Florida's Orlando International Airport is the gateway to the most magical place on Earth -- and it just got a little friendlier for travelers of all faiths. Starting in September, passengers will enjoy a “reflection room” for spiritual mediation in the airport’s Terminal B.
While the space will welcome worshippers of all faiths, it was partly designed keeping in mind the practices of Muslim travelers, who adhere to a prescribed ritual prayer that involves standing, bowing, prostrating and sitting on the floor. The room will include benches but also a carpeted area where travelers can sit.
“So they aren’t having to, if it is the case, kneel on bathroom floors or in corners, so they have the reflective time,” said Carolyn Fennell, the airport’s director of public affairs. "There are amenties there for those who practice Middle East rituals."
The prayer area also will include an ablution facility, carry-on luggage bins and racks for holding worshippers' shoes, Fennell said. Signs marking north, east, south and west will indicate the qibla, the directions Muslims face when they offer prayers.
The room, at about 1,000 square feet, is just one part of a large $250,000 project that covers nearly 4,000 square feet and includes an international lounge and other facility enhancements, like additional electronics charging stations and concessions, airport officials said.
Fennell said the airport has seen incredible growth in international passengers -- up 14 percent in the last year -- and the enhancements fit in with the airport's mission to improve the customer service experience for all passengers.
"International activity is our highest level of growth, and we have a focus on customer service enhancement. As we get more passengers, we need to add spaces that accommodate and offer amenities for diverse passengers," Fennell said. "We’re a global connection point -- the most visited destination in the country for three years running." [The Orlando area is home to the Walt Disney World entertainment complex and other attractions.]
But, adds Fennell, there will be no religious symbols in the reflection room, and it will serve as a space for all passengers. The idea is not new to the airport: There has been a chapel open to all worshippers in Terminal A since the airport opened in 1981. The airport also has plans to open another nondenominational worship space in the pre-security area in 2016.
The launch of the lounge and reflection room coincides with the commencement of an Emirates direct flight between Orlando and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, that begins Sept. 1. Emirates, which is headquartered in Dubai, is the largest airline in the Middle East and is the fourth-largest airline in the world in terms of international passengers carried.
Muslims have expressed excitement at the new space. Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, told News 13 in Orlando that “these rooms provide travelers an opportunity to pray in their own way and have peace before they take on a long flight.”
But not everyone is thrilled with the idea of a worship room that caters to Muslims, even though airport authorities have emphasized that the room is open to all. There has been backlash on social media in certain conservative circles, despite assurances that there is already a chapel at the airport and that the new reflection room is not limited to Muslims.
“Are ticket prices going to increase for everyone so a super small percentage of people will be allowed to enter this praying room?” wrote John S. Roberts on the website youngcons.com. (The airport has repeatedly emphasized that the reflection room is open to all passengers in the international terminal.)
Hey? Does that Orlando International Muslim prayer room come with it's very own radicalized Imam? You know...for authenticity...
— Willem Lafluer (@WillemLafluer) August 12, 2015
“Orlando is pathetic. Caving to Muslims and Sharia law. I'll find another airport to fly into,” read one comment left on the airport’s Facebook page in response to a statement about the new reflection room. Another user wrote, "Adding insult to stupidity is the fact the taxpayers are footing the bill."
According to airport officials, the Orlando International Airport is funded 30 percent by the airlines and 70 percent by user fees generated by restaurants, hotels and commercial leases at the facility.
"We do use passenger facility charges that are built into ticket fees, as virtually all airports do. But there are no tax dollars provided at all for the operation of the airport," Fennell said.
As for the backlash, Fennell said the airport has "had some calls and some comments. But there isn't any movement toward disrespecting any religions at all -- we are respectful of all faiths."
She added that this reflection room is no different from the airport's tradition of serving all passengers with its nondenominational chapel, or the nondenominational prayer room outside the security area that will open in 2016.
It's also a standard practice for large airports to offer reflection spaces. Multifaith prayer rooms are common at major airports in cities like Detroit, San Francisco and Boston.
Orlando International Airport is the 14th largest airport in the U.S. and serves about 37 million passengers annually. It also has a reputation for being one of the nicest: Travel & Leisure magazine ranked it as the No. 5 best airport in the United States in 2014.