The Introvert’s Guide to Orlando: Universal Orlando Resort Area

Yesterday I took an eight-mile hike around the Universal Orlando property to gather what intel I could muster for their resort area. I haven’t been to Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure in years, partly because a park full of screaming people isn’t something this particular introvert likes to do. However, I realize that some of you introverted types probably enjoy roller coasters anyway, so I’ll break down at some point, buy a ticket, and do an introvert review of those two parks. Today you can enjoy my quiet-time insights into the rest of the Universal property…most of it, at any rate.

Note: Updated October 15 to include Sapphire Falls

General Insights/Tips

The Universal property is much smaller than the Walt Disney World Resort and contains only two theme parks, an entertainment/shopping complex, and five resorts. The two theme parks and entertainment complex (CityWalk) are adjacent to each other, with the resorts connected to them via roads and a 2.5-mile walking path (“Garden Walk”). It’s more compact, but that doesn’t mean it’s a small property. Make sure you have comfortable walking shoes. And hey, it’s summer in Florida–stay hydrated and bring sunblock.

Okay, end of lecturing.

The centralized parking lot for the parks is massive–two multi-level garages labeled by characters from the attractions, akin to Disney–and costs just as much as the Disney lots for a standard car ($20). One thing that I found confusing is that rather than giving each level a character name, they divide the sections vertically, meaning you get Spiderman on levels 1, 2, 3, etc. Just passing it along.

Next thing about parking: unlike Disney, there are no trams to get you to the main gate. There is a designated handicap-access parking lot, but that’s about it. I clocked about a mile over the elevated walkway from Spiderman 452 to the gate, partly because I forgot my journal and had to go back for it, but even so, you’ve got some exercise ahead. You can park at one of the resorts–preferably if you’re a guest–but the day parking there is not cheap, either: $34 a day/$29 for overnight at Hard Rock Hotel, just as an example.

The last overall comment I can offer up for the questing introvert: Universal is noisy. The background music is meant to be exciting! Another translation might be: “We keep the background sound going loud enough to keep you moving.” The public areas in CityWalk and the walkways leading to the theme parks (you pass through CW to get to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, hereafter US and IOA) include music everywhere, all the time. Rock or pop tunes, mostly. Even on those occasions where they play a song I like, the volume is still UP THERE, especially in the evening. No, I’m not going to ask these noisy kids to get off of my lawn. I’m just explaining the audio experience as I experienced it. You’re not at a theme park to sit around and enjoy the quiet, are you? Oh, wait…

Fortunately, there are places you can avoid the noise and the crowds, and that’s what I’m here to report.

CityWalk

The first place you might escape the chaos is right inside the CityWalk entry: Universal Cineplex–go see a movie. Of course you’re likely to find a lot of action movies, but you’d have that in any movie theater.

During our hot, steamy days in Central Florida, when most people are in the parks, you can find seating at the restaurants and outside restaurants or saloons. There is also a grassy seating area that leads down to a stage. When there isn’t a band playing on the stage, the area is pretty crowd-free, though it is also shade-free.

The restaurants on the upper level of City Walk– Bob Marley’s, Pat O’Brien’s*, and Antojito’s–are open starting around 4 p.m. and operate until 10 p.m. or so. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is open 10:30 a.m.-Midnight Monday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Sunday. They don’t start getting busy until the parks get near closing time, though I suspect Margaritaville gets busy at lunch time, too. Like the public areas, the restaurants include their own interior music. The benefits of finding a restaurant are fewer people and more air conditioning.

(*A special thanks to Tim O’Hara, the Illinoisan bartender at Pat O’Brien’s, who offered some tips on other out-of-the-way places an introvert might dine or enjoy an adult beverage in the Orlando area. I’ll try to review those locations in later entries.)

The first actually quiet area you can find on the property (there’s even music overhead on the way in from the parking lot) is the walking path from CityWalk past Margaritaville and toward the Royal Pacific Resort, Sapphire Falls Resort,  and Cabana Bay Beach Resort. The Garden Walk is accurately named: it’s a quiet walking path bordered with lush subtropical foliage that follows the resort boat shuttle waterway. There aren’t any benches between CW and Royal Pacific, but there are between Royal Pacific and Sapphire Falls/Cabana Bay.

Should you be too tired to walk, there are people riding bicycle rickshaws running between the resorts and the security checkpoints before you enter CityWalk. I’m guessing you have to pay for that service, but honestly I haven’t asked.

Fair warning: the only way to get into the back entrance of Sapphire Falls or the Cabana Bay end of the walkway is with a resort key card. This issue will come up a few times in this entry for obvious reasons. If you’re interested in visiting either of those resorts, you’ll have to drive there.

