Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Why should Disney-bound families stay in Kissimmee, Florida?
Yinglu Tian, director of international and domestic sales at Experience Kissimmee, has a simple answer to that question: “It is really, really convenient.”
“Every accommodation is a very short drive to Disney World,” Tian said, speaking to PAX last month during a FAM trip in Kissimmee, where the tourism board, alongside Air Canada and Air Canada Vacations, hosted Canadian travel advisors from Sept. 5-9.
Not just a short drive to Walt Disney World Resort.
Kissimmee, which was the original gateway to Disney’s Magic Kingdom back when the park opened in 1971, is on the doorstep of several major theme parks in Florida, including Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Legoland Resort, and others.
From Kissimmee, which is located in Florida's Osceola County, just south of Orlando, the car ride to Walt Disney World Resort is under 10 minutes (depending on traffic). Universal Orlando Resort is roughly 25 minutes away.
But the comfort and convenience of Kissimmee isn't defined solely by its close proximity to theme parks.
READ MORE: Agents unlock vacation homes, theme parks with Experience Kissimmee, Air Canada & ACV
What’s driving bookings is a booming vacation home market.
Made for visitors
Kissimmee’s some 60,000 rentable homes exist in “purpose-built” communities – suburban-like, gated neighbourhoods designed exclusively for visitors. Families especially.
The furnished homes, which can range anywhere from three to four-bedrooms to “mansions” with upwards of 18 bedrooms, come with fully-equipped kitchens, private pools and barbecues.
The higher end categories may include private bowling alleys, movie theatres, arcade rooms and themed bedrooms (like Star Wars) for the kids (or adults).
Location and convenience is a key selling point: many of Kissimmee’s vacation homes are built on golf courses and offer the amenities of a resort, such as a central pool and/or water park, restaurants and concierge desk.
Some neighbourhoods offer free shuttle service to theme parks and most homes come with audio/video fixings, making them suitable venues for corporate groups, too.
All of this translates into a significant value proposition, Tian explained.
It can be cheaper for a family to stay in a spacious three or four-bedroom home for roughly $300 to $400 (USD) a night (depending on the season) instead of a traditional (and much smaller) hotel room.
“But you also have to consider the cost of dining out every day,” Tian said. “In a home, you can get groceries and make easy, affordable meals.”
This allows visitors to “put dollars towards the experience” versus meals at restaurants, she said.
The “Vacation Home Capital of the World"
How did Kissimmee become the “Vacation Home Capital of the World?”
Tian says the local phenomenon was born out of two markets: Brits and Brazilians.
In the years leading up to 2014 (the year when Kissimmee’s vacation home inventory took off), many British visitors were staying in Central Florida for longer than a week, creating a demand for more beds and space, Tian said.
Brazilians, meanwhile, led the multi-generational market, with groups arriving in Florida with “20 people and their nanny.”
“Having a house to themselves was more affordable,” Tian said.
So the demand was there, and after years of expansion, vacation homes now make up more than 60 per cent of Kissimmee’s room inventory, Tian said.
And the COVID-19 pandemic only boosted the market's desire to vacation in a private space – away from crowds – or work remotely in a setting where Mom and Dad have their own office, and where a work-life balance is embraced.
“We saw a big spike during the pandemic,” Tian said. “[With vacation homes], you don't have to share a lobby, or a gym, or a pool."
Agents open doors
Unlike most Airbnb rentals, Kissimmee’s vacation homes are professionally managed and come with housekeeping, security, and grocery delivery services.
They’re also bookable and commissionable to travel advisors.
This is something PAX, alongside Canadian agents, learned last month while staying in a spacious eight-bedroom home at “Encore at Reunion,” one of several Kissimmee-based rental communities.
Located minutes away from Walt Disney World Resort, Encore has the comforts of a home (like private bedrooms, living/TV rooms, ready-to-use kitchens and private pools) with the amenities of a resort.
At the centre of this 800-home compound – which is so manicured it could pass as a movie set – there’s a club house, main pool (with waterslides), a restaurant, bar, gym and concierge desk.
Encore also offers free shuttle rides to major theme parks, eliminating the need to rent a car.
But it’s just one of many rental neighbourhoods in Kissimmee. Agents, last month, were able to see a range of homes that are available to rent in Kissimmee.
Solara is another spot where Global Resort Homes offers rentals, from two-bedroom condos to luxurious nine-bedroom houses with numerous bathrooms, modern kitchens, family-ready living areas, games rooms and private screened-in pools and spas.
Margaritaville Resort Orlando and Cottages has also tapped into the vacation home trend.
