Citizens help decide how the county tourism tax is spent

The Orange County Florida Tourism Tax (TDT) reinvests revenue from area attractions back into entertainment while attracting even more visitors and giving back to the community.

The Orlando metro area is the largest tourist destination in North America and through Florida Orange County law can levy a 6% tax on hotel stays and short-term rentals. Last year alone, Orange County collected $336.3 million in taxes from the 74 million people who traveled from around the world to experience the county’s entertainment, including Disney, Universal, concerts and sports.

The tax has been around since 1978, but it wasn’t until that year that the Tourism Development Tax Citizens Advisory Task Force was created, allowing Orange County residents to have a say in how the revenue is invested. The task force is made up of people with a wide range of backgrounds, including in government, trade groups and the hospitality industry.

“To try to depoliticize the process of what we’re going to use the money for, for the first time in our 45-year history, I’ve decided to open it up to the community,” Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said. “The different chambers had the opportunity to appoint a representative, each of our county commissioners had the opportunity to appoint a representative … We said we only want ordinary citizens.”

The Orange County Board of Commissioners approved funding earlier this month for four projects recommended by the task force:

  • a $560 million expansion of the Orange County Convention Center, which is the third largest in the nation and has an estimated economic impact of $2.8 billion;

  • $90 million for University of Central Florida’s FBC Mortgage Stadium;

  • $75 million for the Application Review Committee (ARC) and

  • $69.4 million for arts and cultural activities.

Community-based organizations can apply for ARC funding, one of which is Preserve Eatonville, a local group serving the nation’s oldest recorded black settlement. The organization receives funding through the ARC to host the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival and is set to create a permanent building honoring the town’s history.

Other infrastructure in the county that the tax has contributed to includes the Amway Center, home to the Orlando Magic (NBA basketball team); Camping World Stadium; The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and the Orlando Science Center, which is currently being renovated and remodeled.

The science center received $10 million from TDT and is using the funding to expand its climate and conservation exhibits focused on ocean, rainforest and swamp environments. The updated center will feature sloths, a shark tank and a squirrel run, among other new attractions designed to educate and engage Orange County’s youth.

The tourist tax also gives back to the community in more potentially unexpected ways, according to Demings. The convention center’s hydroponic garden—which grows up to 800 heads of lettuce per week using water-based nutrients instead of soil, saving 90-95% of land and water use—not only provides fresh food for downtown events, but also provides surplus food to local organizations like One Heart for Women and Children, which helps provide resources to families living below the poverty line, and Libby’s Legacy Breast Cancer Foundation.

“That’s the untold story — as a community leader, as public officials, when you decide to invest in these types of facilities, yes, it’s going to create jobs, but there’s also an opportunity to uplift your entire community through the social services that benefit from having these types of facilities,” Demings said. “Because of all the people that come, all the events, sometimes that means there’s food left and we’re able to support non-profits to deal with food shortages … sometimes if we have a home show and garden and you leave behind thousands of yards of carpet, we are able to facilitate the gifting of this to non-profit organizations.’

In fiscal year 2023, 138 pounds of supplies, including clothing and toiletries, and 213,000 pounds of food and beverages were redistributed to the community by the convention center. Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida redistributes food to other pantries, churches and community groups.

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