“Our main goal is for all of our guests to feel comfortable and welcome at our hotel, and that certainly includes our LGBT travelers,” says Ron Reinhold, director of sales and marketing at the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld. “Orlando is well known as a family-friendly market, with all sorts of magic to discover and fabulous dining and shopping. As a member of the community myself, I’m proud to say that our hotel team understands well that the term ‘family’ has a much broader and deeper meaning now than ever before. However your family looks and feels, we want you to feel welcome, relaxed and at home.”

Reinhold’s invitation is evidence of a sea change in central Florida.

“Hotels associated with the theme parks as well as the higher-end downtown properties have long trained staff to be accommodating to LGBT guests,” says Paul Queen, co-founder of the Orlando and Central Florida LGBT Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“But, in recent years, many more hotels have become gay-welcoming. Today nearly 40 hotels, from small boutiques to mega-resorts, provide quality, respectful service to the LGBT traveler.”

Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld

Combined with the property’s spectacular accommodations and amenities, the rainbow welcome mat that Reinhold rolls out makes his hotel an irresistible hub. While modern hotels are designed to maximize revenue from every square foot, the Renaissance has a massive, airy central atrium that makes for great sightlines.

The hotel’s spa, Neu Lotus, has an extensive menu of services and relaxing facilities before and after a treatment; the perfect antidote to exhaustion from ‘theme parking.’ And the hotel holds a distinct local feel despite its corporate roots. Breakfast menu items such as the fried green tomato eggs benedict and the Florida orange soufflé pancakes embrace local cuisine and ingredients. And the hotel’s Pride and Joy Couples Package includes champagne on arrival, breakfast, a spa discount and late check-out to recover from the city’s nightlife.

“It’s nice to be really close to the heartbeat of the energy,” adds Reinhold, noting the hotel’s location across the street from SeaWorld and equidistant between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort.

Aloft Orlando Downtown

That heartbeat which Reinhold refers is beginning to shift slightly northeast from ‘theme park central’ to the traditionally-sleepy downtown. The Aloft Orlando Downtown opened last year across from the recently-opened Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, a palatial theatre that signals the city’s emerging cultural scene.

The Aloft occupies the former utilities commission headquarters built in 1968. Since the adaptive reuse and repurpose, the edgy hotel boasts 118 rooms, half of which are spacious suites with a separate office and sitting area. Original terrazzo flooring, marble accents and wood panelling throughout parts of the hotel exude a Mad Men feel.

“There is a huge draw from the LGBT market mainly given the design elements,” says Ricardo Echeverri, Aloft’s director, sales and marketing. “They love the clean look and ambiance of bright colours.” Echeverri says the hotel has already hosted a couple gay weddings this year with the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress

From the brightly-coloured macaws in the lobby to the paddleboats peddling across the adjacent Lake Windsong, The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is a special spot. The pyramid shaped hotel is an ideal LGBT-friendly resort conveniently situated next door to Walt Disney World without making you feel like a member of Mickey’s troupe. “We hear from so many guests that they enjoy the central location, but the feeling of being ‘a million miles’ away,” says hotel publicist Laura Richeson. “The resort is private offering a tranquil feeling with plenty of activities when you want to be energized and plenty of quiet nooks when you want to unplug.” Unplugging is easy at the hotel’s restaurant, spa or becoming a mermaid at the lagoon pool.

Cascades restaurant serves up impressive dishes using locally-grown ingredients, amidst the soothing sounds of a waterfall fountain in an airy two-story atrium. The Marilyn Monroe spa is a cozy, open-concept space that “consistently fulfills our clients’ desire to get polished and stay polished in a fun, social and glamorous environment,” says manager Lisa Gueorguiev.

And if you’ve ever dreamt of becoming a mermaid or merman, the hotel can help make that come true. Instructors are on hand to guide water games and dolphin dives for guests outfitted with a custom mermaid tail. “We have guests as young as four years old learning to work their tails in just a few minutes,” says Joe O'Rourke of The Mermaid Academy.

