Long before Disney changed the scene, The Country Club of Orlando helped to shape the city—and 100 years later, it links a proud past with a bright future.
In 1911, Walt Disney was 10 years old and growing up in a small town in Missouri. While he was already known within his family as someone who’d rather draw animals and nature scenes than do his homework, and had in fact started to sell some of his sketches to neighbors, young Walt was still a long way from inspiring the empire that would eventually bring 17 million visitors annually to a theme park bearing his name in central Florida (plus millions more to related attractions in the area, as well as to other Disney-branded places in California and around the world).
Central Florida itself was far from being established as any sort of destination in 1911. The first airplane flight off Florida soil had only occurred the year before, and the population of Orlando had yet to reach 4,000. The citrus industry had already tired of the area’s occasional freezes, and pushed its focus farther south into the state.
But the city’s developers still wanted to use the weather and surrounding scenery to attract both tourists and new permanent residents to the region. As proof that Orlando was not only here to stay but well on its way, they promoted the fact that a country club had already been founded in 1911, on what was then farmland on the outskirts of town.
The Country Club of Orlando AT A GLANCE
The club’s appeal was enhanced with the opening of its first clubhouse a year later—a typical “old Florida” building with wide verandas. A real stamp of legitimacy came later in that decade, when up-and-coming architect Donald Ross was called in to redesign the golf course.
By the time the Walt Disney World Resort and its Magic Kingdom opened in 1971 in the newly created town of Lake Buena Vista south of Orlando, The Country Club of Orlando was well-positioned as a fixture in the social life of what was still a fairly small and sleepy Southern city, with a metro-area population of just over half a million.
But Disney’s arrival on the scene would soon mark the end of Orlando as everyone had known it, with the area doubling in size by 1990 and then doubling again to where it now has over 2 million permanent residents today, plus the many other millions who come to visit Disney World, Epcot Center (opened in 1982) and Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom (opened in the late 1980s) each year.
New Views, Old Viewpoints
The Country Club of Orlando was certainly not immune to the sweeping changes brought about by Disney’s arrival in the area. Its 168-acre property was literally engulfed by the resulting growth, with the “Orange Blossom Trail” that had once connected with a dirt road in front of the club’s gates now becoming one of the busiest thoroughfares in the region. A new downtown Orlando skyline emerged that could be viewed from several points on the club’s golf course.
But in many other ways, the club carried on as it always had, preserving Orlando’s original social traditions as second and third generations of its member families continued to enjoy the club and the special sanctuary it provided amid all of the surrounding development.
The club also took steps to preserve the special style and history that it continued to keep within its gates, using Ross preservation experts to undergo a major golf course renovation that enhanced the features of his original design, and opening a new clubhouse (its third) in 2000 that retained the distinctive Mediterrean look, reminiscent of famed resort architect Addison Mizner’s Palm Beach-style, that has always characterized the club’s facilities, inside and out.
And as 2011 approached and Orlando, and the Disney organization, were coping with the unprecedented challenges tied to city management and tourism in the post-9/11 world, The Country Club of Orlando prepared to end its first century with a standing in the community that was as solid as ever—and to start its next 100 years with a bright future built around its special blend of long-standing club traditions and new services and amenities designed to appeal to the next generations of members.
That second century, in fact, started with unprecedented activity, as the club’s own Centennial Black Tie Gala, which swelled to an overflow attendance of more than 600, was held on the same February weekend as the Club Management Association of America’s World Conference in Orlando—and two Conference-related events were also held at the club.
Other aspects of the anniversary’s recognition are set to keep the club especially lively throughout the rest of this year, such as the annual Men’s Golf Invitational in April. Normally an event that has never had more than 65 participating two-man teams, the club Board and management team started to think about pursuing a special theme of “100 [teams] for 100 [years]” in 2011. “We didn’t want to commit to that until we were sure we could handle that many teams and guarantee quality,” reports General Manager/COO Tim Timlin. “But it sold out in pre-registration, before we had even sent the invitations out of the office. So that took care of the ‘commitment’ part.”
The club has also scheduled special historically themed Wooden Stick and Wooden Racquet golf and tennis tournaments, to be conducted with traditional dress, equipment and rules, for its anniversary year. And it has treated members to throwback dining events, most notably a series of “centennial buffets” that have been drawing average attendance of 400.
