Sunday, October 18, 2015

4 Unusual Ways to Save Money at Whole Foods Market

Whole Foods Market has a reputation for costing more other grocery stores. While it may be true that Whole Foods commands a premium relative to conventional grocers, a lot of people decide it's worth it. If you do your regular grocery shopping at Whole Foods Market here are 4 ways I've found to save money on your purchases...

1. ApplePay with Discover [20% back]

Through the end of 2015, Discover is offering 10% cashback on all ApplePay transactions, capped at $10,000 in purchases. On top of that Discover is offering to double the cashback the first year for new account holders. If you're an existing Discover card holder you can call them and ask for the double cashback promo to be added to your account.

Not a Discover cardholder? Here's my referral link. $50 for you, $50 for me after your first purchase:

2. Earn by Microsoft [5% back towards the Microsoft Store, on top of credit card rewards]

This is a program where you connect your Visa/Mastercards to the Earn by Microsoft rewards program. Rewards can be redeemed for merchandise at the Microsoft Store *on top* of the rewards your credit card earns. That's stacking, and you know I love stacking.

The program is currently offering 5% back at Whole Foods. And 10% back on Starbucks reloads.

At the Microsoft store you can buy an XBox 360, laptops, and Microsoft software. I'm not immediately in the market for any of these, but if I had a few hundred dollars racked up in savings I could surely find it useful at some point.

Here's my referral link. $10 for you, $10 for me:

Earn by Microsoft is currently only available in MA, AZ, and WA.

3. Get a credit card that bonuses grocery stores [5+%]

This is kind of a foundational tip (rather than an unusal one) but grocery stores are a commonly bonused category of credit card spend. American Express has a number of cards that heavily bonus grocery spend - especially their "Blue Cash" cards which comes in a few different varieties. Which one to get depends on how much you plan to spend at grocery stores (and gas/drugstores which are also bonused).

If you're going to spend a lot at grocery/gas/drugstores, the Blue Cash from American Express [no longer actively marketed by AmEx, try opening in an Incognito browser window if the landing page doesn't come up for you] bonuses offers 5% cashback after spending $6,500 per year. The best thing about this card is that the 5% is capped at a generous $50,000 in annual spend.

If you're going to spend less than $6,000 annually at grocery stores, the Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% cashback at supermarkets, capped at $6,000 annually. But the card comes with a $75 annual fee. If you spend $6,000 at grocery stores at 6% that's $360 which makes the annual fee worth it.

I prefer the high $50,000 cap of the "old" Blue Cash from American Express.

Another option is the Wells Fargo Visa Signature which offers 5% back on gas/grocery/drugstore the first 6 months you have the card. That's a relatively short timeframe, but there's no spending cap and earned points can be redeemed for cash back OR are worth 1.5 cents per point when redeemed for air travel through their portal. That's 7.5% back towards mile-earning air travel AND it can be stacked with Earn by Microsoft since it's a Visa. Great card.

4. Buy Whole Foods gift cards [10+% savings]

Last December in Massachusetts, Whole Foods sold their own gift cards at a 10% discount if you bought $500 or more. This is an example of where "time shifting" can save you money. If you paid in December for future purchases you'd save 10%. We'll see if the deal comes back again this year.

Another thing you could do is "category shift". For example, if you have a credit card that bonuses spend at office supply stores (like the Chase Ink business credit cards) you could buy Whole Foods Market gift cards at office supply stores and earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points for every dollar you spend. Ultimate Rewards are worth a penny a piece towards cash back. Potentially more [much more] if redeemed effectively by transferring to their travel partners like United, Hyatt or Southwest Airlines.

If neither of these angles work for you, you can always buy Whole Foods gift cards from a gift card reseller to save around 10%. You have to tote around/keep track of gift cards but depending on how much you save it can be worth it.

Update: 11/9/2015 Bonus! American Express is running a targeted AmEx Sync deal for $10 off $60.

Question of the Day: What other ways have you found to save money on purchases at Whole Foods Market?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara Family-Friendly Review

Palmera Pool at Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara
For my money, Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara is one of the best luxury family-friendly vacation values in the United States. We just returned from a week at Aviara - the fourth time we've visited in the past decade - and I wanted to share with you what I share with friends who I talk to all the time. With so many vacation options available, we return to this property again and again even though we now live on the other side of the country.

Why Four Seasons Aviara?

Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara is a high end hotel timeshare in Carlsbad, California about 30 miles north of the San Diego airport. Aviara is one of several Residence Clubs in the Four Seasons portfolio, but is by far the largest and one of just two that are viable for week-long or shorter stays.

Four Seasons Residence Clubs combine the quality, service, and amenities Four Seasons Hotels are known for with spacious villas that make them ideal candidates for family vacations.

Aviara is an appealing destination for its near-ideal climate and proximity to southern California attractions. Legoland, Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, and Disneyland are all within an hour's drive. But the resort is so nice we often find ourselves relaxing by the pools and enjoying the spacious 1,600+ sf accommodations rather than exhausting ourselves driving all over the area.

2 Bedroom Villa Floorplan
When we're staying at Four Seasons Aviara I feel like every evening is Friday night and every day is Saturday. And there are no chores. I love it.


