|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
September, 28, 2009 - There was the woman who got married at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. The one who danced with her father there, decades ago. And the one who had her first cocktail in the world-famous Park Avenue hotel.
Stories like those are popping up a lot in Orlando these days, as Hilton Worldwide prepares to open what is only the second Waldorf Astoria in the world on a large piece of land wedged between Interstate 4 and Walt Disney World.
To the staff of Waldorf Astoria Orlando at Bonnet Creek, it seems that nearly everyone they meet has a connection to the original Waldorf in midtown Manhattan.
That's not an easy act to follow.
"Everyone in America, I think, knows the Waldorf in New York," said Rosie Feinberg, interior designer for the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. The challenge in building another one, she said, was to "pay attention to the history and do it justice in a new location."
As Feinberg and others developed every detail of the new hotel during the past few years, their goal was to answer this question: What happens when a historic, urban, gilded hotel takes a vacation?
"We tried to contemporize it to today's world and the area that we're in," Feinberg said.
The art-deco lobby so well-known to New York corporate executives and international heads of state got a refreshing makeover in its Orlando versions. Cool marble floors shine underfoot; a dramatic domed ceiling soars above with light blue accents. Instead of a view of the city, guests have a view -- at almost every turn -- of the golf courses and sprawling pools outside.
The ornate lobby clock of New York fame was remodeled in Orlando with rich woods and nickel accents. Sticking to tradition, the clock chimes every 15 minutes -- with the same ring heard in New York. Hotel officials say the original Waldorf's focus on catering to its guests remains the same, too.
"Our service has to be seamless, impeccable -- has to create the most memorable experiences," General Manager R. Michael King said. "That's what New York was all about."
There are other threads woven into the Bonnet Creek hotel that tie it undeniably to its New York namesake, including the Bull & Bear Steakhouse, Peacock Alley, the dark paneling of Sir Harry's Lounge. And like the Park Avenue property, which opened in 1931 in the midst of the Great Depression, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando is throwing open its doors during tough economic times.
As for room rates, the hotels' Web sites show rooms available this fall in Orlando starting at about $200, compared with nearly double that in New York. But rooms may not always be cheaper here. Orlando rates climb to about $330 in March, when rooms in New York can be booked for as low as $240.
"This is likely the most difficult time that any of us will have seen in our lifetime, as far as opening a new hotel, particularly one that is positioned at the high end," said Mark Woodworth, president of PKF Hospitality Research in Atlanta. With a stigma around luxury and a backlash against business meetings, "You have more rooms opening up at the exact same time there's fewer people looking to rent hotel rooms. That's a worst-case scenario."
In a time when business travel is suffering, the Waldorf Astoria is opening alongside a brand new 1,000-room Hilton, and the two hotels will share 150,000 square feet of convention and meeting space. The development is tucked in a pocket of land near Walt Disney World called Bonnet Creek Resort. Surrounded on three sides by Disney, Bonnet Creek was never sold to the theme-park company when Disney secretly began acquiring thousands of acres in the area in the 1960s.
Though he knows the economy will prove challenging, King hopes the hotel will bring a new type of clientele to Orlando. He's excited about the next few years of development, including the introduction of Universal's Harry Potter attraction and an overhaul of Walt Disney World's Fantasyland. "The next foreseeable five or six years are going to be dynamic in Orlando," he said. "We're here at an opportune moment when that's happening."
According to Woodworth, whose company forecasts hotel business in dozens of markets, including Orlando, things could start looking up for area hotels as early as the end of 2010. The recovery in Orlando's lodging market should begin to surface in 2011, he said.
"I would expect given its location, given the strength of the Waldorf brand, that it should quickly evolve into a very formidable competitor there in Orlando," Woodworth said.
Branching out The Waldorf Astoria Orlando was also a chance to create a number of firsts for the hotel brand: the first resort. The first golf course. The first Waldorf patio furniture designed to withstand Florida hurricanes.
"We're going to combine the old with the new," said Peter Kacheris, managing director of the Hilton Bonnet Creek Resort.
And as the hotel pays homage to the Waldorf history -- with one hallway dedicated to displaying the historical events that have occurred at the original Waldorf Astoria -- it is also making some of its own, said Kacheris.
"We're respectfully looking at the traditions but adjusting to the times," Kacheris said. "We will never be, nor do we want to be, the Waldorf Astoria in New York. We are a part of their legacy."
Sara K. Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5664.
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