All Play and No Work: 10 Central Florida Staycations
No planes or trains involved. A refreshing, fun holiday is just a short drive away at these 10 Central Florida resorts and destinations.
Don Riddle Images
Four Seasons at Disney World
The incomparable Oscar Wilde once said, “Let me be surrounded by luxury, I can do without the necessities!" Chances are the lines between the two will blur once you check into the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort. Because even the necessities at this AAA Five Diamond Award-winning resort—the only one certified as such in Central Florida—are luxurious.
Kids frolic amid the spray of the monumental Splash Zone, while adults find a quite refuge at the Oasis infinity pool (DON RIDDLE IMAGES).
Whether you’re a couple looking for a romantic getaway or a family with a lively brood seeking nonstop fun in the water, Four Seasons offers it all amid sumptuously furnished rooms (deep soaking tub and a TV in the bathroom mirror, anyone?) along with impeccable, friendly service.
For adults, start your day with room-service breakfast rolled out to your balcony. Then head down to the grownups-only Oasis infinity pool for a few laps or just lounging. Splurge and rent a cabana for the day and you can retreat from the sun to enjoy your margarita on a couch beneath the coolness of a ceiling fan. Later, let your cares melt further away with a massage at The Spa, which boasts a seemingly limitless selection of body and beauty treatments. Don’t miss the special shower that lets you pick special effects like a tropical rain or an island storm. And if it’s golf you seek, the gorgeous Tranquilo Golf Club with its live oak and cypress-lined fairways is a short cart ride away.
For kids and families, Four Seasons is like their own personal theme park—before they even hit the nearby attractions featuring The Mouse. The centerpiece is Explorer Island, featuring a family pool (where you can watch “dive-in’’ movies on select nights), the sky-high geysers of The Splash Zone, a water slide, and games aplenty, from pinball and ping pong to billiards and basketball.
For all ages, a trip on a tube down the winding Drifters Lazy River Pool is a must (just check out our cover and the opening page of this section). And each night, guests can take in fireworks shows at both the Magic Kingdom and Epcot from the rooftop Capa restaurant or their park view room. fourseasons.com/orlando
The rooftop Capa restaurant is the resort’s culinary crown jewel, with Spanish-influenced cuisine so superb it was selected as the area's best restaurant by Orlando magazine Dining Critic Joseph Hayes in 2016.
Think this resort may be a bit out of your league? Think again. Four Seasons is offering a Florida resident rate through June 12, then again from Aug. 13-Oct. 1 starting at $309 a night, with valet parking included. Rooms with a theme park view are more. This is an unadvertised rate—you have to ask for it by phone. 1-800-267-3046.
The Reunion Grande Tower overlooks three championship golf courses (JOHN R. JOHNSON/GOLFPHOTOS.COM).
Reunion, A Salamander Golf & Spa Resort
If you’ve driven on I-4 south of Disney, you’ve surely seen a white tower in a sea of green just off to the left. That would be the Reunion Grande, whose 11th-floor rooftop pool and restaurant, Eleven, offer a rare vantage to view evening theme-park fireworks and the ever-changing Orlando landscape. The Grande is known for its residential-style vacation digs at the confluence of 54 holes of signature golf—three courses designed by the game’s greats, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Villas and private homes are sprouting around the 2,300 acres. This is where your staycation begins.
Assemble your extended family in a beautifully appointed, spacious home with all of the benefits of being at a resort. Instead of winging it on your own, at a Reunion-managed vacation rental (there are about 60), you are only a phone call away from ’round-the-clock engineers, concierges and even in-room dining. Can’t find the spa switch? Someone will be right over. Though each home is privately owned, it must adhere to a prescribed level of quality and amenities, which means you can actually cook, bake or blend in these kitchens and grill for your group outdoors. Houses range from two to 12 bedrooms. You can view them all at reunionresortvacationhomerentals.com
There’s so much to do—spa, tennis, jogging trails. Bring your bikes and hit the trails (ask for the walking and biking map at the front desk), or just ride around Reunion and pick your favorite pool among the 11. (Many of the houses have their own, too.) One pool is in a complex with a fitness center and an arcade; another is within a 5-acre waterpark with a lazy river, a flume-style water slide and a water playground for the little kids.
