BOOKING: The International Drive area is chockablock with chain hotels, with easy access to Universal Orlando, Wet 'n Wild and numerous other attractions such as Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditorium. We figured being off the Drive itself would be a welcome respite from theme park overload, and though we'd have a car, we looked for hotels with shuttles to Epcot in case we couldn't face the traffic.
We wanted a double room, breakfast and a good-size pool, all for $55 for a Friday night, before tax. Comfort Suites Orlando, booked on Quikbook.com, fit the bill.
GETTING TO THE HOTEL: In our pre-coffee state of mind, we'd nodded with apparent understanding as the Budget rental agent described the route we'd take to reach 9350 Turkey Lake Rd. Leaving the airport and hopping on the Beeline Expressway (Highway 528) -- piece of cake. But after merging onto I-4 east, things went awry. We got all the way to the exit for Florida's turnpike before conceding that perhaps we'd misheard the directions and that the Turkey Lake Road exit we were looking for just didn't exist. Out with the cell phone, and soon the Comfort Suites front desk was directing us to backtrack to Sand Lake Road at Exit 74A (um, almost the very first exit on I-4), make two lefts and follow Turkey Lake Road for a few minutes. The 14 straightforward miles from the airport had turned into more like 25, but we were there at last.
THE HOTEL: The lobby of this peaches-and-cream colored hotel is reception, breakfast room, convenience store and Orlando area ticket center in one. While that worked just fine when checking in around 12:30 p.m., it made the next day's continental breakfast a somewhat chaotic experience, especially as the hotel was full.
All 214 rooms are billed as doubles/studio suites, with two double beds and a sleeper sofa; like the hotel itself, our room was absolutely devoid of personality but came with the standard amenities. The dehumidifier was a welcome touch; we chalked up the fuzzy television reception to inclement weather. The heart of this hotel is the large palm-shaded pool, which stays open till late, the better to soak while listening to the resident weekend deejay lead the night's entertainment (which is often the folks down the hall trying their hand at karaoke). You can get your nachos-and-mixed-drink fix at the poolside bar, all in view of the sad little kiddie play area.
MICKEY MAGIC: None. The generic decor is actually something of a relief in an area where everything's so, well, animated.
MICKEY NIGHTMARE: We could have done without the rows of leaking air-conditioning units that stained almost every concrete walkway in the place, and wish the construction on the new breakfast patio had been completed before our stay.
EPCOT BOUND: We eschewed the $12 round-trip shuttle to Epcot (it leaves the hotel at 9 a.m. and the park at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m.) in favor of driving what was billed as six miles to Disney. That's to Disney property; with barely any traffic, it took us 30 minutes to reach Epcot, where we slid right into one of the parking spots closest to the entrance.
THE DAY AT EPCOT: At $58 a pop, we wanted to spend every possible minute at Epcot. And not having a room nearby to crash in, that's what we ended up doing. After 21/2 hours trying to beat the computer version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Third Edition," we started eating our way around the World Showcase. Note to self: Next time, try Mission: Space before downing couscous, dumplings and rubber disguised as a crepe. And being in the sun is hard work, even when you're guzzling root beer floats and frozen lemonade at every turn.
With our bed a full half-hour away, we scouted the park for the perfect place to take a mid-afternoon snooze and found it just outside China, where the benches have rounded armrests that fit just so under the curve of our neck. No one blinked an eye, and we shut ours for a good hour or so, at which point we were raring to go for a dinner in Morocco. Sadly, facing a drive home, we nixed the spiked concoction from Italy while watching IllumiNations at the end of the long, long day.
AFTER THE FIREWORKS: We were afraid the front-of-the-line parking spot we'd grabbed first thing in the morning would work against us when leaving Epcot along with every other soul who stayed for the evening's pyrotechnic extravaganza -- but the long wait never materialized. Twelve hours, 15 minutes and about eight pounds after arrival, we swallowed our envy of the bus- and monorail-riding folks leaving Epcot and drove to our hotel bone-tired.
BOTTOM LINE: Our initial attraction to this hotel turned out to be its downfall: its location off International Drive. Sure, there's a free shuttle to Wet 'n Wild and Universal, the two parks closest to the hotel, but it feels pretty isolated. For the same price or less, we could have stayed right on International Drive and, after Disney closed, walked out the hotel door to our pick of evening's entertainment. And staying closer to Epcot or any of the Disney parks would have saved us a cranky drive home.
-- Anne McDonough