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Relax at Disney World's BoardWalk

By ROBERT N. JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times


Wrapping up our 10th hour in Walt Disney World's theme parks last Sunday, I was standing with my family near the Haunted Mansion, which was "closed folks, for just a half hour or so," one of the young costumed workers announced.

No problem. My feet were sore, my ears were tingling from the wails of countless upset toddlers, my wife was doling out all the patience for both of us in trying to get our sons to compromise one more time. My 24-year romance with Mouseopolis was cooling as rapidly as the night air.

But I knew the cure waited back at our hotel elsewhere in WDW ... a cozy corner called the Belle Vue Lounge.

The Belle Vue is tucked off a lobby at the sparkling new BoardWalk resort. Seating fewer than three dozen on comfy old leather chairs, plump wingbacks, settees and brocade-cushioned dining chairs, this pocket of serenity is an elixir for other adults who have either never learned or have forgotten the basic rule of Disney World: Don't overdo it.

In the Belle Vue, guests can have a drink, listen to recordings of such vintage radio shows as Burns and Allen and The Green Hornet, or play chess. The kids can borrow one of the lounge's board games, but the Belle Vue is more a retreat for adults.

Rejuvenated, they can head down one flight and step out on a lakeside boardwalk -- and step back into the latest Disney make-believe, an amalgam of simple waterfront pleasures from the first few decades of this century.

Along the wood-slatted promenade bordering part of Crescent Lake, people can pedal six-seat surreys, try to knock down a pyramid of small cans with baseballs, watch magicians and stiltwalkers.

They can munch on roasted peanuts, ice cream or fresh-baked cookies and pastries. For a real meal, they can try nouveau American cuisine in one restaurant, Mediterranean specialties in another, sample the six beers and ales brewed at the Big River Grille.

They can drift back a couple of generations and dance to a big band at the Deco-styled Atlantic Dance, or make the leap back to the present by trying to absorb the half-dozen events being shown simultaneously on TVs at a sports bar that doubles as a broadcast studio. Out of this world

All of these choices have the effect of removing the BoardWalk's guests -- and there are thousands, staying in its 378 hotel rooms and 532 villa units -- from Walt Disney World's basic attraction: Its theme parks, watersports parks and the nightclubby Pleasure Island. Instead, Boardwalk largely offers a much-less-sophisticated recreation to complement the high-tech attractions.

What's more, these BoardWalk entertainments are available to the guests of the four other large and slightly pricier hotels sharing the 2.5-acre lake and the paved path encircling it: the Swan and the Dolphin hotels, the Yacht Club and Beach Club.

As with everything else in the world's No. 1 tourism destination, this was planned.

The Victorian-style Yacht Club and Beach Club were designed by architect Robert A.M. Stern, who "always wanted to build a village across the water," says Rochelle LaMontagne, marketing manager for the BoardWalk. And so Stern designed the new resort.

Gazing from the balcony that is a feature of most BoardWalk rooms, guests may note that the other lakeside hotels form the horizon.

But that proximity "makes this like a community," continued LaMontagne. "We want the guests (at these lakeside hotels) to dine at a restaurant in one of them, then come to BoardWalk to dance in Atlantic Dance (with a capacity of 700, it is Central Florida's largest dance hall) or go to the ESPN Club, or sing with the piano players at Jellyrolls.

"They don't have to board a Disney bus (for the theme parks) to have activity. Now, we are noticing customers coming here to dance, from the Contemporary Hotel and the Grand Floridian" -- people taking the bus away from those Magic Kingdom hotels.

What they see when they get to the BoardWalk is a series of four-story, pastel-colored clapboard buildings, with a tower here, a turret there, striped awnings fluttering in the breeze, all of it designed to call to mind seashore architecture from the first two or three decades of this century.

