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Sunday,  May 19, 2024 10:58 AM 

There's no place like (a vacation) home: Experience Kissimmee CEO shares destination updates

There's no place like (a vacation) home: Experience Kissimmee CEO shares destination updates
DT Minich, president and CEO of Experience Kissimmee. (File photos)
Michael Pihach

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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The last time we reported on Kissimmee, we were in the southern U.S. destination, living it up with Canadian travel advisors in an eight-bedroom luxury home, Big Brother style, while getting VIP access to Florida’s top theme parks.

Kissimmee, affectionally known as the “Vacation Home Capital of the World” for its vast inventory of rentable homes, which are built in purpose-built communities – gated neighbourhoods that cater to travelling families or groups – saw a surge in demand for its home product during COVID as people switched to remote work and began preferring more personal space (a luxury that’s not always available at hotels).

For families, especially, vacation homes offer a significant value proposition. 

Kissimmee’s rentable homes exist in “purpose-built” communities. (Pax Global Media)

Guests get separate bedrooms, sometimes their own private pool, a barbecue, enhanced security and, in Kissimmee's “mansion segment” (homes with 10 to 18 bedrooms), there are other fun amenities, like in-house bowling alleys, movie theatres, arcade rooms and bedrooms themed around exciting franchises, like Star Wars.

READ MORE: These Kissimmee vacation homes are on the doorstep of Florida’s top theme parks

Even corporate groups can find value in a vacation home – many of Kissimmee’s rentals sit on championship golf courses and come equipped audio/video fixings.

The destination also sits on the doorstop of America’s biggest theme parks.

Kissimmee is the Vacation Home Capital of the World. (Pax Global Media)

Located in Florida's Osceola County, just south of Orlando, Kissimmee is minutes away from Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World Resort. 

SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment and Legoland Florida Resort are also within driving distance.

But with the pandemic mostly behind us now, and as more travellers regain confidence in sharing public spaces again, is the demand for vacation homes still riding high?

READ MORE: Star Wars, dragons & butterbeer. Kissimmee wows agents at Walt Disney World & Universal Studios

We posed the question to DT Minich, president and CEO of Experience Kissimmee, who said that while the U.S. domestic market has cooled (Americans, now free of border restrictions, are travelling internationally again), “the vacation home market is still strong.”

 (Experience Kissimmee)

The demand, he said, is returning to how it once was in pre-COVID days. 

“During the pandemic, there were months where 90 per cent of our bed tax was coming from the vacation home product,” Minich told PAX. “Pre-pandemic, it was typically a 50-50 split [between homes and hotels] and we're getting back to that.”

International visitors, short booking windows

Minich was in Toronto Thursday night (July 20) to talk all things Kissimmee with travel partners and media at a summer white party hosted by VoX International (which represents the destination in Canada) at the city’s Soho Hotel.

Speaking to PAX prior to the event, Minich enthusiastically noted a “big uptick” in international arrivals in Kissimmee.

“The other thing we've noticed is that the booking windows are very, very short,” he said. “I also think people are waiting to see if they can get a deal.”

Minich also spoke of new developments in the destination. “We’re constantly adding new product,” he said. “The demand has to keep up with all of that inventory, and so far, so good.”

Not resorts (but like resorts). And commissionable.

Vacation homes in Kissimmee are not resorts, but they’re like resorts.

“Neighbourhoods” typically have a check-in centre, a main pool (some have waterparks), restaurants, bars, a gym and a concierge desk for nearby attractions.

READ MORE: On Location - agents unlock vacation homes, theme parks with Experience Kissimmee, Air Canada & ACV

Some brands even offer complimentary shuttle service to and from the major theme parks, eliminating the need to rent a car.

Global Resort Homes offers spacious and modern vacation home rentals. (Pax Global Media)Ultra-luxe living at Bear’s Den Resort. (Pax Global Media)

Essentially, people have the amenities of a four or five-star resort, but the convenience of having their own house.

It’s a concept exclusive to Kissimmee, and one that has skyrocketed since roughly 2014. Encore, Solara, Magic Village, Jeeves, Global Resort Homes, and Reunion are just some of the many communities that have led the charge.