Royal Pacific Resort

You can get into the Royal Pacific Resort without having to dodge the procedures meant to keep out the riffraff (non-guests). You can enter either through the walkway that leads up to the main lobby or the back entrance that leads to the Pacifica Ballroom further down the Garden Walk. The pool areas for all of the Universal Resorts are only accessible through a guest room key card.

All that said, I like Royal Pacific, though the concept is curious. Imagine if you will an upscale European/Asian resort situated in French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos) in the 1930s or ’40s. That’s the aesthetic they’re going for, based on the posters on the walls, the statuary on the property, and the music playing in the background.

Like the Disney Resorts, Universal Resorts are less crowded during the day, when the majority of guests are at the parks. The restaurants and saloons are pretty quiet as well. There’s an Emeril Lagasse-owned restaurant there called Tchoup Chop, which is open for lunch (11:30-2:30) and dinner (5-10 p.m.). Another restaurant, Islands Dining Room, seems to be open for breakfast (7-11 a.m. or 7-Noon, depending on the day) and dinner (6-10 p.m.), with breaks in between. The vibe in Islands seems quieter than Tchoup Chop.

Jake’s American Bar is open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. and serves lunch and dinner. Jake’s is less crowded than the hallways, but not particularly quiet. They have live music Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights, so be aware of that.

The quietest, most restful places in Royal Pacific are the lobby lounge before 4 p.m. and the lobby courtyard, which features Asian statuary/fountains and a reflecting pool. It’s hot out there right now, but it works as a place to get out of the way.

Cabana Bay Beach Resort

Again, you can’t get to Cabana Bay via the Garden Walk unless you’re a resort guest with a room key. I have visited the hotel on another occasion, though. Cabana Bay has a distinctly 1950s Miami vibe to it, complete with Jetsons-like interior decor and immaculately maintained classic ’50s automobiles out front. Price-wise, I believe it’s akin to Disney’s Moderate Resorts (Caribbean Beach, Riverside). The campus is somewhat spread out, with has a central building that includes the check-in area, restaurants, merchandise area, and main pool. Again, no pool access without a room key. I was there mid-day (between checkout and check-in times) and found the main building pretty restful with plenty of comfortable furniture and places to get away from the crowds.

Sapphire Falls Resort

As I noted above, you cannot access Sapphire Falls via the Garden Walk to Cabana Bay unless you’re a hotel guest. Not being a hotel guest on the day of my visit, I was unable to enter through the back door. I will have to update this entry at a future point when I try to walk in through the front door. That said, the waterfall out behind the main building was nice. The resort is still partially under construction, with a convention center being added as well as a water park–Volcano Bay–nearby.

Update

I finally visited Sapphire Falls in October by just driving up and parking there. I believe there’s a day rate for valet and a price for overnight, but I’m not certain the valet guy charged me correctly. In any case, have cash handy for that if you just plan to visit. One important thing I learned was that there IS a way to walk to Sapphire Falls from CityWalk without requiring a room key. There is a walkway from the convention center end of Royal Pacific over to the back entrance/boat dock of Sapphire Falls.

The lobby of the hotel is spacious, with some interesting art hanging from the ceiling. The wall art and furniture are trying to capture some sort of Caribbean island feel with some modernistic American thrown in for fun. One thing I appreciated about the lobby is that it’s also pretty quiet. There was some background music (Calypso?) playing but it wasn’t intrusive at all. The far end of the lobby from the entrance has floor-to-ceiling windows with a panoramic view of the eponymous Sapphire Falls behind the hotel. Nice view, and the viewing area had a lot of seating with, again, not a lot of noise.

The lobby restaurant/bar, Strong Water Tavern, has a nice look to it, with hard wood floors and wooden barrels on the ceiling. The bar itself has a couple of good-sized TVs for watching sports and a VERY large-screen TV at the far end for watching the featured game of the day. The place features indoor and outdoor seating and the restaurant appears to be the source of the lobby music because it’s slightly louder there than in the lobby itself. Given the Caribbean riff they have going, I should have picked up on the fact that their featured adult beverages were rum or rum-based. However, I ordered a Sazerac off the menu before I saw the rum menu. Had a caipirinha on round two, and both drinks were excellent.

The menu items are tapas-sized and come from locations across the Caribbean (including the U.S.). The roast pork was good, the sliders were amazing. Despite being “smaller” dishes, they weren’t exactly cheap: items ran $8-16 each, plus the drinks, which ran $9+. All in all, I liked Strong Water Tavern, as the staff was not intrusive on my thoughts and the vibe was very casual. I’m not certain if it was quieter than normal because of the hurricane that had just passed through, but overall the place wasn’t too noisy.