In the 1990s Four Seasons Founder Isadore Sharpe was visiting Palm Springs and noticed other hotel brands getting into the timeshare business. Hilton, Marriott, and Disney were all building successful timeshare businesses and Sharp thought Four Seasons could do it even better.

It makes sense, right? The timeshare market has historically been kind of dodgy. But when hotels put their mark on a property it gives you a sense of the standards they have and makes you more comfortable staying at unfamiliar destinations in their portfolio.

Aviara was the first Four Seasons Residence Club, followed by Scottsdale at Troon North. There are other properties in the portfolio (currently Punta Mita, Costa Rica, Jackson Hole, Vail and Florence) but the others are more like fractionals where owners commonly purchase multiple rather than single weeks. As a result, Aviara and Scottsdale are two properties to look into if you're interested in visiting these areas and you like the idea of Four Seasons quality with space to accommodate a family.

Aviara itself is a master-planned community with single family homes, condominiums, and apartments. The community is manicured and a delight to walk around, but I never would have discovered Aviara if not for Four Seasons.

In the late '90s Four Seasons developed both a hotel and the Residence Club at Aviara. But in 2010 there was a parting of ways between the owner of the hotel and Four Seasons. Unlike other hoteliers, Four Seasons doesn't own any of the properties they manage. They typically enter into multi-decade management contracts and own a small fraction of the property so they have some skin in the game.

The owner of the Aviara hotel evidently didn't like the agreement they had in place with Four Seasons and opted to break their contract and enlisted Hyatt to manage the property. In 2010, the hotel became a Park Hyatt - their top mark for resort properties around the world.

The Residence Club continues to be managed by Four Seasons.

But the split was unfortunate for Residence Club owners and guests who would no longer have access to hotel amenities like the hotel spa, tennis courts, golf course and pool. On our last stay in 2013 we were still allowed some hotel access. But on this stay in 2015 the only hotel amenity we were able to enjoy were the restaurants.


When General Manager Demi Ortega arrived at Four Seasons Aviara in 2012 he set out to establish the property as a complete and self-sufficient private residence club. The Residence Club is just finishing a $6M renovation that captures this vision.

See: Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara debuts $6M renovation

There are three areas within Aviara. From top to bottom elevation-wise: Osprey, Summits, and Meadows. As part of this renovation, the Meadows area is extensively transformed. The Meadows lobby, where guests register upon arrival, was completely reconfigured and redesigned with a modern, Spanish Mission-inspired design. The gym was completely redone and now offers open-air yoga classes overlooking the new Palmera Pool. A new Driftwood Spa was developed complete with a nail salon and a full menu of spa services guests staying at the Four Seasons would expect.

The most exciting component of the renovation is the arrival of the new Seasons restaurant. Before the Hyatt split, in-villa dining was prepared within the hotel kitchens. Since the split, room service and poolside dining was prepared at small kitchens adjacent to the pools. It was a rather makeshift affair and the breadth of the menu was limited. But the debut of Seasons promises to make dining a strong suit of the property.

Rendering of Seasons restaurant at Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara
See more...
On this most recent visit, we met with Executive Chef Jonathan Sudar for a walk-through of the new restaurant spaces and kitchen a couple weeks before they were scheduled. It's going to be something special. Whereas the current menu gets tiresome after a couple of meals, the dining areas at Seasons could potentially keep things interesting for an entire week.

The space starts with a new coffee area with light breakfast items. This will be flanked by a retail wine component. Table service dining at Seasons will offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner in an amazing new space (see concept renderings here). The new menu will feature seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.

The most innovative concept is the new "Taste the Senses" experience. Reminiscent of a chef's table, the fully renovated space opens up to the Palmera pool and the kitchen, offering guests either a front row seat at one of six tall chairs or a community table that can be booked for a group of twelve. This would be a really nice celebratory component of a week-long stay. Imagine an exhibition kitchen with a view of the pool.

Once this renovation is complete, expect the same design aesthetic to be implemented at the Summits which is headed towards being the more kid-friendly of the two pool areas. In addition to the Club 760 kids room, look for a splash pad, small playground, and renovated gym in the future.

Notes from a Recent Stay

This was the first time we visited since the full split from the Park Hyatt. The grounds and room were immaculate and as gorgeous as ever. Upon arrival I'm always amazed at just how incredibly nice the place is.

Villas at Osprey within Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara
We were greeted with complimentary sparkling wine and the kids got water bottles. We requested and received a 2 bedroom unit in the Osprey section of the property with distant Pacific Ocean views and a small grass yard the kids enjoyed. The aromatic plantings, especially in spring, make walking around the property a real treat.


Highlights of this trip included security, the housekeeping staff, and their social media team.

On our first morning there, my 10 year old son stepped on and got stung by a bee on the pool deck. I thought at first he was just frightened because he stepped on a bee but right away I could see the bee's stinger in his foot and the area around it swelling up. I asked a pool attendant for some ice to help with the swelling. They obliged and then within just a few minutes, at 8 am no less, a security guard with an amazingly kind bedside manner arrived with a sting kit. Thankfully my little guy isn't allergic to bees and the topical pain killer they provided really helped him feel better quickly. The security guard even called later in the day to personally check up. Outstanding service. Classic Four Seasons. You never know how you're going to need service at a hotel.

