ORLANDO, Fla. — Miami-based developer Michael Dezer and his partner, second-generation Argentinian arcade mogul Sebastian Mochkovsky, say they are confident in the prospects for Dezerland, a 450,000-square-foot entertainment center inside a twice-failed mall at the north end of Orlando’s International Drive.
Although they launched a soft opening in December, the inside of Dezerland is still swirling with more construction and employees than visitors. And its extensive auto museum is missing key elements, such as information on the cars and the correct artwork in the exhibits.
As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes and people are returning to amusements, how many people daily are visiting Dezerland?
“Not enough,” Mochkovsky said. “I would say not enough.”
The attraction includes bowling lanes, an arcade, a pinball arcade, a trampoline park, go-karts and Dezer’s prize, a car collection built over the last half-century that makes up the Orlando Auto Museum.
Dezerland is in the former site of the Festival Bay-turned-Artegon mall, 5250 International Drive in Orlando. Artegon closed in 2017 and Dezer purchased the 104-acre property the following year for $23.7 million, according to a report in Growthspotter.
The deal did not include two anchors: Bass Pro Shops and a Cinemark movie theater. Both are still operating, though Bass has shuttered its entrance from the mall.
A billionaire real estate developer and longtime associate of Donald Trump, Dezer sees value in the two anchors and the outlet stores across the street, all of which have attracted customers through the mall’s various incarnations.
Dezer also is constructing three apartment buildings on site with a total of more than 1,000 units. The first is scheduled to open in January.
“We have more than 20 million bodies already coming just a few hundred feet from us,” he said. “When times are good.”
But time has taken its time being good to Dezerland.
For the first two years after the purchase, the project was beset with production delays. In February 2019, the property was slapped with a stop-work order by the city for not having the proper permits. “That wasn’t a big deal,” Mochkovsky said. “We got that all sorted out with the city.”
Several opening dates were floated over the next year but kept being pushed back by construction delays. Then COVID-19 hit.
“We couldn’t continue to work,” Dezer said. “We were all very concerned because no one was going anywhere.”
Construction resumed in earnest over the summer, though Dezer, who had been visiting regularly, stayed away for nine months. In December, as U.S. COVID deaths were climbing to their highest peaks, Dezerland was opened to the public.
“We wanted to open for Christmas time,” Mochkovsky said. “We didn’t want to miss the holidays.”
Mochkovsky, whose family has been building entertainment centers in his home country since 1957, runs the front of Dezerland, with the activities such as bowling and video games.
Dezerland is free to enter, with each attraction costing its own price. Go-Karts start at $20.95 for adults. The arcades, bowling and trampoline park prices are based on time playing.
Admission to the auto museum, however, is $19.95 per adult, with discounts for children and military and free admission for ages 4 and younger.
Mochkovsky opened the pinball arcade in March and plans soon to launch a 6,000-square-foot augmented reality center that will let visitors play virtual games without goggles or headsets.
Such plans can feel far away, depending on where you look in Dezerland. Most of the old storefronts are shuttered, though Mochkovsky says they have found tenants for all but three of them. White plastic is taped up around the walls, and parts of the arcade seem dark with games turned off.
Cars are the centerpiece of Dezerland even before entering the museum. A model of Tow Mater from the movie “Cars” greets guests in front of the main entrance. Through the doors, one of the first sights is a replica of the towncar from “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the movie that made Sean Connery quit acting.
Dezer’s collection of autos is extensive, including the largest private collection of Vespas in the world and the world’s premiere selection of James Bond vehicles, which will be featured in an upcoming Bond Museum inside the attraction.
Dezerland features more than 2,000 of Dezer’s cars, which he’s been buying for over 50 years.
“While I’ve talked to you, I was on eBay and I bought two more cars,” he said on the phone.
This collection has bounced from two locations in South Florida before Dezer bought the mall. “They were too small,” he said. He also maintains the Hollywood Cars Museum in Las Vegas. Another Dezerland in Miami features games and entertainment, but not cars.
Some of the automobiles in the free part of Dezerland are interesting, such as the tribute to Marilyn Monroe and the Rolls Royce built to promote the classic British puppet action show “Thunderbirds.”
Others just appear to be old models with no defining characteristics, some with rust and cracks in the windows. Some have signs, others don’t.
The Russian tank from “Goldeneye” sits in a Bond-themed restaurant. The tank, a replica, has a placard that appears to be pages from a book.
Some have cards in the windshield reading, “If you like me ... buy me!”
Eventually, Dezerland plans to include a dealership. “I’m not really looking to sell so much because I love them,” Dezer said.
The auto museum is divided into rooms dedicated to time periods, Hollywood, countries and specific models, but some pathways lead to dead ends or spit guests back out into the mall.
The app designed to give guests information on the cars has entries that are missing information or for the wrong vehicles entirely. “The guy that was doing it got corona(virus),” Dezer said. “So I’m waiting for him to come and finish.”
In the Hollywood section, only some of the cars were used in movies while the others are replicas, but poor signage makes it impossible to tell which is which.
And then there are the bizarre choices of displays, such as the motorcycles from the 1996 movie “Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace,” a film even fans of the original might not know existed.
The British section features a mural that refers to Princess Diana as “Diane” and also misspells Meghan Markle’s name.
A prize spot is given to a limousine Trump had manufactured in the 1980s, one of two ever made. A flag is set beside the car, but the eagle on the flagpole has a broken wing.
Dezer, who turns 80 on April 1, acknowledges that the museum needs work.
“It’s my hobby, but I’m very, very busy in Miami right now,” he said.
An Israel native, Dezer got his start in real estate in 1960s New York, working in the Chelsea neighborhood. He and Trump have collaborated on several real estate projects including high rises in South Florida.
But these issues don’t appear to be limited to works under construction. Negative reviews on TripAdvisor for the Hollywood Cars Museum and his previous South Florida locations complain of “poorly executed” displays, dirty cars and a layout that is “not appealing.”
Dezer says the price for the museum won’t rise after they have the grand opening, which Mochkovsky says will be “maybe summer if we’re lucky.” Dezer plans to also host auctions, classic car shows and charity events at the site.
In spite of the unfinished look to Dezerland, some visitors are finding things to do there. Teresa Robinson, a nurse from Clermont, took her young son to the museum, who was impressed with a room full of micro-cars like the BMW Isetta.
“My son is really into cars, so I thought this would be good for spring break,” she said. “I think it’s a good addition to the area to see so many cars from different parts of the world and different generations.”