LaMontagne said that period marked the first time that large numbers of urban families had enough free time and money to take a trolley or a train for long visits to the shore. "Before this century," she said, "the only people who really vacationed were wealthy families such as the Vanderbilts." Everything old is new again

The period theme is continued in decor throughout the buildings. The hotel rooms have the flavor of a pricey boarding house, with wrought-iron beds, chair rails around the walls, mirrors hung with chains -- "like staying with Grandma" as LaMontagne put it.

With typical Disney creative detail, the curtains are reproductions of actual postcards sent generations ago from vacationers at the seashore; the messages on the curtains are readable. Carpeting in both the inn and the villas is patterned to resemble a boardwalk, and walls in the guest room halls are papered with a slatted-fence pattern.

In BoardWalk's villas, the furniture is more hotel than homey, representing folks who could afford the upscale lodging. The villas range in size from a studio sleeping four, on a queen-size bed and pullout sofa, to three-bedroom units. The studio unit has a microwave, refrigerator, coffee maker and cups and glasses; these kitchens grow proportionately larger with the number of bedrooms in the unit.

A handful of "cottage suites" are two-level townhouses, with jacuzzis, separate courtyard entrances and "front yards" defined by a picket fence.

The shared lobby of the villas and the inn is furnished with wicker armchairs, overstuffed sofas and a pouf -- one of those huge, circular couches recognizable from 1930s movies but hardly seen in our real world.

Impressive glass chandeliers dangle above the multistory lobby. The entrance boasts a fantasy sculpture of horse-headed fish hanging from the ceiling; the odd sea horses were cast from antique carousel animals.

Newest of the 25 hotels within Walt Disney World's 30 or so square miles, BoardWalk has run at high occupancy since opening last June 30. Already, carpeting on some stairways is frayed, the restaurants can be booked solid for hours and the large lobby can get crowded with luggage trolleys and guests checking in, out or headed to the in-park buses.

But as one bellhop told me, "I started working the Beach Club, and that was nice but seemed kind of expensive. Then I worked at the Dolphin, and that place was frantic. But the BoardWalk, this seems pleasant, relaxed."

Just the thing after a long day at Disney World. If you go Where is it: The BoardWalk is within a short walk of the Swan and Dolphin Hotels and Yacht Club and Beach Club. It is walking distance to the back entrance of Epcot, at the World Showcase. Part of Epcot's nightly laser and fireworks show, IllumiNations 25, is visible from the walkway between Boardwalk and the park. How much is it: Disney's BoardWalk Inn rooms sleep five in the standard room; rates begin at $229 a night but rise on Feb. 7 to a minimum of $244. Suites in the inn can sleep six and currently start at $390. BoardWalk Villa studios sleep four and rates begin at $229, changing to $244 on Feb. 7; two-bedroom villas sleep up to eight and rates begin at $395. Grand villas can accommodate 12 and rent for $985 a night. The villas are also being offered as interval-ownership units, a modification of time-sharing. My family of four ate in the Flying Fish restaurant, and while we had superb seafood, the menu that night included pork chop, ravioli and steak entrees. Our entrees, one appetizer and one dessert came to $69.50. What there is: You need not be a hotel guest to eat in the restaurants, go to Atlantic Dance ($5 a person admission, no one under 21 admitted) or stop in for the fun and games with dueling pianists at Jellyrolls or in the ESPN Club. For instance, in the sports bar today, a Super Bowl show will include two of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Mike Hollis and Dave Widell, plus the Bucs' cheerleaders, the Swashbucklers. Other events are planned for the NBA All-Star Game and the ESPY Awards, and live broadcasts are held regularly for local and nationally syndicated radio shows. BoardWalk has two "quiet" swimming pools tucked into courtyards and a larger one with a 200-foot-long, roller-coaster shaped waterslide. The hotels have a smallish fitness area, typical resort shops and a grocery selling packaged and canned goods, frozen items and beer, wine and even liquor miniatures. There are organized activities for children, and babysitting is available. Guest room televisions receive the four major entertainment networks, plus CNN, ESPN and, of course, the Disney Channel. For information or reservations: Call (407) 934-7639 or contact a travel agent.

Originally published January 26 1997



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