A convergence of circumstances allowed me the opportunity to spend a week in south central Florida recently. Hilton World Wide held their annual Owner’s Conference at one of their newest properties, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. Business responsibilities made my spouse’s attendance mandatory, so I tagged along.
A solo mid-week trip down to Boca Raton was also in the cards since our daughter attends a liberal arts college there. Boca is an easy drive south of Orlando and offered an opportunity to meet other students, professors and generally familiarize myself with the area and lifestyle.
Impressions of Boca – It is certainly a very upscale community – but I found getting around confusing. From street level, all entrances look the same, whether a gas station, shopping center, university or office complex, all have the “gated” look of a private country club, complete with Mediterranean style perimeter walls adorned with fountains, sculpture, ferns and palm trees. Boca also seems to have a monopoly on stylish names for even the most pedestrian of businesses – such as “Spanish River Gardens Mobil Service”.
After three days of getting lost every time I went out for a meal…or to gas up the rent-a-car…I couldn’t wait to get back to Memphis, where a perimeter of used tires, junked cars and a beat up tow truck let you know unmistakably that you have arrived at Billy Bob’s Shell Station and Waffle House.
Back in Orlando, Hilton corporate spared no expense for the conference. Top chefs from around the world were flown in to prepare the food. The keynote speakers were Sir Richard Branson and Michael Eisner. Headline entertainment…perennial Las Vegas favorites, Penn & Teller.
Back from Boca too late to see the actual show, I ran into Teller in the Waldorf hall way.
(Side Note: Anyone familiar with their act knows that Teller never speaks, either on stage or in their popular Showtime cable series, aptly titled “Bullsh*t”.)
While posing for a picture with Teller, I mentioned that I loved “Bullsh*t”. Then yours truly became the speechless one when Teller responded loudly…”the show or the substance?”
Review of the conference and Waldorf Astoria Orlando – Hey, I appreciate upscale as much as the next guy, but having a private tented cabana reserved poolside, waiter standing by, awaiting your arrival, complete with monogramed towels …then not showing up…but having it all there just in case…now that is slick!
As you would expect, the lobby was palatial. Lobby bar and all public rooms were stunning and the stonework very appealing. The Bull & Bear restaurant off the lobby of the Waldorf was probably the finest dining I have ever experienced; but, with a fully a la carte menu and entre prices starting at $50 each…well…let’s just say it is best reserved for high rollers, special occasions and/or padded expense accounts.
With Waldorf rooms reserved for Hilton and Hilton brand owners, we actually were camped out at the connected sister hotel, the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort. The Waldorf and Bonnet Creek properties are located side by side and share a series of convention venues linked with a common hallway. Although not sporting private cabanas like the Waldorf, I actually preferred the pool complex at the Hilton Bonnet Creek. It was larger, more kid friendly and had one of those “Lazy River” features that allow bathers to plop down on air mattresses and circumnavigate the complex every few minutes.
Impressions of the Hilton Waldorf / Bonnet Creek experience – very upscale – a stone’s throw from Disney – excellent food and service –pricey – slick.
The weekend prior to the conference was spent visiting local theme parks.
One highlight was the new Harry Potter attraction at Universal. For whatever reason, Universal’s “Express Pass” is not valid for Hogwarts. Everyone’s wait is the same. My wife and I lost interest when we saw the wait was north of 75 minutes. Our girls were undeterred. They returned from the experience raving that it was “the best, most exciting theme park ride ever” – this from teenagers who are veterans of major parks on both coasts. Both were bubbling over with such comments as “I felt like I could reach out and touch Dumbledore!” Poor Dumbledore, hope he has a good therapist.
By now I suppose you are beginning to wonder how all this ties in to the title of this article. Let’s see if I can bring it round.
Granted, visiting the home of popular animated characters such as Disney’s world famous mouse is most certainly a worthy experience. But what about the often laughable attempts to replicate famous historic attractions indigenous to locales thousands of miles away?
(Example: Epcot’s imitations of international landmarks such as the French pavilion with an authentic fake Eiffel Tower…or the Mexico pavilion with authentic fake Aztec Pyramid – to name two.)
The ultimate irony – if irony can even exist in a theme park – is that prices at these counterfeit venues are often higher than those at the real McCoy.
Plus, innate travel agent paranoia has me worrying that people may have less inclination to visit the real Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco once they have consumed a crab sandwich and a beer at Universal’s venue of the same name.
But, if attendance is any indication, I’d say that Americans are in love with fake experiences. We love authentic fake food at fast food outlets…authentic fake socializing online via Facebook and Twitter…authentic fake Rain Forests at shopping malls…authentic fake politicians who pretend to govern…authentic fake travel writers who…wait. Scratch that last item.
In summation, may I propose a rule of thumb by paraphrasing the great P.T. Barnum? “No one ever went broke by over-estimating America’s appetite for authentic fake travel experiences.”
Now that I have indulged my perennial need to rant…I must admit that there is more to interest visitors in Orlando area than the parks. Non-theme park attractions include the wonderful Orange County Regional History Museum downtown and the Jack Kerouac House. (Yes, Kerouac lived in Orlando for a short time, immediately after penning “On the Road” and while writing “Dharma Bums”.) But that is material for a follow-up article.
Looking at the clock, I can see I’ve been sitting at the computer far too long. It’s time to apply another coat of bleach to my teeth, rub on some more self-tanning lotion…being careful not to get any on my hair implants…strap on that knock-off Rolex …and get out there into the REAL world!