Down the hall from Strong Water Tavern is an amazing, wide spiral stairway that was built to resemble a Spanish castle or fort, with stone walls and framed photographs along the stairwell of various old forts from the Caribbean. At the bottom of the stairwell are some historical artifacts to add to the “castle” feel. A nice, quiet place, but there was nowhere to sit down. At the bottom of the spiral stairway is an elevator lobby with a long bench (good place to catch a nap?) and a hallway leading to another restaurant, Amatista Cook House. I didn’t eat there, but the place seemed pretty quiet. They serve breakfast ($12-18) and dinner ($13-27). They also have a bar off in one corner, away from the tables, which looked like a good place to get away from the crowds. Amatista also has indoor and outdoor seating. Beyond Amatista is the exit to the walkway, which leads you to the boat dock or walkway to Royal Pacific.

On the same floor as the lobby are the fitness facility (Kalina) and the pool area, which you need a room key/card to enter, so I didn’t get a good look at it. However, I did note that they had a movie screen set up near the pool, and one of the Harry Potter films was showing. This is something Disney has been doing at its resorts as well as evening entertainment for the kiddies. The pool area also had a large variety of games and pool toys available, so I guess it’s very kid-friendly. I didn’t get a look at any of the rooms, but what I saw of Sapphire Falls I liked. I did a quick check, and the nightly room rate I got for late October/early November was $174/night. So, not exactly cheap, but not at the top end for this market, either.

As an introvert, I liked Sapphire Falls. Reasonably quiet, with some places to get out of the way.

Hard Rock Hotel

Hard Rock is an imposing, Spanish-style edifice with a red tile roof, white walls, and white marble(?) floors and massive prints of classic rock stars on the walls in the lobby. They have a fountain out front comprising a spiral of metal guitars. I like the aesthetics. However, it’s the Hard Rock Hotel, so needless to say your odds of finding a quiet place are pretty slim. The lobby is spacious with a lot of comfortable furniture, and can be pretty empty outside of check-in/checkout times.

The quietest place I found in HRH was the outside patio of The Kitchen restaurant downstairs, and that’s probably because it wasn’t open when I walked through it. That’s not to say it was quiet. The patio is next to the pool area, and like the Disney Resorts, the Universal Resorts have the recreation employees on megaphones playing games with the kids. The outside patio area upstairs on the lobby level takes you out of the lobby flow, but there’s still music out there, and the pool noise. That’s also where you find the smoking areas.

There are a couple places where you can get clear of the crowds, if not the music. The Velvet Bar plays a different set of music from the lobby, but it’s still rock, and still omnipresent. That said, it’s not too crowded until 7 or so (opens at 5). I like the bar at The Palm even if the food is seriously pricey (think $45-55 for a steak). The staff is great and–important for the introvert looking for somewhere quiet to chill out–low key, meaning they’ll let you take your time ordering and won’t interrupt conversations. Lauren the manager is also fun, as she’ll talk about geek stuff with the enthusiasm of a true fan. And depending on the time of year–such as now–it’s quieter between 5 and 7 than it would be otherwise. Also, a lot of folks go in there just to order drinks before going in before dinner, so there’s a lot of turnover in who’s on the next bar stool.

Portofino Bay Resort

I’ve saved the best for last. Portofino Bay is my favorite of the Universal Resorts, and not just for its aesthetics–northern Italian, multi-colored lodges–but also because of its noise level, or lack thereof. Portofino is by far the quietest, most restful resort on the Universal property. Not going to say it’s 100% quiet, but even the background music–Italian or Italian-American–is not there to knock you over. And Portofino has something that’s almost unique there: public areas without music! One of them is the pool area, which is, of course, guests only. Another is the bocce ball court. Not sure where you get the bocce balls, but I’ve seen them on occasion.

There are a few nice areas off the lobby and the main hallway, some indoors, some outdoors, which are simply plazas for sitting and resting. One or two have fountains. There are a couple saloons where you can get out of the flow of traffic–The Thirsty Fish and Bar American, though they don’t open until 3:30 or 4 p.m. If they let you in, though, you can sit in a quiet area undisturbed. The Thirsty Fish has indoor and outdoor seating, and likewise does not open until 4. Both bars are open until around 10 p.m. The restaurants are good and, like the Disney experience, the more expensive the place, the less likely you are to find small children or infants there.