Golf is an obvious choice at Reunion. Want something you can all play together? Try foot golf, 18 holes set up on the front nine of the Tom Watson International Course. It’s a hybrid game of soccer and golf in which you kick your way to the hole. Playing together while driving golf carts equals unforgettable fun for the entire family. reunionresort.com
TIME TO DINE
Take a well-deserved break to enjoy dinner at Reunion’s lovely rooftop steakhouse, Eleven. The menu stars the freshest ingredients; the wine list is deep. Order the sizzling garlic for the table and the chef’s new citrusy Florida Salad, whose tiny cubes of pineapple burst with flavor. Pause for fireworks. Then walk or take the resort shuttle home.
You’re a short drive to a Disney park, or take the resort’s free shuttle. If you have annual theme-park passes, you can go for your favorite attractions and then rejoin your family at Reunion.
Relax on the pool deck or take a stroll through the art gallery (COURTESY OF GRAND BOHEMIAN HOTEL ORLANDO).
Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando
Yearning for some bright lights-big city excitement? A getaway in downtown Orlando could be just the ticket. All the ingredients are at hand to experience life as an urbanite, especially if you leave the car behind and head into the city via Uber or, if it’s during the week, SunRail.
The AAA Four-Diamond Grand Bohemian, a sophisticated 15-story hotel, is surrounded on all sides by the lights and sounds of the metropolis—the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, City Hall, soaring office buildings, and within a few minutes’ walk, Church Street, Amway Center and Orlando City Soccer Stadium.
The hotel offers a boutique base for your staycation, with a full-service spa, rooftop pool, sophisticated jazz lounge and an art gallery featuring a splendid in-house collection. The Boheme Restaurant, run by Executive Chef Laurent Hollaender, offers the flavors of France. Escargots and tenderloin au poivre join the always-in-demand Boheme crab cakes on an ever-changing seasonal menu.
The Sunday Jazz Brunch in the art-lined Klimt Rotunda presents vast banks of salad, seafood, soup and dessert tables, along with stations assembling Benedicts and crepes to order.
Two- and four-course prix-fixe dinners are designed to catch curtain time at the Dr. Phillips Center. Ask the restaurant to hold your dessert for a post-show treat. Or, be decadent: Order room service in the afternoon and take your time getting ready for the concert, play or game, then retire to the Bösendorfer Lounge for a nightcap. (Ask for Ivy, the best bartender in town.) grandbohemianhotel.com
PAST & PRESENT
For a taste of urban life, join residents and fellow sightseers for a wander along the sidewalks of downtown Orlando to bring amazing art and architecture into focus. On Orange Avenue, you'll find examples of the “skyscrapers” of the 1920s: One North Orange, the Angebilt Hotel and the Rose Building. On the way to Lake Eola, the city’s centerpiece, you’ll pass the old courthouse (now the Orange County Regional History Center) and one of Orlando’s oldest structures, the green, zinc-clad, 19th-century Rogers Building. A further stroll takes in swan-filled Lake Eola, ringed by great restaurants and the contemporary sculptures that form Orlando's “See Art” collection.
—Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor & Joseph Hayes
The hotel surrounds the 12,000-square-foot pool, which includes a sand beach, hot tubs and cabanas (COSTEA PHOTOGRAPHY, INC.).
Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando
Just because you’ve yet to master air guitar, can’t fit into the concert T-shirts you bought in college, and drive down I-4 pretending your minivan is actually the Led Zeppelin tour bus doesn’t mean you can’t live like a rock star. At least for a day or two.
