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For today’s Destination of the Week, we asked TPG contributor Nick to take us through his hometown of Orlando while there’s still time to squeeze in one last family summer vacation before school starts again.
With summer rapidly drawing to a close, we decided to head south for today’s Destination of the Week and visit one of everyone’s favorite childhood vacation spots: Orlando, Florida.
Orlando International Airport (MCO), located 12 miles southeast of downtown and just 20 miles from Disney, is the primary gateway to the city. Over 35 million passengers come through the airport each year, arriving from or departing to one of 89 destinations throughout the U.S. or 27 international cities. Every major alliance has significant representation, with many airlines offering not only multiple flights per day to their hubs but also to other destinations as well:
Star Alliance: United (Newark, Houston-IAH, Chicago-ORD, Cleveland, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington-IAD, plus Pensacola and Marsh Harbour, Bahamas), US Airways (Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington-DCA), Air Canada (Montreal and Toronto), Lufthansa (Frankfurt), TAM (Sao Paulo), and Copa Airlines (Panama City, Panama).
SkyTeam: Delta (Atlanta, Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Memphis, Minneapolis, New York-JFK, New York-LGA, Raleigh-Durham, and Salt Lake City) and AeroMexico (Mexico City).
OneWorld: American (Chicago-ORD, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York-JFK) and British Airways (London-Gatwick).
Orlando also serves as a key city for both Southwest (35 nonstop destinations) and JetBlue (23 nonstop destinations, including many smaller airports in the northeast like Syracuse and Burlington, VT). AirTran also has a significant presence there, though it will be interesting to see how their route network will be impacted as their merger with Southwest progresses.
Keep in mind that summer can bring lots of tour groups and families with small children to the Orlando area, and as a result, security lines can get quite long, and the airport does not offer any preferred security lanes for premium passengers. They do, however, offer TSA’s new Pre-Check for Delta passengers (the furthest lane to the right when facing the checkpoint for gates 60-129) as well as CLEAR.
If you do arrive at the airport and breeze through security, you’ll enjoy free WiFi throughout the terminal to help ensure that your time at the gate is not wasted.
WHAT TO DO
It’s no secret that theme parks rule the roost in Orlando, and Disneyworld is the king of the pack. Even though the park opened over 16 years after Disneyland in California, it quickly overtook its West Coast sibling in size, attendance, and grandeur. Walt Disney first envisioned opening a second Disney amusement park free of the space confines that limited Disneyland’s expansion in Southern California, eventually choosing Orlando for its year-round warm temperatures and land availability that wouldn’t restrict future growth. The park consists of four separate theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios) along with two water parks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach). There are a variety of ticket options, and not surprisingly, longer stays lead to cheaper daily costs. Be sure to select the “Park Hopper” option if you don’t want to be restricted to one theme park per day. Details on the various options can be found on Disney’s website.
For more adrenaline-filled fun, consider a trip to Universal Studios Orlando. Though originally catering to movie buffs, Universal added a separate park (Islands of Adventure) with thrill-seeking rides such as the Incredible Hulk Coaster and Dr. Doom’s Fearfall. Islands of Adventure is also home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (included in admission). Fans of the J.K. Rowling series can visit Hogsmeade for a cup of butterbeer, stop by Olivander’s Wand Shop for a custom fitting, take a virtual spin around Hogwarts, and pick up some tasty treats and souvenirs at Honeydukes and Zonko’s Joke Shop. Afterwards, guests holding two-park passes can head over to the original Universal Studios for a variety of cinematic adventures. Details on ticket options and events are available online.
A third option for theme-park goers is SeaWorld Orlando, with a variety of marine-themed shows and attractions. A single-day ticket at the park actually includes a free second visit, offering a great value for those with short stays. Consider visiting Aquatica, SeaWorld’s separate water park, to beat the summer heat, or add in a swim with the dolphins at Discovery Cove. Discounted tickets and additional park information are available online.
In case kids don’t have enough to do with these options, consider a visit to International Drive. While the southern end of “I-Drive” caters to convention goers (and is also home to The Peabody and its famous parade of ducks), head north to find numerous family-friendly hotels, restaurants, and activities such as Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, putt-putt golf, and Wonderworks. Shoppers can also get their fix at the Premium Outlets, located at the north end of I-Drive. This area also offers easy access to Universal as well as the three SeaWorld parks.
If theme parks (and the inevitable summer crowds and long lines) aren’t your style, Orlando still has much to offer visitors. The sports enthusiast can take advantage of the city’s vast number of terrific golf courses for all levels of play, while travelers looking for a true Central Florida experience can visit Boggy Creek Airboat Rides for a tour of the swampland that eventually flows south to the Everglades. The downtown area is an up-and-coming scene for arts, culture, cuisine, and nightlife, including the sparkling new Amway Arena, the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center, and numerous art galleries.
