I've lived in Orlando for 12 years and had never been to Golden Oak at Walt Disney World. It's an exclusive community of multimillion-dollar single-family homes, designed and sold by Disney. It's also home to the only AAA Five-Diamond resort in Central Florida, the Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort. Passing through security and wending down a quiet road in the midst of the No. 1 vacation destination in the world warms you up to the idea that you are in for something special.
A front desk attendant greeted me by name as I surrendered my car to the valet. "How does she know your name?" my husband asked. I wondered the same. Check-in was a breeze, in part because I'd preregistered through the Four Seasons app, indicating all of our preferences down to no feathers in the bedding, what we'd like stocked in the minibar and at what times we prefer our room to be serviced. En route to the elevators we passed a row of cases, each displaying a single white porcelain tiara or crown; no color, no glaze but a whimsical, elegant nod to the Four Seasons' role in the Disney experience for many of its guests who tend to spend more time at the resort than at the parks.
We immediately set out to explore the entire resort. Whose stroke of brilliance was it to give kids a passport at check-in that requires them (with mom and dad in tow) to collect stamps from every amenity down to the spa, the pool bar & grill (PBG) and the gift shops in order to rack up a fully stamped passport to be traded for ice cream?
My tour included extra stops to see a few of the 443 rooms (including 68 suites). The interior design by Anderson Miller is elegant, artful and cohesive with dashes of whimsy where you least expect them, such as the colorful blown-glass tumblers beside the sink in the bathrooms. Guests in Park View rooms can watch the nightly Magic Kingdom Park fireworks from the thoughtfully furnished balconies, but every room has views that extend beyond the resort's 26 acres that make you feel as though you are in a nature preserve. Suites can be configured to include up to three bedrooms. We stayed in a Park View room with a pull-out sofa comfortable enough for even a grown-up to have a great night's sleep. I'm a fan of the Nespresso machines and real espresso cups and saucers that are standard in rooms at Four Seasons resorts.
Within the hour my daughter was happily digging in to a dish of homemade gelato at Lickety Split, the excellent coffee shop/bakery that showcases everything made in-house (including the cold brew). We paused here to deploy our freshly gathered intel to shape the next three days of our staycation as guests of the Four Seasons.
Four Seasons Orlando provides easy access to all four Disney parks, but guests may not want to leave.
It was December, and our stay overlapped with unusually cool days. So although both pools the Zen-style adult pool with its cushioned loungers and soothing neutral decor and the zero-entry, infinity-edged family pool — whose seating and shade are bursts of navy, lime and orange — are exceedingly appealing, it was the game room called the Hideout that drew first straw.
We'd introduced our daughter to pinball last summer with a fistful of quarters while at a pizza place we'd stopped at on a road trip. Imagine her (and our) glee when we discovered that the pinball machines at the Hideout are free. There's even a concierge to reset machines as needed and who can coach the whole family through the video game and console of choice. An orange-felt pool table ensures analog fun, too.
The Hideout is on Explorer Island, a sprawling, gated entity with a lazy river, a second-to-none splash pad, sports courts, the Mansion that houses a kids club offering free child care everyday from 10-6 (which I used while enjoying a spa treatment), a climbing wall, water slide, outdoor foosball tables and more. There are hanging nests and enormous pods for family naps and plenty of service for sunscreen, towels and food and beverage, even if you've claimed a hidden corner for a quiet respite.
We dined that night at Ravello, an Italian trattoria authentic down to the recipes from executive chef Fabrizio Schenardi's grandmother. I loved the easy-to-read menu, backlit on a tablet, with wines by the glass listed in order from light to full bodied. Our server had a way of intuiting our needs and offering solutions, such as "Why don't you get a half-portion of each?" when I couldn't decide between homemade pastas. My mostly veggie-eating husband even went for the Manzo, the 16 oz. prime, dry-aged ribeye, "the best steak on the property," according to our server. Ordering a plain, wood-fired cheese pizza for our daughter completed the win. We hope to return to make our own pizzas someday in Ravello's demonstration dining room.
The following day, while I ate my way through Disney Springs and attended a James Beard Celebrity Chef Dinner hosted by the Four Seasons at the rooftop Spanish restaurant Capa, my husband and daughter were my eyes and ears at the Four Seasons. Too chilly to enjoy floating on the lazy river, instead they spent hours swimming around it. That night, they'd found a tucked-away ping-pong table outside the Mansion and were so engaged that a security guard conspiratorially allowed them to continue past her rounds. "Just close the gate on your way out," she'd said, paving the way for a lifelong memory of an illicit game of table tennis played by the light of the moon.
I'd planned to spend the last day of our visit at the parks with my daughter while my husband stayed behind to rest. Our plan was to take advantage of being on property and using the resort's free shuttle to enable us to park-hop, something we've never tackled. But first, we indulged in Sunday brunch at Plancha, the clubhouse at the Tranquilo Golf Club, known for its Tom Fazio-designed course.
Brunch is $68 per person and includes an entree off the menu as well as unlimited choices from the inventive stations that includes a doughnut tower, a field of ice dotted with oysters and shrimp, smoked salmon plated in decorative tins and the most extensive and imaginative bloody mary bar I've ever seen. Kids eat for $20 from a buffet built from all their favorites.
The day was warm, our family relaxed and happy. Then something unexpected happened. My daughter decided she'd rather trade one of the Disney parks to swim and play pinball at the resort. But first, there were trails to walk and deer to see.
Like those understated white porcelain crowns we'd first seen upon arrival might suggest, we were happy knowing we had easy access to Disney but found that our happiest place was right where we were.
Packages add value for summer
The Four Seasons is offering packages that will enable guests to be among the first to experience two new Disney attractions: Pandora — The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom and the new Happily Ever After fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom.
The Stay Longer — Fourth Night Free package offers a complimentary fourth night with every three paid nights from May 1 through Sept. 28. Rates start at $479 per night after the fourth night free is applied.
For shorter stays, there's the Disney Gift Card package. Guests receive a $200 gift card for every two- or three-night stay in a guestroom or $500 for every two- or three-night stay in a suite. The package is offered May 1 through Sept. 30.
All Four Seasons rates include numerous complimentary added values: daily kids camp from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; kids 5 and younger dine free at resort restaurants; transportation to the Walt Disney World Resort theme parks; access to the on-site, 5-acre waterpark, 24-hour fitness center and Spa relaxation areas; and free golf for kids under 12 with a paying adult.