Holly V. Kapherr
Orlando might be a seven-hour car ride from Key West, but the new Margaritaville Resort Orlando makes its corner of Highway 192 in Kissimmee feel like it's only a stone's throw from the Sunshine State's Conch Republic. I took a tour of Jimmy Buffett's latest Parrothead paradise, and even as a casual fan, I'm excited to return as a guest. Margaritaville Orlando succeeds where few others do, in melding tropical theming with elegant furnishings and just the right amount of kitsch to make it fun and irreverent.
As of now, the resort complex comprises a 184-room hotel (rooms from $109, suites from $209), vacation cottages that sleep up to 22, two pools and four restaurants. A water park, movie theater, shopping and dining district called Sunset Walk, and St. Somewhere spa are slated to open between late February and the end of March.
Upon entering the lobby, it's clear the area was designed with Instagram in mind. The first thing guests will notice is the singing steel-pan player softly singing Buffett tunes like "Volcano" and Caribbean moko jumbie stilt-walkers making impossibly complicated balloon hats, animals and other toys for awestruck kids and adults alike. That's two post-worthy moments right there. After that, you can't help but look up at the ceiling, where more than 100 margarita glasses in varying sizes are suspended in midair, forming an arresting chandelier.
All of the furnishings at Margaritaville in the guestrooms, common areas, restaurants and vacation cottages are by Ethan Allen, a special collection designed for the brand, in shades of sun-bleached driftwood, soothing blues and aquas and nautical stripes. The guestrooms are particularly elegant. Showers are covered with tiles reminiscent of sea glass, and the faucet handles are shaped like whales' tails. Completely on brand, there's always a little nod to the Son of a Son of a Sailor himself, with Buffett lyrics adorning the throw pillows.
Surrounding the hotel and painted perfect shades of Key West pastels, the privately owned vacation cottages in two "neighborhoods," Paradise Cay and Sunset Cove, which sleep up to 22 guests. They're managed and maintained by two independent property management companies and are listed on the Margaritaville Orlando website. Guests staying in vacation cottages booked through the site have access to all the resort amenities.
The SiriusXM satellite station Radio Margaritaville has relocated to the Margaritaville Orlando, and DJ JD broadcasts live from the pool deck on occasion. Each room has built in wall speakers -- music is important here, of course -- tuned to Radio Margaritaville to get the party started. Live entertainment can also be found at each of the four restaurants, including the Salty Rim Bar & Grill at the pool area, Euphoria fine dining restaurant, Provisions grab-and-go and On Vacation, the casual eatery where I sampled elevated Caribbean dishes like Pepper Pot Soup with black beans and callaloo and Blue Hill chicken served with roasted pumpkin and coconut-curry sauce.
The point of staying at a Margaritaville Resort, of course, is to be outside enjoying the sunshine, and the Orlando location has made that the focal point of its on-site offerings. The pool deck features a large event lawn, where Buffett surprised guests and staff with a free concert just a few weeks ago; two zero-entry pools with sandy beaches; beach chairs with flip-up sun shades; a game area with cornhole, giant chess and table tennis; and reservable cabanas with TVs and lounge chairs with full service food and beverage.
While there's plenty to keep adults and kids busy at the Margaritaville Resort Orlando right now, there are some exciting developments on the horizon at the 300-acre property, including Sunset Walk, the complex's answer to Disney Springs. Sunset Walk will feature a dine-in movie theater, green space, concert pavilion, retail stores and 15 dining options, including a British pub, Mexican tequileria, sushi restaurant and candy mecca It'Sugar.
The Island H2O Live waterpark will open in the spring and will be the first in the country to feature an RFID wristband technology called Vantage, unveiled at the 2018 meeting of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Orlando. The wristbands are wirelessly connected to cameras on some of the park's waterslides via an app that guests can download before arriving. A scanner on the slides will read the wristband and automatically play songs and lighting effects from guest selections on the app. Additionally, some slides will be equipped with cameras that will snap pictures and video, and guests can instantly share the images on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat through the wristband.
The waterpark is separately ticketed, and a shuttle is available from the Margaritaville Hotel.
The Margaritaville Resort Orlando is close enough to the Disney parks that upper floors of the hotel have a view of the Animal Kingdom evening fireworks show, and the hotel offers a shuttle to the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando theme parks.
I may have rolled my eyes a little bit as we passed the giant painting of a red macaw with the caption "Can you find the 'woman to blame'?" -- the painting contains a hidden figure of a lady. But deckhands and landlubbers alike are going to love Margaritaville Resort in Orlando. The chill is nothing short of contagious.