Outside the city, guests flock to Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center for an up-close visit to the heart of the U.S. space program, which offers tours, an IMAX theatre, and a shuttle launch experience. Just south of the Kennedy Space Center lies Port Canaveral, a busy cargo hub for Central Florida and the origination point of numerous cruises. Test your luck on a sunset cruise with Victory Casino, or set sail for the Bahamas, Mexico, or other Caribbean locales with cruises on Disney, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean.
WHERE TO STAY
The city is filled with on- and off-brand hotels and resorts. Since the various activities mentioned above are spread out over a large area, you should decide how you want to spend your time before making lodging arrangements. Once you have a game plan, though, Orlando offers many choices for redeeming your hard-earned points.
Two things to keep in mind regarding lodging in Orlando:
1) If a hotel or resort advertises “complimentary transportation” to any of the theme parks, be sure to verify exactly what that transportation consists of. Many hotels share vans with other nearby properties and run set schedules to and from the parks, and if you miss a shuttle back, you may wind up waiting close to an hour or be forced to shell out for a cab, neither of which is a welcome occurrence after a tiring day in the parks.
2) Make sure and check for “resort fees” when booking rooms. Many properties that have no business classifying themselves as “resorts” nevertheless add up to $25 per day as a mandatory charge for each room. This typically includes WiFi, bottled water, or other amenities on property, but it often isn’t worth the additional expense.
For those of you who got in on Club Carlson’s big point bonuses, you have three Radisson and four Country Inn & Suites properties to choose from in the Orlando area. The Radisson Hotel Orlando – International Drive offers a convenient location on I-Drive with complimentary transportation to all three major theme parks. The property has a pool and on-site restaurant, and the $10 daily resort fee includes parking as well as full access to the adjacent YMCA gym and Olympic size pool. Rates in August start at $89/night; Club Carlson members can redeem 9,000 points or 5,000 points + $53.40 for a free night.
Other Club Carlson properties include the Country Inn & Suites Universal, the Country Inn & Suites Orlando Airport, the Radisson Hotel Lake Buena Vista, the Country Inn & Suites Orlando Maingate, and the Radisson Resort Orlando – Celebration.
The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek is the closest Hilton property to the Disney parks (only 1 mile) and offers complimentary transportation for guests wishing to visit the parks. Kids stay free, and Hilton HHonors Gold & Diamond members can take advantage of the executive lounge. August rates start at $143/night. As a Category 6 hotel, free night redemptions start at 40,000 points/night or 20,000 points + $70 if you can find Cash + Points availability.
Other Hilton HHonors properties in the city include the Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista, the Doubletree Suites Lake Buena Vista, the Hilton Garden Inn SeaWorld, the Homewood Suites Orlando International Drive, the Hilton Orlando, the Hampton Inn & Suites International Drive North, the Doubletree Universal, the Embassy Suites Orlando Downtown, and numerous airport and suburban properties as well. There are also two new properties opening this fall: the Embassy Suites Lake Buena Vista South opens in October, while the Hampton Inn & Suites Orlando Airport/Gateway Village opens in September. Another new airport hotel, the Homewood Suites Orlando Gateway, plans to open in January 2013.
Another hotel offering theme park proximity with resort-like amenities is the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress. This recently renovated 1500-acre resort provides complimentary transportation to Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, and the outlet mall, giving guests a variety of activity choices. Many may never find a reason to leave the property at all, with on-site golf and water sports. August rates start at $169; if you prefer to redeem your Hyatt Gold Passport points, a standard room would set you back 18,000 points/night, while a Regency Club room goes for 22,000 points/night. This resort is also a part of American Express’ Fine Hotels & Resorts.
For fellow airplane geeks or for added convenience with early morning flights, consider the Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport. Physically inside the Orlando International Airport, the hotel is accessed from the main lobby. Atrium rooms allow you to monitor security lines, while outside rooms offer terrific views of the tarmac. The hotel also has day use rooms for long layovers or delays. August rates start at $179 or 15,000 per night.
For a completely different experience, consider the Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando. This new hotel offers convenient access to all that downtown has to offer, including a burgeoning nightlife and arts scene. The property also boasts a full-service spa & multiple restaurants on site. August rates start at $219, whereas free night redemptions range from 20,000 – 25,000 points/night.
For a less family-themed trip, the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes offers the luxury of an exclusive resort with a location that’s still convenient to the city’s major attractions. Spend your day playing one of two professional-length golf courses, relaxing in the full-service spa, or enjoying one of the properties numerous restaurants. Complimentary transportation to both Universal and SeaWorld allows guests to still enjoy the hustle and bustle of Orlando’s theme parks before retiring to a luxurious oasis. August rates start at $219; a free night through Marriott Rewards would set you back 30,000 for PointSavers or 40,000 points for a Standard Reward. This resort is also a member of American Express’ Fine Hotels & Resorts.