The main courtyard out back is where the music is loudest, and even so that music can quickly get lost once you walk toward either wing. Portofino also has a walking path that takes you around most or all of the hotel. The walkway isn’t always shaded going around the hotel, but it is quiet and out of the way.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Garden Walk between Portofino and Hard Rock (you can, incidentally, walk all the way from Portofino to Cabana Bay along the paths, passing by the theme parks or CityWalk along the way). This area is particularly well shaded with bamboo and other shrubbery and includes multiple well-placed benches that allow you to admire the foliage, watch the boats go by, or (my favorite) sit down and read quietly with people walking by only occasionally. That path also features several loops that take you to isolated places near the water and a butterfly garden.

All this is to say that yes, you can find quiet, restful places to restore your overloaded mind and ears while visiting Universal Orlando. You’ll just have to take a bit of a walk.

The Introvert’s Guide to Orlando V: Disney Springs

I’ll get off of Disney property, I promise. Today, however, is not that day.

Disney Springs is one of three places I walk around for exercise regularly. This is because it’s got a circle route with a few optional branches I can take for extra distance or extra quiet. Said walk starts by parking in the back corner of the Cirque du Soleil parking lot (what the street signs in the Disney Springs area now call “Surface Parking”). From there, I can walk in one of two directions on the path that borders the south side of the parking lot: along the Sassagoula River toward Cirque, House of Blues, DisneyQuest, and the rest of the West Side.

Usually, however, I head in the other direction, toward the Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa and the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course.

Golfing

Speaking of which, do you golf? If not, consider it. Disney has three very nice courses: the Palm, Magnolia, and Lake Buena Vista Golf Courses. Don’t do it just for the physical activity–I personally know very few people who actually enjoy golf–but because you’re guaranteed three hours or so of relative quiet, walking or driving a cart over grassy hills, wooded fairways, and unpopulated scenery. If you want to golf or go to the driving range and just smack the heck out of a bucket of balls, the clubhouse for the LBV course is across the bridge on the other side of the Sassagoula River. If you have your own clubs, you’re better off parking at Saratoga Springs Resort.

Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa and Other Walks

If you’re not into golfing, you can still cross that bridge to Saratoga Springs. From there you have a couple of options. If you’ve got a lot of time and strong legs, you can walk around the Saratoga Springs Resort campus, which is quite extensive (grab a map from the front desk, or consult one of the many public kiosks they have spread around to help the clueless tourist).

My personal favorite walk is along the water, so I’ll walk along the perimeter of the golf course parking lot or through the Saratoga Springs commercial buildings until I get to Golf Drive. From Golf Drive I walk to Broadway, hang a right, and cross a bridge before making my next right and keeping the water in sight. This takes me around the Congress Park lodge buildings and onto the other side of the Sassagoula River. Saratoga Springs has a nice paved walkway that runs all the way to a pedestrian bridge that takes you to east side of Disney Springs (still called the Marketplace, for those of us old enough to remember when the whole area was called Disney Village Marketplace).

Saratoga Springs’ walkway has plenty of benches and a nice view of Disney Springs across the water. (They used to have some rocking chairs on a nice stone terrace that features a fountain, but those seem to have vanished. Why??? Curses!) What I like best about it, however, is that unlike Disney Springs, there is no background music. I’m not precisely certain why commercial entities like Disney insist on having music everywhere in public spaces. Perhaps it’s for theming. Personally, I believe it’s because they know that background music subliminally annoys people, and so they get up and start walking, talking, or shopping just to get away from it. So, fair warning: there aren’t a lot of actual quiet places in Disney Springs, just places with fewer people in them.

Disney Springs Marketplace

There are some sidewalks that go between the stores and what used to be the bus depot. There aren’t any entrances on that side, but there’s less traffic.

The first relatively quiet place you might find is the Lava Lounge, which is attached to and slightly below the Rainforest Cafe. I say “relatively” because it’s a saloon, and those places can get crowded when afternoon thunderstorms or dinnertime arrive.

From there, you can check out the performance stage in the Marketplace. There’s plenty of seating if they don’t have a band or choir performing. My introverted mother also likes the planter in front of World of Disney, looking toward the stage. “Great for people watching” was her exact quote.

Detours

Before I get too far afield, I should mention another option when you reach the LBV Golf Course. Instead of crossing the bridge to Saratoga Springs, you can continue on the path that follows the Sassagoula River all the way up to Disney’s Old Key West Resort, which is the first Disney Vacation Club property. Again, depending on how vigorous you’re feeling, you can also walk around Old Key West, understanding that while it is more or less circular in its layout, finding the paths that get you all the way around the circle can be hard to find. If you’re looking for a quick/quiet beverage, the Gurgling Suitcase at OKW is worth a stop.

