Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

The science of rebuilding Orlando's science museum

In February 1997, the Orlando Science Center moved into a striking new home, a $48.7-million building overlooking a park. A state-of-the-art domed theater accompanied four floors of exhibits. More than 600,000 people visited in the first year.

The center quickly transitioned from a community jewel to a white elephant, however. Annual attendance dropped to about 200,000 after the initial burst of excitement. The non-profit began losing money and had to repeatedly ask for funding from city and county leaders, some of whom resented bailing out the facility.

But today the Orlando Science Center is on the mend, thanks to the leadership of a former AT&T microelectronics engineer and a growing interest in entities that promote math and science education. Attendance climbed to nearly 571,000 in fiscal 2016 — more than 320,000 of whom were under age 12.

President and CEO JoAnn Newman says the science center has worked to “rebuild the trust” of local stakeholders by slowly and steadily improving operations. Newman, a former engineer and executive with AT&T, Cirent Semiconductors and Agere Systems, joined the science center in 2003 as director of exhibits and was promoted to president in 2009.

The rebuilding began with baby steps: Managers began paying more attention to cleanliness, closing poorly performing exhibits and emphasizing customer service (some employees were put through the Disney Institute training program at Walt Disney World). Then the center began broadening its audience (the science center now offers annual family memberships, which usually cost $155, for $25 to low-income families) and developing ancillary revenue streams (it hosts about 75 weddings a year).

An important milestone came this fall when the center completed its largest expansion since 1997: An 11,000-sq.-ft. Kids Town area featuring half a dozen exhibits, ranging from an interactive citrus grove and factory to an elaborate climbing structure. More than half of the money for the $5.2-million expansion came from private-sector sources, such as Dr. Phillips Charities and Publix Super Markets.

It’s the first piece in what science center leaders hope will be a $30-million capital campaign. The decision to add the Kids Town was no accident: Families with children age 7 or younger are the center’s fastest-growing attendance segment, and metro Orlando lacks a major children’s museum.

“We wanted to make sure we filled that niche,” Newman says.

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Business Briefs

BREVARD COUNTY — Voters approved a half-cent sales tax to finance a $300-million cleanup program for the Indian River Lagoon.

CLERMONT — City leaders established an entertainment district downtown on the waterfront, allowing people to carry open containers of alcohol purchased within the district.

KISSIMMEE — A new minor-league baseball franchise, the Florida Fire Frogs, signed a four-year affiliation deal with the Atlanta Braves.

LAKE BUENA VISTA — The Federal Aviation Administration approved Walt Disney World’s plan to fly drones over the resort, with the first to be used in nighttime shows.

LAKE COUNTY — The state agreed to spend $700,000 designing an extension of the Van Fleet trail to fill in a gap on the Coast-to- Coast Connector trail across central Florida.

LAKE MARY — Unicorp National Development broke ground on a residential development with 138 homes and 260 apartments.

ORANGE COUNTY — The Florida Department of Transportation will fund an $800-million, eightmile extension of the East-West Expressway through Orlando, extending it across the Econlockhatchee River. After posting lower third-quarter sales and profits, SeaWorld Entertainment says it will cut more costs. Voters approved a referendum making it harder to amend the county charter by petition drive. Optum plans to hire 440 customer service employees. County commissioners approved a $5-million sports fund to be used to lure sporting events.

ORLANDO — The University of Florida backed out of a potential deal to acquire the assets of the Sanford Burnham Prebys Institute’s Orlando campus. The institute and Gov. Rick Scott are sparring over his demands that the institute repay nearly $80 million because of unfulfilled job-creation incentives. The owner of the Pulse nightclub turned down an offer of $2.25 million from the city, which wanted to turn the site into a memorial. The club was the site of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history last June. JetBlue began daily flights between Orlando and Havana on Nov. 29. Developer Mill Creek Residential broke ground on a 22-story apartment tower downtown called Modera. Wet ‘n Wild water park closed for good.

PORT CANAVERAL — Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, the first ship built in the world’s largest class of cruise ships, began sailing out of Port Canaveral.

SANFORD — City leaders approved a 2.4-mile, $2-million extension of the Riverwalk trail along Lake Monroe

WINTER PARK — Florida Hospital plans to build a $85-million pavilion at Winter Park Memorial Hospital


» Hamish Dodd is stepping down as CEO of Orlandobased Hard Rock Cafe International.

» The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness appointed Shelley Lauten CEO. Lauten, a former executive at Orlando’s largest chamber of commerce, succeeds Andrae Bailey.


Line-Less Park

When Universal Orlando opens its Volcano Bay water park this summer, it will be Orlando’s first queue-less park thanks to wearable technology called TapuTapu. Universal says visitors will be issued RFID-embedded wristbands that buzz when it’s their time to ride.