At Universal Orlando, the Hard Rock Hotel’s California vibe lends itself to a fantasy lifestyle, and that feeling begins with the Spanish-Mediterranean exterior, accompanies you into the lobby, and follows you throughout the resort, which from the sparkling sun-drenched pool to top-of-the-line restaurants exudes an aura of casual luxury.
With rates hovering around $350 to $400 per night, this isn’t necessarily an impulse purchase, but with a Florida-resident rate taking a little off the top, it becomes more affordable. Another benefit comes with the territory. Not only is the Hard Rock the closest hotel to the gates of Universal Studios, guests receive early park admission as well as Express Pass access to rides here and at Islands of Adventure. (A two-park Express Pass starts at around $85.)
Perhaps the most playful amenity is one you can play. If you left your guitar behind, just put down a $1,000 deposit and take your pick from the guitar-lending library that allows you to choose from 20 Fender models to use throughout your stay. And if your version of “Satisfaction” sounds more like “Sugar Sugar,” turn on your in-room television for guitar lessons.
It’s easy (not to mention fun) to get lost in the Hard Rock’s halls, admiring the displays of rock ’n’ roll memorabilia that connect you with some of your favorite artists. Speaking of favorite artists, some locals plan their getaway to coincide with a Velvet Sessions concert, the monthly “rock ’n’ roll cocktail party” where performers that were once on your Walkman are now on a stage before you. Foreigner, The Go-Gos, The Wailers and Joan Jett are just a few artists who have played at this intimate venue.
Whether it’s a concert, a guest room or a restaurant, there’s just one word you need to know: Encore! hardrockhotels.com/orlando
The hotel wraps around an extraordinary freeform pool lined by private cabanas, bars and eateries. You’ll be surprised that the songs you hear above water are audible below the surface via an underwater sound system.
If your stay is a special occasion, the hotel’s premium restaurant choice is The Palm. Traveling with kids? The Kitchen presents character dining. A free shuttle can take you to restaurants at Universal Orlando’s five on-site hotels.
—Gary McKechnie & Nancy Howell
Another stunning sunset over the placid waters of Lake Louisa ( COURTESY OF FLORIDA DEPT. OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION).
Lake Louisa State Park
Lake Louisa State Park may lack dramatic vistas, but their absence is compensated by a sense of tranquility. Hidden in plain sight on the western edge of U.S. 27, this 4,500-acre park is a place of open spaces and quiet trails and the almost nostalgic sight of slowly shuffling gopher tortoises. As evidenced by the discovery of 3,400-year-old dugout canoes, Paleo-Indians also found comfort in this timeless, natural setting.
It is at Lake Louisa where, over the course of a weekend, the stress of Orlando with its noise and traffic, news and workloads can be erased.
You’ll find sanctuary in spacious air-conditioned lakeside cabins designed for maximum enjoyment and minimal distractions. A screened porch keeps rocking chairs and a picnic table cool in the shade while inside up to six people can enjoy two bedrooms, two baths, a combination living room/dining room and a fully equipped kitchen.
The cabins, which can be booked up to 11 months in advance, are especially popular with couples and families as well as businesses, clubs and groups that often host retreats in adjacent units. To be sure, the park offers more than just cabins. Guests with trailers and RVs join a community of campers who gather outdoors, cook on grills, and enjoy a respite from the urban world. Meanwhile, hidden out of sight down trails that stretch more than half a mile into the forest, those who crave solitude find it at the park’s primitive campsites.
Explore the park, and you’ll find outfitters renting bicycles, canoes, kayaks and even horses since equestrian trails and group rides are part of the park. The sandy beach on Lake Louisa is a picturesque place to take a dip or settle down with a picnic lunch. From the shore of the broad lake, the distant outline of Clermont is a visible reminder of how close you are to civilization—yet how very far away. floridastateparks.org/park/lake-louisa
The openness of the park and 23 miles of trails make it a popular place for bicyclists and runners, while the lake adds extra appeal for triathletes in training. Plan your visit during a full moon and join the Moonlight Paddle on Lake Louisa.