Other Marriott properties in Orlando include the Orlando World Center Marriott, the SpringHill Suites Orlando Lake Buena Vista, the Fairfield Inn & Suites Orlando Lake Buena Vista, the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld, the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes, the Residence Inn Orlando Convention Center, the Courtyard Orlando International Drive, the Fairfield Inn & Suites Orlando Near Universal Resort, the Courtyard Orlando Downtown, and numerous airport properties.
The Holiday Inn Club Vacations Orlando – Orange Lake Resort offers both proximity to the Disney parks and a number of activities on property to keep travelers of all ages busy. The resort has a variety of villa accommodations ideal for families, and amenities include a water park, mini golf, nine restaurants, grocery shopping services, complimentary transportation around the resort, free WiFi, and water sports on the property’s lake. August rates start at $149 for a 1-bedroom villa. Free night redemptions appear to be limited to only two-bedroom villas at 27,500 points/night. Alternatively, Priority Club members can combine cash and points as well (22,500 points + $40 or 17,500 points + $70).
Away from the hustle of the Disney area, the Holiday Inn Castle I-Drive clearly has families with young children in mind. Built to resemble a castle, the property is an official Universal Partner Hotel and offers guests the convenience of purchasing tickets on sight along with other special benefits. With complimentary transportation to SeaWorld and Universal Studies, the hotel has a prime location on International Drive. August rates start at $80, whereas free nights would cost 25,000 points/night or 20,000 points + $40.
Other Priority Club options include the Holiday Inn Express Lake Buena Vista, the Holiday Inn Maingate East, the Holiday Inn Resort: Lake Buena Vista, the Crowne Plaza: Orlando-Universal, the Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites: Orlando International Drive, the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites: Main Gate to Universal Orlando, the Staybridge Suites Orlando Airport, and the Crowne Plaza Orlando Downtown.
The “jewel” of the Starwood brand in Orlando is the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort. They are actually two separate waterfront hotels located inside the gates of the Walt Disney World Resort. Boats take guests directly from the hotel to Epcot and Hollywood Studies (walkways are also available), and Disney-operated shuttle buses go to the other parks every 20 minutes. In addition, all guests are entitled to extended hours in a different park each day, a benefit only available to guests at Disney Resort properties. Travelers staying at the Swan and Dolphin can also take advantage of character dining, a full-service spa, 17 restaurants and lounges, five pools, and a white sand beach. August rates start at $129/night; as Category 4 properties in the SPG program, free nights cost 10,000 Starpoints.
Other Starwood properties in Orlando include the Sheraton Vistana Resort Villas Lake Buena Vista, the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista Resort, the Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort Villas: I-Drive, the Westin Imagine Orlando, the Four Points by Sheraton Orlando Studio City, the Sheraton Orlando Downtown, and the Sheraton Suites Orlando Airport.
Fine Hotels & Resorts
Fine Hotels & Resorts is a program exclusively for American Express Platinum Card cardholders, who are eligible for extra benefits such as room upgrades, free continental breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more.
In addition to the Marriott and Hyatt offerings above, another resort option under the Fine Hotels & Resorts umbrella is the Villas of Grand Cypress. With 45 holes of championship golf, tennis courts, bicycles, boats, fishing, and a rock climbing wall, guests have plenty of opportunities to stay active. The resort also provides complimentary transportation to Disneyworld, Universal, and SeaWorld parks, and guests can enjoy the seven full-service restaurants or five on-property lounges after a long day of activities. Rates in August start at $135/night. The Lowes Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal is also part of Fine Hotels and Resorts.
Visa Signature Hotels
When cardholders use a Visa Signature credit card to book a room through the Visa Signature Hotels program, they are eligible to receive extra perks such as discounted room rates, room upgrades, free breakfast, early check-in and late check-out, dining and spa credits and more. Visa Signature cards include the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire, British Airways Visa, the Hyatt card, the Marriott Rewards Premier and Marriott Rewards cards, the Southwest Plus card, Bank of America’s Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines cards,Capital One Venture, Citi Hilton HHonors and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve, US Bank FlexPerks, Citi AAdvantage Visa Signature, and many more, so chances are you’re carrying at least one of them in your wallet.
The only Orlando property in the Visa Signature Hotel portfolio is the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, offering guests the added benefits of point-earnings to go along with their Visa Signature benefits. The luxury hotel includes private complimentary transportation to the Disney theme parks, a championship golf course, and a full-service spa to cater to a guest’s every whim. Rates through Visa Signature in August start at $239/night; guests could also use 50,000 Hilton HHonors points or 25,000 points + $100. Since this property does have standard rooms, you should be able to redeem the free certificates earned from the new Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card as well.
If Disneyworld will be your primary (or only) reason for visiting Orlando, you may want to consider staying in a Disneyworld resort. These properties offer easy access to the various parks, complimentary transfers from the airport aboard the Magical Express, extended park hours, and even the convenience of having your Disney park purchases delivered straight to your hotel room!