Disney is synonymous with childhood magic. For many Americans, family vacations to the Magic Kingdom are as much a rite of passage as are grumbling about the exorbitant costs of food and water – and now admission – at the various parks.
But for some, the love of Disney goes above and beyond a mere vacation to Florida with the kids.
For those who can afford it, there is a VIP experience at Disney World that includes avoiding the long lines for rides, hiring tour guides to cut down on the tumult of the park, exclusive encounters with Disney characters and the chance to have special events like weddings and anniversaries there.
If all that still doesn't satisfy your cravings, there's another level of privilege that awaits: you can actually live at Disney World.
Welcome to Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Resort, which goes way beyond buying Disney Vacation Club timeshare condos.
A 980-acre development on the edge of Walt Disney World, Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Resort – named after the Disney family's ranch in California – is a gated community that features 450 luxury, custom homes ranging from $1.8 million to $7 million.
For those lucky enough to afford it, Disney Golden Oak is designed to be a home away from home: a vacation property to retreat with the grandparents and the kids for a few weeks of bonding during summer and Christmas vacations. But up to 30 percent of Golden Oak residents actually live there year-round. (Interestingly, there are a lot of Brazilian families living there, since Disney is huge in Brazil; you can even view the website in Portuguese.)
There's no school on the property (though there are private schools relatively nearby), but who wants to walk to school when you can walk to Disney World?
So, how does it work?
Residents choose from three different types of homes: a Tuscan-style Village Home on a quarter acre near the Clubhouse; an Estate Home on half an acre (offered in styles including French Country, Southern Classical and Dutch Colonial); and a Grand Estate Home on three-quarters of an acre, designed for large families or corporate use.
Residents work with the builder to design their homes, keeping in mind the strict indoor and outdoor architectural guidelines that have been put in place to maintain the Disney integrity. (All front doors must be made of wood, for example, and no matter how much you beg, there will be no 15-foot statues of Goofy in the front yard.)
While the entry point of $1.8 million is enough to dissuade most, fees don't stop there. After purchasing a home, residents pay $25,000 a year for maintenance, which covers the homeowners association fee and includes access to the 17,000-square-foot Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Summerhouse clubhouse. Summerhouse features Markham's restaurant and Tyler's lounge, a gym, a heated outdoor pool and a family room with game area, and it employs the top, hand-selected "cast members" from the Disney family.
To ensure the home-within-a-hotel feel, Summerhouse also offers Disney Golden Oak residents a concierge to book tickets to the parks, schedule VIP tours, help plan dinners and parties, create Disney holiday decor, provide private transportation to any destination within Walt Disney World and to make spa appointments and tee-times. They’ll even arrange baby-sitting.
If you're living at Disney World, you're obviously a fan, so each Disney Golden Oak resident gets five complimentary Golden Oak resident will receive five three-year annual passes, and each pass comes with five additional one-day theme park tickets.
The homes themselves are stunning – and stunningly large – featuring open kitchens, sweeping indoor and outdoor spaces, pools, guesthouses with separate entrances and at least five bedrooms and five-and-a-half bathrooms. Residents have the option of decorating their homes with the famous "hidden Mickeys" – tiny mouse ears emblazoned everywhere from wallpaper to ceilings to stair railings.
Within the confines of Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Resort also sits the brand-new, 444-room, $370 million Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World, which is scheduled to open this summer. The resort features a Tom Fazio-designed, 18-hole championship golf course, an adults-only pool, a family pool with lazy river, a spa and a rooftop steakhouse that overlooks the nightly fireworks.
All roads at Disney Golden Oak have a speed limit of 25 mph, allowing owners to drive golf carts around the property and shuttle themselves easily from home to Summerhouse to Four Seasons; it’s safer for the kids, but tough if you're feeling stir-crazy from all that happiness.
While Golden Oak at Walt Disney World Resort offers an admirable sense of community from days gone by, it's hard to shake the feeling that its residents are retreating from the real world. Here, the grass is greener, the sky is bluer, and dreams really do come true: it’s a Neverland for homeowners who want to remain kids at heart – and can afford to do so.