“It’s been ‘organized anarchy,’ ” says Timlin of the challenge of handling the crowds drawn by the special $3.99 spreads. But while the club’s staff knew the buffets would be a good way to draw members in for special experiences built around the anniversary celebration, Timlin says a pleasant, unexpected side benefit has been how the dinners have helped to reinforce a sense of community. “There’s more camaraderie when people see each other in buffet lines and eat in a setting that encourages table-hopping,” he notes. “Since we’re not a residential community, that has had real value for us, to strengthen the interaction and ties among our members.”
The CC of Orlando staff also made a special effort to prepare a new, permanent “Presidential walkway” for this year, with photos of club Directors through time and other historical documents and pictures now displayed prominently in a well-traveled corridor of the clubhouse. A special Events Calendar was also prepared for 2011 that features historical photos for each month and a photo of the current club on the back, along with the reprint of an editorial that was published by the Orlando Morning Sentinel in 1918, when the club was facing one of its earliest financial challenges.
“The Orlando Country Club must be supported,” the editorial read. “It is an Elixir of Life. It prolongs life and keeps man physically and mentally fit. It is a great social center where better citizens are created and moulded into shape for service in business, at home, or in the shop.”
After reproducing this on the calendar, the club added a new line: It still holds true today.
Reasons to Relax
What also holds true now is that The Country Club of Orlando staff is well-equipped to handle not only the special demands of an anniversary year, but also the promise of continued growth in its ongoing club business into 2012 and beyond.
When Timlin decided to come from the Pittsburgh area to take the club’s GM/COO position five years ago, he was attracted by what he saw as the special combination of “an ‘A’ club in terms of facilities and tradition and membership, but a place that was still down-to-earth, and definitely not elitist.” He also liked that he would inherit a veteran staff on which he would actually be one of the “least experienced” department heads.
That expertise was further bolstered by the additions, after Timlin arrived, of two well-traveled industry veterans who were Orlando natives and wanted to settle back down in the area. In 2009, Jay Davis, whose 30-year career had previously taken him to distinguished properties such as Castle Pines, Kansas City Country Club, and Southern Highlands, and in some cases had included general management duties in addition to a golf pro role, came back to be the new Head Golf Professional at the CC of Orlando, where he had learned the game as a youth as part of a member family.
And in 2010, Jim Ellison, after spending over 30 years with Arnold Palmer Golf Management tending to the Bay Hill Club and then other courses around the world, came on as Golf Course Superintendent—just in time, Ellison says, to face “one of the most challenging winters ever for Florida courses.”
With this kind of talent and expertise in place throughout the house, the easygoing Timlin has seen his role as one of “not being dictatorial, but creating an atmosphere of respect that allows a lot of high-caliber people to work together for the mutual benefit of the membership.”
That spirit of relaxed and confident teamwork has not only helped the CC of Orlando staff take on the special challenges of the centennial, for which planning began two years ago, but also to continually implement successful new ideas for keeping the club active on a regular basis.
For example, Timlin reports that while the wedding business has always remained strong at such a traditional venue as the CC of Orlando (28 are already on the books for 2011), the club has made a renewed effort to find new sources of other types of banquet revenue that can replace the drop in business-related holiday entertainment that all clubs have seen.
“Corporate holiday parties have gone away; that’s clearly something we’ll see less of from now on,” Timlin says. “But our banquets will still be up 8 to 10% this year, because we’ve been encouraging members to use the club for other events, such as dinners for private schools they’re associated with.
“We don’t promote this in a way that goes against our culture,” he adds. “We just have done some direct mailings, in a low-key way, that let members know what we have in the way of things like space, menus and audio-visual capabilities. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to have those events here before; it’s just that they never thought about the club as a place for them, until we reminded them of what we can do here.”
The confidence level among the CC of Orlando staff about what they can provide and deliver is so high, in fact, that the club just raised its food-and-beverage minimum for the first time in 30 years, from $600 to $900 annually. “It’s a ‘non-event’ that will affect less than 4% of our membership,” Timlin says. “Our average member spends $2,100 a year on F&B.”
With popular offers like all-you-can-eat sushi spreads for $29.95, featuring hand-rolled orders, now being held twice a month at the club and selling out “80% of the time,” according to Timlin, and what he laughingly refers to as “flash mobs” now often forming in the spring around the club pool, as younger members gather spontaneously on nice evenings and text or call friends to join them, there aren’t likely to be too many other “non-events” at The Country Club of Orlando for some time to come.