Housekeeping was consistently outstanding. The villa was spotless as usual upon arrival and well-timed with when we were out of the unit. Daily housekeeping is a rarity at timeshare properties and it is so nice to walk into a tidied-up villa each afternoon. Units are equipped with a washer/dryer which makes light packing for a week-long family trip a breeze. On the third day of our stay we started the clothes dryer before leaving for the day. When we returned our clothes were neatly folded on our bed! I could get used to that. So nice.

Their social media team, a new addition for this free-standing Residence Club, was ever on the lookout for ways to delights guests who engage with them on social channels. They picked up some chatter about how we enjoyed a visit from the Ice Cream Man at their Chicago property. And wouldn't you know, on the third night of our stay, build your own ice cream sundaes were delivered to our room after dinner with a note from them. Nice!

Review: Four Seasons Chicago With Kids

But is it Family-Friendly?

We were visiting during Massachusetts spring break in mid/late April which is not a vacation week for California schools. As a result there were very few kids on property. So few in fact that some of the activities we'd enjoyed in the past weren't offered. Daily nominal-fee activities like magic shows for the kids didn't occur. Due to the split with the Hyatt, the kids golf clinic wasn't an option any more. Basically, the only family-friendly activity were the [fantastic] S'Mores event and open daily access to Club 760, an unsupervised kids room with Xboxes, Wii, computers and train table for the smaller set. It works well for kids in the 8-14 year old range I'd say, after they've enjoyed the pools but grown ups might want to relax a little longer. It's a welcome addition for sure, and during peak times some counselor-driven activities are offered.

There's still plenty for families to do however. The pools are always a hit with us. The signature Four Seasons pool setup conveys here and pool service was generally very good. Upon entering the pool area, we were almost always greeted immediately and set up with towels over comfortable lounge chairs, provided ice water and menus, and attended to graciously for however long we visited. For younger guests there are 1-foot deep pools at both Summits and Meadows.

Toddler pool at The Summits
Kids Club at The Summits
While we were there, the kids were on their own at Club 760. Which is mostly fine for older kids, except for when there's a problem with a gaming console or the kids are curious where to find other titles to play. For this it would be nice to have some minimal staffing nearby at the Summits even during off-peak times. As it is, you have to call a concierge down at the Meadows which is a long walk or shuttle ride away which isn't so convenient for minor requests.

The kids were minorly disappointed they couldn't enjoy some of the amenities the Park Hyatt now controls near the Meadows. There's a small playground, croquet lawn, and tennis courts that are now off-limits. On prior visits, they also enjoyed a game-room up at the Park Hyatt hotel but on this visit, they couldn't take advantage of this due to the split.

This playground and some other kid-friendly amenities
are now exclusively for Park Hyatt guests
So if I step back and look at this through the lens of it being a kid-friendly property it's lost a step compared to prior years. And it's nowhere near as entertaining as the Four Seasons Orlando with its lazy river, dueling waterslides, pools, complimentary Kids for All Seasons program and more.

See: Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Review

But what Four Seasons Aviara continues to offer is gorgeously appointed villas with a refined residential feel, outstanding pool service, and proximity to southern California attractions in a part of the country with incredible year-round weather. These characteristics appeal to us with young kids who often travel with other family members on vacation.

With the continued innovation and improvement at the property, we'll be back. Hopefully again and again.

Getting There

Carlsbad is about 30 miles north of SAN and just under 100 miles south of LAX. One way to play it is to fly into LAX, visit some attractions there for a few days, head down to Aviara, then fly out of SAN.

When to Visit

This year we visited in April and for us the weather was nearly perfect. Each day started with substantial cloud cover but as the marine layer dissipates it became sunny and warm enough to enjoy the pool with high temperatures around 68F. Cloudier/cooler days were perfect for visiting outdoor attractions.

We've also visited in December and February and at those times we were still able to enjoy the pools most days. But on some days it was quite chilly and we were mostly bundled up in towels enjoying the ambiance rather than sunbathing.

As humans we're quite finicky in terms of allowable variation in temperature for ideal weather. But for my money San Diego weather is as good as it gets in the continental US. It's almost always a good time to visit Aviara. Here's a listing of the average monthly high temperatures in San Diego.

Things to Do

It's worth noting that Four Seasons Aviara is not on the beach. It's not even particularly close to the beach. It takes about 10 minutes to drive to the Carlsbad beach from the resort. And since I'm not a fan of lugging chairs/towels/umbrellas to the beach when I could be enjoying poolside service I've never gone to the beach in the four times we've visited Aviara.

For me, a perfect day at Aviara starts with a cup of coffee and a little web browsing. Then a walk around the beautiful masterplanned community down to the Batiquitos Lagoon. Then head out for a light-duty attraction like the Scripps Aquarium, Seaport Village, or San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Hit a restaurant for local specialties like fish tacos, Mexican food, or the latest burger phenomenon. Then back to the pool for an afternoon swim or nap. Then enjoy a glass of wine in our villa with some music in the background as the sun goes down. Then dinner - usually casual take-out from a nearby eatery like Daphne's California Greek.

Once a week I'd do something bigger like Sea World, the San Diego Zoo, Disneyland, or Legoland.

