-- Disney World is opening its gates to the first hotel that's not a Disney-branded one — and the first five-star hotel that will be inside the Florida theme park.
Four Seasons has announced construction will begin in December on a $360 million, 444-room resort with views of Disney's Magic Kingdom as well as several restaurants, a spa, basketball and tennis courts and three pools.
When it opens in late 2014, it will be the largest of the Toronto-based luxury hotel operator's properties.
The announcement is a sign the luxury hotel business is gradually returning. The project is fully financed, with a Mexico City bank tied to billionaire Carlos Slim providing $190 million in construction money.
Whether Disney-going families can afford to pay a big hotel bill is a question.
Four Seasons expects to fill half the rooms with families who want to take in Disney World and the other half with conventioneers and business-meeting attendees.
The company says room rates haven't been discussed. But rooms at the Grand Floridian — Disney World's highest-end option — run $440 to $2,185 a night, according to its website. A room at the Four Seasons two years from now — if travel continues to recover from the lows of the recession — could easily cost $600 and up.
Disney is ready for an ultraluxury hotel, says Bjorn Hanson, dean of New York University's hospitality school.
"It's not just Middle America that goes to Disney," he says. "It's a very diverse market."
Luxury-travel agent Stacy Small, president of Los Angeles-based Elite Travel International, says her customers currently stay at Disney's Grand Floridian. High-end travelers to Orlando also can stay at a Ritz-Carlton or Waldorf Astoria.
"We will have a lot of clients wanting to stay at Four Seasons Disney," Small says.
The project was announced Tuesday, as Orlando hotels fill a higher percentage of rooms.
For the first seven months of this year, Orlando hotels filled 72% of their rooms. That's more than the 67% rate a year ago and 65% in 2009. But it's not quite back to the 73% of 2007, according to Smith Travel Research.
Four Seasons secured financing despite lenders' lack of interest in luxury hotels since the global financial collapse in September 2008.
"One of the things we're excited about is that we were able to move forward in an environment that's certainly been challenging," says Scott Woroch, Four Seasons' global development chief.