A Disney World
of Golf

by Jay Coffin

To immerse yourself into any of the 99 holes of golf on the Walt DisneyWorld Resort is to play sleight of hand with your imagination. In a place known for flooding the senses with neon lights, bands, cartoon characters and fireworks, the golf experience is surprisingly serene.

Sometimes, when playing the Tom Fazio-designed Osprey Ridge course that opened in 1992, it's hard to imagine how close you are to all the activity. You get out on the course, and it's a complete world of its own. The golf is great, and Osprey Ridge is the most unique and peaceful of the courses at Disney. It is pure parkland in the middle of Florida, with enough trees to make you think you’re playing in a Carolina forest.

The dramatic layout winds through heavy vegetation and oak forests, with rolling terrain and several high ridges uncharacteristic of Florida. Wildlife abounds, and that's no accident. There are eight nesting platforms atop tall poles for ospreys, alongside ponds stocked with fish. There are hand-built boardwalks, instead of asphalt cart paths, winding through wetlands.

Ironically, when the PGA Tour comes to visit each year, it holds its tournament on the Palm and Magnolia courses. But this is because those courses have fewer trees and are more gallery-friendly. The Disney course with the most wildlife, the most tranquility and the most personality definitely is Osprey Ridge.

The Magnolia course has elevated tees and greens, rolling terrain, 97 bunkers and more than 1,500 magnolia trees along its fairways. As host of the final round of the PGA Tour event since 1971, the course is a tough test from the back tees. Recent renovations include rebuilt greens and improved ladies' tees.

The Palm is carved right out of the woods, although the trees aren’t nearly as thick as Osprey Ridge. With water in play on nine holes, the Palm isn't as long as Magnolia, but it definitely requires more accuracy. The 18th, a 454-yard par 4 with water in play on both the tee shot and the approach, is the signature hole.

There is peace and quiet at all the courses, complete with rolling hills that are home to various species of wildlife. It is a stark contrast to the theme parks down the road in the 47-square mile vacation sub-culture. The constant at Disney is fine golf. But each layout has its own personality, mainly because there were four designers—Fazio, Pete Dye, Joe Lee and Ron Garl.

The Lake Buena Vista course can play fairly short, depending on the tees you choose, but there are narrow fairways and an abundance of thick Bermuda grass rough. Highlights include the par-3 16th, with its island green, and the par-4 18th, a rigorous 448-yard dogleg. Like Magnolia and Palm, Lake Buena Vista was designed by noted architect Joe Lee.

Eagle Pines, located just east of Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort, is a pretty radical departure from the typical Florida course. Designed by Pete Dye, it resembles a Scottish links course. There are no elevated tees or greens, and the fairways are dished rather than crowned. Melded into low-lying wetlands and vast natural areas, it appears to be a nice, open course. But it is deceptive, punishing errant shots with traditional grass rough, sand and pine straw.

No matter which course you plan to play at Disney, it is important to plan. There are pointers that help optimize the golfing experience at the six Disney courses—Osprey Ridge, Palm, Magnolia, Eagle Pines, Lake Buena Vista and the nine-hole Oak Trail.

The daily greens fees on the 18-hole courses are all pretty pricey, ranging from $125-170 for resort guests during the January through April peak season. You can save money at Oak Trail, the nine-hole walking course. Fees are $38 for adults and $20 for juniors 17 and under.

Disney resort guests get a slight break in greens fees, but the best deal of all is to work out a golf package with a Disney representative that is included in a one-price arrangement when you stay at the resort. The packages, which offer a variety of price, can be arranged individually depending on how much golf you want to play. This plan makes the most sense economically.

What time of day to play is another important factor to consider. The courses are crowded in the morning, and pace of play can be very sluggish. But the courses thin out after 2pm, and crisp rounds are possible in mid-afternoon virtually any time of year. The afternoon is an ideal time to play if you can stand the heat. Some people can’t, particularly in July and August, but if you can tolerate the warm temperatures you will be surprised how fast you can get in 18 holes in the afternoon. Many players consider the heat worth the trade-off of a nice, smooth round with no waiting.

Another good thing to know is that there are complimentary taxi vouchers (through Yellow Cab) provided for Disney resort guests who are coming to play any of the courses. The valet desk or bell services will call a cab for guests, and pro shop personnel at the golf course will assist guests in returning to their hotels.

Tourists and Florida residents aren't the only golfers who enjoy the Disney experience. Since 1971 Disney has been host for a PGA Tour event. Even though it's an autumn event—a time of year when many of the top names in the game usually taper their schedules – the tournament still attracts big-time players. The attraction to past champions such as Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus is the same as it would be to people visiting Disney for a vacation: Great golf courses, and plenty to do before and after the round – not only for golfers of all levels, but their families.

All six courses offer full-service facilities, including driving ranges, well-equipped pro shops, locker rooms, snack bar, restaurants, and all are open to the public. Also, if you want to turn your trip into a working vacation—working on your golf game, that is—one-on-one instruction is available from a staff of PGA pros. Private lessons are available by appointment.

Golfers will discover that the entire golf experience is covered at Disney, and with a little planning you can beat the crowds and save a couple bucks.

As Disney's 99 holes of golf prove, especially the 18 at Osprey Ridge, all the magic at this kingdom isn't just for kids. •

Jay Coffin is a senior writer for GolfWeek magazine. He was born in Fort Myers and moved to Orlando to pursue a journalism career.

from the May-June 2006 issue

the Magnolia course

the Osprey Ridge course

the Palm course

the Eagle Pines course