/ Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

If you grew up when I did, or even traveled some of the United States by car (maybe even on a trip to Walt Disney World), you very well may have stayed in a Holiday Inn. A staple of the American countryside, I remember vividly the big green sign with glittering white lettering, wood paneling on the walls, and drive-up-to-your-room motel-style inn.

So when I heard of the grand opening of the “new” Holiday Inn at Downtown Disney in Walt Disney World, memories of spending nights in various Holiday Inns across America with my family as a child came flooding back. Great times for sure, but maybe not accommodations out of an episode of the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” One thing that was for sure, though, is that there was something undeniably comforting about a Holiday Inn. There was a sense of sense of security and familiarity, and you always knew that there was a clean room waiting for you, no matter the time of day or night.

When I had a chance to visit and spend the weekend at the Holiday Inn in Walt Disney World recently, courtesy of the hotel, needless to say I was VERY surprised at what I saw. When I drove up, the first thing I said to myself was, “Lou, this ain’t your dad’s Holiday Inn…” It wouldn’t be the last time I uttered those words.

Before we go forward, let’s go back a bit. Turn back the clock many years, and this location was home to a Howard Johnson’s, one of the original four hotels of Hotel Plaza at Lake Buena Vista (now known as Downtown Disney). It later became the Courtyard by Marriott, and then a Holiday Inn. It was a nice option for people looking to stay on or near Disney property. But it was still the ole Holiday Inn.

Fast forward. In October 2004, the hotel closed as a result of hurricane damage courtesy of Charley and Frances. It remained that way for some time, and I personally was unsure of what was taking place. The resort closed down for what I originally figured would be a nice face lift to freshen up the look and feel. Wrong again, Lou.

As part of a $1 billion global effort to completely relaunch the entire Holiday Inn brand, the hotel wasn’t refurbished, but completely stripped down to the bare studs for what would be be a complete,  $35 million, top-to-bottom “extreme hotel makeover.”

When it opened in early 2010, the 14-story, 323-room property immediately changed the perception of many “Holiday Inn old-timers” with a fresh, modern and very “hip” design, while still retaining the good value that the Holiday Inn brand was built on.

Wanting to get a closer look for myself, the folks at Holiday Inn let me explore the resort for a couple of days to see exactly what the new (and while it’s an old location, this is definitely a “new” resort) had to offer.

The Location

The resort is within a short walking distance to Downtown Disney (about 1/4 mile), which is clearly visible from many of the guest rooms and balconies, but I’ll touch on that in a bit. It is located on Hotel Plaza Blvd., which means it is also withing a mile or so of the Walt Disney World theme parks. Complimentary shuttle service is available to Downtown Disney and all four theme parks right from the Holiday Inn lobby, which is very convenient, especially for those traveling with families who don’t want or need to rent a car.

The Hotel

My first “wow” moment came shortly after pulling into the lot. There was no giant green neon sign with the 50′s-looking logo and glowing gold arrow pointing me to the lobby. Instead, I was greeted by a very modern entryway, as well as some friendly hellos from the valet parking and bell staff. Once I stepped through the glass doors, I had to stop for a minute and look behind me. Yup. The sign said “Holiday Inn.” Not what I was expecting to say the least.

The lobby was bright, light, sleek and even sounded and smelled fresh. Yes, I said sounded and smelled. One of the first things I noticed was how “fresh” the place smelled, and the very pleasant background music. It had a very spa-like feel to it. The sound of the music above me was interrupted only by the courteous staff who had come from behind the desk to welcome me and other guests inside. A very Disney-like touch to a non-Disney hotel.

The staff was very welcoming, and checked me in quickly and with smiles on their faces. After I received my key card and a description of the premises and amenities, I walked around the lobby and first floor a bit.

Next to the glass wall across from the desk were rows of comfortable, circular couches. Looking outside, I saw both the pool area and new outdoor covered seating area. Again, comfy couches and modern, Miami’s South Beach-inspired tables and chairs were everywhere. I’ll talk more about this area when we look at the hotel’s amenities. Time to check out my room….

