Years ago, when the the Disney company was quietly buying up property in a swampy backwater on the outskirts of a sleepy little town called Orlando, one mysterious owner of nearly 500 acres didn’t sell. No one knows why, although there is speculation that the mystery owner simply couldn’t be found.* The land went undeveloped until the early 90s when the owner, a Taiwanese invester, passed away. Gradually the area, which is flanked on three sides by Disney property, was developed and became what is known as the Bonnet Creek Resort area. When completed, it will have several high-end hotels and approximately 1,500 timeshare units.
In October, the latest and most luxurious by far of these hotels will open, the Waldorf-Astoria. In 2012, the Four Seasons is set to open on what was formerly a Disney golf course just off Bay Lake. The Orlando area has no shortage of upscale hotels, but until now only a few, such as the Ritz-Carlton, were convenient to Disney and none were adjacent to the property itself. It will be interesting to see how guests who stay at Disney deluxe hotels will react. Will they give up their monorail resorts and theming for the luxury of a true five-star hotel? Those with deep pockets have long complained that Disney deluxe hotels are deluxe hotels in name, and price, only. Certainly Disney’s most expensive hotels lack some of the amenities you find at better hotels: It’s either egalitarian or amusing that the threadcount in the sheets at the Grand Floridian is the same as those at the value resorts; in fact, they come from the same central laundry.
Obviously, when these plans were drawn up, the economy was much stronger, but even then I would have questioned how many more hotel rooms the Orlando area could support. Deep discounts have kept Disney resorts filled, but overall hotel occupancy in Orlando is down about 6 percent. With park attendance down an estimated 10 percent, one would not be out of line in questioning the rationale of saturating a market that was already at capacity prior to the recession. Of course, that’s the crux of the argument, that this specific market, the luxury market, is not saturated at all. Some argue that Disney’s own “hubris” created a gaping hole that they could not, or would not, fill. If off-site hotels can meet or exceed guests’ experiences, it shouldn’t be surprising that a once-loyal segment of on-site guests will gladly stay elsewhere.
With rack rate rooms at Disney’s most expensive hotels starting at around $400 a night during low season, the Waldorf Astoria is practically a bargain at $329. Of course, staying on Disney property has some obvious benefits and certain intangibles that Disney fans are willing to pay for. It’s what is commonly referred to as that Disney magic. Only time will tell if vacationers are willing to forgo that magic in favor of something else. Personally, I’m strictly an on-site kind of girl, but I could be lured over that way just once–that spa looks pretty posh.
Link to the Waldorf-Astoria Orlando website.
*Among the most persistent rumors was that the owner was related to Chinese Nationalist leader Chaing Kai-Shek. Turns out that was partly true: He was a nephew by marriage.