Meliá Orlando Suite Hotel

For families on a budget but with an appetite for style, the Meliá Orlando Suite Hotel at Celebration in Kissimmee hits the spot without hitting the wallet. The circular-shaped hotel wraps around a large horseshoe pool. And with poolside palm trees and the property’s pastel exteriors, the Meliá evokes a South Beach feel despite the nearby I-4 freeway and backdrop of corporate towers on Celebration Place. But never mind that because exciting for Disney die-hards is the fun fact that the Disney Institute – the company’s professional development arm – occupies one of the buildings.

Inside the hotel, rooms feature impressive kitchens and the corridors throughout the Meliá feature large impressionist murals atypical of a property looking to reduce costs for a lower room rate.

Especially beneficial about the Meliá is its location in Celebration and proximity to the charming town centre. Celebration was created by the Walt Disney Company as the model American home town and a visit is well worth it. Picket fences, porch swings and manicured lawns impress passers-by. Shops, cafes, and boutique hotels, many with views of the man-made Lake Rianhard, are filled with both busy residents and curious tourists.

Orlando’s Taste Buds hit the Front Burner

The same Orlando reputation for being all family friendly and borderline tacky that overpowers exceptional LGBT-friendly hotels also overshadows the city’s food scene. And it may surprise visitors that the culinary awaking in Orlando – on the perimeter of the Bible belt – is partly the result of its queer chefs.

K Restaurant

Chef Kevin Fonzo, of K Restaurant, attributes the surge of Central Florida’s food scene to locally-sourced ingredients that were previously only an export commodity. “We’ve begun to hold back some of our beef, fruits and seafood,” he says. “And I’m much more mindful of what’s in season.”

Fonzo’s vast backyard provides seasonal produce, herbs and edible flowers which add zest to the restaurant’s creative and diverse dishes. Locally-sourced and garden-fresh ingredients are combined to create the two dozen items on K’s dinner menu, which emphasizes simplicity and flavour. Accordingly, the menu changes daily.

“I think it’s important to appeal to people, both local and international, as a neighbourhood restaurant and not get carried away with too many unnecessary distractions or an inauthentic menu,” he says.

The service at K is equally impressive. Attentive. Insightful. Charming. And ask to be seated in Rocky Mazza’s section. The former New Yorker relieves Fonzo of having to invest in musical or comedic entertainers. Combined with his wine and culinary knowledge, the waiter’s choruses, punchlines and playfulness keep patrons amused.

Pom Pom's Teahouse and Sandwicheria 

Pom Moongauklang recalls the uproar her menu caused when she opened Pom Pom's Teahouse and Sandwicheria in 2005. “No one was using watercress or brie in their sandwiches around here,” Moongauklang reflects. “I had fights with people who wanted American cheese.”

Today, the Nobu-trained chef estimates that most of her staff members are queer, and a diverse crowd flocks to Pom Pom’s for gourmet pressed sandwiches and fusion iced teas. “I see DJs sitting next to commissioners and construction workers sitting next to entertainers,” she says. They come at traditional mealtimes or whenever the craving hits – Pom Pom’s is open around the clock Friday through Sunday. “On a Saturday night, this place is rocking,” Moongauklang says, surveying the 860-square-foot eatery.

“Picking a favourite tea or sandwich is like picking a favourite child,” she says but admits her bestsellers are the blueberry-lavender tea and the Thanksgiving sandwich. The holiday-inspired decadence features turkey breast, stuffing, cream cheese and cranberry sauce pressed between slices of pumpernickel and served with a side of gravy for dipping.

Blue Bird Bake Shop

Moongauklang gave Jeff Lambert and Joel Pfrogner their big break in 2008 when she began carrying their cupcakes – vanilla, chocolate and strawberry – made lovingly from their home kitchen. Today, the couple are celebrating Blue Bird Bake Shop’s fifth anniversary and sell feature over 60 flavours of cupcakes as well as brownies, pies, cookies and scones. The key to their success? Freshness. “When things are made from scratch you can taste that little bit extra that goes into it,” says Pfrogner. “And it’s all fresh so when we’re out, we’re out,” says Lambert of the day’s selections.

Packed with fresh ingredients – the strawberry cupcakes for example use real strawberries to achieve the flavour – there are no preservatives in the bakery’s kitchen.

