Road Trip: Orlando, Florida

Central Florida Beyond the Mouse
  • Miles from Naples: 193

For everyone with young kids, the very word—Orlando—conjures images of standing in long lines in the heat, shooting at targets in Toy Story Mania (again!), and bland, carnival-style food. No, thank you! Though it sometimes doesn’t seem like it, Central Florida is much more than theme parks. Wide open spaces, nature excursions, charming small towns, and, yes, innovative cuisine are waiting to be discovered by those willing to look beyond mouse ears and wizard worlds. Adults are certain to appreciate the diversion, but what about kids? With activities like lazy rivers, outdoor adventures, and top-notch junior golf, they’ll find a whole new kind of magic.

STAY: Grande Lakes, a 500-acre enclave focused on the distinguished traveler, is one of Orlando’s most captivating destinations. Its signature resorts, The Ritz-Carlton Orlando and JW Marriott Orlando (grandelakes.com), connected by a shared meeting space, cater to the leisure and upmarket conference crowds, and both are awesome options for families.

The 582-room Ritz-Carlton offers luxurious suites that overlook a nature preserve and deliver an unobstructed view of fireworks from three theme parks. The Club Level, with food presentations throughout the day to satisfy young snackers, is a must for active families. Children also love the conservation-themed Ritz Kids program, which has a teaching garden and resident chickens, turtles, alligators, and a huge bunny named Mr. Nugget.

JW Marriott, the larger of the two properties, is home to Grande Lakes’ lazy river, which meanders across 24,000 square feet of pools, waterfalls, and lush landscaping. Children float happily for hours, granting Mom and Dad some blissful adult time.

Celebration is close to, but couldn’t feel farther from, Walt Disney World. The master-planned small town was built by Disney (it was one of former CEO Michael Eisner’s pet projects) and reflects the carefully studied ideal the company is famous for. The homes are impeccably designed and maintained, the lawns are manicured, the trees dapple the sunlight just so. Amidst this new-urbanist utopia is the Bohemian Hotel Celebration (celebrationhotel.com), a Kessler Collection boutique property within walking distance of downtown shops and restaurants. Perched on the banks of a lake, the Bohemian branches out to cycling and walking trails that meander past Celebration’s mansions—and the gators sunning on their backyards.

EAT: Highball & Harvest at The Ritz-Carlton is a locavore’s dream. The Southern-style cuisine is prepared with ingredients sourced from local purveyors and Grande Lakes’ own Whisper Creek Farm, including a superb hot sauce made with just-picked peppers. The cocktail program is fairly innovative, with such clever concoctions as the Last Wish (whiskey, cola syrup, tobacco bitters, and orange essence), and the beers on tap are all Florida-brewed. Menu standouts are the campfire oysters with creamed kale and Florida cheddar, the naked chicken on corn waffles, and the Parker rolls with palmetto honey butter.

At JW Marriott, fresh offerings from Whisper Creek Farm are served at the small-plate concept The Kitchen. Communal high-tops and sofa seating reinforce the notion of dining in a family kitchen. Don’t leave without ordering the hop-salted house pretzels with Surplus Honey Citrus Ale cheese fondue. Surplus is the house beer. Other seasonal brews, like the killer maple-bacon stout, are produced in JW’s in-house nano-brewery—the first of its kind for Marriott.

SEE + DO: You wouldn’t automatically think of communing with farm animals in Orlando, but it’s one of the coolest things to do at Whisper Creek Farm. Accompanied by hotel chefs, families learn about organic farming before picking bowlfuls of fruit and vegetables the chefs can prepare for an alfresco, earth-to-table lunch. A highlight is feeding callaloo leaves to the chickens and ducks, then going into the hen house to pick eggs.

For those who prefer Orlando’s old-Florida side, embark on an eco-tour by kayak or canoe, courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton. For two hours, guests paddle down peaceful Shingle Creek, learning about native flora and fauna and enjoying the absolute quiet, save for the occasional wingbeat or birdsong. A similar experience is available by golf cart, sans the satisfaction of the workout.

At Celebration, golf is a big attraction. The main facility is Celebration Golf Club (celebrationgolf.com), whose acclaimed academy provides private and semiprivate lessons, plus clinics for adults and children. The Robert Trent Jones Senior and Junior course is rife with swells and park-like grounds that bring to mind old-European design.

DON’T MISS: The Ritz-Carlton’s In-Room Camping package, available to executive-suite guests, is a lovely surprise for little travelers. Kids’ eyes light up when they see the two-man tent stocked with a double featherbed, lantern, s’mores kit, bedtime book, and more, in the (mosquito-free) comfort of their suite.

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