Another detour you can take away from the crowds at Disney Springs is up Hotel Plaza Boulevard. Disney recently installed some very nice pedestrian bridges with stairs and elevators on each side of the road. I’ve walked up to the TraveLodge, crossed the street, and come back.

An additional detour is to keep walking on the sidewalk across from Disney Springs along Buena Vista Drive. You’ll pass the SunTrust Bank, the Walt Disney World Casting building, and a gas station before you come to Team Disney, the WDW administrative building. There’s a pedestrian bridge there that will take you to the Disney Springs Landing and West Side.

The Landing

There’s a stage area between the Boathouse Restaurant and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, which is an Indiana Jones-themed saloon (“There’s a big snake in the plane, Jock!” “Oh, that’s just my pet snake, Reggie!” “I hate snakes, Jock! I hate ’em!” “Come on, show a little backbone, will ya?”). I don’t see that seating area used very often and there isn’t a lot of shade, but there are some benches for resting and getting out of the traffic flow.

Jock Lindsey’s and Paradiso 37 both have nice outside seating areas and they’re usually pretty quiet between noon and 4:30 (or until the afternoon thunderstorms start).

There’s a walkway behind Raglan Road and Morimoto Asia that’s not as high-traffic–at least it is now, until they open a new restaurant there soon.

Town Center

This is the new section of Disney Springs, which is chock-full of air-conditioned upscale shops. Not a bookstore to be found. However, they do have a Tommy Bahama and a Sprinkles cupcake place where you can get cupcakes out of an ATM. A lot of the stores you see there you could find at your closest upscale mall at home. It is relatively quiet before 10:30 or 11 a.m. and does have one “street” that is roofed over and seems to be air conditioned.

One fun thing I like in the middle of the Town Center is an Archimedean screw that you can turn yourself to bring up water from a water to a higher-level reservoir to keep the waterfall going.

West Side

If you can’t stand the crowds anymore, there is an AMC Theater at West Side. One side has a dine-in theater, with waiters, much more personal space per seat, and a fairly diverse menu. Catch a matinee. My biggest gripe with the place is the smell of the carpet, which has probably seen plenty of hard messes over the years.

The courtyard (“Exposition Park”) between Starbucks and Bongos Cuban Cafe has Disney food trucks stationed there. It’s usually not too crowded mid-afternoon. From there you can reach the walkway that leads along the Sassagoula River and behind most of the restaurants.

Do you like open-air heights? Do you want to get above the crowds? They have a massive balloon at West Side that’ll help you get above it all. The “Characters in Flight” balloon will take you up to 400 feet for sightseeing, weather permitting. Good luck with that.

Several of the saloons on the West Side can be reasonably crowd-free between noon and 4:30: Bongos Cuban Cafe, the upper-floor patio at Splitsville, and the sushi bar inside the Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe.

If you just need somewhere to sit and get clear of the traffic, the outside seating area by House of Blues is good and reasonably well shaded. It is somewhat less convenient when there is a concert about to happen or when the afternoon thunderstorms pop up. You have been warned.

The last places I’ve identified for resting are the benches on the west side of House of Blues and the south side of Cirque du Soleil. From there, you can find the pathway to (and around) the surface parking…and your car, if you’ve parked it in the back corner.

Awhile back, someone asked me, “How can you deal with all those crowds on your walks?” My answer was simple: “I’m just walking. I’m not talking to them.”

Until next time…

Introvert’s Guide to Orlando IV: Magic Kingdom Resorts

Unlike the Magic Kingdom Park, the resorts connected to it by the monorail enjoy a lot more quiet areas for you to break away from the crowds. There are three Magic Kingdom Resorts connected to the park via the monorail: Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Disney’s Contemporary Resort (both dating back to the WDW property opening in 1971) and Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, which opened in 1988. There is a fourth resort that’s technically in the Magic Kingdom Resort Area and can be reached from the park by boat–Disney’s Wilderness Lodge–however because it is not connected via monorail, it is not quite as convenient to reach. Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is nearby as well, but I’d sooner swim in a Florida lake than go camping again, so you’re on your own for advice on that property.

General Guidance

The Polynesian and Grand Floridian both have central buildings where you can find the monorail/bus station, restaurants, merchandise shops, and front desk/concierge. The Grand Floridian has a five-floor Disney Vacation Club (DVC) building near the main hotel building, separated by a themed pool. The Polynesian just added DVC facilities (Disney’s Polynesian Villas and Bunglaows) as stilt buildings out in Seven Seas Lagoon in the past year. The Contemporary has a 14-story central tower building with a three-story wing on one end and a high-rise Disney Vacation Club property–Bay Lake Tower–connected by sidewalk or fourth-floor covered walking bridge on the other.