The park’s cabins and family campsites are arranged through ReserveAmerica (reserveamerica.com). Primitive campsites can be reserved at 352-394-3969.
—Gary McKechnie & Nancy Howell
Guests can "rough it" in a cozy cabin or splurge for a stay at the Wilderness Lodge (PRESTON MACK).
Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground
In the shadows of Orlando’s towering Five Diamond-rated Four Seasons is a very different kind of resort. There is no spa or 24-hour room service or bidet, but none of the guests seem to mind. Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground offers fully equipped cabins as well as campsites for RVs, pop-ups and tents, and it has remained among the most popular Disney World properties since it opened in 1971.
Campsites, which can be booked for less than $100 a night, include water, power, a charcoal grill and even cable—with access to Disney channels, of course. Around a dozen campsites are clustered in a neighborhood, or loop, with access to a comfort station that is equipped with showers and toilets, as well as an ice machine and laundry facility. (Guests must bring their own towels and toiletry items.)
Fort Wilderness Resort features two pools, with the main pool at the Meadow. Guests also have access to the Wilderness Lodge pool at the sister property. Other free recreational activities at the Meadow include volleyball, tennis, shuffleboard and a children’s playground. For an additional cost, guest can rent equipment for archery, canoeing and bicycling.
It's hard to beat a steak cooked perfectly over a charcoal fire. However, if you're not up for preparing your own meal, you can find other great options at Pioneer Hall by the lake, or even fine dining at Wilderness Lodge.
Also near Pioneer Hall are opportunities for taking a pony ride ($8), wagon rides ($5 to $8) or carriage rides ($45). You can peek inside the Tri-Circle-D Ranch to view Cinderella's carriage and the majestic horses of Main Street USA. The beach area is perfect for plopping down to watch the nightly fireworks show over Cinderella's Castle or taking the boat over to the Magic Kingdom.
End the evening with wholesome family fun at the Chip 'n' Dale Sing-Along and campfire. Roast s’mores and croon along to favorites like "You Are My Sunshine" and "Home on the Range." disneyworld.disney.go.com
DOWN-HOME FAMILY FUN
For a good ol’ time, the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue is a live dinner show with barbecue ribs, fried chicken and all the fixins from $38 for children and from $64 for adults.
Park the car and rent a golf cart for the day ($59) to scoot around to the beach, pool and stables. Don’t forget to bring decorations to add your own personal flair.
—Laura Anders Lee
A colorful sunrise lights up the resort (YSZARD PABIS/COURTESY OF ROSEN SHINGLE CREEK).
Rosen Shingle Creek
As Orlando ups its game, attracting the world to our backyard, so do the resort offerings—which is why Rosen Shingle Creek may not be on your radar. The 1,500-plus room golf resort, located near the Orange County Convention Center and Sea World, led the pack when it opened in 2006.
Despite being an expansive property on 230 gorgeous acres, including 18 holes of golf on an Arnold Palmer-redesigned course, RSC feels as though you are a guest in someone’s home. Owned by local philanthropist Harris Rosen, who shows up many days for breakfast at Café Osceola or to swim laps in his favorite of the resort’s four pools, RSC reflects Rosen’s touch everywhere, down to the healthy pizza he created that is offered in the 24-hour market. Rosen’s innovative healthcare and education programs for his employees have cultivated a fiercely loyal staff. And guests benefit from the excellent service.
Families love the flexible room options. Traveling with grandparents? The deluxe executive suite—with a large living room, dining table, wet bar, full bath and a queen murphy bed—can include up to two additional adjoining hotel rooms. Your four-legged family members are welcome too—for a fee.
