By: Andrew Penner
There is a time and a place for everything. And when the kids are young and you’ve got a week of holidays to burn, Orlando – including Walt Disney World and, yes, the exceptional golf in these parts – will come calling. For me, it didn’t just call. In the form of four young kids, it screamed. Loudly. We had to go. The time was right. But as much as this trip was about Mickey, Minnie, and Magic Kingdoms, dad wasn’t going to be denied a few rounds of golf. Yes, for golf, there is always time.
Not surprisingly, the trouble was fitting it in. As many fathers have figured out, golfing early – often ridiculously early – usually works best. And certainly, the more golfers you have on your side, the better. Fortunately, I had my oldest boy, 14, and my brother-in-law along who happily joined my golf “team.”
Of course, before we could go birdie bingeing, the little ones needed a healthy dose of Mickey. The Magic Kingdom was our first foray from our spacious and affordably priced rental house in nearby Kissimmee. In hindsight, with two families, including seven children, renting a house was definitely the right call. For $1800 we had a nicely furnished house for the week with plenty of space. Located just twenty minutes away from most of the big theme parks – and some great golf! – Kissimmee is a great option. Not surprisingly, vacation home rental websites such as www.vrbo.com and www.airbnb.com list hundreds of options in Kissimmee and the entire Orlando area.
The Magic Kingdom was just as I had left it nearly 30 years ago. Mickey hadn’t aged. Cinderella’s castle showed no sign of rust or decay. The place was still “magical.” Undeniably, the Magic Kingdom has an aura, a mystique, unlike any other park you’ll visit in your lifetime. For me and the kids, the highlight was riding Space Mountain five times in succession then watching the spellbinding fireworks show in an unbalanced stupor.
But, after experiencing the “magic” of the theme parks, it was time to switch focus to golf. Our first round was at the Rees-Jones-designed Falcon’s Fire Golf Club. Conveniently located just ten minutes from Disney World, Falcon’s Fire proved to be the perfect course for our first round of the week. The playing corridors here are exceptionally wide, ideal for rusty golf swings and suspect playing strategies (driver as hard as you can hit it off every tee). A smooth-flowing layout with no weak holes, Falcon’s Fire is also one of the best-conditioned courses in the area. For big hitters with plenty of firepower, the 7,006 yardage from the back tees should easily suffice.
If length is your forte, a round at Disney’s Magnolia Course should also be a priority. While Walt Disney World Resort boasts four theme parks (Hollywood Studios, The Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Epcot), it’s also a golfing stronghold unlike anything else in the state. And the Magnolia Course, a brawny woodlands layout that has hosted the PGA Tour on numerous occasions, is widely considered the trump card.
There are actually four golf courses at Disney World and each has their own merit. Of course, in typical Florida fashion, the courses don’t feature much elevation change as they meander through beautiful, low-lying marshland and unspoiled woodland. The variety of trees – especially the magnolias – are beautiful to play through. It’s actually quite impressive how natural things have been left in and around the courses and, for that matter, throughout Disney World in general. Unquestionably, Walt Disney’s earth-friendly approach will be one of his most important legacies.
While Magnolia is one of the toughest tracks around – it tips out at a healthy 7,516 yards – we found The Palms Course to be every bit its equal. It recently went under the knife receiving a complete redesign by Arnold Palmer Course Design. Brand new green complexes, tees, and bunkers have given the course a much more modern look and feel. However, unlike Magnolia, the Palms has a few more “breather” holes where birdies can be had. The Palms, in fact, tips out at 6,870 yards and is a more forgiving resort-style course.
The other notable championship course at Disney World – The Lake Buena Vista Course – is another classic parkland test that seems to have just the right amount of challenge for the recreational player. It was designed by Joe Lee and, thanks to the many sparkling lakes and pine forests, was certified by Audubon International as a Co-operative Wildlife Sanctuary.
Finally, the fourth track at Disneyworld is the 9-hole Oak Trail Golf Course. It’s a pleasant executive course that’s perfect for families or beginner golfers.
So, what it all boils down to is that you can spend an awful lot of time at Disney World – both golfing your brains out and roller-coastering your stomach out. My recommendation? Do both. Especially if there are kids involved.
However, “Walt” certainly doesn’t own the patent on golf in Orlando. A couple other facilities that come highly recommended are Champion’s Gate and The Reunion.
Located just minutes from Disney, Champion’s Gate features two outstanding Greg Norman courses – the International and the National – that are decidedly different in character. The International is a links-style layout peppered with pot bunkers and grass-capped dunes. The National is a parkland test with mature trees and lakes that is much more typical of many of Florida’s top resort courses. If you can swing it (and provided the kids have had their fill of Mickey!) play them both.
Another great option is the Reunion Resort, which features three world-class courses designed by Nicklaus, Palmer, and Watson. In fact, it’s the only place in the world where you can play courses designed by these three legends. For golfers, it is, unquestionably, a “magic kingdom” in its own right.
Unfortunately, my golf game for the week could hardly be described as “magical.” But I was ok with that. The courses exceeded my expectations and the company was all I could ask for. It turned out to be a family vacation with memorable moments. Yes indeed, Orlando called. And I listened.