May 22--In a positive sign for summer tourism, Central Florida hotels and theme parks are bracing for big crowds this weekend, when travel is expected to hit its highest Memorial Day level since 2005.
At Orlando'sNickelodeon Suites Resort, for example, the 777 suites are almost sold out, and the few remaining units require at least a two-night stay.
"It's pretty limited," spokeswoman Beth Cocchiarella said. "It's definitely a great weekend for us."
More good times may be on the way, too. Cocchiarella said that, based on current bookings and projections, Nickelodeon expects its best summer in three years. That's consistent with the first four months of the year. Local hotels have reported higher occupancy and higher room rates compared with the same period last year.
Nationally, about 36.1 million people will travel during the long weekend, according to the AAA auto club -- a 1.5 percent increase over 2013. In Florida, almost 1.9 million people are planning to get away, up almost 2.4 percent from a year ago. Memorial Day kicks off the summer-travel season.
"We see people putting money back into vacations and family time," said Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for Heathrow-based AAA. "We had a really harsh winter, with people cooped up. So now they're flocking to the beaches or attractions -- anywhere where they can enjoy the sunshine."
That includes Orlando, which Priceline.com says will be the third-most-popular destination in the country this weekend, behind Las Vegas and San Diego. Priceline bases its rankings on travel bookings made through its site for the holiday weekend.
Orbitz, which uses a similar methodology, ranks Orlando sixth, behind locations such as Chicago, New York and CancÚn, Mexico.
Richard Jackson, director of sales and marketing at Coco Key Hotel & Water Resort, said he also expects the long weekend will be a good start to the summer. His property has 391 rooms and targets families with young children.
"It's going to be very strong for us," said Jackson. "This time of year we tend to see shorter stays, and it's more of the 'drive market' than the 'fly market.'"
AAA's national travel estimate is 2.6 percent higher than its 10-year historical average and is the second-highest since 2000. The projections represent new post-recession highs and coincide with falling unemployment, a recovery in the housing market and rising consumer confidence.
Orlando's major theme parks are famously tight-lipped about crowd projections, but if you go this weekend, expect lots of company.
A Walt Disney World spokeswoman called Memorial Day weekend "a popular time for families," and SeaWorld pointed out that it offers locals discounted tickets that are good Monday. Universal Orlando did not respond to a request for comment.
For locals hungry for a road trip, expect congestion in the tourist district and near Florida's beaches. Typically, traffic is heaviest Friday afternoon and evening -- as folks try to get away -- and on Monday afternoon as they return home.
AAA said drivers should expect gas prices to be relatively similar to last year's at this time: about $3.63 a gallon. Rising supplies are helping keep prices down, AAA said.
The vast majority of travelers will drive to their destination, but the long weekend has also become a busy travel time at the nation's airports. Airlines for America, an industry group, said the first two days of the Memorial Day break in 2013 were among the 15 busiest air-travel days of the year. In fact, Friday, May 24, last year ranked as the second-busiest of all.
A spokesman for Orlando International Airport said OIA was not expecting unusually heavy traffic.
Looking ahead to summer, Airlines for America expects air travel to hit its highest level in six years.
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