Orlando remains the theme park capital of the world: Where to stay and play

By Alexandra Cohen

Orlando, Florida (www.visitOrlando.com) has long been known as the theme park capital of the world, making it an ideal visiting location for people of all ages, including both children and Disney Adults. While I had visited the city with great enthusiasm as a child, this was my first time returning in my adult years, and I am pleased to report that it has not at all lost its magic and wonder.

WHERE TO STAY: While Orlando has more than 490 unique properties to choose from, we chose to stay at the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa, a beautiful hotel that first opened its doors in 2020. Looking for action and fun? The hotel includes not only a pool, but also an Activity Garden for families which features the Mount Chelonia rock-climbing wall, a nine-hole mini golf course, and an open lawn to play giant chess. There is also the sixth-floor Kids Conservatory, which offers access to various games and arts and crafts. When you are ready to explore the city, the hotel offers a free shuttle service to take guests to the Disney World theme parks, as well as to Disney Springs, which is located less than 10 minutes from the hotel. The shuttle service can be booked in advance, and if desired, will also pick you up from any of these destinations. 

The resort has 516 rooms, as well as 18 event/meeting rooms. It is only a 30-minute drive from the Orlando International Airport, and a 10 to 15-minute drive to the main Disney Parks. The property recently received a highly acclaimed Gold Badge from U.S. News & World Report, ranking as one of the Top 10 Best Hotels in Orlando. We stayed in a very comfortable room that overlooked the pools and featured two queen-sized beds, a fridge, both a shower and a bathtub, and an in-room safe. For those traveling in larger groups, consider booking a suite, including one of the Family Suites which has two bedrooms and sleeps up to nine people. 

While Orlando is best known for its amusement parks, the primary purpose of our trip was relaxation, hence our selection of this fantastic hotel. This JW Marriott property features two pools – a larger and more shallow family pool with sparkling fountains and zero-entry, as well as a neighboring, slightly smaller adult pool for those looking for peace, quiet, and a splash-free zone. The adult pool area is completed by a soothing hot tub. 

The service at these pools is truly outstanding. From the moment of your arrival, there is a clear sense of luxury as the poolside attendants happily set you up with towels at whichever pool you choose, opening your umbrella for you and moving it as necessary should you be looking for some shade. There was no shortage of lounge chairs available, no matter the time of day that we came by. Once you are settled in your seats, the staff will bring you your pitcher of water, which is refreshed as needed throughout the day, and they also occasionally come by offering samples of some of the pool restaurant’s menu items or offering to polish your sunglasses for you. We truly never wanted to leave!

For those looking to further elevate their comfort at the pool, one option is to reserve a personal cabana. During my time in the cabana, I was treated to a sectional couch with a fan, a 43-inch Satellite TV, a personal safe, a mini fridge, scented towels, a fruit platter, as well as a platter of sweet and salty snacks. Poolside cabanas must be booked for an entire day. See this link for more information: https://jwbonnetcreek.ipoolside.com/

Looking to step up the relaxation yet again? Look no further than Spa by JW, which is 10,000 square feet of luxury. I had the opportunity to try out the 50-minute Magnesium Oil Infused Massage, which was incredibly well done and also included the use of some sound bowls. While I had never incorporated sound bowls into a massage before, the effect was incredibly peaceful and added to the experience. In addition to massages, other options include a variety of facials, body treatments, as well as hair and makeup services. With the purchase of any service or treatment, guests also have access to the co-ed relaxation lounge, spa steam room, sauna, showers, and locker rooms. 

The minimum age for spa access is 18. Upon exiting, you have access to a boutique featuring a variety of high-quality products for all face and body needs. Spa by JW is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm.

Hungry? The hotel offers plenty of dining options for any mood and budget. On the hotel’s main floor, consider starting with their signature Sear + Sea steakhouse, which offers both a nice interior and a small patio overlooking the pool. We sampled some of the mouth-watering options on their menu, including some oysters and their creative take on a burrata salad to start, followed by a 16oz ribeye cooked to perfection and paired with a potato puree. For dessert: the chocolate dome, which tastes just as good as it sounds and is covered in a warm salted caramel sauce for extra measure. The restaurant also has a complete wine list and cocktail menu – we tasted the rosemary beret cocktail which certainly did not disappoint. 

For another dining option, consider the ninth-floor rooftop lounge, Illume, which features a menu of creative and hand-crafted cocktails, sushi, and Asian tapas. For dinner, we enjoyed two fantastic maki rolls, including one of the chef’s daily specials and the oki rule, which included snow crab, avocado, cucumber, salmon, tuna, yellowtail, spicy mayo, and fried shallots. We also tried the beef tenderloin bao buns paired with scallions, toasted peanuts, yuzu aioli, and cabbage slaw, which were incredibly satisfying. One of the highlights of Illume, however, is the cocktails, which are both tasty and served beautifully. We enjoyed the ILLUMination cocktail, which includes Casa Noble blanco tequila, passion fruit liqueur, agave nectar, and lime, as well as the Lychee Martini. Later in the evening, we were treated to a view of the Disney fireworks from our rooftop perch. 

