June 30--Fueled by a growing middle class, Brazil has made its way to the top of Orlando's overseas-visitor list, overtaking the United Kingdom for the first time.
Almost 770,000 visitors from the South American powerhouse came to Central Florida in 2013, topping the 759,000 from Great Britain, according to estimates from the Visit Orlando tourism-marketing agency. Since 2004, Brazilian travel to Orlando has exploded by 900 percent as rising affluence has given more Brazilians a taste for American theme parks, restaurants and shopping.
Leading the way are Brazilian teens, for whom a trip to Orlando has become almost a rite of passage. They arrive after 10 or 11 hours on a plane, tired but eager to sample Central Florida's thrill rides, night life and stores.
"Shopping is a big reason they're here," said Orlando tour operator Claudia Menezes. "They arrive with a list of items for their aunts, cousins, their grandmothers." Menezes said they enjoy theme parks such as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld, but "they also love to shop."
Menezes is vice president of Pegasus Transportation, and Brazilian teens are crucial to her company's success. Half of its business comes from international travel, and 70 percent of that comes from Brazil.
She books them into hotels, arranges transportation, organizes their itineraries and tries to ensure they have a good time. Last week, Pegasus was entertaining about 600 Brazilian teens staying at Universal's new Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
This summer, it expects to handle arrangements for about 5,000.
"They've discovered Orlando is very affordable," said Menezes. "It's cheaper than New York or Miami, and there's nothing comparable to it in Brazil."
Tour guide Marly Pinheiro, who brings groups here three times a year, said it's not unusual for teens to arrive with $5,000 in spending money.
Florida prices, she said, are two to four times lower than prices in Brazil. So visitors flock to places such as Perfumeland Megastore on International Drive, buying everything from Gucci watches to Lacoste track shoes.
Last week, about 100 young Brazilians crowded around the store's display cases, examining merchandise. Two girls squealed when they caught sight of an iPhone 5c. Price: $550.
One of them -- 15-year-old Beatriz Moreira -- bought the phone for her 11-year-old brother.
"I already have an iPhone, but it's an old one compared to this," she said. "I'm just excited because it's so new, and I know he's going to love it."
Brazilian tourism to the United States has been rising for years, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office. Visitation from the country jumped by 15 percent in 2013 -- to 2 million -- and it now sends more visitors to the U.S. than Germany, France and China.
Travel from the United Kingdom to Orlando slipped during the Great Recession and has yet to fully recover.
The Brazilian travel boom has been enabled by an expanding middle class and declining poverty rates. Although Brazil has millions living in desperately poor conditions, the national poverty rate fell from 21 percent in 2003 to 11 percent in 2009, according to the World Bank.
To accommodate the crush of Brazilian visitors, the region's big theme parks -- who all market in the country -- look for employees who speak Portuguese and print their guides and maps in the language. All have Portuguese versions of their websites.
SeaWorld even created an early-entry program for Brazilian groups so that they can hit the park's most popular attractions -- such as Manta, the head-down, face-first roller coaster -- and still have time to shop.
The Brazilians -- especially teens -- seem drawn to Orlando's extreme thrill rides, said Jason Temple, vice president of sales and marketing at Fun Spot America on I-Drive. Temple said that during one busy period early this year, 2,500 Brazilian teens came to the park just to buy tickets for the SkyCoaster, a towering swing that lifts riders 250 feet into the air before dropping them.
"They're adrenaline seekers," Temple said. "More so, I think, than kids from the U.S."
Like the theme parks, Fun Spot caters to Brazilian guests. It holds dances with Portuguese-speaking DJs and asks tour operators for menu suggestions. Temple said it's not unusual to see the young guests -- often in matching shirts -- logged onto Fun Spot's wi-fi, Skyping with family back home.
"They want to show them everything they're doing in Orlando," he said.
For years, Fun Spot did little marketing outside the U.S., relying on homegrown customers to fill the park. Today, it's working with an agent in Brazil to sell tickets there.
"It's grown tremendously," he said. "It's certainly a market we want to reach out to."
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