So you're headed to Orlando... but where to start? You'll find such a wealth of fantastic resorts and restaurants it can be difficult to choose exactly what you wish to indulge in. How best can you plan a visit in which each day comes with the finest this marvelous vacation spot has to offer? In order to help you in making the overwhelming decisions of where to stay and what places to dine, here are what I believe to be Orlando's best offerings:
Best Deluxe Resort On Disney property it's the Grand Floridian with its upscale Victorian atmosphere and lagoonside setting facing the Magic Kingdom. Off-property, hands-down, it's the Ritz Carlton Grande Lakes where you may never even feel the need to leave the property. At Universal, go for the Portofino Bay Hotel with its unsurpassed ambience of an Italian seaside resort.
Best Resort Pool * Disney's Yacht and Beach Club's Stormalong Bay, a 3-acre mini water park * The Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin's lush grotto-style lagoon pool * The Volcano Pool at Disney's Polynesian Resort with its luxuriant waterfall, smoking peak, and perfect view of Cinderella's Castle * The boulder-strewn wonderland at Disney's Wilderness Lodge with its very own erupting geyser * The lush fantasyland pool at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress cooled by twelve waterfalls
Best Home-Away-From-Home Property The Villas at Disney's Wilderness Lodge with its Bay Lake frontage and national park character or Disney's Beach Club Villas conveniently located next door to Epcot.
Best Resort Atmosphere Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge where hundreds of animals roam the savanna and the air is pulsating to the beat of African drums. Running a close second is Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel where guests are transported to a romantic, seaside Italian village.
Best Resort Lobby How to choose? Three of Disney's resorts make the cut: the Wilderness Lodge, the Grand Floridian, and the Animal Kingdom Lodge, all eye-popping in their grandeur.
Best Access To The Parks The Contemporary, Polynesian, and Grand Floridian with monorail access to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and the Ticket and Transportation Center. At Universal, the Hard Rock Hotel is just a 5-minute walk or boat ride away to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and CityWalk.
Best Resort For Romance Disney's Polynesian Resort whose lush tiki torch-lit grounds and white-sand beaches with views of Cinderella's Castle are simply dreamy or Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel where an evening stroll along the bay with Italian arias playing in the distance can't be beat.
Best Resort For Nature-Lovers Disney's Wilderness Lodge, a nature-lover's dream of rushing waterfalls, spouting geysers, and bubbly creeks, all surrounded by stately pine trees and beautiful Bay Lake.
Best Resort Lounges * California Grill Lounge found on the 15th floor of Disney's Contemporary Resort with unrivaled views of the Magic Kingdom and the Seven Seas Lagoon, great for cocktails, sushi, and a view of the Wishes fireworks display. * Disney's Grand Floridian's lobby. Pick up a cocktail at Mizner's, then head down to this magnificent oasis to relax in the cushy seating while listening to the sounds of a big band orchestra or live piano music. * Tambu Lounge at Disney's Polynesian Resort's Great Ceremonial House. Sip on tropical drinks amid lush foliage and views of the Seven Seas Lagoon. * Territory Lounge, a rustic retreat in Disney's Wilderness Lodge. * bluezoo's bar at the Walt Disney World Dolphin, the coolest place around. * Velvet, the ultra-hip cocktail lounge at Universal's Hard Rock Hotel. * Bar America, Portofino Bay Hotel's sophisticated lounge overlooking the romantic piazza. * Top of the Palace Lounge, a sophisticated bar with the best views around high atop the Wyndham Palace Resort near Downtown Disney.
Best Italian Palio at the Walt Disney World Swan where the Tortellini con Aragosta topped with enormous amounts of lobster is amazing, or Portobello Yacht Club at Downtown Disney for a fantastic, thin-crusted pizza followed by the Rigatoni with Italian Sausage, crimini mushrooms, plum tomatoes, black olives, and escarole.
Best Seafood Flying Fish at Disney's Boardwalk for Potato Wrapped Red Snapper with creamy leek fondue and red wine reduction, or the newcomer on the block, Todd English's bluezoo at the Walt Disney World Dolphin, where seafood is taken to new heights. Off Disney property it's got to be Roy's on Sand Lake Road near Universal for Roy Yamaguchi's remarkable Hawaiian Fusion cuisine.
Best Steaks Shula's at the Walt Disney World Dolphin, a standout for sensational Angus beef steaks cooked to perfection, or Vito's Chop House on International Drive for the filet mignon stuffed with gorgonzola.