See: Tips & Tricks for discounts at Legoland and Four Seasons Aviara

Or a Padres, Angels, or Dodgers game. Once a week (usually the first night we're there) I'd do in-villa dining. And once a week I'd visit Vivace at the Park Hyatt. I really enjoy taking in the wonderful AAA Four Diamond (here's their list) dining experience just steps from the Residence Club. Our most recent visit to Vivace was even better than we remembered it. So elegant, so good.

Booking your Stay

One of my favorite things about the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara is the many ways you can book the property. Depending on how long you'd like to stay, and how long in advance you want to book, you might be better off renting from a Residence Club owner or booking directly through Four Seasons Hotels. Here are some of the best ways I've found to book a stay...

If you're a planner or need a specific week because of vacation restrictions I'd say you're probably best off renting a week from an owner. If you're doing this for the first time you'd probably be most comfortable working with a broker. I've happily rented from timeshare broker TRI West before. Owners list their available weeks with them, the owner pays the broker a commission, and if you can find a week that works for you at a price you like it can potentially be a great deal. Although you do have to pay up front, you don't have to worry about getting fleeced by an unscrupulous scammer since you're working with a broker. The biggest risk is that you book a prepaid week and if for some reason you can't make it, you're out of luck. You could potentially try to get them to rent it to someone else but I'd say the chances of that working out well are low.

Once you get comfortable renting through a broker you might find better deals working directly with an owner. You can find rental listings on sites like VRBO and eBay but I like finding listings through RedWeek. RedWeek connects timeshare owners with people who want to rent or purchase. There's a nominal fee to join RedWeek as a renter but it's free to browse listings. There's an option to add a third party broker to rental/resale transactions on RedWeek but I've never done this and have instead worked directly with owners/brokers who list on RedWeek. I typically send half the rental amount to the owner then the remainder when I've been notified by Four Seasons Owner Services that the week has been transferred to me. Once the transfer occurs you're treated like a first rate owner for the duration of the experience. It's great. Here's the listing page for rentals on RedWeek.

My target price for a week-long 2BR rental is $2,000-$2,500. Rates tend to run higher in the summer. When comparing rental rates from an owner to Four Seasons directly keep in mind that when renting from an owner, taxes are included.

Tip: You can sometimes get amazing deals via RedWeek on short notice. Subscribe to alerts for your favorite properties especially if your travel dates are flexible.

For shorter stays it's worth considering booking directly from Four Seasons Hotels. A percentage of the inventory is available as a hotel booking and the property often offers 3rd night free deals which can significantly decrease the price of a stay. Most commonly they rent studios and 1 bedroom units, but 2 bedrooms may be available if you call. Check here for rates, availability, and offers.

When renting from Four Seasons directly you have more date and cancellation flexibility.

A tempting angle to stack with a direct hotel booking is the 4th Night Free benefit that comes with the Citi Prestige credit card. The card has a very high annual feel but the signup bonus and ongoing travel benefits make it a no-brainer if you like to travel.

See also: 10 Reasons the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best all-around travel credit card

It has been especially handy for us to arrange concurrent visits with family through a combination of booking methods. For example, if we have a week planned far in advance, nearby family can easily book a long weekend around the same time. And we can enjoy getting together for meals in larger villas and spending time by the pool together.

Bottom Line

Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara continues to be a vacation destination we look forward to visiting again and again. If you're looking for luxurious accommodations and Four Seasons service in a residential setting in southern California it is absolutely worth considering. The property is absolutely gorgeous.

I wish there were more Four Seasons Residence Club properties like Aviara around the world. The reason I say that is because it provides a way for us to enjoy a week away in a space that comfortably accommodates us at a price I can justify in my mind.

That said, there are some fantastic Four Seasons Hotels (like Orlando) that provide a bit more in the way of family-focused amenities. You just have to give up the space Aviara offers and depending on your travel dates adjust your budget expectations.

That said we'll continue to work Aviara into our vacation rotation because every single member of our family has had a truly great time each time we've visited. It's become a special place for us and that makes each visit even more special.

Questions or comments? Ping me on Twitter @RobertDwyer or drop me an email.

Question of the Day: What are some of your favorite family-friendly vacation destinations? Here are 3 of my favorites.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

What Disney Benefits Do and Don't Convey at Four Seasons Orlando?

Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World
Although Four Seasons Orlando is technically within Walt Disney World, the benefits of staying at a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel don't 100% convey. Understanding which benefits do and don't convey is important when deciding whether to stay at a Disney Resort or another property. The answer depends on what's important to you.

See also: Full Review of Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World

Here's a list of benefits of staying at Disney Resort. I thought it would be useful to discuss each of these in a little more detail.

Disney Benefit: Complimentary Airport Service (doesn't convey)

Disney provides ground transportation in the form of Disney's Magical Express which is a motor coach that goes from the Orlando airport to Disney World hotels. An additional benefit of this service is that they can collect your bags for you and deliver them to your hotel room. This can be nice if you come dressed for your day and you can head straight to the parks while you wait for your room to be available.

Personally I find this approach to be a potential point of anxiety. Leaving the airport without your luggage and hoping it's collected and delivered your hotel is a bit disconcerting. And checking bags in the first place is increasingly a source of additional cost. I prefer to pack light, check all our bags and take matters into our own hands.

