Ballparks, innovative museums and a restored 1920s-era research lab will be among the major new attractions in Florida in the coming year.
The Sunshine State will offer a new Club Med spa in Port St. Lucie for human pampering and an animal care center where visitors to Tampa can see behind-the-scenes veterinary care at Busch Gardens, one of the state's top zoos and theme parks.
The 82 million people who visited Florida in 2010 can return in 2012 to massive new sports landmarks, restored beaches and a South Florida children's art museum that will set the standard nationwide.
"There continues to be so much incredible investment," said Will Seccombe, the state's chief tourism marketing officer. "There's new infrastructure, hotels, resorts to major attractions like huge new rides and the Marlins baseball park. The Florida tourism industry learned a lot of lessons over the years: One of the reasons we've been so successful is that we are continuing investing, upgrading and enhancing the tourism product."
The number of visitors to the state was up 5 percent last year, he said.
One of the biggest investments will be spotted by most everyone flying into Miami International Airport: the $515 million, 37,000-seat Miami Marlins baseball stadium.
The stadium will open for business April 4 in the season opener against the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
No more rain delays or unbearable summer heat – this new facility has a retractable roof and air conditioning. Temperatures will be kept at a cool 75 degrees. The team expects summer rains and heat will keep the roof closed for up to 90 percent of the 81 home games.
"When you visit a place for the first time, you go to the most important landmarks. We think this will become an important landmark," said team president David Samson. "It's such a glorious building everyone will see as they fly in from the airport. It will be hard to miss."
The stadium is on 17 acres of the 42-acre Orange Bowl site in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, less than 2 miles from downtown. The team expects to draw up to 500,000 out-of-towners in the opening season, something that was difficult in the past, because visitors from other parts of the state feared weather disruptions, Samson said.
"We never used to be able to draw from Orlando, Naples and the Keys," he said. "This is a full relocation. We're not just in the parking lot of where we used to be."
It will mark the first time the Marlins play in a baseball-only stadium. The newly branded Miami Marlins have an updated logo, uniform and new players (such as All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes and pitcher Mark Buerhle).
The new stadium has two aquariums and a 360-degree promenade level. It's also the first LEED-certified retractable roof stadium in the country, which means it has environmentally friendly features such as more water-efficient restroom facilities.
"We think it's one of the best in the country," he said. "That will be for the fans to decide."
Other new sports facilities in ths state include a $54 million water-view park and stadium that will be home to the Blue Wahoos, a new minor-league team in Pensacola. In Lee County, the $77.9 million JetBlue Park will be the latest spring training facility for the Boston Red Sox, featuring a replica of Fenway Park's Green Monster.
Broward County will see a major new children's art museum, when the relocated Young at Art Museum opens in Davie with twice as much floor space and four new exhibit areas.
The $26 million museum was a years-long project that incorporated ideas from artists from places such as the Museum of Modern Art.
The museum's concept is to incorporate art into all aspects of children's curriculum. Curators set out to engage children about art and show them how things like painting, digital art and sculpture enrich the community. It features a section on nature, a spot for younger kids and another for teens interested in computers and recording music.
"It's a model for the museum field," said CEO and founder Mindy Shargo. "We will be so unique. Art is critically important to the growth of the child, so we don't dumb-down to kids: We teach history, we teach culture."
About 20 percent of the museum's current visitors hail from out of town, Shargo said. Opening day is May 5.
History and science buffs can get their fill at the Edison-Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, which in 2012 will complete a six-year, $13 million restoration project with the opening of a completely restored 1927 research lab.
The historic home site – one of the top 10 most-visited in the country – was the winter resting spot for Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Thirteen historic buildings are spread over 20 acres and feature hundreds of inventions and artifacts.
"Edison and Ford were the Steve Jobs of their day," said museum CEO Chris Pendleton. "The lab has never been restored to the way it was in Edison's day – till now. It just sat there since the 1920s."
The estate curators explain that during World War I, the price of rubber rose dramatically. Edison hoped to find a domestic source of rubber from a latex-producing plant. He, Ford and Harvey Firestone formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in 1927, and the lab was built in 1928 to support rubber research and development.
This is where they tested some 17,000 plants from 2,200 species. Research there proved that a common weed produced latex. "Edison's 1,090th patent received was connected to his rubber research, for the process of extracting rubber from plants," according to the estate web site.
The $900,000 exhibit will open on Edison's birthday, Feb. 11.
"That's what we're about," Pendleton said, "the celebration of invention."
Editor's note: This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.