Guest Rooms

Heading to the glass elevator, I walked through the expansive, 14-story atrium, a pretty modern design for the early 1970′s, when this building was first designed. My room, one of 323 in the hotel, was on the 11th floor. The view from the elevator and floors surrounding the atrium overlook the brightly-colored restaurant seating area below.

Inside my room, I was quite surprised at what I saw, or better yet, didn’t see. Nope, this was not my dad’s Holiday Inn. Instead, I was greeted to a large, bright room with a king bed, pull-out couch, large dresser, 32″ LCD TV (with high-def channels – nice!) and (complimentary) refrigerator and coffee pot. As someone who works while on trips to Walt Disney World, the very large desk with free high-speed internet access (wired so as to meet government business requirements) was a very welcome surprise. Better yet, as a tech guy with gadgets and gizmos aplenty, it was great to see that as long as they were rewiring things, they added lots and lots of power outlets near the desk and in fact, throughout the room. Oh yeah, they’re also ALL non-smoking. Kudos!!

I was very curious to check out the bed. Would it be a thin, scratchy mattress? Not at all. Plush, pillow top with triple sheeting, pillow wraps and even “pillow menus” so you can choose from soft or firm. Nice touch.

Across from the very large closet (quick note: nice to see a hotel finally put in a wall safe that is large enough to accommodate a large laptop) was a large, bright bathroom with granite counter tops, and (my wife would love this), Garden Botanik amenities. There was a stand-up shower with rain head and glass doors.

Looking around some more, little touches like a full-length mirror, cordless phones with free local and 800 calls made me realize how well thought out the new rooms were.

Like 3/4 of the rooms in the main tower, mine had a balcony with two chairs. I had a wonderful view of Downtown Disney, where I could see the entire area, as well as the Characters in Flight balloon. To Across the way, I could see Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Epcot and other areas of the property. Had I timed it right, I’m sure I could have caught a glimpse of Wishes of Illuminations, but there was more to see downstairs…

Amenities

Not that I was expecting the duck-filled, green pool like from the scene in the movie “Vacation,” but the pool area was a very nice surprise. There was a zero-entry area as well as lap pool and tropical hot tub, as well a very nice sun deck. Kids and adults seemed to be enjoying the quiet, heated pool, and there were plenty of new lounge chairs and umbrella tables for all guests. There was also poolside dining and those big comfy couches, as well as an outdoor tapas bar called Aqua Luna.

Just out of curiosity, I checked and sure enough, the advertised free Wi-Fi worked here, as well as in the lobby and other public areas.

I already had my laptop with me, but the 24-hour business center with computers and printers was comforting to see.

A Disney owned and operated gift shop was about to open shortly after my stay where you can get officially licensed souvenirs, as well as park tickets, etc.

Dining and Recreation

The pool area site just outside the main lobby and the adjacent Palm Breezes bar. A small bar with dual flat-panel TVs, I came back to the hotel late one night and spent a few hours here talking with a friend. Again, the staff was courteous, and it was a nice place to unwind after a long day in a comfortable, quiet environment. It was reassuring to see a security guard wandering the premises inside and out.

While I didn’t get a chance to dine there, the Palm Breezes Restaurant offered a nice menu of pan-Asian inspired dishes, all at very reasonable prices. I’ll have to give this a try to get a full review (the shrimp and avocado tempura is on my to-do list). There’s also a late-night grab-and-go next to the bar, which is right near the arcade and gym (accessible by keycard). As they were both literally just a few days old, they were very clean and bright, but if the staff remains as pleasant and diligent as they were during my stay, I’d suspect they will stay that way.

Staff

Speaking of the staff, this is one of the things that really impressed me. Not being a Disney owned or operated hotel, I wasn’t necessarily expecting the level of service I received, and witnessed them giving to other guests as well. From front desk people to the lobby greeter, to the bartender in the restaurant, they were all extremely friendly and helpful, and always wore a smile on their face. Small detail? Maybe. But service is key, and to find that Disney-style of happy employees resort-wide was a welcome surprise.

