For three months when I was six years old, my family lived on a tiny island off the Gulf Coast of Florida. I’ve never forgotten the white sand beaches against teal-blue water, or the sound of alligators barking behind our rented house on the murky-green Mack’s Bayou. In June I had a chance to return to the Sunshine State for a conference in Orlando.
I was intrigued by the hotel ‘pairings’ in Central Florida, whereby two hotel chains owned by the same parent company sit side-by-side and share facilities. The concept opens up a whole new way for travelers of all stripes to enjoy a destination, full-service resort vacation and never leave the property. While one hotel appeals to the luxury market with strict attention to detail and impeccable service, the adjacent property targets a family- and budget-friendly, younger demographic. I stayed at two such properties, the JW Marriott / Ritz Grand Lakes, and the Hilton Bonnet Creek / Waldorf Astoria. Hilton owns Waldorf hotels, and Marriott owns the Ritz Carlton brand. The Ritz and the Waldorf are the more expensive choices, and offer an entirely different type of experience. Muted colors, floor-to-ceiling marble, tucked-away seating areas and pricey restaurants reek of old-money traditionalism. The JW Marriott and the Hilton have more rooms than their counterparts and cost less. Colors are noticeably brighter, the restaurants are more hip and outdoor recreation is elaborate. Meandering ‘lazy rivers’ surround the pool complexes at the Hilton and JW Marriott, which also include water slides, music, kid-friendly activities and swim-up bars that keep kids and their parents happy.
The Hilton Bonnet Creek has the reputation as being the nicest in the Hilton chain, for good reason. It’s a brand-new resort completed in 2010 with an inviting, contemporary blend of the bright aqua and corals of Florida, and an upscale feel lacking in other Hiltons. There’s a tropical feel throughout the hotel, and the rooms, though small, are very attractive and comfortable. The Waldorf is a short walk away, and in hot weather, a shuttle is available. The lobby is impressive but not stuffy, with a small restaurant for drinks and snacks. Just off the lobby there’s a clubby, wood-paneled bar, and an adjacent veranda that offers prime sunset viewing. The Hilton/Waldorf complex is a free shuttle ride away from Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Downtown Disney and Hollywood Studios, which means you don’t have to rent a car if your vacation is theme-park oriented. Between the two hotels and Disney, there’s enough to do to keep most families occupied for at least a week. There are walking/jogging paths, bicycle rentals, ten restaurants/café’s and a 26,000 square foot spa. The Waldorf’s 18-hole golf course was designed by Rees Jones and sits within the Bonnet Creek Nature Preserve.
The Ritz Carlton Grand Lakes and JW Marriot front the lovely Shingle Creek, which is said to contain snakes and alligators, and flows all the way to the Everglades. This is a destination resort you will not want to leave, but not the best choice for a theme park vacation. It’s a good twenty minutes away so a rental car is a must, and the nearest shopping is several miles. But there’s enough to do here for a week without ever stepping off the property. The two hotels are linked by a conference/business center wing and 40,000 square foot spa, making getting back and forth easy. Or you can walk along the verdant creek, which is lovely in the evening when bird watching is at its best—egrets and other waterfowl can be seen, and perhaps a wild flamingo or two. In addition to this bit of nature and the pool at each hotel, there is golf, a fitness center, ballroom, twelve restaurants & cafés, bocce ball courts and boutiques, and on the creek, eco-tours, fly fishing and kayaking adventures. The Ritz Carlton Golf Course is an 18 hole, 72-par, Greg Norman-designed facility, and promises “a luxury experience unlike any other in the area.”
Even though the JW Marriott is connected to the Ritz through the conference center’s long corridor, it feels like it is a world away. The Marriot is striking in its own way, and attracts a livelier crowd, but feels almost garish in comparison with the elegant Ritz. At the Ritz, you feel as though you have arrived from the first moment you enter the Ritz’s opulent marble lobby—perhaps in the French countryside at a minor chateau. Rooms are equally as elegant, with generous proportions.
There’s a dress code at the Ritz, which is loosely enforced, and the entire place, inside and out, is impeccably clean, which is more than can be said for the JW Marriot where there are many more people and fewer staff. The employees refer to you by name—from the hostess at the restaurant to the pool personnel, and all stresses melt away in the calm, subdued atmosphere. Guests are pampered at every level, making it hard to leave even when you have exhausted all entertainment options.
Florida’s economy has been hit perhaps even harder than California’s, so if you are considering a visit, this is a great time to go. Hotel rates are lower and the service industry is rolling out the welcome mat.