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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8586.