Value

Holiday Inns have always represented good value for families, and this was the one aspect of the re-branding that didn’t get lost.

I checked rates online for a number of different period, and found that the rates ranged form around $99 per night to the mid-to-high $100′s. Compared to a value-priced resort, you are getting a bigger room with many more amenities for around the same price. And keep in mind that if you use a travel agent, they can also book your stays at this resort as well, and can help with dining reservations in the Disney theme parks and restaurants, etc.

What do you NOT get by staying here versus a Disney resort? Not much, depending on how you travel. While you don’t get access to Disney transportation, there are shuttles every 30 minutes to the theme parks. However, you do not get access to Disney’s Magical Express or Extra Magic Hours. Again, these may not be very important to all travelers, but something just to keep in mind.You also get guaranteed access and preferred tee times at the resort’s golf courses.

You do save in other areas, though – including the complimentary refrigerator in all rooms ($10/day at Disney value resorts), wired high-speed internet access ($9.95 per 24-hours at all Disney resorts), and Kids from ages 2-12 eat free in the restaurant downstairs – potentially a nice savings if you grab breakfast there before hitting the parks.

In addition to the Disney store inside, you can also send Disney theme park purchases directly to the hotel at no extra charge, which saves having to lug them from the parks to the bus to the resort.

Business Traveler

Business traveler and Holiday Inn might not have been something you’d think about in the same sentence, but once again, this new Holiday Inn is trying to change that perception. In addition to the in-room workspace, the resort has built an entirely new, 11,000 square feet of meeting space, including 2,600 feet of pre-function space. The new ballrooms can be broken into four areas and can accommodate up to 560 guests, with a reception area fitting about 300. The meeting areas are quite high-tech, with high-speed internet and audio-visual services. The resort also works directly with Disney’s event services to create special events, entertainment production, meeting openers, characters and Disney Institute programming. While I was unable to see a business function in progress during my stay, the venue was very well laid out, and offers a value-driven alternative to on–property convention space. Something to consider, especially for smaller groups, banquets, wedding parties, etc.

Conclusion

Before I give you my final thoughts, first things first. While I was guest courtesy of Holiday Inn, I received no special treatment other than my stay. But I had to be sure…

So with no notice to the Holiday Inn, I waited a few weeks, and quietly went back unannounced. I wanted to be sure that they service I received wasn’t an anomaly, and to see how they were doing a few weeks after the opening and my original stay.

I am happy to say that everything I was pleased with during my initial visit was still in place, and I saw a few other things that I liked. First, in addition to more guests, I saw many more staff members. From the restaurant to the lobby to housekeeping, the still-pleasant staff was apparently larger.

I visited the resort again during both the day and evening hours, and checked out the pool, bar and other amenities, and liked what I saw. There were many families enjoying the property, having either taken a break, or even an entire day from the parks. Having a place to come back and rest at or enjoy during the day is vital to a good family vacation. Trust me. I’ve been there with two toddlers in the middle of the summer. I even talked with a family by the pool area and asked what they thought of the hotel. They said they had decided last-minute to take their kids to Walt Disney World, and were looking to stay as close as they could but within their budget. They paid around $110 per night and were very happy with how clean the resort was and the friendliness of the staff. The kids chimed in as to how much they liked the pool, and that they felt was all their own, as there were few other families using it at the time. Because the resort was so new, they really appreciated how “fresh” everything felt.

All in all, I think that this is a huge step towards breaking the stereotype for many older travelers of what a Holiday Inn is, or at least what it looks like. The resort has a very contemporary feel inside and out, yet the rooms were very warm, large and comfortable. Dollar for dollar, for the value-conscious family, the Holiday Inn’s rooms are a great value in both size and amenities. A family of four (or even 5 or 6) can very easily fit in the rooms and enjoy some down time therein. Does it scream “Disney” or have any of the Disney theming? Not at all. You wouldn’t necessarily know that you were in Walt Disney World, save for the Disney store, and the view from your room of Downtown Disney if you had one. If that’s not of any great import to you, it’s not a big deal.

