller groups can choose from two multiuse halls.
At Silver Springs State Park, floor-to-ceiling windows in the Paradise Ballroom give up to 300 dinner guests views of the head springs.
Lakeland and Winter Haven are the largest cities in Florida’s Polk County, and “even though we’re right between Orlando and Tampa, we’re kind of ‘old Florida, natural Florida,’” said Al Snow, convention, meeting and event representative for Visit Central Florida.
In Lakeland, the RP Funding Center completed a $14.2 million renovation in January that touched nearly every inch of its 100,000 square feet of meeting space. The center has four venues under one roof: a 10,000-capacity arena, a 2,200-seat theater, a 28,000-square-foot exhibit Hall and a 34,000-square-foot conference center.
Construction is underway on a new 120-room Marriott at the RP Funding Center that is scheduled to open in March 2020, joining the 118-room Hyatt Place there.
In Winter Haven, a new 60,000-square-foot conference center and field house is slated to open in November that will host sports tournaments as well as large meetings and events.
Streamsong Resort is a five-star property with 216 guest rooms and nearly 25,000 square feet of meeting space. The resort’s three championship golf courses make it “very popular with financial meetings and high-end meetings,” Snow said.
At Safari Wilderness, groups can take a sunset safari in a safari vehicle, on camelback or by kayak and then have a reception in the 10,000-square-foot main building.