All three of the MK “monorail resorts” are considered in Disney’s deluxe category due to their amenities, room sizes, services, and convenience to the park. That means you’ll be paying a whole lot more for your stay when you go there ($289/night and up). The Grand Floridian is the most expensive resort on the WDW property.

The campuses of all three resorts are large, pleasant, and big enough that quiet places to walk can be easily found. The main building lobbies can be relatively quiet, too, as long as you’re there when it’s not check-in or checkout time (roughly 9-11 a.m. and 2-5 p.m.). If you’re a night owl, the areas are always open and comfy furniture can be found easily. I’ll get into each resort’s features in a bit. Each of the MK resorts has its own beach. However, due to a recent alligator attack–the first in 45 years, I hasten to add–they now have rope-net fences at the water’s edge to keep humans on one side and critters on the other.

As my friend Sean put it, truthfully, the quietest place you’ll find in the resorts is your own hotel room, so if you’re staying in a Magic Kingdom resort, you’re set when it comes to finding a place to take a break.

Transportation

The Contemporary has a walking path to the Magic Kingdom main gate so you can avoid the monorail if you so choose. There is also a walking path connecting the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC), the Polynesian, Disney’s Wedding Pavilion, and the Grand Floridian. This is useful if you enjoy walking and want to get to the Epcot monorail. In general, the Resort monorail line, which runs clockwise around Seven Seas Lagoon, has shorter lines than the Magic Kingdom monorail. The tradeoff is that the resort monorail stops at Magic Kingdom, TTC, and every resort on the line. The MK monorail stops only at Magic Kingdom and TTC.

There is also a ferry boat that runs from TTC to Magic Kingdom directly. The lines can be shorter during the day (after the park has already opened), but you end up waiting longer for the boats to go back and forth. They’re ferries, not hydrofoils. There are also resort “steamer”-type launches that run from MK to the Poly and Grand (notice my cast member lingo is starting to kick in here) as well as somewhat larger boats that run from MK to the Contemporary, Fort Wilderness, and the Wilderness Lodge.

I probably should’ve noted this when I was discussing Magic Kingdom Park, but the system is rigged against you if you want to take a mid-day nap and you’re not staying at a Magic Kingdom resort/hotel. If you’re taking the buses anywhere, you’re looking at 30-40 minutes to get somewhere: 15-20 minutes (average) to wait for a bus and 15-20 minutes to get to your destination. If you’re using your own car, you’ve got to wait for the monorail/ferry/boat, ride said conveyance, and then get to your car to drive back to your hotel. Factor in that sort of time if you’re going to and from the park more than once in the day.

Now for some detailed introvert time at each resort…

Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort/Villas/Bungalows

The Poly is the only MK Resort with a quiet pool. And by quiet, that doesn’t mean that you won’t have kids there, but you will not have a Recreation cast member on a megaphone trying to get people involved in trivia games and the like. It also has a snack bar and adult-beverage bar.

There is also an outside seating area with a couple of grills in the courtyard between the Pago Pago and Moorea buildings. As long as no one is setting up to use the grill for a picnic, you’re set.

For something different, weather permitting, you can rent one-person speed boats or an eight-person pontoon boat, which I’m pretty certain someone else pilots.

The Poly campus is pretty spread out, so you can walk in and around the buildings and beach, from the TTC to the Wedding Pavilion without encountering a whole lot of people as long as you avoid the main building.

If you want to grab a sweet snack, the Pineapple Lanai just behind the Great Ceremonial House (i.e., main building) has some soft-serve ice cream (vanilla, pineapple, or a swirl). My sister and I have grabbed a shot of Myers’ Rum from the pool bar (main pool or quiet pool) and then brought that over to pour into our soft serve. Just sayin’.

Speaking of adult beverages, the Tambu Lounge, the saloon attached to ‘Ohana (the main restaurant) is nice and quiet from early afternoon until around 4:30 p.m. ‘Ohana starts seating at 3:30, but things don’t really start getting loud (cast members calling groups to their tables) until a bit later. The outside part of Trader Sam’s is pretty sedate, though they do have a guy playing ukelele and singing Polynesian songs once the saloon is open (around 4:30-5). The inside part of Trader Sam’s is…um, not relaxing for an introvert. Cast member singing, lots of “atmosphere,” show/schtick tied to specific, attention-getting drinks, and restaurant fixtures that light up and make noise. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I like the lobby at the Poly. I liked it better when they had a big, frickin’ volcano and waterfall in the middle of it (gave the place some character), but the ground and second floors are nice and cool in the summer and pretty sedate when there aren’t a lot of people hustling about–again, usually between noon and 3 or after 7 p.m.

Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

Like the Poly, the Grand Floridian has a pretty spacious campus, though much of it is centered around the main building or the main pool and there aren’t a lot of waterside paths to walk around. However, the individual buildings are quiet and well air conditioned. The main lobby is worth a visit just to look up and say “wow.”

Remember that part about there not being a quiet pool? That’s the case at the Grand. If you want to sit outside somewhere and not listen to Trivia Game X, your best bet is the patio outside the quick-service restaurant, Gasparilla Grill. There are also a couple of nice benches down the sidewalk from Gasparilla across from the marina. They’re shaded and a good place to collect your thoughts.

I mentioned the lobby before, but a couple other things: the atrium space is so large, it absorbs a lot of sound. Also, from around 3 to 10 p.m. the people in the lobby are treated to either a cast member playing beautifully on a massive grand piano or a ragtime band that is situated on the second-floor balcony opposite from the entrance. Both forms of entertainment are worth hearing. You can tip the piano player, and he will take requests. There’s also a decent saloon behind the band stand on the second floor: Mizner’s Lounge. It’s open in the afternoon and usually stays pretty sedate. They have TVs there, but they won’t turn them up for your favorite sports game because the band is playing. Fair warning.

Some of the restaurants at the Grand are actually your best bet for finding relative quiet. Like the Epcot resorts, this is simply because they’re so expensive families don’t want to waste the money taking their kids there. The Grand also has the most restaurants and saloons of any single property, except perhaps the BoardWalk. Victoria & Albert’s, the penultimate Victorian-style upscale dining experience, is also the most expensive food and beverage on property. I’ve been there but never eaten there. My dad and bonus mom have been there a few times. They tell me it’s nice, but you do have to make some pretense at dressing up (in a Florida sort of way). Here’s what the Disney Food Blog says:

The official dress code for these restaurants states:

“Men: Khakis, slacks, jeans, dress shorts, collared shirts. Sport coats are optional.
Ladies: Capris, skirts, dresses, jeans, dress shorts.
Not permitted in dining room: Tank tops, swimwear, hats for gentleman, cut offs, or torn clothing. While T-shirts are now allowed, the policy remains that T-shirts with offensive language or graphics are not acceptable.”

Two other restaurants at the Grand fit under this dress code: Narcoossee’s and Citrico’s. Both restaurants have excellent views–Citrico’s of the main pool and courtyard, Narcoossee’s of Magic Kingdom and Seven Seas Lagoon and pretty decent food. Of the two, I prefer Narcoossee’s, for the food, view, and the atmosphere.

And of course the Grand has one feature that is practically wired for introverts: the Spa. It features a variety of massages, facials, mani/pedi services, as well as saunas. It’s expensive. It’s worth it.

Oh, and speaking of the Spa, there’s an outside seating area with a couple grills next to it. Just another place to chill…assuming no one’s grilling…or if you want to be the one grilling.

Disney’s Contemporary Resort

I like this resort the best of the Magic Kingdom Resorts because I’m a science fiction geek, though the Grand comes in a close second. That said, I’m a tad afraid of heights, so the open-air hallways of the main building might be something to think about if you share that affliction. The place is known for having the monorail go right through the building and for having a mural by Pablo Picasso adorning the central column of the concourse (for fun, try to find the five-legged ram, which Picasso added, I’ve been told, because nothing is perfect–Disney was not amused).

In addition to the monorail station, most of the restaurants and merchandise stores are on the fourth floor, so that’s where most of the action/noise is. One place I’ve found that is usually relatively person-free, if not necessarily quiet, is the video game arcade. Same at the Grand Floridian. They get a little busier before dinner time, when parents are looking for ways to keep the kids distracted until their reservation comes up.

One of the nicer saloons on property is in The Wave off the Contemporary’s first-floor lobby. It’s not always quiet, but there are a couple of side rooms off the bar, and the turnover at the bar is pretty fast, as people are usually there to have a drink until their table is ready. If you’re so inclined, try the “Bacon and Eggs” appetizer. Trust me.

Though it’s been years since I ate there, the California Grill on the 14th floor has a fantastic aesthetic and view over Seven Seas Lagoon for watching the Magic Kingdom fireworks. I think the balcony is still open to restaurant guests during dining hours, but I wouldn’t swear to it. That’s a great view, and might be worth paying a lot for very small, artsy portions and California wines.

The Contemporary and the Grand both have convention centers attached. If there isn’t a convention going on during your visit, you can walk through said convention center and enjoy the cool, the quiet, and the aesthetics.

Another quiet area outside is the walking/sitting area between the hotel tower and the Bay Lake Tower. They’ve got benches, lounge chairs, and a fire pit there, which probably gets more traffic in the evening but is quiet during the day.

