Travel: Kids aren’t compulsory if you’re looking to make the most of what Florida has to offer
You might be surprised to know that over 40 per cent of the 50 million visitors a year to Orlando, Florida are adult couples travelling without children, writes Ruth Brindle.
Whether you could describe them all as big kids or not is debatable, but it brings into focus that this central Florida tourism magnet is more than just a theme park capital.
Indeed, when my husband and I visited at the beginning of the year, our eyes were opened to a whole world of luxury and leisure possibilities in this fun town, which is one of the most popular centres in the US for conventions.
Just 10 minutes down the road from Universal’s parks, and a mere five minutes from SeaWorld and some of the best outlet shopping in Florida, the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel on Universal Boulevard, was our base for all too short a time.
As we drew up from the airport, the line of sleek, black limousine taxis waiting to whisk guests to wherever they needed to go gave a slight Vegas feel to our arrival.
Inside, the vast, open, Spanish revival architecture and a long line of receptionists waiting to help, was a hint that this hotel is busy and popular and that efficiency is a priority. Many of the guests are there to attend company gatherings and meetings in the impressive and vast convention centre. But the many facilities, including a golf course and four pools, also make it an excellent family choice for an upmarket holiday base.
It was eye-opening to experience ‘the other side’ to Orlando life, and the seasoned business types who come here for the world-class facilities, entertainment and of course, theme park fun, demand great service too and want everything on-hand and convenient.
While us Brits may be timid to ask for what we want, Americans are not shy in that regard and I can honestly say that at this hotel you really do have everything you could ask for – restaurants, snack bars and coffee shops, even a very well-stocked 24-hour deli, shop and take-away for eating in your room or al fresco, room service, not to mention a spa, 18-hole golf course and many other leisure facilities, including basketball.
The rooms at the Rosen Shingle Creek, the newest of the group of seven in the city, are traditionally decorated and ours had two vast Queen beds – one each for when we had an argument! There was WiFi, a dock for your iPhone, a huge telly and just about everything in-room you could need.
In this privately-owned establishment, founded by Harris Rosen, it felt like the philosophy really is to take care of the guests’ every need.
A New Yorker by birth, Mr Rosen worked for the Hilton Group and developed hotels for the Disney organisation, before buying his own first hotel in Orlando, a Quality Inn in 1973.
Rosen Hotels now offer a total of 6,300 beds in the city. He is also renowned for his philanthropic work to help central Florida youngsters get an education.
We did, of course, venture out to the Universal Orlando Resort for our theme park fix and to SeaWorld, more of which later, but we could quite happily have just indulged ourselves at the Rosen Shingle Creek.
It gets its name from a creek (what else?), at the headwaters of the Everglades and shingles are rafters that the original homesteaders made from the Cypress trees in the area.
And when I say I could have stayed longer, I would happily have spent my time floating between the beautiful pools and the spa.
Talking of the Everglades, my super indulgent body treatment involved being slathered in the said mud and wrapped in foil to bake luxuriously for half an hour, after which I could easily have just fallen asleep. Heaven.
Then it was the turn of my face to get ‘the treatment’. This turned out to be the most thorough and fantastic facial I’ve ever had. Again, thank you American businesswomen for demanding the best.
So, super cleansed and glowing, I awaited the arrival back of husband Nick from a golf lesson with professional Brad Brewer and an 18-hole round with some newly-made buddies who had come from around the US to the hotel specifically to play the interesting course, ranked among the best in Florida.
This is what he had to say when he returned.
“By the time I reached the eighth hole I was a worried man. I had only bought six golf balls and three had already been despatched to a watery grave. At this rate I was going to be driving my GPS-equipped buggy back to the clubhouse after the 14th.
I was fighting the battle familiar to every golfer – man against the course. And in this case, the course - the Rosen Shingle Creek - was winning.
And that was hardly surprising as the 18-hole challenge in the grounds of the luxury hotel is no pushover.
It’s a typical American layout familiar to travelling British players with water visible (if not always in play) on every hole and bunkers that all too often are just set dressing rather than a hazard to be avoided at all costs.
But, whereas most courses this side of the pond have a signature hole, Shingle Creek has 18 unique challenges that would be the pride of many inland layouts.
After a gentle opener, the course – which can be played for as little as $55 at certain times - becomes a challenge – especially with the Orlando breeze that was blowing the day I played.
It’s hard to pick a favourite hole but I’ll go for nine. The tee shot shouldn’t be a problem but it’s all about the second shot over more water to a green protected by a bunker that defends the front and left. The green is also multi-layered which makes putting the ball on the right level very important.
