Private accommodations, family reunions and upgraded experiences are among the top travel trends to emerge out of the COVID-19 pandemic – and Kissimmee, Florida, specializes in all of these things, and more.
Kissimmee, located in Florida's Osceola County, just south of Orlando, is what the city’s tourism authority calls the “Vacation Home Capital of World” – a title that has benefited the family-friendly destination as more visitors seek out customized and controlled experiences in less-crowded spaces.
“One of the things that happened during the pandemic is that, domestically, people discovered vacation homes,” DT Minich, president and CEO of Experience Kissimmee, told PAX in a recent interview. “That was 85 per cent of business during the pandemic.”
Kissimmee has a lot of inventory on this front – some 60,000 vacation home rentals to choose from, in fact.
These professionally-managed properties have the amenities of a high-end home: swimming pools, fully-equipped kitchens (indoors and out), washers, dryers, BBQs and, in some models, in-house arcades, bowling alleys, golf simulators and home theatres.
“You don’t have to walk through busy lobbies and have your kids in pools with a hundred other kids,” Minich said. “People have really latched onto the vacation home product.”
In a world of social distancing and heightened hygiene awareness, personal space can go a long way with families looking to book a getaway on their own terms.
“These homes have all been built in the last few years,” Minich said. “And you don’t need to come in contact with anyone.”
A booming market
But Kissimmee’s vacation home scene isn’t a new phenomenon. The market was already booming, pre-pandemic.
Over the years, starting from roughly 2014, inventory skyrocketed from 6,000 to 60,000 as investors broke ground on new, modern neighbourhoods, designed exclusively for visitors, building homes that can have anywhere between three to 18 (yes, 18) bedrooms.
Encore, Solara, Magic Village, Jeeves and Reunion are just some of many brands leading the rental scene in Kissimmee, which is located just minutes away from some of Florida’s most popular attractions, such as Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment and Legoland Florida Resort.
Many complexes have on-site housekeeping, restaurants, bars, spas and booking desks for local attractions.
It can be a concierge-style experience, too – Jeeves, for instance, takes client requests, such as pre-stocking the house with groceries before check-in day or having a rental car, ready to go in the driveway, on arrival.
Some neighbourhoods even offer free shuttle services to Kissimmee’s outlet malls and attractions.
Getting the family back together
This format is working well for families, after more than a year of cancelling holidays and get-togethers due to pandemic-related restrictions, looking to reunite.
“Many families haven’t been together for two Christmases,” Minich said, noting how homes are being booked well in advance in time for the winter 2021/2022 season.
What’s more is that, in true “revenge travel” style, guests are scooping up the higher-end homes at a never-before-seen rate.
“People are saying: ‘I haven’t had a vacation in 15-16 months, I haven’t spent money on going out to eat,’ so when it comes to a vacation, they’re treating themselves,” Minich said.
Luxury inventory, in many cases, is selling out before the economy options, Minich noted.
Upgrades & expansion
Kissimmee didn’t stay quiet during the pandemic – upgrades, refurbishments and the construction of new hotels and amenities carried on.
The latest updates from Kissimmee were recently shared with trade partners at a virtual FAM that ran last week from June 21-23.
“We’ve had three new restaurants open in the last couple months just in Margaritaville alone,” Minich said.
The Jimmy Buffet-inspired Margaritaville Resort, which offers upscale rooms and private residences called Margaritaville Cottages, opened in 2019 – and it’s still expanding with soon-to-come one to three-bedroom villas.
The Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center, for one, “added a whole new wing of rooms,” increasing its inventory to 1,200 units, Minich said.
“A lot of resorts used this quiet time to upgrade, renovate and do new things,” he said.
The Gaylord actually opened a new water attraction in February at Cypress Springs Water Park called “Crystal River Rapids” as part of a USD$158 million expansion project.
It’s like a lazy river, but faster, propelling guests three-and-a-half feet per second over speeding currents and past waterfalls and limestone walls.
New Kempinski and Nickelodeon hotels are also coming soon to the region.
“In central Florida, we have to reinvent ourselves every couple of years so people come back and have new experiences,” Minich explained. “That reinventing has not stopped.”
Something for everyone
The phrase “there’s something for everyone” truly applies in Kissimmee, which boasts a range of activities, from amusement parks to world-class golf courses to shopping malls to dinner theatres to nature-focused experiences, such as zip-lining parks, airboat rides and zoos.
Wild Florida Airboats and Gator Park, located on the headwaters of the Florida Everglades, known for its airboat tours into local swamps, has a relatively-new drive-through safari park that lets guests drive their cars through a parkland of more than 100 exotic animals, such as wild boar, white-tailed deer and zebras.
“It’s been very popular during the pandemic because you can stay in your car,” Minich said.
Nearby Walt Disney World Resort also continues to expand its Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge theme park and is getting ready to open Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure on Oct. 1 at EPCOT in honour of its 50th anniversary.
That birthday celebration, by the way, is an 18-month-long event and will feature new experiences at the resort’s four theme parks and beyond.
“We already have solid bookings for the week of Oct. 1 for people who want to come out and experience the event – hard-core Disney fans who want to be the first,” Minich said.
“The World’s Most Magical Celebration,” as Disney is calling it, will be “very nostalgic” for guests, said Minich, sharing his own childhood memory of watching the opening of Walt Disney World Resort on a “big old-fashioned TV” while growing up in Hinton, Alberta.
“People who were there as kids when it first opened are going to be bringing their grandkids,” he said. “It’s just what we need right now after all of this craziness.”
Anxious to welcome back Canadians
With exception to some local Mom-and-Pop shops, most businesses in Kissimmee have bounced back from the pandemic unscathed, Minich said.
Local life, in many ways, has returned to normal with a heightened sense of awareness around health and safety.
“Even though things are relaxing and people aren’t having to wear mask as much, people are still conscious of cleanliness and germs,” Minich said, noting how all local attractions have reopened.
Some venues require masks if you’re not vaccinated, he said, and at restaurants, you can eat both inside and outside.
“We’re still being cautious,” Minich said, noting how more travel companies are assigning Chief Medical Officers to advise on health and safety.
Universal Orlando, earlier this month, announced that it will now operate at 100 per cent capacity and Walt Disney World Resort, starting July 1, will reinstate its nightly fireworks performances at Magic Kingdom Park and EPCOT.
Due to global travel restrictions, Kissimmee, currently, is primarily serving the domestic market.
However: “We’re very hopeful that things are moving in a positive direction in Canada,” Minich said.
With the easing of quarantine restrictions for fully vaccinated Canadians starting in July, and with more changes expected this summer (particularly in regards to vaccinating and easing quarantine for young children), there are “good opportunities” for Canadians to visit Kissimmee this fall and winter, Minich said.
“When Canadians come back, they’re going to see that things are pretty much back to normal and that things are operating the way they should be,” he said.
“We’re just really anxious to get our Canadians friends back here…the Canadian market is extremely important to us.”
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