Disney’s Wilderness Lodge

Okay, as I said before, the Lodge is not connected to the monorail, which almost places it outside this entry. However, it is reachable by boat, as I noted above. And quite frankly, if you’re not staying there, the Lodge is worth taking a side trip to see anyway. It’s gorgeous. Lots of big timber in a multi-story lobby atrium with an artificial river course that starts with an bubbling spring inside the lobby and proceeds through the outside courtyard, connects (theoretically) to the pool area, and then eventually settles down into Bay Lake. interior aesthetics are American Old West: lots of dark colors, Native American artifacts and patterns in the carpets, comfy leather chairs, and a massive stone fireplace and chimney.

Like the Grand Floridian, the Lodge’s lobby space is so big that it tends to absorb a lot of the ambient noise, including the front desk and the main family restaurant, Whispering Canyon. There are seating areas on the second floor, both indoor and outdoor, that allow you to get above the noise and read with few disturbances beyond the occasional other guests in the area.

The quietest place for eating is Artist Point, which is a quite good restaurant with views of the Lodge’s courtyard and waterfall. It’s on the expensive side and so relatively child-free. The quietest place for having an adult beverage is the Territory Lounge, which is probably the place on Disney property that most matches the description “saloon.” Lots of heavy wood, cowboy and Western landscape paintings on the walls, and a couple of massive TVs for watching sports events. When there aren’t games on the place is pretty quiet. It can get crowded otherwise.

Wilderness Lodge has added a DVC section as well (The Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge), which has similar aesthetics and is also quieter than the hotel side.

If you’re walking around the Villas, you might find a map to the walking path that leads you to Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground. I took the path once–it’s maybe a mile or so–before finding the Fort Wilderness bus stop. If you don’t need the bus stop, walk along the path until you see buildings and then head back. The paved path moves mostly through cypress forest, so you won’t get burned too badly in the Florida sun. However, there aren’t a lot of benches or other things to see. This is just a quiet path to get from one place to another with very few other distractions.

I’ll take requests, so if there are parts of Orlando you’d like me to cover next, let me know.

Urban Planning in Orlando

Traffic on Interstate 4 in Southwest Orlando--the usual mess.
Traffic on Interstate 4 in Southwest Orlando–the usual mess.

I have no idea who handles urban/civil planning for the City of Orlando or Orange County in general, but whatever process(es) they’re using are guaranteed to promote two problems:

  • Sprawl
  • Traffic

Sprawl

Here’s the reality about how people get around southwest Orlando, which is where I live and spend most of my time: the locals find the unused roads and do their best to avoid Interstate 4. Eventually, of course, the city planners realize, “Hey, look! We’ve got a lot more traffic on Blahblahblah Boulevard! We need to expand the road!” So they expand two-lane roads to four-lane divided highways to handle the increased traffic load. Naturally, the next stage in the process is that real estate developers will note the wider, more accessible road and will start selling more property on said road–commercial and residential. Businesses are built, people move in, the street becomes a “destination” area and once again the locals try to find “the road less traveled.” Here’s a crazy idea: next time you find a road that has high traffic that flows at reasonable speed, leave it alone!

Traffic

The worst traffic in SW Orlando is Sand Lake Road, from its western end at Apopka-Vineland Road all the way to Kirkman Road. The stretch between Dr. Phillips Blvd. and Universal Blvd. is particularly bad, but that area of high traffic is about to be extended by adding a Trader Joe’s on the north side of the street between Della Drive and Apopka-Vineland. I have no gripe with Trader Joe’s per se. The problem with most of the Dr. Phillips commercial area is the lack of adequate parking. This is hardly a new problem. Trader Joe’s, undoubtedly a popular chain, failed to provide a decent amount of parking for their new Winter Park store, with similar ensuing congestion.

What this results in is people driving around and around the streets (or parking lots) looking for a decent spot. A couple other crazy notions here:

  • Increase the amount of space allotted for parking
  • Reduce the number or size of new commercial properties
  • Increase the number of turn lanes
  • Improve public transportation (light rail would be a good fit if we have room for it)
  • Leave the land alone?

I am not a civil engineer, so I’m throwing myself on the mercy of those of you out there who are charged with designing streets, ramps, and parking lots made to support commercial properties. Please: stop what you’re doing. Update the equations that you use to estimate traffic flow by comparing estimates vs. reality…especially along Sand Lake Road. Do something different. Your processes for “growth” are increasing density where it’s least wanted and forcing more and more people to head out to the suburbs to fill up the empty space and avoid the congestion messes you’re creating.