Other dining options at the hotel include UnReserved, a European-inspired, food-hall-style restaurant with all-day dining, Palm Cove, the poolside grill, and the JW Market, which serves grab-and-go coffee, drinks, snacks, gelato, and all-day breakfast offerings. 

JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek Resort & Spa is located at 14900 Chelonia Parkway. For more information, log on to www.jwmarriottorlandobonnetcreek.com

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS: When trying to select a theme park, the options are limitless. While I had visited several as a child, I did not doubt my return to Orlando that the Universal Parks were at the top of my list (www.UniversalOrlando.com). 

Outside of its separate water park, Universal features two distinct parks that one may wish to explore: Universal Studios, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Visit one, visit both separately, or visit both in the same day by purchasing a park-to-park pass. Amongst other attractions, Universal Studios features areas tributing various cities, including Hollywood, New York, and San Francisco, as well as Minion Land and Springfield, USA: Home of the Simpsons. Universal’s Islands of Adventure includes Marvel Superhero Island, Skull Island, Jurassic Park, Seuss Landing, and more. 

That being said, the highlight for me was, without a doubt, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The Harry Potter universe is a must-visit for all fans of the books and movies and sprawls over both Universal Parks. Visit the famed Diagon Alley over at Universal Studios, where you can visit all of the shops so well-known from the series, including Gringotts Money Exchange, Ollivanders, and more. The main ride at this location is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. When you are done in Diagon Alley, make your way to Platform 9 and ¾ and take the Hogwarts Express from King’s Cross Station to Hogsmeade, which is found over at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. To make this trip, you will need to have purchased a Park-to-Park admission ticket, however, or will need to own an Annual/Seasonal Pass. 

Over at Hogsmeade, which is also superbly decorated to reflect scenes from the films, explore a few more shops, have a bite to eat at famous destinations such as Hog’s Head or Three Broomsticks, and try out a few more rides, including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which was my personal favourite of the day, as well as Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and Flight of the Hippogriff. Stroll by the stage to watch performances by the frog choir or from the Triwizard Spirit Rally – the performance schedule can be viewed on the Universal phone app. Another highlight of Hogsmeade is the beautifully constructed replica of Hogwarts Castle, which is the perfect photo opportunity. 

For an extra fee, guests can purchase the Express Pass, allowing them to skip the regular lines. Buy a regular Express Pass for as little as $79.99 to skip the regular lines one time per participating ride, or buy an Express Unlimited Pass for as little as $109.99 to skip the regular lines as often as desired. Note that most but not all rides at the park offer an express line. The list can be found on the Universal website. 

DINING OUT: While its world-famous theme parks are certainly the headlines, Orlando has increasingly been recognized for its culinary scene in recent years. The website WalletHub recently named Orlando the 2023 Best Foodie City in America. 

During my recent trip, I discovered the wonders of Disney Springs, which is a top-rated entertainment, dining, and retail district formerly known as Downtown Disney. Disney Springs is a completely outdoor district featuring 120 acres of boutiques, restaurants, and entertainment. Watch the Magic Kingdom or Epcot nightly fireworks from a patio, or take to the sky in the Disney Springs hot air balloon. Furthermore, families can enjoy the Disney Springs Kids Club every Saturday, a free experience featuring interactive entertainment for all ages located at The Landing. 

WINE BAR GEORGE: For my first visit to Disney Springs, I was pleased to sit out on the patio at Wine Bar George (https://winebargeorge.com/). With Wine Bar George being a predominantly tapas-style restaurant, I decided to embrace the experience and sampled some of their small plates, including an out-of-this-world artisanal cheese plate that featured four different types of cheese paired with almonds, honey, fig jam, and olives. Other delicious treats included their New Zealand Lamp Chops, which are served with black garlic purée, salted onions, and an herb vinaigrette, as well as the crispy mac & cheese bites with tomato nage and pecorino. 

The true highlight of the restaurant, however, is, as its name implies, the wine. Wine Bar George is the only restaurant in North America to offer more than 200 wines, all available by the glass, by the bottle, or in some cases, even by the ounce. A series of wine flights are also available for those keen on multiple tastings. The restaurant servers are incredibly knowledgeable, and my dining partner and I were very well-guided when it came to making our selections. To ensure that such helpful guest interactions are always the standard, the Wine Bar George team conducts regular wine tastings and education sessions. Of course, there are also always Certified Sommeliers, an advanced Sommelier, and/or a Master Sommelier present in the restaurant to support both servers and guests in making the best possible choices. 

