Chairman and CEO Charles Whittall of UniCorp is a well-known developer in Orlando, responsible for many of the properties on Sand Lake Road or "Restaurant Row" as well as one of 2015's biggest attractions: the I-Drive 360. The venue will feature the impressive 400-foot Orlando Eye observation wheel and major entertainment venues, restaurants and retailers opening early this year on International Drive. We interviewed Whittall (below) about his latest project, giving you the inside scoop on the "next big thing" on International Drive.
You're an Orlando native. When did you first go to Walt Disney World?
I went to Disney the first week it opened in 1971. I was five years old. My father was a fireman and worked at Orange County, and they hired the off-duty firemen to work the theme park. I got in free. It was much smaller back then. They had the FantasyLand area and the Carousel of Progress. It was great—we got to go all the time.
What was the city like 27 years ago when you got your start in real estate?
You have done a tremendous amount of work in the retail and restaurant development sector. Is the I-Drive 360 project, with its focus on entertainment, a different undertaking for you?
Well, we have built a lot of lifestyle centers, so it does fall in tune with the other projects, but this is the first one that’s had a ride, an attraction.
Your latest development, I-Drive 360 opening this year, will have a 400-foot observation wheel, an aquarium, Madame Tussauds wax museum, various shops and restaurants ... what other cities have this kind of offering?
Maybe Las Vegas and certain markets in California, but Orlando is really set apart from other destinations in the world. Orlando is a world-class tourist destination and also a convention destination so it’s the right place for a project of this magnitude.
So why International Drive?
I bought the property in 2004, and we sat on it for a number of years, not really knowing what we were going to do with it. We just knew it was a great piece of property near Sand Lake Road. Today, with the I-Drive shops [at the Wyndham Orlando Resort], the Vue at 360 [formerly Kings Plaza on International Drive], and all the developments, it’s the perfect time. The I-Drive 360 is a great fit around visitors’ itineraries for the theme parks. They can visit our attraction the day they check in or the day they check out.
What do you like most about Orlando?
Orlando is absolutely a great place to live, work and play. It’s great for raising kids, great for entertainment. We can go to the I-Drive area and the Sand Lake area and have dinner and drinks without having to drive too far. With everything that Universal and Disney are doing, and with what we’re doing on I-Drive and on Universal Drive, it’s going to continue to become a great place. Crime is very low. And I always tell people, the temperature here in Orlando is great nine months a year and good for the other three in the summer.
Chuck Whittall's Perfect Day in Orlando
I would obviously start the day off at Disney or Universal Studios.
At around 4 pm in the afternoon I’d head back to the Four Seasons to get ready for the perfect evening. It’s a wonderful property. I would leave from the Four Seasons to have dinner at Eddie V’s restaurant on Restaurant Row.
Then I would go over to the 360 wheel for a ride, timed perfectly to catch a glimpse of the fireworks.