New Ways to Save in Orlando

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Mainly within the last year, frantic Orlando merchants have rolled out new ways to reduce the overall cost of a vacation in "Mouseland"

With theme park admissions soaring to over $50 a day per adult, and children under 10 paying over $40 (too bad for those 11-year-old "grown-ups"!), how can an Orlando-area vacation remain affordable to the average family? That's what local hoteliers, restaurateurs, shopkeepers, and impresarios have been asking since park tickets started heading seriously north not so long ago, even as the recession sent tourist arrivals south. The answer? Substantial recent cuts (for visitors in the know) in the cost of just about everything other than theme parks - airfares, hotels, meals, land transportation, and evening shows - many of them announced in recent months. On a visit to Orlando, we reviewed these discounts, and here's how they keep the total cost of an Orlando holiday in check:

Discount rooms

Orlando's Convention and Visitors Bureau has created a Web site that surveys dozens of price reductions offered by the area hotel industry and then lets you book a room directly on the same Web site. It's one-stop shopping for lodgings reductions of as much as 50 percent, resulting in rates as low as $29, $39, $49, $59, and $79 for rooms housing as many as four people at well-known properties that usually charge far more. Orlando has thus matched the one-call-does-it-all central reservations system of neighboring Kissimmee. Phone 800/333-5477 for a reduced-price room in Kissimmee; log on to orlandoinfo.com for discounted rooms in both Orlando and Kissimmee. That same Web site will enable you to buy a cut-rate package consisting of a room, a rental car, and theme-park admissions. This past January - to cite one example - a mere $833 bought four nights at the three-star Hyatt Orlando for a couple and two children, including four days' use of a Dollar rental car and a four-day Disney "Park Hopper Plus" admission ticket for all four family members. Savings: $544.96.

Discount air tickets

Now even easier to find, especially from East Coast cities, thanks to the new Web site of Delta Express (flydlx.com), launched in early 2001; it will also always offer on-going special promotions you won't find anywhere else. Take the recent "Kids Fly Free" deal: until mid-February, two adults purchasing an air-inclusive Delta Vacations (888/346-3220) package could get five nights at the Quality Inn Plaza right on International Drive, an Alamo compact rental car, plus airfare for themselves and free airfare for two children for a paltry $1,029.50. The same package after mid-February would run $1,277, still reasonable - though that savings of $248 proves that it's worth always checking this site for bargains before you leave home.

New low-cost hotels

Hotels boomed in the last year even as the U.S. economy started slowing. In the International Drive area, the new Ramada Inn International Drive (5858 International Dr., 888/527-8483, 407/351-4410, ramada.com), which replaced the old Best Inn in January 2002, has upgraded its 268 rooms to Ramada standards with hair-dryers, coffeemakers, ironing boards, and such - but it's keeping rates down, from $54 to $79, though here as elsewhere you should always check for coupons and other special offers. Not far off, a new Holiday Inn (800/881-3152, sixcontinentshotels.com/holiday inn) opened at 8214 Universal Boulevard with 150 rooms and 35 suites; rack rates start at $69. Another recent Holiday Inn similar in size and price has opened near the Florida Mall at 8820 South Orange Blossom Trail.

In Kissimmee, the Econo Lodge Gateway Resort at 5335 Irlo Bronson Highway (a.k.a. US 192; 800/553-2666, 407/396-2121, www3.choicehotels.com) added 214 rooms to this town's glory road of budget lodging with doubles that go for $35.95 and up, while a new Knights Inn (800/418-8977, knightsinn. com) has 54 rooms starting at around $40. Also within the last couple of years, no less than four Howard Johnsons (800/446-4656, hojo.com) have been launched in the Kissimmee and Orlando area for a total of 997 new rooms, which can go as low as $39 to $49 a night. Two Villager Premiers (888/821-5738, villager.com) with 267 rooms starting around $44, also came online recently, along with three Travelodges (800/578-7878, travelodge.com) with 672 new rooms as low as $49, and a Sleep Inn at 1700 McCoy Road (407/855-4447, www3.choicehotels.com), not far from Orlando's airport with a double rack rate at $49.99 and up.

Vacation home rentals

Rentals remain the comfiest and most cost-effective option for families or groups traveling together, and several hundred such properties have been added in Central Florida (mostly in Kissimmee) in the past year. We're not talking about condos that feel like glorified hotel suites: these are real, honest-to-goodness houses with front and rear yards and - get this - your own private, heated, and screened-in swimming pool! For a spacious three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that can sleep up to eight, prices range between $89 and $150 per night. That's like getting four motel rooms for $25 to $37.50, only now you have your own big kitchen, washer/dryer, and pool! While several outfits such as Resort Quest International (877/588-5800, reso rtquest.com) and Holiday Homes of Orlando (800/288-2187, holiday homesorlando.com) offer fab deals, the newest kid on the block, Kissimmee's one-year-old Wyndham Palms (888/464-6353, wyndhampalms.net), offers all of the above and is raising the bar on amenities by being the only development to also provide a spiffy club house with pool tables, tennis courts, workout room, convenience store, even a small movie theater. There's also a big swimming pool and hot tub for folks too sociable to just hang out at home by themselves. Furnishings are also a notch or two above the usual rattan you find in other rentals; still, rates (from $149 per day, though specials and market conditions can bring it down as low as $89) are only slightly higher than what you'd pay for any other vacation home rental, making Wyndham Palms a truly superior value.

A big new low-cost restaurant

Truly the king of the many Asian all-you-can-eat joints that pepper Kissimmee's US 192 corridor is the impressive new Iron Chef Chinese Buffet (909 West Vine St./US 192, 407/870-5500), serving up over 150 fresh and tantalizing offerings on five gleaming steam tables in a tasteful, low-key setting with cheerful Oriental touches. The buffet dinner runs a mere $9.95 (kids 4-10 $4.25; lunch $5.25, kids' lunch $3.25), while the a la carte menu runs from an amazing $3.65 (almond chicken) to $10.95 (sizzling beef and scallops); soda refills are free.

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