As a long time Walt Disney World guest, frequent visitor, and Vacation Planner, I almost always recommend staying in on of Disney’s onsite resorts. The amenities, conveniences and perks are very good, and I love having the “magic” continue when I return home for the evenings. But, sometimes an onsite resort doesn’t fit the bill. Occasionally people come to Orlando to do something other than Disney (Gasp!). And there are even some resort options that are within the Walt Disney World resort proper, even though they aren’t owned and operated by Disney. For those times when you’re staying somewhere non-Disney, here is my top 5 list of the coolest resorts:
5. Gaylord Palms, 6000 West Osceola Parkway · Kissimmee, Florida
This spectacular (and large) resort is not far from Disney (it claims 5 miles from Epcot), and in typical Gaylord Resort fashion features several atriums where the spirit of Florida is captured indoors inside glass enclosures that let in the Florida sun. There are three areas featured: the Spanish history of St. Augustine, the natural beauty of the Everglades, and the relaxed island feel of Key West. The pool area is also very nice with a large water play structure and splash pad for kids. It features a spa and eight distinct options for food including several full service restaurants. During the holidays the hotel features an amazing interactive area called “Ice!”. This area is filled with what else, ice—sculptures, slides and more. During this time it is definitely one of the “coolest” resorts in Orlando.
4. Loew’s Hotel Properties, Universal Orlando Resort
Just down I-4 in what some people refer to as the Dark Side, are four very nice and well run resorts. Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel, and Portofino Bay are all owned and operated by Loew’s Hotels on the property of Universal Orlando Resort. Each hotel is beautiful with its own theme, and each resort offers early entry at Universal Park’s eligible attractions. Cabana Bay is the lowest priced resort and really goes over the top with the retro kitschy theme. It offers standard rooms and family suites similar to Disney’s Art of Animation. Closer to the Universal parks are the three “deluxe” resorts. All three of these resorts offer an amazing perk if you are visiting the Universal Parks (maybe to see that Potter guy: Express Pass (basically front of the line, or Universal’s version of FastPass) is free when you are staying at these resorts (but not Cabana Bay). They all offer access to the Universal parks and CityWalk via a very nicely landscaped walking path, or by water taxi. Usually there are rickshaws to transport you along the path too (for a price). Royal Pacific is the least expensive, boasting an elegant, South Pacific design and a fun pool. Hard Rock Hotel is the mid-range price, and has a very rock-and-roll feeling (obviously), and the pool has music playing underwater. Portofino Bay is the most expensive, but it is also luxurious and beautiful—like you are on the Italian waterfront complete with live opera music on some nights. The rooms are large and the pools are amazing. With resorts like these it is hard to resist the pull of the dark side.
3. Bonnet Creek Resorts, Waldorf Astoria and Hilton Bonnet Creek
There is a little parcel of land near Disney’s Caribbean Beach resort where one of the original landowners held out and refused to sell to Disney. Eventually the land was sold and the Bonnet Creek area was developed with several resorts including a Wyndham time share. Two of the hotels there, Waldorf Astoria and Hilton Bonnet Creek are great places to stay where you are still very close to the Disney Magic, just lacking some of the “onsite” perks. The Waldorf, of course, is very upscale and features a spa, golf course, and fine dining options. The Hilton, next door, is a little less fancy (and more affordable), but it is easy to utilize the restaurants at either resort while you are staying at these hotels—and there are a lot. The Hilton also has a great pool facility with an amazing lazy river.
2. Swan and Dolphin
These are more resorts that “snuck” on to Disney property. These very distinctive resorts (designed by Michael Graves) are operated by the Starwood family of hotels and ended up in their great location as the result of settling a legal dispute. In the Epcot resort area, the Swan and Dolphin are within walking distance of the International Gateway entrance to Epcot and offer boats or a walking path to Hollywood Studios. Their location alone ranks them high on the list. They also have very comfortable beds thanks to Westin’s “Heavenly Bed.” Many of the Disney resort perks are extended to guests at the Swan and Dolphin including Disney transportation to the parks, extra magic hours and package delivery. They even have a character meal here. There are some resort fees to consider when booking here, but check on the discounts they offer to various groups like teachers, nurses and Starwood Preferred members.
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1. Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World, 10100 Dream Tree Blvd, Golden Oak, Florida
This newest luxury hotel to hit the Orlando scene is also located inside Walt Disney World, within the exclusive Golden Oak development. Golden Oak is very close to Fort Wilderness and the Port Orleans resorts so it provides easy access to Magic Kingdom and Epcot. There is something for everyone here, complemented by Four Seasons outstanding service. There is a golf course, a spa and an adults-only pool. For kids there are elaborate water slides, a splash zone, a lazy river and a climbing wall. You can even book a room that allows for theme park and fireworks views. The resort features four restaurants and two lounges if you decide that you can’t tear yourself away from the luxury and pampering of this resort. But, be warned, the pricing here reflects that high level of luxury.
What are your favorite non-Disney resorts?