Pro Tip: Get there using points & miles earned with flexible rewards credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred

To get to Four Seasons Orlando from MCO you can pay for a bus, rent a car, take a taxi, or arrange for a town car. We went with a town car in part due to the unavoidable valet-only daily parking fee (I think it was $24). I emailed the resort and they made the arrangements. We met our driver at baggage claim (he had an iPad with our name on it) and he took us and our bags directly to the hotel. Our flight got in at noon, and we were at the pool by 1:00 pm thanks to an early check-in. Total cost: $155 plus gratuity.

We requested and received an early check-in at the Four Seasons thanks in part to booking our reservation through a Four Seasons Preferred Partner travel agency.

Both forms of transportation (the Disney Magical Express and the towncar we went with) are operated by Mears. On one hand you get right into the Disney experience with the Magical Express. On the other you get a more efficient, private experience with the town car.

Advantage Disney, but I really prefer the town car approach.

Disney Benefit: Complimentary Resort Transportation & Parking (doesn't convey, but Four Seasons has their own motor coaches)

One of 2 Four Seasons motor coaches. Always right on time. Never crowded.
To get between their parks and hotels, Disney offers a combination of busses, boats, and monorails. No single resort is near all of the parks though, so it's key to select a resort based on location, you'll likely find yourself using a variety of Disney resort transportation options.

Even if you're not staying at a Disney Resort Hotel you can still take advantage of the Disney transportation options. For example to get between Magic Kingdom and EPCOT you can take a monorail. Or to get between any two theme parks you can take a bus. They key difference in transportation options between various hotels is getting to and from your first/last park of the day.
October 2014 Four Seasons Orlando bus schedule.
Pro tip: Snap a picture of it with your smartphone upon arrival.
Here's another bus schedule, from August 2015:
Four Seasons offers their own private motor coaches that travel on two circuits. One goes between the Four Seasons, Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, then back to the Four Seasons. The other goes between the Four Seasons, Magic Kingdom, and Animal Kingdom. I appreciated that the Four Seasons bus runs on a schedule (whereas it's not always clear when the next Disney bus comes in my experience). So although the Four Seasons bus not come as frequently as the Disney busses, if you plan ahead a bit you can catch it without much standing around.

Advantage Disney (depending on which hotel you stay at) but the Four Seasons motor coach is uncrowded and runs on a reliable schedule.

Disney Benefit: Extended Theme Park Hours (doesn't convey)

Each day one of the Disney parks opens early or stays late for Disney Resort guests. This benefit is not available to Four Seasons Hotel guests. It's a bit surprising actually since this benefit does convey to Dolphin/Swan guests (a Starwood property also within Disney World) and even to the Hilton Orlando by Downtown Disney.

For park warrior types that hit each park early to avoid long lines at marquee attractions this may be a deal breaker. But for those visiting just a few parks during a visit, or if you're not into hitting parks right when they open this may not be that big a deal.

Keep in mind that on days when the Magic Kingdom opens early, the entire park doesn't open early. For example last year when we had Extra Magic Hours (since we stayed at the Swan) we wanted to hit Pirates, Jungle Cruise, Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain yet Adventureland and Frontierland didn't open until the regular park opening time. And on nights when EPCOT stays open late you can easily stay late even if you're not staying at a Disney Resort hotel - you just can't go on any rides. Since you'll probably be there to eat and watch fireworks this may not be a problem.

Still, it's nice to get in early to parks with long lines at rides you want to go on. So...

Advantage Disney.

Disney Benefit: MagicBands (doesn't convey, but...)

MagicBands are a newish invention whereby rather than having a plastic card with a magnetic strip and RF ID that stores your park tickets and FastPass+ reservations you wear the equivalent on your wrist.

I don't mind using my card. Draw.

Disney Benefit: FastPass+ (conveys, but only 30 days out)

FastPass is a handy invention whereby you can make a "reservation" to go on a popular ride within a 1 hour time slot. It used to be that you had to visit the attraction and get a paper ticket to come back later. With FastPass+ you can make reservations without going to the attraction using your smartphone. Or you can even book FastPass+ reservations before you arrive at the park. Months in advance in fact.

Disney Hotel guests can make FastPass+ reservations 60 days out, Four Seasons guests can book them 30 days out.

I was bummed when I discovered this but quickly realized I wasn't enjoying planning our trips so much so far in advance. Dining reservations are one thing but deciding which days to visit which parks ahead of time (what if it rains? what if we're tired?) let alone which time to go on which rides was too much for me.

Advantage Disney for planners. Otherwise no big deal.

Disney Benefit: Disney Dining Plans (doesn't convey)

I'm not a fan of Disney's dining plans. I prefer to just pay for what we eat. We don't always spend the entire day at the parks, and sometimes we get by with just snacking (for example at the Magic Kingdom where compelling food options are scarce).

That said I know some people who get a lot of value out of the Disney Dining Plans so if they work well for you and it's part of an enjoyable vacation experience where you pay for your meals and snacks up front it's definitely something to be aware of because the ability to purchase a Disney Dining Plan is contingent on staying at a Disney Resort Hotel.

Our stay at the Four Seasons included room service breakfast each day for two adults. A bountiful, beautifully presented affair delivered to our room each morning right on time. Our kids would typically order pancakes or waffles for $6 plus tax and delivery charge which we'd supplement with bits of our feasts. Worked out great. Nice way to start the day.
In-room dining at Four Seasons Orlando
I know I wouldn't typically spend $100 a day on breakfast but this does help soften the blow of the Four Seasons room rate. We also received a $100 food & beverage credit to be used throughout our stay thanks to the Preferred Partner booking.

Disney Benefit: Resort Hotel Entertainment (doesn't convey, but Four Seasons is better)

Depending on the Disney Resort Hotel you're staying at, they may offer outdoor movies, pools with slides and such. They might also consider character breakfasts a piece of resort entertainment.

Character breakfasts are available at a number of Disney resorts and even within the parks. They're not typically exclusive to guests of that hotel nor to Disney Resort Hotel guests at all. We visited the one at the Grand Floridian a few years back while staying off-property. It was okay. A bit hectic as you'd imagine with a heavy carb/calorie laden buffet.

Four Seasons offers a character breakfast at their Ravello restaurant with Goofy, Mickey, and Minnie. The food selections are terrific with fresh berries, local fruits, cheeses, and honey. Eggs/omelettes made to order and charcuterie. It's terrific.

But really when it comes to resort entertainment I've never seen anything like Four Seasons Orlando. A lazy river, splash pad, a teen hangout, rock climbing wall, waterslides, you name it. What was so impressive about it was that there's something for every age group. And it never feels crowded.

Advantage Four Seasons.

Disney Benefit: Legendary Disney Service (Four Seasons service is better)

The service at Disney Hotels varies, but the service at the Four Seasons is unparalleled. They're never stuffy or pretentious. They just intuitively know how to give each guest what they're looking for.

Just a couple examples of what I'm talking about...

Say you want to visit the pool. At some resorts you need to present your room key to get a towel or two. And if  you're lucky they'll bring you reliable food & beverage service after that. At the Four Seasons as soon as a guest enters the pool area you're greeted by an attendant that sets you and your family up with towels over your chaise lounge or cabana, extra towels for drying off, ice water, and a menu. Then they come back and check on you in a non-annoying way at regular intervals.

Another example: On the morning we were checking out of the Four Seasons there were 3 other people checking out at the same time. And a couple of spouses standing behind them. I was behind the spouses for about 15 seconds and yet another desk clerk appears out of nowhere and apologizes for the long wait. Contrast this with queues to check-in at some Disney properties. Have you ever seen the lobby at the Grand Californian? It's a beautiful craftsman inspired lodge where people practice the art of waiting in line.

In my experience Disney does a great job running theme parks. Outside of that I have some concerns...

Advantage Four Seasons.

Disney Benefit: Childcare (not really an explicit Disney benefit, but Four Seasons is better)

This isn't necessarily a Disney Resort Hotel benefit so to speak but some Disney Hotels do offer kids clubs and it is a big differentiator if you have young kids.

All hotels say they can arrange for private babysitting. But I don't know anyone who has actually taken advantage of that. However, I know a lot of people who enjoy a kids club if it's presented in a way that's easy to take advantage of. Some Disney hotels have kids clubs. And Camp Dolphin (at the Starwood Swan & Dolphin) offers 2 hours free if you dine at one of their hotel restaurants. That's a decent option and you don't even have to be staying at the hotel.
Amazing counselor to child ratio at Kids for All Seasons
Counselors even know which team Messi plays for!
But the Kids for All Seasons program takes it to another level. Open from 9-5 each day you can drop your kids ages 4-12 off for complimentary supervised play. With the lazy river, waterslides, and pools it took our guys a couple days to be interested in KFAS but when the saw they had all the latest gaming systems there it provided a nice afternoon relief to the blazing hot sun. And an opportunity for us to visit the adults-only pool area.

Advantage Four Seasons.

Conclusion & Recommendations

The Four Seasons Orlando isn't for everyone. But if you're planning a trip to Disney World and you're considering some of the pricier Disney Resorts I'd highly recommend checking whether the Four Seasons might be a better option for you.

In conjunction with no-expiration park tickets and every other day park visits we returned from our Disney World vacation more rejuvenated than prior Disney Parks visits. It felt, finally, like a vacation.

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Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Review

Our guys enjoying the Splash Zone
In the past couple years we've taken family trips I've felt that, if combined, would produce the perfect vacation. We stayed at the Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara (review) north of San Diego, visited Disneyland and (separately) Walt Disney World. One thing Disney does really well is theme parks. What Four Seasons does really well is hotels. With the arrival of Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World the perfect combination was realized: Four Seasons lodging with Disney Parks.


Four Seasons likes to operate at the top of the pricing range in any market which they operate. Disney sets the mark high with their Deluxe resorts. When I checked rates, Four Seasons Orlando was around the same price as Disney's BoardWalk Inn. Here's a useful rate comparison of Four Seasons Orlando to other Four Seasons and Disney Deluxe Resorts from Touring Plans.

You see, for as much as I like Disney Parks I've got my concerns with them as a hotelier. Four Seasons on the other hand has blown me away with their style of service each time we've visited one of their properties.

See: These Disney Cruises Infuriate Me - Why do I keep booking them? 

For the the dates we visited in early October Four Seasons Orlando was $545 per night. But they were offering a third night free promotion which would bring the price down to $363 a night if booked in 3 night increments. A four night stay works out $408 a night. Since the BoardWalk was booking for around $500 a night before discounts this was a rate I could justify in my mind.

One thing people might not realize when booking high end hotels like Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula, etc is that although discounts on these properties are hard to come by you can often stack the best available offer with additional promotions offered as benefits through certain credit cards and/or travel agents.

For example the American Express Platinum Card offers a Fine Hotel & Resorts program where you can get benefits like free breakfast, early check-in/check-out, a $100 food & beverage credit and more on top of the best package a hotel might be offering.

See also: Mandarin Oriental Boston Review

If you don't have an AmEx Platinum consider establishing a relationship with a Four Seasons Preferred Partner travel agent. It should cost you nothing additional to book your stay through them and some great benefits like complimentary daily breakfast and an additional food & beverage credit will convey on top of the best available rates. I booked through Brownell Travel. Drop me an email if you'd like a referral.

See also: Four Seasons Chicago with Kids


One thing I love about the Four Seasons is how easy they make it to communicate with them. They never make you feel like you've contacted the wrong department. They just take care of your request no matter how you've routed it.

For example I considered booking ground transportation from MCO to the resort through a discount offered on MouseSavers. But the deals were on the order of $10 so I just contacted the Four Seasons via email in their response to inquiry to see if they could do anything to make our stay more comfortable. They arranged a towncar for $155 round-trip which is on par with what it should cost. Without any additional intervention on my part and just a moment to compose an email ground transport was taken care of.

Similarly I secured a reservation for a character breakfast at the resort. A quick email in response to their outreach is all it took and the reservation was secured.

How many times have you talked to a business and they told you that you needed to route your request to a different department? That never happens at the Four Seasons. They just take care of it.

With 443 rooms the Orlando property is the largest Four Seasons Hotel


In my experience, nobody orchestrates an arrival better.

As an aside I will say that hiring a town car or taxi gets you on property faster than renting a car or taking Disney's Magical Express. Our flight got in at noon and we were at the hotel by 1 pm. And down at pool moments later.

Upon arrival we were greeted with the customary "Welcome to the Four Seasons" and the bellmen took our bags. We were escorted to the front desk to check in. While I was taking care of the details my wife and kids checked out the Disney planning desk and Disney World touch screen flat panel they have set up nearby. The desk agent escorted us to the elevators and we were headed up to the 10th floor.

We reserved a standard room and received a modest upgrade to a Golden Oak View room.


Golden Oak View Room with King Bed and Pull-out Sofa
Although our room was technically "just" a regular hotel room with a combined sleeping area and adjacent bathroom, it was quite large (500sf) and extremely well appointed. Although the exterior of the hotel is set in a Spanish revival/Tuscan motif to match the Golden Oak residential community it is situated within, the interior is trendier and more contemporary. The appointments felt comfortable yet rich and sophisticated to me.
Bathroom with double sinks, soaking tub, shower, and WC
The bathroom had double sinks, separate tub and shower and water closet. An in-mirror TV ensured our kids could watch cartoons while showing/taking a tub after a day in the pools. And I could watch SportsCenter while shaving.
Well good afternoon to you in-mirror TV!
The bed is insanely comfortable and the overall in-room experience is carefully designed to provide the best night of sleep of your life. After days visiting the parks or relaxing by the pools I slept the sleep of angels and wondered what we could do to make our bed at home more like the one there (we've already got the pillows).

Rounding things out were toiletries from C.O. Bigelow Apothecaries, a Bose Soundlink bluetooth speaker (that you could use to stream high quality music from your smartphone), and robes for every member of the family - even little ones for the kids.

Just when we got done gawking at the room our luggage arrived. They've got the timing down perfectly. We debated heading over to the parks for the afternoon but we were drawn to the pools to check out what the resort had to offer.


Family-friendly Explorers Pool
The pool area includes a tranquil adults only pool, a kid-friendly family pool, an impressive splash pad for younger kids, an incredibly fun lazy river, and dueling 242-foot waterslides.
Cabana use was complimentary during our stay but will go for $200/day
What pleased me most about the expansive pool are was how there was something for everyone. If you wanted to set yourself up in a shady secluded area near the lazy river you could. If you wanted a sunny spot near the pool area that was available too.
Lazy river featured a great mix of slow and fast portions
What I was thinking as we were enjoying ourselves was how I could see every member of every family I know finding something fun to do somewhere at the resort.
Dueling 242-foot water slides are perfect for racing. Again and again and again.
During our stay we experienced pouring rain, blazing heat, and surprisingly chilly morning temperatures. We enjoyed the pools under almost all of these conditions but I think its value would be at its peak during the warmest months when the parks are unbearably hot.


The biggest area where Four Seasons differentiates itself is how it offers personalized intuitive service that anticipates guest needs effortlessly. It's really quite amazing.

For example, in the pool area when a guest enters the area they are consistently greeted by an attendant and "set up" with towels over chaise lounges and additional towels for drying off. Fresh ice water is provided and a food & drink menu is provided. No pressure, but they check in every 15 minutes or so to see if there's anything they can offer. Contrast this with other resorts where you're lucky to get a couple towels and occasion drink service. The difference is amazing.

