By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - Direct flights between Orlando and Havana will begin on July 8 operated by a company hoping visitors to the top U.S. tourist destination will want to pair a Cuban guayabera shirt with their Mickey Mouse ears.
Orlando International Airport announced the flights on Thursday, the same day the Orlando tourism bureau reported that a record 62 million people visited the area in 2014, retaining its position as the No. 1 tourist destination in the United States.
"Orlando visitors go to Adventureland in Disney World. To them going to a mysterious country they’ve never been to can be an adventure," said Bill Hauf, president and chief executive officer of Island Travel & Tours, which will operate the charter flights.
Round-trip tickets will cost $429, Hauf said.
The 90-minute flights on a 120-seat Boeing 737-300 initially will occur only on Wednesdays, with a Sunday flight expected to be added later in the summer, according to an airport news release.
Hauf said the timing was right since U.S. President Barack Obama loosened some Cold War-era travel restrictions to the island nation earlier this year, building on his historic announcement in December to seek to normalize relations with Cuba.
Travelers will still need to meet U.S. requirements for the trip under 11 permitted categories on a government travel affidavit, including educational and religious activities. General tourism is still banned under a five-decades-old trade embargo.
U.S. travel companies licensed to offer educational and cultural tours to Cuba are reporting a surge in interest from Americans, with bookings for this year up steeply.
Airline charter companies flying to Cuba from two Florida cities, Miami and Tampa, are also reporting increased business. In the first three months of 2015, they reported about 175,000 passengers. New York began a new service to Cuba last month.
Travel experts say Cuba's state-run hotel sector lacks the capacity to handle a major increase in U.S. visitors and the island does not have the variety of high-end hotels found in other destinations.
Other companies are moving to capitalize on Obama’s opening to Cuba. Online home rental service Airbnb announced April 2 that it had started offering properties in Cuba.
(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech)