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Luxury hotels fit into Orlando theme parks' scene


Here's the thing about luxury near the House of Mouse: You're just as likely to be on the elevator with someone wearing a T-shirt touting "Cold Beer" as you are a man in a tuxedo.

This isn't Manhattan, where red-soled Christian Louboutins clack across the marble floors of the Waldorf Astoria. This is theme park central and it's August. Beyond thrill rides, the biggest attractions are pools and golf courses between lightning bolts.

But we are at the Waldorf Astoria; the first outpost of the legendary New York hotel is here, tucked away in a corner of Disney property. The shoes making noise on the shiny lobby floors go flip-flop, flip-flop. The surroundings are elegant for sure, but Florida fancy, which means khaki shorts and jeweled sandals are standard dress code, at least until the sun goes down. That's when you'll spy patrons in jackets and ties and perhaps slinky evening gowns.

The Orlando upscale market is re-emerging after a few years of lying low because of a challenging U.S. economy, says Danielle Courtenay, chief marketing officer at Visit Orlando, the city's tourism bureau. Convention business and international travelers are, in part, fueling the upswing, with domestic travelers starting to feel okay again about treating themselves, she says. In the past five years, there has been a 12 percent increase in the number of luxury hotel rooms in Orlando, she says. More will come online in 2014, when the Four Seasons opens a 445-room hotel as part of Disney's Golden Oak development that will also include multimillion-dollar homes.

For sure, there have always been expensive accommodations in Orlando, most notably the Disney and Universal resorts, where rooms can easily reach $300 a night. But there are other amenities besides pools and park proximity that make a property extravagant, and those include fine dining options, spas and golf courses, plus lots of personal attention, including notepads tastefully stamped with your name on the nightstand.

Guests paying top rates expect exemplary service, plush linens, high-end toiletries (Salvatore Ferragamo at the Waldorf Astoria and Bulgari at the Ritz-Carlton) and plenty of dining and socializing choices. Knowledgeable concierge services are also de rigueur.

Besides an increase in deluxe accommodations, there is also more upscale dining and shopping in Orlando. Nearby Winter Park boasts the Ravenous Pig, a James Beard-nominated restaurant; South Florida chef Norman Van Aken has a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, and there's the Venetian Room in the Caribe Royale Hotel. Grand Floridian boasts one of Florida's most famous and expensive restaurants, Victoria & Albert's, where dinner for two can easily hit $500 with the tip.

The well-heeled can shoe-shop at Jimmy Choo at the Mall at Millenia after sniffing fragrances at Chanel, and for shoppers who want designer bargains, the Premium Outlets mall on International Drive boasts Kate Spade, Kenneth Cole, Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, among others.

Yes, Orlando isn't just for mouse ears anymore.

A stay at the Astoria

Earlier this month, we spent a couple of days in the lap of luxury at the Waldorf Astoria. A few years ago, we had stayed one night at the New York hotel, where we were taken aback when two Kahlúa-and-creams at the legendary Harry's Bar cost about $40. No such experience at the Waldorf's Peacock Alley here, though we were prepared.

The current Park Avenue location of New York's Waldorf opened in 1931. It has been renovated but the room we stayed in was a bit dowdy and small, the size standard in many historic, big-city hotels. The Orlando facility is sparkling clean and modern, though from the outside it seems like a lot of pinkish, boxy Florida hotels. It feels slightly Mediterranean, and the huge ballrooms and meeting rooms lets guests know that the bread and butter of Orlando hotels is convention bookings.

Only the very brave were out on the Rees Jones-designed golf course, the August humidity threatening to melt even the strongest-willed players. Lightning in the area set off the warning horns that roust guests from the pool and shoo golfers off the course.

Smarter guests — that would be me — found respite in the Spa by Guerlain, where a reflexology foot treatment in the capable and strong hands of Charlie started the weekend off right. Then there was a sauna and a relaxing 30 minutes in the whirlpool. A full menu of services is tempting.

We opted to stay in our room for dinner to experience the Waldorf's new private dining program. What a treat that was. We made ourselves scarce while staff set a gorgeous table by the window, turning the room into a restaurant. The food is not brought all at once, but rather when it's ready, paced just like a restaurant meal.

We noshed on oysters and slurped Maine lobster bisque, plus enjoyed a mammoth dry-aged tomahawk chop for two from the Bull & Bear restaurant downstairs. The sides were remarkable, including silky mashed potatoes and creamed corn made with local Zellwood corn. It was like candy.

Between courses, we relaxed on the couch, wondering how we'd ever manage to eat again. We rallied when dessert came, and gave big, pudgy thumbs up to "the Lemon," a candied whole lemon, its insides taken out, filled with lemon sorbet. Amazing. Oh, and the creme brulee flamed tableside was impressive, too.

Our other extravagant dining experience was at Victoria & Albert's at the Grand Floridian. No one under 10 is allowed, and men must wear jackets. An upholstered stool is brought to each table to hold ladies' purses so that they don't have to be inelegantly placed on the table — or the floor. There are two seatings and we selected 8:30 p.m., which meant we wouldn't be leaving until 11:30. It takes that long to get through the six — nine for the tasting menu — courses.

It's a tremendous experience but I wish Disney would rethink the waitstaff uniforms, which seem more theme park costume than opulent dining. Our servers, a married couple, were amazing: there when we needed them and scarce when we were eating. While the surroundings evoke days gone by, the menu is modern and included some local sourcing, including Ocala rabbit. I could have eaten a bucket of the wild mushroom bread pudding and another helping of the braised oxtail and cherry ravioli.

Back at the Waldorf Astoria, the gym is still open. Thirty minutes on the treadmill assuages the dinner guilt.

A hot shower with sweet-smelling emollients follows, then a good night's sleep on those Egyptian cotton sheets. Luxury feels pretty good.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at or (727) 893-8586.

If you go

There are a number of four- and five-star hotels in Orlando. The website provides a complete list. Rates listed are for rooms that have less desirable views, often of parking lots or open fields. Rooms with balconies or those that face the pools or theme parks are more expensive.

The hotels we checked out:

Waldorf Astoria

People who have been to the storied hotel in New York will immediately recognize the chime and look of the 300-pound grandfather clock in the lobby of the Orlando hotel, which opened in 2009. The hotel is adjacent to the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek and provides a swanky respite from the madness of the Disney theme parks, though you can see them from here. Request a room facing the Magic Kingdom and Epcot so you can watch the nightly fireworks. The Bull & Bear Restaurant is the premiere dining spot and you may spy an Orlando Magic basketball player in the shadows (the restaurant is that private). A nifty program that lets you sample the Bull & Bear in your room has been set up like a restaurant. Courses are brought in as they are ready, rather than everything at once, making it different from room service. Very personal and private and a lot of fun. Depending on your appetite and what you order, plan on spending about $150 per person.

Rooms start at $219 with balcony rooms beginning at $379. 14200 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane, Orlando; (407) 597-5500 or


All over the world, the name Ritz-Carlton is synonymous with luxury, and that's no different in Orlando. Part of the JW Marriott at Grande Lakes complex that opened

in 2003, the Ritz Orlando is not far from

SeaWorld. On a recent weekend, we sat in the sumptuous lobby, sunk into overstuffed chairs and drank iced tea and cocktails for what seemed like hours. The people watching was supreme and we overheard at least five different languages. One of our favorite things about the Ritz is that everyone seems to know your name when you stay there. Not sure how they do it, but it's impressive. The flagship dining room is Norman's, one of three eponymous restaurants run by Norman Van Aken, the king of Miami's new world fusion scene.

Rooms start at $239. 4012 Central Florida Parkway; (407) 206-2400 or

Loews Portofino Bay

This sprawling Universal hotel might just convince you that you are in Italy. It's a lovely property with lots of amenities, including water taxis to the theme park. The rooms ring a faux seaside harbor and a Mandara Spa offers respite for weary muggles who have exhausted every feature of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. For food, go traditional Italian at Mama Della's or dine at Bice Ristorante, a fine dining spot with roots in 1920s Milan, where the international chain began.

Rooms start at $250. 5601 Universal Blvd., Orlando; toll-free 1-888-430-4999 or

Grand Floridian

Disney's charming Victorian resort is a nod to turn-of-the-century glamor. Besides the rooms in the main building, there are accommodations in several outlying buildings surrounding the pools and other water features. Because this is a Disney property, you'll see more children in the lobby (we counted five young girls in Cinderella costumes) than in other upscale hotels. The one place you won't see children — at least none under 10 because they aren't allowed — is Victoria & Albert's restaurant, long a swanky place to dine for both visitors and locals. A meal here won't soon be forgotten. Plan on three hours and spending at least $175 per person, including the tip and more if you pair wine. (A typical bill for three is about $600.) The meal is at least six courses and service is impeccable. Though the vibe is Victorian, the food is very modern. Men must wear jackets, but ties are not required.

Most rooms are above $350. 4401 Floridian Way, Lake Buena Vista; (407) 824-3000 or

The Peabody Orlando

This luxury property on bustling International Drive is more of a convention hotel than a vacation spot, but that doesn't mean conventioneers aren't bringing family with them to take advantage of Florida's playland. The Peabody is across the street from the vast Orange County Convention Center. For people not staying at the hotel, the daily duck walk, led by a human handler in a red hunting coat, is a big draw. The waddlers walk a red carpet to the lobby fountain every day at 11 a.m. You can expect a big crowd for that and at 5 p.m. when the ducks are on the carpet again returning to their sleeping quarters for the night.

Rooms start at $300. 9801 International Drive, Orlando; (407) 352-4000 or

Grand Bohemian

This boutique hotel in downtown Orlando is walking distance to the Amway Center, where the Orlando Magic play. The center also books major concert tours, among them Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez on Sept. 2. Across the street, construction is under way for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which will open in 2014. Beyond a terrific location, the Grand Bohemian attracts an eclectic crowd to its Sunday brunch ($39.95), reservations suggested. Like all Kessler properties (Casa Monica in St. Augustine and Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah, Ga.) the Grand Bohemian boasts an interesting art collection. (A Kessler hotel for downtown St. Petersburg is still in the planning stages and there is also a Bohemian Hotel in Celebration, among other locations.)

Rooms start at $200 at the Grand Bohemian. 325 S Orange St., Orlando; toll-free 1-888-213-9110 or


If you want to check out Orlando's dining scene, September is a good time. Some of the city's finest restaurants will feature three-course, prix-fixe dinner menus for just $30 Sept. 1-30. Among the restaurants participating are Emeril's and Emeril's Tchoup Chop in Universal's CityWalk, Primo by Melissa Kelly at JW Marriott, Luma on Park in Winter Park, Citrus downtown and Todd English's Bluezoo at Disney's Dolphin Hotel. For more information and a list of restaurants, go to

Luxury hotels fit into Orlando theme parks' scene 08/24/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 30, 2012 10:52am]
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