If you’ve ever visited the Orlando area as a tourist, odds are you’ve been very close to Florida Mall. Located just minutes from Sea World, Disney, and Universal, Florida Mall is the largest mall in the Orlando area and one of the closest malls to all these attractions. In fact, from 1986-2002, it was the only major mall in south Orlando. Since its grand opening, the massive Florida Mall has enjoyed immense success serving not only locals, but tourists from around the country and across the globe.
Let’s step back in time a bit. Before Disney World opened, ushering in millions of tourists annually and spawning other theme parks to create the largest tourist-centric area in the entire world, Orlando was little more than a sleepy burg surrounded by acres of orange groves. Orlando began to grow rapidly as a retirement destination during the latter half of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until after Disney World debuted in 1971 that Orlando began to really blossom, growing exponentially in the decades following.
However, before Orlando became known as the tourist capital of the world, two enclosed malls debuted in the 1960s to an already-growing population of people beating those cold northern winters: Colonial Plaza, which was enclosed from a strip mall in 1962, and Winter Park Mall, which opened in1964. These malls, while significant at the time, would be classified as neighborhood or possibly regional, but not super-regional centers by using today’s schematic. This would all change in the 1970s though as true behemoth super-regional centers came to fruition.
Throughout the 1970s, as the population swelled from 450,000 in 1970 to 700,000 by 1980, Central Florida built two truly super-regional malls: Orlando Fashion Square, built two blocks away from Colonial Plaza in 1973 – and Altamonte Mall, built north of Orlando in 1974. As a response, Colonial Plaza was downgraded in importance almost immediately; and though Winter Park Mall soldiered on into the 80s, both malls withered in the 90s and were eventually torn down and redeveloped as outdoor centers.
By the mid-1980s, the population of Central Florida had shot up to almost one million residents, and developers were eager to capitalize on the lack of a dominant retail presence in south Orlando. They realized a mall in south Orlando was a long time coming, and various proposals for a mall there began as early as the late 1960s; though, little success was made until the 1980s when plans were finalized.
Finally, in 1986, Ohio-based DeBartolo Group (later merged with Simon) opened the first super-regional mall, Florida Mall, in south Orlando at the intersection of Sand Lake Road and South Orange Blossom Trail, the main surface route leading south from central Orlando. Florida Mall opened as a single level mall with retail anchors JCPenney, Sears, Robinson’s, and Belk-Lindsay. A fifth anchor, a 12-story Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, also opened with the mall and opens into it just as a retail anchor would.
Florida Mall’s original layout was also much smaller and less interesting than it is today. Sears, JCPenney, and Robinson’s flanked the western end of the mall, toward Orange Blossom Trail, the hotel anchored the south side, and Belk-Lindsay was the eastern anchor.
Throughout the years, there have been many anchor changes, renovations, and expansions at Florida Mall. Of the mall’s original anchors, only Sears and JCPenney have stayed put. The first change took place when Robinson’s closed in 1988 and was replaced by New Orleans-based Maison Blanche that same year. Then, in 1993, the first major expansion took place as a Dillard’s was added to the eastern end of the mall. In 1994, Maison Blanche closed and became Mobile-based Gayfers. In 1996, Belk-Lindsay closed and was replaced by Saks Fifth Avenue. In 1998, Gayfers – only open for four years – became Birmingham-based Parisian, and JCPenney renovated and expanded its store.
In 2000, Florida Mall embarked on a massive expansion and renovation project, transforming the mall into the behemoth it is today. A Burdines store was added that year, as well as a V-shaped loop of dual mallways connecting Burdines to the existing mall. Then, in 2002, a Nordstrom was added as the icing on the cake to the expansion, adding a shorter stub wing off the Burdines wing that was just built, with 8 more store spaces. The end result is an amazingly huge floorplan for a single mall – it’s not possible to walk the entire mall quickly, and it’s fairly easy to even get lost.
At the same time the renovation took place, Parisian – which had only been open 3 years – became a Lord and Taylor in 2001. The next change took place in 2005, when Macy’s acquired Burdines and retired that nameplate, converting all of the venerable Florida Burdines into Macy’s. The next year, in 2006, Lord and Taylor – the last remaining store in Florida – closed, and remained shuttered until it was demolished in 2007 to make way for the ever-popular outdoor/’lifestyle’ addition. As of early 2010, the outdoor expansion had only partially come to fruition, and features a large Zara store, H&M, as well as an XXI Forever. And that’s it. Some reason to make people go outside. The hotel has also changed names a few times too, going from Holiday Inn to Sheraton to Adam’s Mark to an independent hotel called the Florida Hotel, which it remains today.
Florida Mall also has other interesting accoutrements, including a two-level Starbucks in the middle of the mall, a massive food court, and a huge M&M’s store. There is also an operating CVS inside the mall, despite CVS closing most of their mall stores in the last decade. In addition, the mall technically operates a strip plaza across the parking lot, currently featuring a Target and a Marshalls, which is probably included in the mall’s 1.8 million total square feet. According to many sites, Florida Mall is one of the largest single-story malls in the country, and I believe it.
Florida Mall remains on top of its game due to its location – 2 miles from the International Drive tourist strip and 3 miles from Orlando International Airport, its selection of stores, sheer size, and its massive expansion from 2000-2002 - which proved to be an effective defensive tactic. While immune to the myriad of super-regional malls that plopped down in other parts of Orlando in the 1990s, such as in Sanford, Oveido, Ocoee, and Waterford Lakes, Florida Mall had an immediate threat coming in 2002 with the opening of The Mall at Millenia, a very large, upscale center which opened just three miles away along the busy I-4. Millennia, with its shiny nuances and upscale swing, would have almost certainly decimated Florida Mall if it weren’t for the carefully planned anchor upgrades and the massive expansion that Florida Mall completed the same year Millenia opened. Coincidence? Definitely not.
In addition to Millenia, a large enclosed center called Festival Bay Mall also opened nearby in 2002, anchoring the north end of the International Drive tourist strip at the intersection of I-4 and Florida’s Turnpike. Unfortunately, even with a great location Festival Bay never took off and is a massive failure, providing neither competition to Florida Mall nor Mall at Millenia – it appears developers oversaturated the market that year.
We visited Florida Mall in February 2010 and took the pictures featured here. As usual, leave your own thoughts and experiences with the mall on the comments page – we really appreciate it.