The Other Orlando: Good Family Fun

Orlando isn’t officially called The City of Fun, but it might as well be between Disney World, theme parks, water parks and other attractions. I recently got invited to check out the Orlando World Center Marriott, courtesy of the resort, and discovered a place with magic all its own.

The AAA four-diamond hotel, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation, is located a few minutes away from Disney by car, with a free shuttle service for resort guests (or rent a car at the Hertz desk off the lobby). The grounds are beautiful and scrupulously well kept, the staff is über-friendly and the service is great. With 2009 rooms the resort is large—it’s the biggest Marriott in the world—yet it never felt crowded during my stay. Rates start at $129, and vary by season. Ask for a room with a pool view.

A whole new world

What a room looks like before your family messes it up

The living room in a suite (also before your family messes it up); there’s a little kitchen, too.

Water stuff to do

The star attraction for kids: the pools, aka water fun central. The Falls Pool Oasis has a slide tower with two 200-foot winding flume slides and one 90-foot speed slide, exactly why it’s been named one of the 10 best water slides in the world. The only challenge: Getting your kids out of the pool. There’s live evening poolside entertainment Wednesday through Sunday, and family-friendly movies on Friday and Saturday nights on the Falls Pool Lawn.

The Falls Pool Oasis

The pool complex at night, when you will be forced to tell the kids that they have to return to the room because they can’t sleep in the pool.

The Splash Zone, a zero-entry pool

One word that comes to mind: “Wheeeeeeeeeee!”

Activities to do

Chances of rain during your stay: possible. Chances of your kids getting bored: ZERO. During the three days I was there, activities included a water balloon toss, noodle race, bucket and sponge race, Falls Pool scavenger hunt, jump rope competition, hula hoop competition, limbo competition, Aqua Zumba and Aqua Yoga. What they really need to add is an exercise class called Burn Off All The Amazing Food You Ate (more on that later). Kids can also enjoy character visits from SeaWorld and Legoland. I saw a cool interactive event with Gatorland in which kids got to hang out with a tarantula, a scorpion, a boa constrictor and a few little alligators. No word on what room rate they charge alligators. He he.

They did not get to take him home.

The Kids Activity Center, located in the center of the pool area. There’s scheduled face painting and arts and crafts, including seasonal ones like making Easter baskets.

Should your kids experience electronics withdrawal, hit The G.R.I.D. (Gaming Recreational Interactive Destination). They can use an Xbox, Playstation, Wii and iPads, and play classic games.

The video game arcade. “Hey, Mom! Could we maybe sleep here?”

A bunch of times throughout the year, the resort has fireworks.

The 200-acre resort is a playground for everyone, including anyone in your family who’s golf obsessed. Hawk’s Landing Golf Club is a par-71 course that’s a three-minute walk from the lobby. And if nobody in your family is into golf, they just might be after taking a lesson at the Bill Madonna Golf Academy. An affable and knowledgeable instructor, Madonna’s motto is “Expect to get better.” (He’s a GOLF magazine Top 100 Teacher in America.) Madonna and his team of pros teach the CHEF method for making a great shot: 1) Club down behind the ball; 2) Hands on the club, looking at your hands; 3) Eyes on the target; 4) Feet apart. They do not teach you what to do if your kids would like to repeatedly ride around the stunning course on the golf carts. The club offers specials, including kids under 15 playing free after 3:00 p.m. with an accompanying paying adult, so check on rates.

Group golf lesson

Be sure to give your family plenty of advance notice that you will be heading off to the spa. I got a hot stone massage that made me so relaxed, I dozed off. Clients can also get a body polish, mani pedi, facial or other skin and body treatment, and lounge in the spa pool, whirlpool and steam room. Sorry, you will not be able to sleep there.

Another word that comes to mind: “Ahhhhhhhh.”

