By Anna Skorczeski, Travel Correspondent
Self-Service Suites Minutes from Disney
Down the palm-lined walkway behind the Lake Buena Vista Resort Village & Spa's main lobby, a hulking form looms behind the bamboo fence. As if run aground on the edge of the pool, the in-house water park's giant pirate ship discharges laughing children from a water slide while adults look on from the poolside loungers. The bustling hub of this family-friendly complex, the Pirate's Plunge pool area begins to get busy just after 8 a.m., when guests come down for a pre-amusement-park dip and a breakfast sandwich, orange juice, or bloody mary from Lani's Luau poolside tiki bar, greeting each other as they cross paths.
Lake Buena Vista Resort Village & Spa draws families and groups of travelers with its spacious, self-service suites just a short drive from Walt Disney World. A carpeted, two-bedroom suite sleeps up to six people, with a king bedroom at one end of the unit, a guest room with two twin beds at the opposite end, and a queen-size sleeper sofa in the living room. The private balcony's sliding glass doors allow plenty of natural light to shine in, though on a sticky summer day, it's far more pleasant on the air-conditioned side of the doors. The fully equipped kitchen makes preparing traditional Thanksgiving-in-August dinners a breeze, right down to the electric-beater-whipped potatoes. After a long day of amusing and a cozy dinner in the suite, travelers can soak weary muscles in the master bathroom's oval jacuzzi tub and oversize walk-in shower. Stocked with tea-tree bath products and artfully folded towels, the second bathroom houses a standard tub-shower combo.
Across from the 24-hour front desk in the lobby, an Expedia Local Expert dishes out concierge service every morning from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. or later, depending on how busy the resort is. One of the experts, Kerri, is a longtime Orlando resident who recounts fond memories of watching the march of the Peabody ducks as a little girl, strongly recommending the quirky, family-friendly tradition. Fonts of local knowledge, these hospitality pros book tickets and make reservations, and are the people to see for a seat on the complimentary shuttle bus to Walt Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Orlando.
While kids frolic in the resort's pool or game room downstairs, parents can go up to the sixth floor and take a vacation from their vacation at Reflections Spa-Salon. Rather than working at individual stations, the spa's manicurists sit side by side along a long granite table, allowing for more intimate chitchat, with comfy pedicure chairs located nearby. Downstairs, framed and autographed show-biz memorabilia, on loan from a local collector, decks the walls of Frankie Farrell's Irish Pub & Grille. The crowd is generally an early one here, though the occasional group gets wild during Saturday-night karaoke.
Orlando: Theme Parks and City Sights
"Are we there yet?" The shrill backseat cry of the impatient grandparent annoys no more. In a test drive from the Lake Buena Vista Resort's parking lot, it took 6 minutes to enter the main Disney gate, 11 minutes to pass through the Magic Kingdom's gate, and 14 minutes to secure a parking spot in the lot. From the transportation center—a 10-minute walk from the lot—a monorail or ferry shuttles visitors to the park, leaving the real world behind for a land packed with colorful characters, rides, and enchantment. Against the backdrop of Cinderella's blue-spired castle, a merry octet serenades sightseers with "Making Memories" and happily poses for photos with kids and adults. Families spin in pastel teacups, and the Tomorrowland Speedway go-kart track lets aspiring Danica Patricks blaze by at speeds of up to 7 miles per hour. Just more than 6 miles from the resort, SeaWorld's Shamu shows thrill as killer whales dance with the grace of a 6-ton synchronized swimmer, and those who don't mind the aroma of smelt can feed the eager dolphins in Dolphin Cove.
For a day away from the major theme parks, visitors can hop in the car and drive about half an hour into the city to visit the Orlando Science Center, nestled in the leafy green cultural campus of Loch Haven Park. Surrounded by two theaters and three museums, the science center lets kids run free, playing with hands-on, interactive exhibits like the 43.5-foot Gibson Flying V guitar, the largest playable guitar in the world. Three miles south of the Science Center, Lake Eola Park's sprawling lawns and peaceful water counteract the stresses of ticket lines, and swans and all manner of geese waddle away with vacation worries. Described by a local as their version of Central Park, the park boasts nearly a mile of paved walking paths winding under verdant branches, past military memorials, and by a colorful, modern playground.
Several restaurants provide an adult respite from the typical day's activities. Eight miles north of the resort, Chef Jared Gross at Napa creates a menu of creative dishes from seasonal and local ingredients, which pair wonderfully with wines from Napa Valley and beyond. The Napa is in The Peabody Orlando Hotel, meaning early-bird diners can catch the 5 p.m. march of the ducks through the hotel lobby.
With the suites' fully equipped kitchens, guests often want to dine in. The front-desk staff directs visitors down Vineland Road to Walmart (1 mile) and Publix (1.6 miles) to do their shopping, though the on-site convenience store has a small selection of dry and canned goods. Many visitors, especially international guests enjoying a favorable exchange rate, spend a few hours shopping at Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores, the immediately adjacent outlet mall.