Nobody "sets you up" better than Four Seasons
Probably the most striking difference between the Four Seasons and Disney properties is the utter lack of crowds. The hotel wasn't at capacity when we visited (all of the rooms aren't even built out yet) but I get the sense that even if it were at 100% capacity it still wouldn't feel crowded. There were so many chairs in the pool area. And not just rows and rows of chairs - all kinds of little pockets where you could set up depending on your mood and interest in getting sun, shade or a nap.

Another example of the Four Seasons service standard: When we were checking out there were a few other couples also talking with desk clerks. After 15 seconds or so yet another desk clerk appeared an apologized for keeping me waiting. For 15 seconds? No worries. But if you compare this to some high end Disney resorts where long waits aren't unusual - the Four Seasons difference is striking.

The resort offers their Kids for All Seasons program on a drop-in basis from 9-5 each day. The counselor to child ratio is incredible. If there are just a few kids there they tailor the activities to the kids liking. When there are more kids they operate on schedule with group activities like water balloons, swimming, and outdoor activities.
Kids club features a volcano and an amazingly high counselor to child ratio
What I liked best about the Kids for All Seasons program is the amazingly easy drop-in nature of it. Our first day there the kids were checking out the property and didn't have time to think about checking in.
Outdoor games included foosball, billiards and table tennis
The second day there we spent the whole day by the pool. By around 2 pm it was very hot out and we were all ready for a break. We dropped them at the kids club and headed over to the adults only pool. The chaise lounges were even more comfortable there and I felt asleep poolside for, I think, the first time ever. It was truly paradise.
Tranquil adults only pool features cabanas with double chaise lounges
Every single person we interacted with at the resort was amazingly kind and friendly in a non-stuffy kind of way. More notably than anything the Four Seasons Orlando, within the Golden Oak community within Walt Disney World, is an enclave within an enclave that provides peaceful retreat after a hectic day at the parks.


Our room rate included daily breakfast for two adults. We chose to take this as room service and added reasonable $6 choices for the kids which resulted in a very nice start to the day. Passing around the in-room iPad mini to make selections the night before was fun and each morning breakfast was deliver precisely at the requested time.
Room service breakfast
The poolside dining options were served up by their "PB+G" restaurant (pool bar & grill). During our stay I tried the fish tacos, the burger, and an off the menu pulled pork sandwich. For me, the burger was best. At $20 it was pricey as you might expect but very much worth it.
Outstanding $20 burger with a nice assortment of beers available
Twice a week they offer a Disney character breakfast featuring Mickey & Pals. We did a character breakfast at the Grand Floridian a few years back and it was a hectic gut-busting affair. In contrast the character breakfast at the Four Seasons featured fresh berries, local cheeses, honey, and fruits. Appealing charcuterie and eggs/omelettes made to order made it one of the more enjoyable meals we experienced.

The buffet was beautifully laid out. They even had a section set up for kids at their height so they could see and select items for themselves. Brilliant!
Kid-friendly section of the Ravello buffet - presented at kids' height
Highly recommended, but I think I made a tactical mistake with the character breakfast given the package we booked. That morning we didn't take advantage of our daily breakfast and although the resort made it clear the character breakfast wasn't included in the free breakfast offer I thought they might knock $32 off our bill (or some accommodation for the complimentary breakfast we didn't enjoy in-room that morning). When I asked about this at check-out I was told that the character breakfast was excluded from the free breakfast offer so I let it go. This was my only minor point of disappointment in our stay.
Character breakfast with Goofy & Pals was a hit!
The resort is incredibly family-friendly. When we checked in they gave the kids "passports" that they needed to get stamped at each area of the resort. Once they filled their books up they could redeem them for tokens for free gelato at Lickety-Split.
Kids earn a free gelato for getting their FS Orlando "passports" stamped
While relaxing by the pool I asked to see a wine list for the main resort restaurants that hadn't opened yet. (In case you didn't know I've written a wine blog since 2008). Our attendant tracked one down and I had a look just for fun. I was pleased to my wine of the year a few years back - Cigliuti Serraboella Barbaresco. And as any good list should - Juan Gil was available. Whew - I don't know how I'd survive otherwise. ;)
Nice list, especially for Italian and Spanish reds
A Cuban restaurant (at the adjacent Tranquilo golf course) and a Brazilian Steakhouse are coming soon. We'll have to go back to check them out!

Conclusion & Recommendations

At a cost that's in line with Disney Deluxe Resorts and accommodations, and amenties and service that are far beyond, I consider Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World to be a value. All things considered it is a nearly perfect family-friendly luxury resort.

But I was thinking what could possibly make it better? A private beach on the ocean I guess. You look at some of the best beachfront resorts in the world and that obviously isn't possible in Orlando. And while Orlando is great it doesn't have the exotic feel of say Hawaii or the Maldives. And it doesn't have the residential feel some rental options offer.

But for what it is I think it's nearly perfect.

My Rating:
98/100 points
5 out of 5 stars

I'll hope to go deeper into comparisons between this resort and other splurge-worthy options and discuss which Disney Resort benefits do and don't convey when staying at the Four Seasons in future blog posts.

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Drop me an email or ping me on Twitter (@RobertDwyer) with questions or comments.
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