A redesigned Restaurant Row helps meet every taste. Go for guacamole (prepared tableside) and margarita magic at Mi Casa Tequila Taqueria (the enchiladas alone are worth the trip); flatbreads, salads, burgers and bourbon are available at the new Tobias Flats & Watering Hole. A sports bar, sushi bar, and coffee and smoothie bar round out the options. Two fine-dining restaurants, the Italian-focused Cala Bella and the steakhouse A Land Remembered, are perfect for a special meal.
There are plenty of ways to connect with your loved ones, from a couple’s massage at the spa to a family golf lesson at the Brad Brewer Golf Academy. Give Brewer a half-day, and he’ll give your family the tools to get on the green—anytime, anywhere. On the pool deck, relax in a cabana and close the curtains for a late-day nap. Order an early poolside dinner (who wants to get dressed, anyway?), then snuggle up with a pay-per-view movie back in your room. rosenshinglecreek.com
WORTH THE SPLURGE
The $50 a day (that's per room, not per person) VIP Status includes valet parking and access to the hotel's 14th floor VIP Lounge with round-the-clock hot and cold beverages plus three daily food presentations: continental breakfast, evening appetizers and dessert.
ROSEN LOVES LOCALS
Dine at the resort in advance of your staycation and sign up for the “I Love Rosen” card. It will save you 25 percent off future best available room rates, golf, spa services and more.
Kids will be able to keep cool in the Lazy River pool (TROY HOUSE).
The Ritz-CarltonOrlando, Grande Lake
The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, and its sister property, the JW Marriott, are just a 15-minute drive from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks, but they seem miles away. The luxury duo is a serene oasis on more than 500 acres—some meticulously manicured, others left beautifully wild. It’s exclusive and posh, but The Ritz also has several online packages that make a staycation here enticing for a romantic getaway to reconnect, a golf weekend with friends or a fun escape for the family.
Grande Lakes opened in 2003 as one of the premier resorts in Central Florida, with a Greg Norman-designed golf course, a restaurant spearheaded by renowned chef Norman Van Aken, and an award-winning spa that set new standards for creature comforts. Since then, Grande Lakes has grown to encompass an array of adventure experiences—from kayak eco-tours along Shingle Creek to largemouth bass fishing excursions and fly-casting instruction.
One of the unique features here is Whisper Creek Farm, a 7,000-square-foot fruit and vegetable garden with a large chicken coop and apiary nearby. Ask for a tour. The venue can hosts large and small groups for an authentic farm-to-fork experience. Farm produce, eggs and honey also are utilized in many of the resort's restaurant offerings and spa treatments.
Dining options include the acclaimed Norman’s, ideal for a special occasion, and Highball & Harvest, which offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rustic yet contemporary in design, H&H specializes in Southern-inspired cuisine using ingredients from local vendors as well as Whisper Creek Farm. Try the Sunday brunch with live entertainment. You can feast on smoked pork eggs Benedict and pecan-smoked bacon with mimosas, while the kids can dine on yummy chocolate-chip pancakes. ritzcarlton.com/orlando
Wake up early for the Sunrise Safari, a two-hour guided exploration of the resort grounds where you can view local flora and fauna, such as owls, deer and wild turkeys. $60 per person.
CAMP IT UP
Families staying in executive suites can treat their kids to an in-room camping experience with a tent, featherbed, lantern, children's book and a s'mores pastry.
Wildlife viewing is 24/7 at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge (COURTESY OF WALT DISNEY WORLD RESORT)
DISNEY’S ANIMAL KINGDOM LODGE
Save the 16-hour flight for another time and trek down I-4 for your own exotic corner of Africa. Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is arguably the most immersive resort in town, engaging your senses and transporting you halfway across the globe.
The jaw-dropping, four-story lobby at Jambo House features cathedral ceilings, a thatched roof and spectacular woodwork. To the delight of children, there’s even a suspended rope bridge. Grab a specialty cocktail at Victoria Falls and relax in the lobby near the mud fireplace. Feel the beat of the drum and admire the authentic African art, from colorful masks to hand-carved furniture. Just beyond the massive window is the 43-acre nature preserve. Take a stroll outside to spot zebras, giraffes, gazelles and some 200 other animals and birds.