“Our items are made for that day so you will want to eat them the day of purchase or the day after, tops,” says Lambert. The short shelf life is hardly a problem however since their irresistibility means they won’t linger long in your hotel bar fridge.

The couple has found that their sexual orientation has helped draw customers among the local gay community and beyond. “When we opened, a lot of the community supported us and now that’s along with the moms from the park and the Winter Park ladies,” says Lambert. “It is a bit of a melting pot here and we like that a lot.”

But, given the burgeoning food scene that is taking hold across the city, it would be a mistake to dine exclusively at Orlando’s rainbow kitchens.

Capa

Perched on the top floor of the spectacular new Four Seasons Resort Orlando, Capa is changing the perception of dining at Walt Disney World one gourmet tapas dish at a time.

“The backlash of the established corporate theme parks in Orlando is the reputation that Orlando is all chain restaurants,” explains executive chef Tim Dacey. “People have seen and been to these restaurants for years and years and years and they wanted something different.”

And different, they got; Orlandians and visitors alike. Capa is a Spanish-style steakhouse which even Dacey admits is an odd mashup.

“The challenge is to make these two concepts into one concept,” he says. “But it’s a concept I’m really passionate about.” The seasonal menu is evidence of Dacey’s enthusiasm. Innovative tapas dishes of octopus, pork belly, duck and Wagyu beef are standouts.

“I was worried with all the tapas options that the steak wouldn’t sell but the steak is selling really well,” Dacey says of his grilled options which include a filet, strip loin and porterhouse.

Dacey’s dining room servers are as expert and sophisticated as their chic all-black uniforms that include long bistro aprons. “Service is key because many people who stay here want to do Disney but without all the misery,” says Dacey. “So they come here and we can see the stress go away during their meal and they can relax.”

Capa also offers dessert with a view. The rooftop patio overlooks the sprawling Walt Disney World property. This makes it the ideal vantage point to take in the duelling firework displays at Magic Kingdom and Epcot while dunking your churro into chocolate sauce.

American Q

Great food on the Disney compound isn’t all fine crystal and white linens. Barbeque is the order of the day at American Q, the restaurant at the brand-new B Resort & Spa. When it comes to grilled or smoked meat, these folks do not mess around – right down to the condiments! “Picking your barbeque sauce is like pairing wine,” says my server, James, of the four sauces that are made in house. “It’s a bit of an art.”

The barbeque buffet is the chef’s choice without question. “It’s hard to go wrong with any of our barbecued cuts,” says sous chef Victor Maya of a menu that includes smoked brisket, house made sausage and baby back ribs. The young chef is delighted to be part of a changing food scene in a city defined by fast food. “It’s a shame that the city is often known for the chicken fingers and garbage you can find in the theme parks because the hotels close by are real diamonds in terms of the quality of food and service.”

The fixin’s, uniquely served on a cherry red 1951 Ford F1 pickup truck repurposed as a hot buffet, are equally impressive. It’s hard to leave room for the cuts of beef with endless fresh corn on the cob, tangy baked beans, sweet corn bread and rich macaroni & cheese.

Christner’s Prime Steak & Lobster

The only feminine touch at Christner’s – with its dark wood panelling, burgundy leather seating and Frank Sinatra tunes – is owner Carole Christner herself. The décor and ambiance of Orlando’s steakhouse institution has been consistent for decades.

The menu is largely unchanged since Christner and her late husband opened the restaurant under another name in 1993. The expansive steakhouse includes four private rooms with televisions that seat up to six people. Available on a first come, first served basis and with no room charge, manager Zoli Davis says “It’s common to see a family watching cartoons in one room and a business meeting in the next,” indicating the restaurant’s diverse patrons.

Must-orders beyond a perfectly-grilled steak, include the refreshingly-chilled iceberg lettuce salad with housemade croutons and tangy vinaigrette and signature mandarin orange cake: a ginormous wedge of layered yellow cake with orange and pineapple icing served with a side of orange sauce and vanilla ice cream. The decadent desert will convert even the most citrus resistant.


HOSPITALITY ORLANDO
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