Those darn aliens! Here we are, making our way through the Men in Black headquarters
at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, then we step into a ride vehicle and
wham! — we’re in New York and under attack. But if we aim our laser
guns for the critters’ creepy little eyes, we’ll rack up points
and maybe be approved for a black suit that looked so good on Will Smith and
Tommy Lee Jones in the MIB movie.
We could actually spend more than two months trying different rides and attractions
in Orlando, the world capital of theme parks. Walt Disney World started the
trend in 1971, followed by SeaWorld in 1973. The world’s first water park
— Wet ‘n’ Wild — made a splash in 1977; Disney opened
Epcot Center in 1982 and Disney-MGM Studios in 1989. A year later, Universal
Studios Florida welcomed visitors to its movie- and television-themed experience,
adding Islands of Adventure, for Dr. Seuss and Jurassic Park fans, in 1999.
I opt to spend one day shopping, beginning with the elegant Mall at Millennia,
known for its luxury brands. Orlando has plenty of alternatives, so later I
catch a cab to an outlet mall and shop till I almost drop. (The I-trolley is
a cheap way to travel the International Drive Resort area and there is an outlet
mall at both top and bottom of the route.)
Theme parks added hotels to keep visitors on site, but off-site accommodation
also flourished. Harris Rosen bought the tired 256-room Quality Inn International
a few years after Disney World opened. Living in the hotel, he renovated it
room by room. He now owns six more hotels, including his dream — the four-diamond
Rosen Shingle Creek Resort, which opened in 2006.
Rosen’s hotels account for nearly 7,000 rooms in Orlando yet he has no
desire to expand beyond the area. He likes his management team to have easy
access to him, without using a cellphone or Blackberry.
Guests barely notice him, a trim white-haired man dressed in denim, as he bends
over and picks a thread off the carpet. Later, he stops himself midway as he
reaches for a half-full coffee cup and Danish left on a table in a conference
centre hallway. Looking sheepish, he says, “I’ve been known to throw
out guests’ food. This one might be coming back.”
focused on giving guests the best experience that before the hotel opened, he
had workmen test the building’s water pressure by flushing all the toilets
His concern for guests’ comfort certainly trickles down. The resort
may be a 1,500-room extravaganza with an 18-hole golf course and golf academy,
luxurious spa, designer shopping, immense conference facilities and many dining
options, but it feels welcoming and personal. Staff members — from the
front desk to the chambermaids — are genuinely warm and follow up on any
questions or requests. Staff turnover is low, perhaps due to the owner’s
willingness to provide medical care and healthy food in the staff cafeteria.
From my room, I can see the doors of the Brad Brewer Golf Academy. I’m
a bit intimidated at the thought of my first golf lesson, but Brad makes me
feel as if I might become a golfer. He uses a ruler as a guide to show me the
proper way to hold a club and plays back a recording of my swing, pointing out
ways to make it better. As we putt, I begin to see how golfers become addicted
to perfecting this game.
There’s a unique hazard at one hole as I walk along a golf cart path
to reach Shingle Creek’s 1.25-mile nature trail the next morning. Two
sandhill cranes are dancing — bowing and strutting in courting rapture.
Rosen fell in love with this 250-acre property, where more than a century ago,
settlers had cypress shingles made at its mill. Shingle Creek is also the headwaters
of the Everglades, below Lake Okeechobee about 140 miles away. Area history
is vividly imagined in Patrick D. Smith’s novel, A Land Remembered, which
Rosen admires. He’s dedicated the resort to it: restaurants, ballrooms
and significant meeting rooms. Nature photographs taken by Rosen Hotels’
vice-president, Garritt Toohey decorate hallways and rooms.
Designed with water and energy conservation and waste reduction in mind, the
hotel earned a Florida Green Lodge designation. Its owner insists reducing the
human impact on the environment is simply the right thing to do.
Six American white ibis regard me with suspicion across the water as I walk
along the nature trail. It’s windy this February day but in the shelter
of trees hung with Spanish moss, all is still — and fortunately, just
a bit too cold for alligators, although a sign on the trail indicates they have
been sighted. The species list also includes ospreys, Florida red-bellied turtles
and Eastern Diamondback rattlesnakes — yikes!
Rosen donated $15 million and the 20 acres beside this trail to the University
of Central Florida’s Rosen School of Hospitality Management. Local young
people should not have to go away to learn the hospitality industry that is
such a large part of Orlando’s economy, he points out. He also offered
to fund preschools in a low-income community and pay the costs of education for any student accepted by
a Florida post-secondary institution. In 10 years, high school dropout rates
fell from 25 per cent to six per cent; crime rates dropped 67 per cent.
So with such positive karma — and hospitality — is it any wonder
I go home refreshed after just a few days at Harris Rosen’s dream resort?
Photo ©Rosen Shingle Creek