Orange Lake Resort prospers into a sprawling golf destination next to Mickey Mouse in Kissimmee, Florida

By Jason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The buildings overwhelm any first impressions at Orange Lake Resort.

Orange Lake Resort - Legends golf course - 10th
This dangerous approach at no. 10 jump-starts a super back nine on Orange Lake Resort's Legends.
Orange Lake Resort - Legends golf course - 10thOrange Lake Resorts - poolOrange Lake Resort - The Reserve GC - hole 5

There are condos. And villas. And high-rises. Others look like typical Florida homes.

In all, 2,478 villas comprise this massive timeshare vacation zone, all a part of the Holiday Inn Club Vacations network. First-timers can get lost trying to find their specific unit in the four distinct villages that have been developed since 1982.

Nature might not take center stage upon the drive to the accommodations, but don't fret, it's there. Tucked into the resort's 1,450 acres are four golf courses -- two championship 18-hole loops and two nine-hole executive courses -- and an 80-acre lake with a beach and water sports. There are also seven pools, lazy rivers, three arcades, two fitness centers, putt-putt golf, nine restaurants and bars, and tennis, basketball and racquetball courts, and an array of activities, too.

"My favorite vacation is to come down here and never leave the resort," said Mike Minnich, a Virginia resident who has been part of the timeshare program since 1989. "You don't have any trouble finding stuff to do."

Many families stay at Orange Lake Resort for easy access to nearby Walt Disney World. It's more affordable to stay at Orange Lake than Disney, and the full kitchens help keep food costs down. Savvy travelers save even more by not renting a car, relying instead on shuttles to the airport and Disney and around the resort.

David Hitchcock, of New Brunswick, Canada, and 16 family members spent a week on property over the Christmas holiday. He said his grandchildren "haven't even mentioned the theme parks."

"They just hit the pools all day," he said.

Golf at Orange Lake Resort

Golf is the backbone of Orange Lake Resort's recreation. The Legends Course, by Arnold Palmer, is one of Orlando's better resort tracks. It starts off slow, allowing snow birds to shake off their winter rust. Palmer then turns up the volume with a back nine of heroic shots.

The fairways remain wide and gently rolling throughout the 7,072-yard design, which opened in 1998. It's the rock-ledge ponds on eight of the final 10 holes that make scoring so tough. Even long drives are wasted if irons end up rinsed in water.

The par-71 Reserve Course, redesigned by Michael Dasher in 2005, plays much shorter at 6,505 yards. Ponds do add character to several holes, notably the tee shot on the par-5 fourth hole, the par-3 fifth hole and the approach at No. 16, a demanding par 4. Hitchcock said the Reserve isn't as well maintained as The Legends, although Minnich regularly chooses The Reserve for its value and the playability factor.

"It's usually a little quieter. There are not as many people," Minnich said. "The Legends can be a bear. This is more relaxed."

Crane's Bend, a 1,901-yard, executive, par-30 course with six par 3s and three par 4s, actually boasts one of the best holes on property, an island green par 3. Legends Walk, a 1,581-yard nine-hole walking course, is lighted for night-time play. Both are perfect for families, juniors and beginners.

My wife and daughter don't play golf, but they had a blast playing alongside my son and I at night on Legends Walk. Hitchcock and his grandsons played in a five-some without the hassles of a conventional course.

"The kids enjoyed it," he said. "One grandson had new clubs. Another one, who is 8, had never been on a course before. They all scored well with some creative scoring."

Restaurants at Orange Lake Resort

Orange Lake Resort isn't like most major hotels with a signature high-end dining experience. All of the nine restaurants and bars on property offer a relaxed, family friendly vibe. The River Island Grilling Company serves the best food.

My family ate at the Legacy Sports Bar and Grille inside The Legends' clubhouse. TVs were everywhere (check if there is trivia or live music the night you visit), and the food was perfectly good for all ages. The Tradewinds Bar & Grill, next to an incredible lazy river and pool complex in the River Island village, looked fun and inviting for appetizers and cocktails. The Paisan Pizzeria is located in the North village, and Anchors specializes in fast foods such as chicken fingers and hamburgers.

"The eating spots are great," Hitchcock said. "I've come down since 2002, so I've eaten at all the food places. They are all good and with good prices."

Minnich marvels at all the development outside of Orange Lake Resort in recent years that complements the resort -- the Publix and the restaurants such as Bahama Breeze, Logan's Roadhouse, Miller's Ale House and more.

"The thing (about staying here) is the variety," he said. "You can do anything. Just sunbathe for a week. You do not need a car here. Just the convenience is great."

Jason Scott DeeganJason Scott Deegan, Senior Staff Writer

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 700 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Twitter at @WorldGolfer.

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