One day, I headed out of the resort—and up, up and away thanks to Orlando Balloon Adventures. Although riding in a hot air balloon hadn’t been on my bucket list, I’d recommend adding it to yours because it’s an incredible experience. The suggested age is six and up; passengers need to be 48 inches tall, and not pregnant. Kids and adults in wheelchairs are welcome, too. In case you’re wondering (I sure was), the pilots are all certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, and the balloons get inspected after every 100 hours of flight time. They’re fueled by propane and yes, you see gigantic licks of flame coming out from above but you won’t feel them because of a metal heat protector.

Before our sunrise trip took off, the pilot released a white balloon into the air to see which way the wind was blowing. Then he consulted several websites, along with pilots from other local companies. Our group watched the hot air balloon inflate, then six of us clambered into the gigantic basket (there’s just no graceful way of doing it).

There have been lots of marriage proposals on the balloon. Weddings, too. No divorces, so far.

Takeoff was a breeze—you just drift on up into the air. The views were glorious, and floating around felt completely zen, almost dream-like. You just can’t believe that you are that high in the sky. There’s no real steering a hot-air balloon; the pilot can only climb or descend based on the direction of the wind current. Touchdown was pretty seamless, just a bump, and the trailer park people were pleasantly surprised to see us.

We flew for about an hour, going up 2947 feet—that’s over half a mile—and traveling 6.3 miles.

Rding in a hot air balloon makes you this happy.

Food to do

I was glad I packed my appetite, because the food at the hotel is stellar. Over at the Mikado Japanese Steakhouse, guests can order everything from sushi to steak, chicken , scallops, shrimp, salmon, scallops and lobster tails prepared on the hibachi. Dinner entrees come with soup (I loved the chicken Tori soup), salad, a shrimp starter, steamed or fried rice and Teppan yaki vegetables, each bite more delicious than the next. For traditional steak and seafood fare, there’s Hawk’s Landing Steakhouse & Grille.

Our table’s funny teppan-yaki chef; he didn’t just cook, he put on a show.

One look (and taste) and you get why Siro: Urban Italian Kitchen is award-winning. The modern rustic setting is both beautiful and warm, the kind that invites you to lounge, eat and enjoy. The pasta is hand-made and dishes are crafted with local in-season ingredients, with some charmingly served family style on wooden planks. Bartenders mix up Italian classics, including the Lemoncello Martini, complete with fresh-squeezed juices and herbs plucked from the mini garden out in back. You can just tell the kids you are drinking Mommy Juice.

Siro: Urban Italian Kitchen

Antipasto misto

Squash Blossom Piazza, with house-cured pancetta and goat cheese; apologies if you are getting very hungry right about now.

Alexia Gawlak, Siro’s cool chef. We got to go behind the scenes in the kitchen; large groups can book an interactive cooking experience.

We made cavatelli pasta, rolling the dough and cranking it out through a little pasta maker. Alexia cooked it up with crab, tarragon and blistered tomatoes in a lemon parmesan broth.

Solaris, open for breakfast and lunch, has a Good Start breakfast buffet with more than 80 items including an omelette station and Belgian waffles (with Nutella handy), plus a really great spread of fresh fruit to help alleviate your guilt from eating all the waffles and Nutella. Kids under 12 eat free, one per paying adult. Also nice to know: For every buffet sold, Marriott donates a dollar to Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

Decisions, decisions

If you want to grab a quick bite, there’s always the Food Court.

No matter where you eat, leave room for dessert, because the Marriott’s pastry chefs are out of control. We sampled everything from decadent truffles to mini meringues to macarons. And then we sampled some more.

This is what dessert heaven looks like.

Y-U-M spells Oh, I think I will just have one more

There will be just one last challenge facing you: Your family is going to be very sad when it’s time to go home.

 

Thanks to Orlando World Center Marriott for providing transportation, accommodations, dining and experiences. All opinions (and bliss and weight gain) are my own.

Disney's Magic Kingdom: Beyond the Rides
Disney's Magic Kingdom: Beyond the Rides
Disney's Magic Kingdom: Beyond the Rides

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