A quiet, luxurious contrast to Orlando's busy theme-park and business hotels
The JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes
This is an impressive hotel, but not only because shares all its features with the adjoining Ritz-Carlton. The JW, Marriott's most upscale brand, has always been a step or two behind in the world of luxury hotels, but this is not the case with this massive, 1,057-room resort. With its beautiful marble lobby, large (and very comfortable) guest rooms, enormous lazy-river pool, and fine-dining restaurant from a James-Beard-Award-winning chef, this JW is one of Orlando's best resorts in its own right. And getting to the massive spa and the 18-hole golf course (technically, on the Ritz side of the Grande Lakes property) only takes a five-minute walk through a bright, indoor corridor or along a paved path beside the Greg-Norman-designed fairways. Both properties were renovated in 2011, with rooms receiving even more luxe updates, including a tiled entryway.
And unlike the towering, hyper-dense business hotels of International Drive or the themed-out, rugrat-packed properties at Disney or Universal Studios, the JW Marriott Grande Lakes is a calmer, more self-contained mega-resort. It's about a 15-minute drive from the Disney or Universal theme parks, but its full stock of on-site features keep many guests on the property for the duration of their stay. The on-site convention center draws a great deal of group traffic, but a hefty contingent of family vacationers keeps the vibe mellow and fun. Here, quiet relaxation takes priority over business-trip hustle and theme-park bustle.
Despite slight differences in the rooms -- only some have balconies, and none have iPod docks -- the JW Marriott is virtually identical to the Ritz. Choosing between them is easy: Book at the cheaper of the two.
The scope of JW's services covers the necessary (porter service) to nice flourishes (nightly turndowns). And the staff is remarkably friendly -- they always offered to help me with bags, directions, or restaurant recommendations, each time with a smile.
Like the Ritz-Carlton to which it adjoins, the JW Marriott sits on the sprawling Grande Lakes resort property, bordered by two four-lane parkways and suburban-style residences. On the property, there's a golf course, lots of open space, and -- you guessed it -- lakes. It's all very peaceful and even a little naturalistic, which is uncharacteristic for Orlando. Still, there really isn't anything to do nearby, so you need to drive to get to anything worthwhile off-site.
Five-minute drive to International Drive, a 14.5-mile road parallel to Interstate 4 that's chock-full of hotels, strip malls, outlet shops, and restaurants. In the middle of this stretch is the Orange County Convention Center, the second largest convention center in the U.S.
Five- to 10-minute drive to Universal Studios theme parks
10-minute drive to SeaWorld Orlando
12-minute drive to Orlando International Airport
20-minute drive to Disney theme parks
20-minute drive to downtown Orlando. There's not much to see downtown, though Orange Avenue has a notable dining and nightlife scene, and non-theme-park attractions like the Orlando Science Center and Harry P. Leu Gardens are popular among tourists.
One-hour-and-15-minute drive to Kennedy Space Center
Comfortable, spacious, and high tech -- the Ritz has a few better touches, but the difference is minimal.
A Standard Room
Wonderfully soft beds, all-marble bathrooms, floor-to-ceiling glass windows, high-tech appliances, and space -- lots of space -- make the rooms at the JW Marriott a significant step up from similarly priced hotels elsewhere. Compared to the Ritz, the size of the rooms and the in-room comforts are about the same, though a room at the Ritz comes with an iPod-docking radio (rather than a CD player) and Bulgari toiletries (rather than less notable Nirvae bath products).
Stocked minibar with a handy cocktail-making manual
37-inch flat-screen TV with 57 channels (including HBO HD) and pay-per-view movies; Video games, CD Jukebox/Radio Interactive ($10 for two hours, just so you can listen to music on the TV), and Internet TV accessible through the keyboard
No Wi-Fi; per day fee for hard-wired Internet, which includes unlimited local and domestic long-distance calls
Small game room with six, coin-operated arcade games and air hockey
Surrey bikes (four-wheeled bikes that seat four) with kids seats attached, available for 30 minute rentails; mountain bikes also available, scenic routes are a 25-minute ride away.