Wine Bar George is more than just a dining destination – it is a dining experience. For more information, follow the restaurant on social media @WineBarGeorge or visit https://winebargeorge.com/

MORIMOTO ASIA: Also at Disney Springs, the fantastic Morimoto Asia restaurant looms tall. Helmed by famous Japanese Master Chef Masaharu Morimoto, this pan-Asian, two-story destination is not to be missed. Chef Morimoto opened his first restaurant in Hiroshima in 1980 before eventually establishing himself in New York City, where he was eventually head chef at the well-known Japanese restaurant, Nobu. It was while he was at Nobu that he began his career on the Iron Chef television show, where he made his name in particular with his famed dish, “Buri-Bop”, his take on Bibimbap with yellowtail fish instead of meat. I had the pleasure of sampling this delicious dish during my visit – it was cooked table-side with fried rice, egg yolk, and Korean-style yellowtail served in a hot clay pot. Another fantastic dish was the Mongolian Filet, which is a 10oz Angus beef tenderloin served with wok sauteed scallion, bean sprout, mixed mushroom, and sweet Szechuan sauce. The menu truly includes something for everyone, with a series of small plates, dim sum, vegetable dishes, ramen, rice and noodles, and seafood. Another signature dish that I did not have the chance to taste is the Morimoto Peking Duck, which is a carved house-roasted whole duck meant to be shared between two. 

Sushi lovers are in for quite the experience at Morimoto Asia! While sushi and sashimi can be ordered a la carte, another option would be to order one of the several available combos, platters, and towers/pagodas, which allow for the chef’s selections to be brought to the table for a tasting experience. All fish is fresh and flown in daily from Japan, including the seasonal Japanese cherry blossom salmon (Sakura masu) that I had the pleasure of tasting. I also sampled the bluefin tuna (o-toro) and the golden eye snapper (kinmedai), as well as some fresh oysters served with dressings including a yuzu ceviche, cocktail sauce, and soy sauce. 

My meal was coupled with one of their highball cocktails – the restaurant’s Suntory custom highball machine dispenses super chilled, highly carbonated soda water, which is described in the menu to be 5x the carbonation of regular soda water and 1.5x that of champagne. My highball was called The Forgotten, with ingredients including haku Japanese vodka, strawberry rose, yuzu, and soda water. For dessert, I enjoyed the yuzu pie, the restaurant’s unique take on a key lime pie, which was coupled with white chocolate vanilla cream and a blueberry compote. Other dessert options include churro donuts, Japanese souffle cheesecake, gelato, and sorbet. 

While the taste of this excellent meal was the true highlight, the restaurant also features a nice ambiance. The building’s 36-foot-tall layout includes lounges, private dining spaces, a glass-encased kitchen with a view of the culinary action, an outdoor patio, and a second-level sushi bar and lounge with a separate entrance. The custom glass beaded chandeliers and glass mosaics, based on ancient Japanese prints, further add to the aesthetic. 

The restaurant is open daily for lunch and dinner. Call 407-939-6686 or log on to https://www.morimotoasia.com/ for more information. 

 SOPHIA’S TRATTORIA: The Conrad Orlando, which is Orlando’s first Hilton luxury brand 5-star hotel, opened recently this past January, situated at the Evermore Orlando Resort. I had the privilege of experiencing this beautiful new property through the newly launched restaurant, Sophia’s Trattoria (https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/orlcici-conrad-orlando/dining/sophias-trattoria/).

Sophia’s Trattoria is found on the hotel’s first floor, with its patio directly facing the hotel’s picturesque lagoon and man-made beach. Both the restaurant’s aesthetic and menu are meant to celebrate the coastal-inspired Southern Italian cuisine, with dishes including wood-fired pizzas, handmade pasta, fish, and meat. 

For our meal, we started with the tasty baked fontina, dressed with garlic and thyme, and Bellini cocktails. We shared the whole branzino for our main course, which was served with sauce vierge, lemon confit, and fine herbs. For dessert, we enjoyed a truly decadent tiramisu. 

Dinner service here is from 5 pm until 10 pm. For more information, call (407) 387-2000 or log on to https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/orlcici-conrad-orlando/ 

OTHER ATTRACTIONS: While we did not have time to explore all that Orlando has to offer, here are a few other suggestions for your consideration. 

Within a short distance of Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, you can find Disney’s Boardwalk. Inspired by Atlantic City, the boardwalk features free admission to stroll along a Coney Island-style boardwalk with complimentary evening entertainment including jugglers, comedians, and fire-eaters. It is connected to Disney’s ferry system via the adjacent Disney’s Boardwalk Villas. 

Whether or not you plan on buying tickets to any of the Universal theme parks, check out the action-packed Universal CityWalk, which features several themed restaurants, nightclubs, a movie theatre, shopping, and access to all of the Universal-themed merchandise. Parking is free after 6 pm. 

Love animals and nature? See more than 500 animals, including some rare and endangered species, and wander through 23 acres of lush, natural beauty at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. As well, Gatorland is one of Orlando’s longest-running attractions, featuring 110 acres with thousands of alligators and crocodiles, plus a flight aviary, petting zoo, nature walk, splash pad play area, Bobcat Bayou, and more.  

This spring, LEGOLAND Florida Resort will debut the LEGO Ferrari Build & Race, which offers guests the experience of viewing a life-sized LEGO Ferrari Car and then building and testing it in one of three obstacle-laden test tracks. Young drivers can also enjoy the LEGO DUPLO Build Zone to design their own custom creations with larger bricks. 

Everything you need to know is at www.visitorlando.com