Despite the support of my playing partners - two prosthetic limb salesmen from Toronto and a Baltimore fireman that the friendly and efficient staff had paired me with - my round did not improve and my day was completed by the humiliation of asking my new-found friends for new balls please.
So there could be little doubt where I needed to head – the Brad Brewer golf academy. Brad used to work with Arnold Palmer - and has even written a book (Mentored By the King) about how inspirational the great man has been.
His academy is at Shingle Creek and he quickly took me under his wing. A combination of down-to-earth advice and scientific reasoning immediately made a difference in the hour we spent together. He recorded my swing from two angles when I first arrived and then acted as my own personal counsellor as I realised that instead of swinging the club like Tiger Woods I looked like a hunchback chopping logs.
A few quick tips later I was already hitting the ball better – although Brad, who is also a talented artist - did explain that if a professional makes a change to his swing he will not feel comfortable with it until he has hit 15,000 balls!
It sounded like it might take a while but just two months later my handicap has already come down by two shots. So Brad, thanks. I’ve been Mentored by the King.”
Another highlight of this visit was a truly fantastic meal at the hotel’s award-winning steakhouse A Land Remembered. I absolutely loved the atmosphere of this VERY up-market restaurant – all dark wood and mood lighting.
My indulgent steak and lobster choice was the best (and, OK, the most expensive) I’ve ever eaten, even compared to a top New York steakhouse. Coupled with super attentive staff and the feeling of being spoilt, our experience was very grown-up and very special.
In fact, that just about sums up our whole Rosen Shingle Creek experience, one that we’d love to repeat next time we’re in Orlando.
So what’s the lastest from the USA’s number one resort state?
LEGOLAND FLORIDA: Along with a water park that opened in 2012, there has been major expansion of the park, a 40-minute drive from Orlando, which includes, The World of Chima, with popular new, water-based ride The Quest for CHI – prepare to be soaked! A new two-day ticket helps visitors to fit in all the attractions on offer.
SEAWORLD: Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is the latest attraction here, where you can get up close and personal with, of course, a penguin colony. It’s an interactive ride, combined with an animal encounter in the frozen wastes of Antarctica. Very popular, so expect queues.
UNIVERSAL ORLANDO: Transformers: The Ride – 3D, a film-based, immersive experience featuring the evil Decepticons and the goody goody Autobots was new this year. In the Studios park a new Simpsons Springfield area enhances the comedy cartoon fun. Take a turn on the Simpsons Ride then enjoy the new Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl, visit Duff Brewery, and have something to eat along the Fast Food Boulevard. Try Krusty Burger, the Frying Dutchman or Luigi’s Pizza, or have a drink at Moe’s Tavern.
NEW FOR 2014: an exciting area - The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, opens in July. As part of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley. The Hogwarts Express train will connect the new land in Universal Studios Florida with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, in Islands of Adventure – allowing guests with park-to-park admission to enjoy a real journey aboard the iconic locomotive.
The resort’s new, 1950s-60s’, retro-themed family hotel, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, opened its doors in March and is set to be a smash hit. Not only does it look stunning, but it will offer good value for its 1,800 rooms, which includes 900 family suites, which sleep six and also have a sitting area and small kitchen with microwave. The two pools, lazy river, bowling alley and lots more will keep the whole family very happy. Fun facilities include: a 10-lane bowling alley, a fitness studio, a 10,000 square foot pool and dining at the Bayliner Diner, a food court with everything from a salad bar to burgers, sandwiches, pizza and pasta. Also, this summer there’s more to come.
WALT DISNEY WORLD: The Princess Fairytale Hall is the latest attraction to open in the new Fantasyland area of the Magic Kingdom. Next comes the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and a major expansion of the Downtown Disney area. Watch this space.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER: A £60 million investment at the fascinating centre, set around 45 minutes outside Orlando on the coast, includes the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction, a guide to the amazing shuttle programme, with the orbiter Atlantis taking centre stage.
For all the latest news and information on Orlando and help to plan your holiday, visit www.visitorlando.com
How to get there
Seven nights in Orlando with Virgin Holidays, including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick direct to Orlando, room-only accommodation at the 3V Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and car hire starts from £655. Price is per person based on two adults travelling and sharing a tower standard including Universal 2-Park Bonus Ticket which gives you unlimited entrance into Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, plus Universal CityWalk, for up to 14 consecutive days. Prices from £122 per person. Price is based on a departure on 20 November, 2014. To book: www.virginholidays.co.uk, 0844 557 3859.
See www.attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk to buy your ticket now.
Visit www.universalorlando.co.uk to find out more.