Paul Martin looks at Northern Ireland's premier entertainment venue
It's hard to believe that in only five years the Odyssey Arena has established itself as a Mecca for entertainment throughout the showbiz world. At the start of the new Millennium, the plush arena first swung its doors open and invited the world's superstars to strut their stuff.
Since then, Ireland's entertainment hungry public have been treated to a procession of icons from the world of sport, music and even politics. The spectacular arena helped wave good-bye to the days when Belfast was often by-passed on the world stage. Thanks to the Odyssey, crowds have cheered on Oasis, Destiny's Child, Westlife, Slipknot, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears- to name just a few.
The Odyssey staged its first event on December 2, 2000, when more than 7,200 fans packed in to watch the newly-formed Belfast Giants take on the Ayr Eagles.
Only two weeks later, President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair were delivering key note speeches to an even bigger crowd as hundreds of millions of TV viewers around the world tuned in. And in January 2004 Riverdance broke box office records in by staging 13 performances at the arena.
It was one of the show's biggest achievements after enjoying years of sell-out performances around the globe.
Three months later the Belfast Giants picked up the ice hockey Superleague Championship in only their second season and attracted the biggest, and most enthusiastic, crowds in the league.
But the undisputed kings of the Odyssey over the years have been Westlife who have made it a virtual home from home. In June 2003, the Sligo and Dublin lads sold out 11 concerts at the Queens Island venue, performing to more than 100,000 fans. In 2001 they also thrilled fans with 12 sell-out shows to 115,000 fans, making them the most popular live act ever to play in this country.
Oasis hold the crown for the biggest attendance for one show when they sold 20,000 tickets for two shows in June 2004. Noel Gallagher described the performances as the high point of their tour. He said: ‘We couldn't believe how good the venue was...'
Another big fan of the modern arena is diva Beyonce Knowles after she brought Destiny's Child to Belfast last summer. The group finished their world tour with two spectacular concerts at the Odyssey. She said: ‘The atmosphere was the best of the tour. We knew we were in for a real treat as soon as we stepped on to the stage and heard the screams.’
In October 2003, Christina Aguilera stormed into town with an entourage of 50 personal assistants and minders to rock 9,000 fans. She said afterwards: ‘ Belfast is a great place to do a show and I will be coming back. I had heard a lot of good things before I got here and the arena lived up to what I thought it would be.’
After Justin Timberlake performed two sell out shows at the Laganside venue in December 2003 he couldn't hide his delight: ‘That was one of the high points of the tour,’ he said. ‘I've been all over the world but the Belfast crowd is something else. ‘The arena is as good as any I've performed in. It is getting a really good reputation in the music business.’
Like any good arena, the Odyssey has had its fair share of lavish demands from stars. When Britney Spears visited on her Onyx Hotel world tour last summer she laid down the diva demands. Her back stage area was converted into a luxury hideaway with a massage room, chill out zone and huge changing area. Organisers were kept on their toes as they were forced to bring in 200 candles, a top local masseur and a range of beauty products for the American.
The Westlife boys haven't been quite as demanding over the years. In fact singer Shane Filan says their only request is that they get to break their own record for the most consecutive sell-out shows at the arena. ‘We'd love to do 13 and beat our own record,’ he said. ‘We can't get enough of the place and we could find our way around it blindfolded now.’
Odyssey chief executive Nicky Dunn is in no doubt that the Odyssey has certainly made its mark: ‘It has had a major impact on the entertainment scene, attracting many artists and events that have previously never come to Belfast. It's fantastic to see that four years on, the arena continues to grow, bringing in more people and events than ever before.’