Best Restaurant For Romance Victoria and Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian, the only AAA 5-Diamond restaurant in Central Florida. Here you'll savor a sumptuous six-course meal served on elegant fine china to the accompaniment of enchanting harp music. Or try Delfino Riviera at Universal's Portofino Bay Hotel whose breeze-swept terrace overlooks the resort's picturesque bay and piazza. And I can't forget Norman's at the Ritz Carlton for fine dining in plush surroundings all enveloped in the grandeur of an amazing resort.
Best Restaurant For Kids Children love the Rainforest Café at the Animal Kingdom or Downtown Disney where they're bombarded with thunderstorms and noisy audio-animatronic wildlife. A close runner up is Whispering Canyon Café at Disney's Wilderness Lodge; come prepared for plenty of hoopin' and hollerin' and please, whatever you do, don't ask for the ketchup unless, that is, you like a lot of attention.
Best Character Meal Cinderella's Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom, a chance to feast in a fairytale castle with Cinderella, Jasmine, Aladdin, Belle, and Snow White. Or try the Crystal Palace at the Magic Kingdom for a tasty, bountiful buffet hosted by Winnie the Pooh and his friends.
Best Hip Atmosphere Todd English's bluezoo at the Dolphin, the coolest spot this side of South Beach, or Tchoup Chop at Universal's Royal Pacific Resort, a knock-em-dead, Asian-inspired beauty.
Best Disney View Arthur's 27 at the Wyndham Palace whose drop-dead setting is only topped by its creative cuisine, or California Grill at Disney's Contemporary Resort with its picture-perfect views of the Magic Kingdom, the Seven Seas Lagoon, and the Wishes fireworks presentation.
Best Disney Resort Restaurant Tough call. My favorites are the California Grill at the Contemporary Resort (just about anything on their exceptional menu is fantastic), Victoria and Albert's at the Grand Floridian (particularly the Chef's Table where Chef Scott Hunnel oversees an 11-course meal designed especially for you), and Todd English's bluezoo at the Dolphin (try the miso glazed Chilean sea bass with warm sesame spinach).
Best Universal Resort Restaurant Tchoup Chop at the Royal Pacific Resort. Wonderful Asian and Polynesian-influenced cuisine in a stunning setting of bamboo, waterfalls, and a lotus-filled reflecting pool. Share the Crunchy Shrimp with butter lettuce leaves and hot & sour chili glaze, move on to the Firecracker Fresh Fish served with papaya-serrano salsa, Asian pesto drizzle, and coconut-lemongrass sauce, and finish with a slice of Banana Cream Pie topped with caramel sauce and chocolate shavings.
Best Downtown Disney Restaurant Wolfgang Puck's Upstairs Dining Room for dishes like Szechuan marinated "Chinois" lamb rack served with a spicy cilantro-mint sauce or the restaurant's exceptionally great Wienerschnitzel.
Best Epcot Illuminations View Rose and Crown in World Showcase's United Kingdom. Set your priority seating for about one hour prior to show time and pray for a table with a good view.
Best Milkshake Beaches and Cream at Disney's Beach Club Resort serves oh-so-delicious thick shakes and malts in a frosty fountain glass with the extras on the side in the stainless steel shaker.
Best Pizza You can't beat the pizzas at Downtown Disney's Wolfgang Puck Cafe (choose the BLTA with applewood-smoked bacon, mozzarella, roma and sun-dried tomatoes, avocado, and chopped romaine), Downtown Disney's Portobello Yacht Club (thin-crusted and smokey flavored), or Mama Melrose's at Disney-MGM Studios (don't miss the grilled chicken pizza with sun-dried tomato pesto, pancetta, and asiago cheese).
Best Breakfast Spoodles at Disney's Boardwalk. I love the Egg Rotollo, scrambled eggs with chorizo, onions, peppers, and cheddar cheese rolled in Lavosh (flatbread) and served with breakfast potatoes and marinated tomatoes.
I could go on and on but I'll restrain myself and stop here. There's a world of resorts and restaurants just waiting to be explored. And you'll never even have to leave Orlando to find it!
About the author: Cara Goldsbury is the author of "The Luxury Guide to Walt Disney World: How to Get the Most Out of the Best Disney Has to Offer" available at 800-247-6553, www.luxurydisneyguide.com, Amazon.com, or your local bookstore. Visit her at www.luxurydisneyguide.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org