The Mercado Shopping Village opened March 1986, Orlando’s first festival marketplace, which emphasized specialty shops, restaurants, and entertainment. With over 50 stores, they ranged from Old Tyme Photos, where you got your photo taken while wearing old time rags to Santa C., a shop which specialized primarily in Christmas year round.
The shopping center also featured events, for example in 1987 they had the Big Scoop Ice Cream Competition and Tasting Fair; open to all ice creams where they competed for best best vanilla ice cream, best chocolate ice cream, best ice cream dish, best ice cream drink and best far-out flavor. The shops also brought with them 15-20 gallons of ice cream to sell and the proceeds went to charity.
By 1988 though, business was waning. Merchants said it was mainly because the marketplace relied solely on tourists. In 1990, Martin Marietta Corp, owner, sold the Mercado for $42.5 million, a sale that was part of a liquidation of the company’s holding in the business park. It was managed by Ewing Southeast Realty Inc. until it was purchased in 1991 by Christian Wolfer, who at the time owned four different companies. In 2002, the owners filed for bankruptcy, blaming the post-Sept.11 tourist slump for the slow business. LaSelle Bank acquired the property and auctioned it off for $18.3 million.
The property was purchased by Unicorp National Developments in 2005. by that time, business was terrible. Less than a dozen shops remained; empty storefronts with broken windows were plenty and walking into a filthy bathroom was common. Unicorp hired a security firm to help combat the vandalism and crime in the plaza.
In 2006, Unicorp donated the plaza to Raw Productions, which put on a haunted house event for several weeks leading up to Halloween. Called Nights of Terror, they converted three empty storefronts and the still-operating Titanic: Ship of Dreams attraction into four haunted houses. Opening week though, they didn’t bring in the crowd they expected it to and began offering unlimited foods and lower ticket prices. Tenants complained the company brought in its own food and drinks, discouraging those who did attend to patronize their restaurants.
Unicorp announced in 2007, the Mercado would be demolished to make way for The Square, a mixture of upscale restaurants and eateries with a 424-room, 16-story hotel, dubbed Amalfi to be built first. The plan never materialized and in 2011, it was announced that a $100 million entertainment-dining-shopping district theme park called I-Drive Live would be built, including a 425 foot observation dubbed the Orlando eye, a Madame Tussauds wax museum, and a Sea Life Aquarium. As of 2013, the property is still an empty lot.