Asked what he liked about living in Orlando, one touring pro famously replied, "the airport." Until recently, it has always been the assumption here that this comment constituted a sly sort of rebuke: The best thing about the town, in other words, is the ease in getting out of it. But after multiple visits to Orlando, viewed within the context of the vicissitudes of frequent modern travel, I came away, as Johnny Cash once put it, with a different point of view.
Orlando International Airport, like the city itself—which handles twenty-nine million visitors annually and is second in supply of hotel rooms only to Las Vegas—just seems to have the drill down pat. There is also Orlando Sanford International Airport, which provides mostly charter service and a few overseas connections. It is roughly a twenty-minute drive from downtown, thirty-five minutes to its larger sister airport. Between the two, literally downtown, is Orlando Executive Airport, which, as the name implies, is used for smaller, commuter aircraft.
Traffic at key congregating spots—the Orange County Convention Center comes to mind—can be daunting, as can the rambunctious driving on the surrounding network of 65-m.p.h. highways. Locals and outof-towners alike joke about navigational dilemmas caused by the flat, often landmark-challenged topography. And Interstate 4, Orlando's busiest thoroughfare, is, like all even-numbered roads in the interstate system, designated an east-west route, even though it travels almost straight north-south. Still, signage is good, directions readily available and the twenty-minute maxim applies when one is lost as well.
Parents who return from Orlando after family vacations frequently cite the need for a "real" vacation—such is the surfeit of things to do there. Indeed, it is a city built on attractions and entertainment.
The best known of these, of course, is Walt Disney World Resort (407-824-2222), itself a collection of multiple theme parks, a few water parks, some two dozen hotels, more than two hundred dining outlets, copious retailing, a couple of entertainment complexes and the ninety-nine holes of golf listed above. Other household-name attractions—each big enough to resemble a small town—include Universal Orlando Resort (407-363-8000), a paean to popular entertainment with theme parks and resort lodging of its own; the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (321-449-4444), NASA's impressive depiction of the history and future of American space exploration; SeaWorld Orlando (407-351-3600) and Discovery Cove (877-434-7268), an interactive marine zoo where visitors can snorkel among tropical fish through a coral reef and swim with dolphins.
Often overlooked among the high-octane excitement of thrill rides is a more sedate side of Orlando, whose full-time population numbers about 1.5 million and whose modern history dates to the 1840s. In contrast to many downtown areas, Orlando's seems like a respite from theme-park hyperactivity. The Church Street Historical District may be as boisterous as Chicago's Rush Street or Philadelphia's Society Hill, but the Thornton Park area—a gentrified strip near the city's birthplace—and Lake Eola Heights Historic District, on the southern edge of downtown Orlando, radiate upscale Southern gentility.
Of course, while many of Orlando's diversions are family-centric, a place with this much golf inevitably has its share of guy-oriented things to do. Start with the shockingly talented halftime entertainment troupe known as the Orlando Magic Dancers. The basketball team (407-896- 2442) is not bad, either. Shopping may traditionally be for the womenfolk, but Edwin Watts Golf (800-874-0146), the golf clothing and equipment merchant, has a grand retail warehouse on International Drive. Within walking distance is Pointe Orlando, a bustling shopping complex and home to the nifty cloak-and-dagger store Spy USA (407-644-6252), among others. Finally, if a golf road trip seems like a perfectly reasonable supplement to your Orlando-based golf trip, the World Golf Village, with its World Golf Hall of Fame (800-948-4653), is roughly a ninety-minute drive to the northeast.
700 Bloom Street, Celebration; 888-499-3800, celebrationhotels.com. ROOMS: $169-$225. SUITES: $299-$420.
By now, the entire (and, to some, entirely creepy) "planned community" concept has been extensively analyzed, and this 115-room facility in the eponymous town is celebrating the fifth anniversary of its opening. Conceived to be reminiscent of early 1900s Florida, it has four different room styles, each intended to evoke this bygone era. Students of urban planning will be intrigued, but most anyone can enjoy the place, especially its restaurant, the Plantation Room.
THE COURTYARD AT LAKE LUCERNE
211 North Lucerne Circle, Orlando; 407-648-5188, orlandohistoricinn.com. ROOMS: $89-$225. SUITES: $99-$115.
A laid-back, funky and inexpensive alternative to the mega-properties that tend to predominate in this mega-destination, the Courtyard is actually a four-building bed-and-breakfast. The four houses are furnished in separate motifs—Victorian, Edwardian, art deco and Grand Victorian—and the lush common courtyard between them says Old Florida. No pool, no spa, no charge for the continental breakfast, served on the downstairs level of the Dr. Phillips mansion.
GRANDE LAKES ORLANDO, RITZ-CARLTON AND JW MARRIOTT
4012 Central Florida Parkway, Orlando; 800-576-5760 (Ritz-Carlton), 800-576-5750 (Marriott), grandlankes.com. ROOMS: $199-$409 (Ritz-Carlton); $179-$349 (Marriott). SUITES: $299-$799 (Ritz-Carlton); $249-$599 (Marriott).
Opened in 2003 and proximate to nearly everything the city has to offer, the complex consists of the 584-room Ritz-Carlton and the 1,000- room JW Marriott, with reciprocal privileges, including the golf course, first-rate spa, multifarious swimming holes—check out the Marriott's "lazy river pool"—and a dozen or so restaurants. No need to overthink the choice of hotel, since you cannot go wrong at either of these.
HYATT REGENCY GRAND CYPRESS
One Grand Cypress Boulevard, Orlando; 407-239-1234, hyatt.com. ROOMS: $179-$585. SUITES: $495-$5,800. VILLAS: $169-$1,600.
Besides Hyatt's trademark central atrium design and uniformly high standards for service, this 1,500-acre property offers condominium-like villas perfect for a foursome. Apart from the golf, nature trails and a secluded setting in the Lake Buena Vista area belie the property's easy commute to the convention center and other hotbeds of activity.
REUNION RESORT & CLUB OF ORLANDO
1000 Reunion Way, Reunion; 877-738-6466, reunionresort.com. CONDOS: $205-$495.
Part of a 2,300-acre development to include three eighteen-hole tracks, the eighty-four condominiums at Reunion provide a different kind of space for visitors to Orlando: the amenities of a luxury hotel, the comfort of a residence. Located fifteen minutes from Disney World, Reunion will eventually encompass more than 6,000 living units and a self-sufficient "town" of its own, built in three phases over fifteen years.