It wouldn’t surprise you to learn that Disney’s Magic Kingdom drew about 52,876 per day in 2014 according to theme park industry estimates—would it?
Nor should it surprise you that, according to that same report, Epcot drew 31,232 per day, Disney’s Animal Kingdom 28,453, Disney’s Hollywood Studios 28,219, Universal Studios Florida 22,630 and Universal’s Islands of Adventure 22,301.
So assuming only the typical small annual deviations, those figures should hold close for 2015. Which means that if another trend holds, then in terms of daily attendance, the No. 2 draw in all Orlando for 2015 will be a pro soccer team. Through eight games—almost half its home schedule—Orlando City Soccer Club averaged 35,770 fans per game. Even if you subtract the incredible opening match attendance of more than 62,500 because you consider it an aberration, the team still was averaging more than 30,000 passionate, chanting fans per game.
Quick—somebody give Buzz Lightyear smelling salts.
Orlando City entered Major League Soccer, the top professional league in the United States, as an expansion team in 2015. Playing in the historic but aging Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium, the team, nicknamed the Lions, nonetheless ranked among MLS leaders in attendance.
Phil Rawlins, the team’s president, said in May 2015: “We have repeatedly called Orlando the ‘Soccer Capital of the South’ and our fans strengthen that reputation each and every week.”
Interestingly, according to attendance information released by the team, Orlando City is a big attraction for vacationers and other visitors to Central Florida. More than 10 percent of the fans so far live outside the state of Florida. In fact, they’ve come from 49 states—and 64 countries.
Why not? MLS features some of the world’s best players in high-level competition. Ricardo Kakà, the Brazilian star who is the best player on Orlando City, has 31 million followers or Facebook—10 million more than LeBron James.
In 2015, the league included 17 U.S. teams from coast to coast plus Canadian franchises in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Each team plays 34 games in a regular season that begins in March and ends in October. Twelve teams then advance to the postseason—the single-elimination MLS Cup Playoffs, which culminate with the MLS Cup in December. Additionally, MLS teams play in other tournaments, such as the U.S. Open Cup, which are sanctioned by the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF).
Fans won’t have many more opportunities to enjoy Orlando City in its inaugural home stadium. Sometime in the 2016 season, the team expects to move from the Citrus Bowl to a new downtown stadium a couple blocks east. The Citrus Bowl is a 70,000-seat football stadium, built in 1936 as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Association projects. But it has a storied history as a soccer venue, too.
More than 300,000 fans watched five 1994 men’s World Cup matches at the Citrus Bowl, none involving the United States. The stadium also hosted men’s and women’s Olympic soccer matches in 1996. And it’s been home to Orlando City since the team was formed in 2011.
Before 2015, the Lions competed four seasons in a lower-echelon pro soccer league, USL Pro. They won league championships in three of those seasons and finished with the best-regular-season record in the other. The Citrus Bowl was their home from 2011 to 2013, was unavailable in 2014 while undergoing renovation, and welcomed the Lions back in 2015.
In the meantime, the team has been building Orlando City Stadium, a soccer-only stadium virtually next to Amway Center, home of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. The stadium, built using only private funding, is expected to seat between 25,000 and 28,000 fans—which based on present demand assures one sellout after another.
The game-day experience at Orlando City matches truly is an experience in itself. Purple-clad fans arrive at the stadium hours in advance and party nonstop until kickoff. The team has not one, but two official fan clubs, Iron Lion Firm and The Ruckus. Their members chant, wave flags, beat drums and generally holler till they’re hoarse. Visit their websites to learn how to join—then make sure to pack Orlando City colors to wear when you come watch the Lions or your next visit or vacation.
Soccer is big, big, big in Orlando—it’s a real phenomenon, and it’s still growing. Could Orlando City soccer someday become the No. 1 overall vacation attraction in Central Florida? Probably not. But could it someday possibly rival theme park princesses in popularity?
At this rate, you bet your sweet Elsa.