For the business traveler, this is a great option, whether you take advantage of the meeting space, or simply the large in-room desk, free internet and business center – things which a value resort lack.

I think that the Holiday Inn remains a name that travelers and families can trust, and this resort has done an excellent job rebranding and rebuilding itself to bring up their standards to a level that being in the  Downtown Disney® Resort Area and bearing the “Walt Disney World® Hotel” name dictates.

Bottom line: Would I stay there again? Whether it be for a “research trip” to the parks or a vacation with my family, if I’m looking for wonderful, large, new rooms with great amenities on a budget, I’d definitely say yes.


More information:

Holiday Inn Downtown Disney Resort Area
1805 Hotel Plaza Blvd.
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830 USA
Phone: (407) 828-8888
Reservations: (407) 827-4623
Web site: Holiday Inn Downtown Disney Resort Area

9 Responses to "Holiday Inn at Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney Review"

  1. nice article – enjoyed reading this Lou! :)

  2. Bob Thomas says:

    Thanks for the update!
    I had heard one of the reasons they wanted to do such a nice place in Orlando was to get people to utilize other Holiday Inns across the country and gather Priority Club points (their frequent stayer program) and redeem those points in Orlando. Certainly makes me think twice about staying at Holiday Inn on trips…

  3. We’ve been Priority Club members for probably 15 years. We have reservations there for our trip in December. It is nice to have seen such a good review for the property. Thanks, Lou!

  4. Mike Ballard says:

    Great review Lou.

    This was my go to hotel before the hurricanes. (Marriott) The wife and I were wondering if it would ever re-open. They built Test Track faster that this renovation.

    Awesome views of the Disney property if you get a room on the Disney side of the tower. It’s across the street from the Reedy Creek Solar office building and the original WDW Visitor’s Center.(Now home to the “Amateur Athletics Union”)

    Hotel Plaza Blvd. is a great place to stay. It is “On Property”. Walk to Downtown Disney. Free transportation.

    What more could you ask for?

  5. Great review, Lou. Even though I live 15 minutes away, I’ve stayed at the Hilton, Buena Vista Palace and Hotel Royal Plaza when family has been in town and we wanted to stay closer to property. It’s nice this place finally reopened for another hotel option, especially in the summer when prices spike up. Much nicer and a better value than Disney’s Value resorts, especially if you’re not as concerned with Extra Magic Hours.

  6. We’ve been Priority Club members for probably 15 years. We have reservations there for our trip in December. It is nice to have seen such a good review for the property. Thanks, Lou!

  7. We have stayed at the Hilton on Hotel Plaza Blvd. Very nice and pretty standard for a Hilton. The Hilton is the only property on HPB that give you access to extra magical hours and a short walk to Downtown Disney. My tip is to take the bus to the Contemporary and walk over the Magic Kingdom.

    I have also stayed at the Hilton Bonnet Creek, now that was nice. Lazy river, great pools, golf course and a Waldorf Astoria tower. I stayed there for only $89 one Friday night in February. I would stay there again when we are out of DVC points for the year.

  8. All of the Downtown Disney area hotels are SUCH a great value! After I discovered them I haven’t been back to a Disney hotel. They are a step up from the values and usually a lot cheaper. You can use the Link 111 Bus to get to the hotel from MCO for $2. So magical express isn’t really that much of an issue. Great article Lou, I bet it will be valuable for a lot of people! Another great Disney secret :)

  9. Overall DTD and the Disney area hotels just provide so much more for the price.

    As a solo female traveler one feature Lou did not mention that can be important is the interior corridors. Disney mods, values (and some deluxes) leave this important feature out. Criminals vacation too and some jerks know that tourists hot spots are where the “goodies” are!

Leave a Reply