Some brands combine hotel rooms and vacation homes together: at the upscale Margaritaville Resort, for example, there are both upscale rooms and residences, called “Margaritaville Cottages.”

Margaritaville Resort Orlando and Cottages. (Pax Global Media)Private pools by lagoons at Margaritaville Resort Orlando and Cottages. (Pax Global Media)

What’s more is that Kissimmee’s vacation homes are travel agent friendly, Minich emphasized.  

Meaning, they’re bookable through tour operators and agents can earn commission.

“These aren't Airbnb listings,” he said. “All of our [homes] are professionally managed and completely commissionable.”

New hotels & attractions  

Kissimmee is constantly evolving with new and renovated amenities, Minich explained.

The region’s Margaritaville, which PAX visited last year, recently completed an expansion, adding a new wing to its hotel building, which opened last fall.

Kissimmee will also soon welcome a new “first of its kind” Embassy Suites product.

The new development, opening this fall, will go beyond the traditional Embassy Suites model (living room in the front, bedroom in the back) by offering two-bedroom condominiums.

“It's located within Margaritaville, so there will be access to those amenities as well,” Minich pointed out. “We’ve been on some hard hat tours, and it's going to be a really great product.”

Other local developments to watch for include Everest Place, a massive mixed-use development that will include hotels, condos, restaurants, a water park, as well as a Nickelodeon-themed hotel.

New restaurants, retail and activities have also been added to Sunset Walk, which is adjacent to Margaritaville. “It’s really changing the face of the 192 corridor,” Minich said.

One destination Minich is particularly excited about is Kissimmee’s new Ette Hotel, a four-star boutique wellness property that opened last year.

“It’s beautiful. It’s really almost a five-star hotel,” he said. “They have a Michelin-star restaurant and a rooftop bar.”

The unique part about the Ette, being a wellness hotel, is that it doesn’t serve alcohol. (The cocktails they serve are mocktails).

But guests can bring whatever champagne, wine or beer they want.  “They've got all of the glasses and corkscrews…And there's no corkage fees,” Minich said.

“The best of both worlds”

The main differentiator in Kissimmee is that it offers “the best of both worlds,” Minich said, noting the destination’s connection to nature.  

“Orlando is all man-made attractions,” he said. “Whereas we have some of the most incredible Mother Nature-made attractions.”

Notable outdoor activities in the area include kayaking in Shingle Creek, Tree Trek Adventure Park, Gatorland wildlife preserve and Wild Florida, a safari attraction that offers air boat tours.

Wild Florida Airboats and Gator Park. (Experience Kissimmee)

“You could be standing in the shadow of Cinderella's castle and then, within 30 minutes, you could be kayaking, under 400-year-old grand cypress trees, along the headwaters of the Everglades. The water starts here in Kissimmee, in Shingle Creek,” Minich noted.

Visitors can also explore nearby Celebration, a community of white picket fences and suburban uniformity (originally developed by The Walt Disney Company) that is comparable to the picture-perfect towns seen in the “The Stepford Wives” or “The Truman Show.”

The tree-lined streets of Celebration wind around parks and boardwalks, where plants (like green fly orchids) and wildlife native to the swampy Everglades thrive.

The best way to take it all in is on a bike tour.

Celebration, Florida. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

All of these are great options for families who need a breather during their Florida vacation – “because it can be exhausting to go to the theme parks every day,” Minich said.

But Orlando’s big-budget theme parks are still a major draw – and they are continuing to evolve.

Universal’s new park, “Epic Universe,” is under construction and slated to open in 2025. (“It’s going to be massive,” Minich said).

Canadian travel advisors visit Universal Orlando Resort with Experience Kissimmee in September 2022. (Pax Global Media/File photo)

Walt Disney World Resort will also soon end its pandemic-era Park Pass reservation system, with vacation-goers using any date-based tickets no longer needing to reserve spots starting in January 2024.

“That's really big news for our international customers because they enjoyed the flexibility of just buying tickets and going when they wanted to,” he said. “It’s a big step.”

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