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By Samantha Chapnick

Orlando is all about the fantasy. Like Vegas without the naughtiness, it’s about being somewhere other than the middle of Florida. At Orlando hotels, you can be on Safari (Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge), in the South
Seas (Disney’s Polynesian Resort), in a castle (Doubletree Castle
), under the sea with SpongeBob (Nickelodeon’s Family Suites), or even
in a bygone Florida existing only in our memories (Gaylord Palms

A few months ago, we got a chance to escape to Italy — Orlando’s version of Italy, that is. The Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is an oxymoron: a large hotel that remains well hidden — at least to people like us who had never beento Universal Studios. Here are the top reasons to stay here:

1) The Piazza. Sure we’d passed it numerous times on previous visits, but the architecture is so clever and detailed we never quite realized it was a hotel. The illusion is magnificent. Built around one of Florida’s lakes, the anchored boats and sea wall repeatedly fooled even this well-traveled writer into thinking we were in a harbor town.

The actual buildings have been disguised to look like a cluster of 20 or 30 palazzo all facing the harbor or the pool. And of course there’s the obligatory tower with a dome.

My normal skeptical self would be interested, but not particularly impressed, by even the most detailed replica. Architecture alone does not make a destination. As Italy is one of my favorite places, I do not take its imitation lightly. In this case, someone somewhere involved in the construction really got what makes an Italian town an Italian town — namely, the outdoor public gathering space where people have a chance to interact and play without being surrounded by piped in music, overbearing commercialism, or fluorescent lights.

The heart of this Orlando hotel is the Piazza abutting the “harbor.” It’s a wide-open space that comes alive in the evenings. Families love it because the parents can sits peacefully at one of the outdoor cafes, restaurants or the gelateria, while their kids expend the evening’s remaining energy running around, chasing each other, observing the ducks, or taking the bolted-down Vespas for a spin.

It’s equally appealing to adults. Many of the guests I spoke with gave it kudos for being the most socializing-friendly common area of any of the Orlando hotels they had stayed in.

2) Express line at Universal Orlando. The hotel’s room key is an express line ticket. Anyone staying at the hotel can bypass the long lines and go directly to the express lane.

Drseussblog3) Kid suites. We loved our kid suite. Imagine two full adjoining hotel rooms: both with the same view, about the same size. Now take away the risk by making the second room accessible only through the first — there is no door to the hallway. And add kid-friendly decor, including big crowns on the end of the bed, whimsical tables and chairs, plenty of space to play. Some have bunk beds and some twins. For younger children, needing to walk through the adult room to get to the bathroom will go unnoticed. But for older tweens and teens it would have been nice if they had their own facilities or a bathroom accessible from either room.

And as of last month, they now have a few “Cat in the Hat”-themed kid suites with, as you’d expect, lopsided headboards, bright red duvet covers, and illustrations from the book covering the walls.

4) The Boat to Universal. We loved taking the Italian-style mini-yacht to City Walk and Universal. It took less than 5 minutes (super fast!) and was free ($$ savings!), and most important, we didn’t have to get a parking spot, deal with traffic or find our way, eliminating one major source of our family’s vacation stress. Plus it was fun!

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Samantha Chapnick is a New York writer who scours international destinations looking for what hasn’t been found.

Tagged: Family time, Florida

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