Walt Disney Slept Here.
As a youngster growing up in suburban Chicago in the early 1900s, Disney, like other Midwesterners, spent winters in the warm rolling hills of Central Florida. The story goes that young Walt even ventured to fellow Chicagoan William John Howey’s Florida Hotel in the town the latter founded called Howey-in-the-Hills.
No doubt Disney remembered the region’s vast openness as he searched for a place to build his second theme park – Disney World.
The Florida Hotel now is Mission Resort + Club, which features a tile mosaic of a smiling “Uncle Walt’’ on its second floor balcony.
Located 35 minutes northwest of Orlando, Mission Inn + Club – and Howey-in-the-Hills – has survived the “Disneyfication’’ of Central Florida. Each has grown (and continues to grow) into popular laid-back destinations to visit, live and play.
Yes, Orlando is just a short drive away, but there’s really no reason to leave. MIssion Resort + Club, acquired in 2023 by MMI Hotel Group from the Beucher family that had owned it since 1964, shows off the best of Lake County, FL. Recently inducted into the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the resort, best known for its Spanish architecture, features a marina on Lake Harris (popular for bass fishing), spa, hiking trails, tennis, boat rentals, four restaurants (don’t pass on the daily breakfast buffet at La Hacienda), and 176 hotel guest rooms, 131 deluxe rooms, 38 club suites, four one-bedroom suites, two two-bedroom suites and one penthouse suite with three bedrooms.
The resort’s Saturday Night Prime Rib and Seafood Fest at Nicker’s is popular with guests and locals alike.
Mission Resort + Club also has 30,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space. Thanks in large part to its aforementioned Spanish architecture, the resort is a popular destination for weddings.
Mission Resort’s most popular calling card, however, is its two golf courses, particularly El Campeon.
Built by George O’ Neal in 1917, El Campeon is one of the older courses in the South. Its classic design features unusually sharp elevation changes (up to 60 feet) in the typically flat Florida terrain. El Campeon has played host to multiple high school, college and professional tournaments.
In contrast, Las Colinas (The Hills) was created in 1992 by former PGA Tour winner and Florida native Gary Koch. Las Colinas is a bit more tame than El Campeon, but it’s still a good challenge for most resort players.
Each course at Mission Resort + Club features undulating greens surrounded by tropical vegetation and incorporates large water hazards on several holes. If you survive El Campeon’s signature 17th hole that has a long double dogleg, consider it a good round.
For Bryan Mulry, who was appointed PGA Director of Golf in March 2023, the uniqueness and beauty of the facility makes Mission Resort + Club a “must-play” golfing destination.
“There are not too many places where you can play two different courses at the same facility in one day and they are unique because they are two very different layouts,” said Mulry, who oversees golf operations for El Campeón and Las Colinas. “So, on the same property, you have one course that is played on undulating landscape with water on a lot of strategic holes and then you have Las Colinas designed through the residences and the tree lines which gives you a very different look and character.
“It’s a unique place because when you drive here, you don’t feel the hustle and bustle. Once you arrive in Howey-in-the-Hills and our resort, it is very quiet and secluded like a ‘kept secret’ in a way. It’s a very special place.”
Mulry said he has been repeatedly told by golfing guests that the beauty far outweighs the difficulty of the two courses.
“I always expect them to say it was a really hard golf course, but they don’t,” Mulry smiled. “What they really say is that it is beautiful. It is a landscape that they don’t typically see in Central Florida.
“Better-than-average players like the challenge of golf, and they don’t see the beauty. They just see the challenge, yet many love the scenery here. If you go to La Hacienda restaurant and sit on the back patio as the sun sets, I will put that up against a lot of other views, even an ocean view, because you are looking over the lake, the golf course, the 18th, the first hole and the clubhouse. It’s very picturesque. And if you go out to hole No. 7 late in the evening and watch the sunset from there, it’s incredible.”
Mulry feels a level of excitement every day that he works at Mission Resort + Club.
“You’ve got 36 holes of golf here that you don’t have anywhere else,” he said. “It’s in the middle of an area that has terrain that’s unnoticeable until you actually go see it. Playing here is an experience that everyone is going to have a different feel for.’’
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Feature Photo: El Campeon
Photos Courtesy of MIssion Resort + Club