Finding a home away from home at Salamander's Reunion Resort

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Guests of any of the vacation homes have access to all of the resort amenities at Reunion, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort.
Guests of any of the vacation homes have access to all of the resort amenities at Reunion, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort.

My 90-year-old mother-in-law spends the winter with us in Florida, which can make weekend getaways for the family tricky. My husband, young daughter and I only need one room, but what to do when we want to bring Grandma? Obviously, a second room is needed, resulting in logistical gymnastics that anyone with a larger or multigenerational family knows well when planning a vacation. Who will sleep where, and how much will it cost? Two rooms are twice the price.

With an assignment to report about Reunion Resort for a staycation story, I contacted Reunion, excited to have a place to go where Grandma could come along, no gymnastics required.

I had envisioned us in one of the spacious condo-style units I'd seen before in the Reunion Grande, the central tower whose elegant 11th-floor rooftop pool and excellent restaurant Eleven offer a rare vantage to view evening theme-park fireworks and the ever-changing Orlando landscape. The Grande is the heart of the AAA four-diamond-rated Reunion, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort, and has long been favored for its residential-style vacation digs at the confluence of 54 holes of signature golf. The three courses were designed by the game's greats: Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.

But that's not where Reunion planned to have us stay. They booked us into one of their vacation rental homes instead. I'm embarrassed to admit that I pouted.

After our routine check-in in the lobby of the Grande, we were sent with keys and a map to our home away from home on Gathering Drive, the nearest of 13 Reunion neighborhoods that have grown up around the three golf courses on the 2,300-acre property in Kissimmee. I was delighted to find that its location was directly beside the Spa, and adjacent to the Grande  perfect for walking to and from dinner at Eleven one night  and the Clubhouse for the Watson Course.

We could see the lovely two-story, yellow house with both a front porch and first-floor balcony that spanned the width of the house. After parking in the back, we let ourselves in to first discover the pool and spa and a separate pool house with private sleeping quarters and a full bathroom that opens to the pool. A huge outdoor grill and covered dining area set me to imagining the meal I'd later make for my family (I love to cook while on vacation).

And then we entered the house: a spacious eat-in kitchen with a dining counter, which opened to the living room with a fireplace and television; a formal dining room; additional sitting area; butler's pantry; powder room and full laundry room; and a master bedroom that opened to the pool. Upstairs there was an additional master bedroom plus a third bedroom with a bathroom that also opened to the oversize landing containing comfortable sofas and a large flat-screen television and a pool table. Not only did we have space for Grandma, but she had her pick of rooms. "Hey Grandma," we yelled downstairs, "Do you want the pool house or the master bedroom?" Our little family was just fine upstairs.

The gang headed for our own backyard pool, and I found box lunches in the refrigerator (thick turkey sandwiches, apples, cookies, chips and water), a service Reunion was just rolling out as part of the in-room dining service. When you stay in a Reunion-managed vacation home vs. going it on your own, you are just one call away from 'round-the-clock engineers, concierges and even room service. Evening turndown service and daily morning newspaper "doorstep" delivery is also available upon request.

Though Reunion has managed privately owned vacation rentals since 2007, it has refocused energy on the program to compete with DIY online platforms such as VRBO and Airbnb. Rentals through Reunion are commissionable at 10%, and travel agents can offer clients so much more for a price comparable to two hotel rooms at many resorts.

For instance: The rate for our spacious four-bedroom house ranges from $360 to $475 per night (plus resort fees and housekeeping). Think about it: for the equivalent of $180 to $240 per night for two hotel rooms, we got an entire house with space to lounge and connect with each other, a private pool and a kitchen so well equipped (a Publix grocery store is just outside the Reunion gates) that I could actually cook, bake and blend in it and grill for my group outdoors. Plus, parking is free.

Reunion manages approximately 350 vacation rentals, of which 85 are homes with two to 12 bedrooms. Though each is privately owned, it must adhere to a prescribed level of quality and amenities through a rigid approval process and ongoing audits. Every vacation rental can be viewed at reunionresortvacationhomerentals.com.

We enjoyed our house so much, it was hard to go out and explore. There's so much to do: spa, tennis and nature trails for jogging and bike riding. We rode our bikes around the neighborhoods to pick our favorite pool; there are 11 of them (many of the houses have their own, too). The three largest include one in a complex with a fitness center and an arcade; another is a 5-acre waterpark with a lazy river, flume-style waterslide and little kids' water playground; the third is a quiet rooftop pool on the 11th  floor of the Grande.

Since we wanted to play together, we tried foot golf set up on the Watson Course in the late afternoon. No one is too young or too old to play the hybrid game of soccer and golf where you kick your way to the hole. Playing together outside, for about three hours, while driving golf carts was unforgettable, unplugged fun for the entire family.

Another night we dined at Eleven, a rooftop steakhouse, which may be Orlando's best-kept secret. The menu stars the freshest ingredients; the wine list is deep. We loved the sizzling garlic appetizer for the table and the chef's citrusy Florida salad, whose tiny cubes of pineapple burst with flavor. If Eleven were a ship, it might capsize when it's time for Disney's fireworks because all the diners head for the balcony to watch. Afterwards, we enjoyed a leisurely walk home.

As for Disney, we drove to the main parking lot in 15 minutes. It was close enough to pop over for a few favorite rides and then return to relax at our home away from home.

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