Shops sell snacks, convenience items, gifts, resort apparel and local guide books.
70,000 square feet of meeting space
Massive, streaming, lazy-river pool, plus a smaller (less "windy") pool on the Ritz's property
The entrance to the lazy-river pool
Holding 900,000 gallons of water, the hotel's lazy-river pool can accommodate 1,562 people at one time. A canopy of trees dips towards the winding river, which opens up to two bays, one with a zero-entry entrance and a sandy shore. But if you prefer a pool that doesn't draw its inspiration from The Jungle Book, JW guests have free access to the elegant pool at the adjoining Ritz-Carlton resort.
Cabanas, cushioned lounge chairs, and free floaty rafts available at both pools
It might be part of the Ritz-Carlton, technically, but guests have free easy access to an excellent spa.
Guests of the JW Marriott can easily walk to the massive, 40,000 square foot Ritz-Carlton spa. In true Floridian spirit, the spa emphasizes citrus-based treatments, and even has a full-time "Citrus Consultant" on staff. Specialty treatments include Tuscan Citrus Cure and the Ionithermie Cellulite and Toning Program. The spa building also houses a lap pool, a beautiful fitness center, and a sauna and steam room.
This challenging, 18-hole course winds through the woods, lakes, and wildlife that surrounds the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton properties. Golf Digest rated it as one of the top courses in Florida in 2006.
18-hole, 7,122 yards, par 72; designed by golf great Greg Norman
Driving range, practice putting green, 55,000-square-foot practice tee, 16,000-square-foot teaching tee; full-size bunker and short-game area
Calloway and Taylor Made clubs and FootJoy shoes available for rent
Reduced green fee for hotel guests, which includes golf cart rental and use of the driving range (rediced twilight rate after 2 p.m.)
Lots of family-friendly amenities, though it's not connected to a theme park
The game room
On its own terms, the JW is incredibly family-friendly. It's of a different level, of course, than some Disney and Universal Studios hotels, where kids can get a wake-up call from their favorite movie character, but it is still an excellent choice for families looking for a little more luxury from their Orlando vacation.
While the JW has the better pool, the adjoining Ritz-Carlton does have a couple extra features that the JW doesn't have: a kids' check-in desk that provides its junior guests with a welcome kit, and Kids' Suites, which have kid-size furniture, games, toys, and kids' robes and bath products.
Standard rooms can include two double beds; rollaway beds are charged per night and cribs are free.
Concierge can arrange 24-hour babysitting services through a separate company with 24 hours' notice.
Kids' menus available for in-room dining as well as at the Citron and Quench restaurants
JW guests can enrool their kids in the Ritz Kids day camp, which offers supervised activities like swimming, tennis, golf, arts and crafts as well as video games and movies; "Kids' Night Out" evening care, which includes dinner
Arts and crafts activities include tie-dye T-shirt making and building electronic race cars. Some activities, however, cost extra.
Free outdoor family-appropriate film sceenings every Saturday evening
Specialized kids' treatments available at the spa
Free golf for kids, with each paying adult; golf etiquette class for kids ages five to 12
All rooms received new furniture and carpets in 2010.
Four restaurants, including one helmed by a James-Beard-Award-winning chef
Dinner at Citron
There's good dining variety at the JW -- a fine-dining Italian restaurant; a sushi bar; a poolside grill; and a brasserie with New American cuisine. Once you've tried all of these, you can always head next door to the Ritz, which has several other upscale options.
Helmed by James-Beard-Award-winning-chef Melissa Kelly, Primo is an Italian restaurant (open for dinner only) with a menu focused on fresh, local ingredients (some of which are grown on-site, in the restaurant's organic garden).
Citron is a charming brasserie (i.e., a casual restaurant) that features American standards with a twist, like an egg salad with arugula on brioche, and meatloaf with tomato jam spread on foccacia