The Jimmy Buffett franchise, where island and parrot imagery rules (and embracing a “flip-flop state of mind” is encouraged), created more than 300 lime, blue, peach and aqua-painted cottages.
Think of these as premium, standalone homes – reminiscent of the colourful buildings seen along the shoreline of Willemstad, Curaçao – built in an island paradise.
The cottages (many of which come with private pools) range from one to eight bedrooms, providing guests with peace and privacy for unplugging in a lush setting.
Cottage guests can still access the amenities of the main resort, which features two towers (totalling 235 suites) and other on-site comforts, such as lagoon-style pools, three restaurants, a sandy “beach,” the St. Somewhere Spa and complimentary shuttle service to nearby parks.
The property is also right beside Island H20 water park, where families can get their splash on.
For a condo-like experience, there’s Spectrum, a resort with modern and chrome-toned units that range from three to five bedrooms in a luxury setting.
Accommodations at this upscale property (which is brand new) may look like apartments from the outside, but inside, the units are chic, bright, multi-level and built for everyday family living.
Spectrum, too, comes with luxurious on-site amenities, from a waterpark to a state-of-the-art fitness centre, and all guests have access to the club house at Encore.
Further up the luxury scale is The Bear’s Den Resort, where Kissimmee’s “mansion” segment is found.
Here, Jack Nicklaus-branded homes with sparkling pools range from four to eight bedrooms and offer access to on-site features, like a waterpark (with lazy river), a restaurant, tennis/pickleball courts and spa services.
The spacious homes at the Bear’s Den overlook a lavishly-green golf course (there’s three PGA courses nearby).
Equally appealing are the townhouses at Eagle Trace, which flanks the 18th fairway of a Jack Nicklaus golf course and comes with open floor plans, large windows, a resort pool and other hotel-like amenities.
All of these neighbourhoods, which are pet friendly, fall under the Rentyl Resorts banner, and each brand has its own unique vibe and personality.
Hotels for all budgets
But Kissimmee isn’t limited to just vacation homes. The city offers a range of traditional hotels, too, for all budgets.
Comfort Inn Maingate, located two kilometres from Walt Disney World Resort, is a popular choice for many Canadian families.
It serves a hot buffet breakfast and has complimentary shuttle service to the major theme parks, which saves time and money.
At Walt Disney World Resort itself, there’s the vibrant “All-Star” value resorts.
The playful hotels have different themes (sports, music and movies), and all three are situated on the southern portion of Walt Disney World (the only portion of Disney located in Osceola County).
Each property, which is slightly lower in price compared to other Disney-branded hotels, feels like a vibrant pop-up book with fun oversized elements reflective of each hotel theme.
Disney's All-Star Sports, for example, has giant football helmets connecting each building, while the music property has a pool in the shape of a giant guitar (with the Three Caballeros propped in the centre).
Families are the target market – at Disney's All-Star Music Resort, for example, some suites come with murphy beds so there’s room for everyone to move and sleep.
Another option is Meliã Orlando Celebration, a “Walt Disney World Good Neighbour Hotel” in quaint Celebration, a Pleasantville-like community, beside Disney World, that was originally developed by The Walt Disney Company.
This hotel has spacious units with homey features, like fully-equipped kitchens and oversized bathrooms.
It’s pet friendly and has a large main pool, meeting spaces, outdoor activities, shuttle service to theme parks and access to the neighbouring 18-hole Celebration Golf Club.
Taking an afternoon to explore Celebration itself is also great way to break up theme park days.
Celebration is an experiment in “new urbanism” – a master-planned community of white picket fences and suburban uniformity that, today, is comparable to the picture-perfect towns seen in the “The Stepford Wives” or “The Truman Show.”
The serene, tree-lined streets wind around parks and boardwalks, where plants (like green fly orchids) and wildlife native to the swampy Everglades thrive.
The best way to soak it all up is on a bike tour with Celebration Bike Rental.
When it comes to Kissimmee, Yinglu Tian’s advice to Canadian travel advisors is to book accommodations early as the winter season rolls in.
“We’re facing an inventory shortage across the board,” she said.
Experience Kissimmee’s FAM last month unfolded as Florida’s theme parks reveal new and reimagined experiences.
There’s the ongoing celebrations for Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary, for one, and Universal Orlando Resort is back in action with thrilling park adventures, from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to Marvel Super Hero Island.
Stay tuned as PAX brings you more exclusive coverage from Experience Kissimmee’s ultimate agent experience! For more on Kissimmee, click here.
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