In the battle for U.S. tourism supremacy, there are really only two competitors: New York and Orlando. The rivals have vied for the title of most-visited U.S. destination for years, but the winner has never been more definitive than in 2013, when Orlando welcomed a staggering 59 million visitors and set an all-time record for a U.S. destination.
Visit Orlando President and CEO George Aguel officially announced the record-breaking number Monday, though he released preliminary figures on April 9 in Chicago at the International Pow Wow, a leading U.S. travel conference. "Thanks to the strong global marketing and sales efforts of our team at Visit Orlando and the leadership of our tourism members and community leaders who share a common vision for our destination, Orlando continues to lead the nation as its most-visited destination," Aguel proclaimed.
Florida as a whole also set a record last year, with nearly 95 million visitors, an increase of 3.5 percent over 2012. “Every 85 visitors to Florida equals one job in our state -- and it is clear that more visitors to the Sunshine State means more jobs for Florida families,” Gov. Rick Scott said in an announcement in February, noting that he had put more money than ever in Visit Florida’s tourism budget for 2014.
A large portion of Florida’s visitors head straight to Orlando, a city that refuses to rest on its laurels and is currently in the midst of one of the most significant expansion periods in its 43-year history as a tourist destination.
SeaWorld Orlando opened its biggest-ever expansion last year, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, while Universal Orlando Resort will open the world’s first centrally themed, multipark experience this summer by expanding The Wizarding World of Harry Potter across its two Florida theme parks.
Walt Disney World Resort will complete a multiyear project to double the size of Fantasyland this summer, and will also add several new additions and enhancements to its dining and entertainment districts. These ever-evolving attractions give previous visitors all the more reason to return to Orlando time and again, and they help solidify the city’s reputation as the destination of choice for families.
Because resorts like Disney World, the region’s biggest draw card, are actually some 25 miles outside of Orlando, officials in New York City often question the city’s high tourism figures. Many of its visitors, they argue, never actually set foot in the city itself.
By comparison, New York City only looks at the five boroughs, which received a combined 54.3 million visitors in 2013. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg said before he left office on Dec. 31 that the city could expect 55 million annual visitors by the end of 2014 -- a new record for New York, but still 4 million fewer people than Orlando’s 2013 milestone.
While New York’s domestic figures may lag behind Orlando's, the Big Apple still takes the cake when it comes to international visitors. “Since 2002, overall tourism here has grown more than 50 percent, while international visitation has increased more than 100 percent,” Bloomberg said in an announcement last December. “In addition, more and more people are visiting attractions outside of Manhattan, thanks in part to our efforts to support cultural organizations in neighborhoods across the city.”
New York welcomed one-third of all overseas travelers to the United States last year. These international tourists, who tend to spend much more than their domestic counterparts, helped bring tourism’s economic impact on New York City to an even higher level than Orlando, at $58.7 billion and $50 billion, respectively.