The resort was designed in a horseshoe shape around the savanna, similar to an African kraal, which allows guests to enjoy spectacular views from much of the property, including their own private balconies. Rooms, from $319, feature African-inspired décor and bunk beds that are ideal for families.
More intimate than Jambo House, Kidani Village features its own stunning lobby. Despite popular belief, you do not have to be a Disney Vacation Club member to stay here. Both Kidani Village and Jambo House feature deluxe heated pools with water slides and hot tubs.
From the dining room of Sanaa at Kidani Village, you can watch animals just outside the window while savoring a fusion of African and Indian flavors. Back at Jambo House, Boma serves a flavor-packed buffet for breakfast and dinner, while Jiko offers a fine-dining experience. The extraordinary wine list is 100 percent African and is a Wine Spectator standout. With an updated menu under new chef Daniel Sicilia, Jiko will surely excite your palate. Start with the grilled wild boar tenderloin appetizer served with pap (creamy grits) and share the Moroccan lamb tagine with pomegranate glaze. Children are welcome, but if you’re looking for a romantic night out, Simba’s Clubhouse is available to kids for $30 and includes dinner. disneyworld.disney.go.com
See the park's wildlife on the move during a nighttime safari with night-vision goggles. One-hour tours depart nightly at 10 o'clock. $74 per person.
Don't miss the pink flamingos that strut and preen in the pool that is tucked behind the Jambo House playground.
—Laura Anders Lee
Inside and out, The Alfond Inn is a soothing blend of Spanish- Mediterranean architecture and modern design (COURTESY OF THE ALFOND INN)
The Alfond Inn at Rollins
The Alfond Inn fits right in. First, there’s the glass-domed conservatory, the Spanish-Mediterranean architecture, the crisply landscaped interior courtyard—all of which gave the $30 million, 112-room boutique hotel a ready-made Winter Park patina when it opened just four years ago.
There are the impeccable bloodlines, starting with its historic location. It was built on a tract of land that was once occupied by the Langford Resort Hotel, which was Central Florida’s first air-conditioned hotel. Walt and Roy Disney stayed there. So did Eleanor Roosevelt, and Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
The current landlord has a bit of history here, too. The Alfond is owned by Rollins College, whose campus is just across Fairbanks Avenue. A savvy philanthropical arrangement set up by generous benefactors and a shrewd Rollins board calls for the hotel’s net operating income to be funneled into a full scholarship fund. The same benefactors—Rollins graduates Ted and Barbara Alfond—also contributed a breathtaking, 300-piece contemporary art collection that is shared by the hotel and curated by the school’s Cornell Fine Arts Museum.
But you don’t have to be a scholar to matriculate at the lounge with an art-inspired craft cocktail, or at the courtyard for a brunch of chicken and white-cheddar crepes, or at the inn’s farm-to-table restaurant, Hamilton's Kitchen, for veal osso buco or black garlic risotto.
For hotel guests, there’s a fitness center, a second-floor terrace swimming pool, pet-friendly rooms and suites, and proximity to Park Avenue’s boutiques and restaurants, not to mention the scenic boat tour, the Morse Museum with its Tiffany collection, the Polasek Museum with its sculpture gardens, and the lakeside Rollins campus.
Nothing like getting plunked down in the middle of one of Central Florida’s most artistic, scenic, historic, walkable settings for a soothing getaway. It’s the kind of class that can’t be dismissed. thealfondinn.com
GET YOUR JAZZ
ON The Alfond regularly stages live jazz concerts under the stars in the courtyard, accompanied by wine, champagne, beer, cocktails, roasted chicken, smoked pig and vegetarian selections.
GET YOUR ART ON
More than 100 pieces of contemporary art from The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art at Rollins College are displayed throughout the hotel’s common areas. Take a free guided art tour every Friday at 1 p.m.