The Legends golf course at Orange Lake Resort in Kissimmee: Ready to go the distance

By Derek Duncan, Contributor

KISSIMMEE, Fla. - The word "Legends" is a bit overused when it comes to naming golf courses, at least it is in Florida, but in the case of The Legends at Orange Lake, it is apt considering its inspiration.

Legends golf course at Orange Lake Resort
In 1998, golf at Orange Lake became more than just comfortable and convenient with the opening of The Legends course.
Legends golf course at Orange Lake Resort
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This Legends is named in reference to its founder, Kemmons Wilson, and its architect, Arnold Palmer. While everyone reading this is undoubtedly aware of Palmer's status as golf legend, many may be unfamiliar with Wilson's own legendary impact on the game. As founder and owner of the Holiday Inn chain of hotels, Wilson has provided comfortable beds and warm showers for traveling golfers since 1952. Thanks to him, golfers would never have to sleep in their cars again, unless they wanted to.

His impact on the hospitality business has probably earned him a bust in their hall of fame, but when he opened Orange Lake Resort in Kissimmee in 1982, he definitely solidified his place in the more important pantheon of great golf vacation providers.

The sleepy Orange Lake Resort is located immediately south of Disney World and has always been a comfortable and convenient alternative to the populous and glitzy resorts that harbor most of the vast amusement park's guests. Its original golf course, a 27-hole layout called The Resort course designed by Joe Lee, winds lazily throughout the villas and ranch-style time-share condos, dotted with lakes and framed by palm trees (there's also a 36-hole Putt-Putt course that has been seen on ESPN). The play was always nice, but maybe not quite on the level of other first class resorts.

In 1998, golf at Orange Lake became more than just comfortable and convenient with the opening of The Legends course, part of an ambitious resort-wide expansion. The addition of The Legends, along with a lighted 9-hole executive course also designed by Palmer Course Design Co. (Senior Director of Golf and Tennis Jim West calls it "probably the hardest 9 holes on the property"), combined to give the resort a total of 90 golf "holes" (45 championship, 9 executive, 36 carpeted).

"We knew we needed to expand the golf in order to accommodate the expansion," West says, referring to the increased sum of 2,500 units that Orange Lake will have once the project is complete.

The 7,072-yard Legends does more than just add another 18 holes to the resort, it adds fascinating golf. Although it currently flies under the radar of popular golf destinations in the area, The Legends is easily one of the strongest and most electric layouts in southern Orlando. Those who accuse Palmer and partner Ed Seay of designing easy or tepid golf courses (you know who you are) have not kept abreast of what the team is up to nowadays. The Legends is a bold, demanding course created with much of the same flair of their newest Florida design, The Golf Club at North Hampton in Yulee, which opened last spring.

The site for this course is a woodsy but flat parcel on the northern side of the resort. While there is a considerable degree of shaping and engineering in the end result, particularly around the intricate green complexes, no concessions to strategy were made. Out of necessity, this course was definitely "built", but it was built to place a premium on decision-making, angles of play, and drama.

"The course's strength is its diversity of shot values," West explains. Yet when he says, "the green complexes are designed to hold well-stuck shots and punish those that are off-line," it doesn't fully describe the nature of these targets. Yes, there are several that are supported by the rough rock walls that Palmer and Seay have been high on in recent years, but the movements and contours of these greens, and to some degree the way they are supported by bunkers, give The Legends a very real old school character.

The Legends, despite its rather aggressively photogenic appearance, is a thought-provoking golf course studded with Golden Age features. It is a course with neo-classical aspects brought about amidst a slew of modern landscaping accouterments.

The first hole features a green sunk down behind a large bunker, not fully visible from the higher right-hand portion of the fairway but open to approaches coming in from the left. The green falls away on both sides into mown chipping areas making the actual playing surface much smaller. These rounded edges (that often funnel shots into bunkers) are found on numerous greens throughout the course.

The bunkering, too, is from an older style and at times bears resemblance (in appearance if not playability) to the amorphous, finger- and toe-edged bunkering of Alister MacKenzie.

"Palmer did some interesting work on the bunkers," West says, "giving them a very natural look around the fringes." Sometimes they are placed to protect segments of a green, in other areas they work in illusory capacity to play with depth perception and mask distances.

There are holes that mandate intelligent thinking before the tee shot is struck, including the 610-yard fourth and the maddening 398-yard 14th. Both holes can reward the player who approaches them from the correct angles and have definite areas of difficulty that aren't obvious at first sight.

The fourth is a level three-shotter for almost everyone that twists through a variety of hazards. To get the ball in the optimum position for the approach, the first two longer shots will have had to been maneuvered correctly. Otherwise a semi-blind wedge or mid-iron third from an uneven lie or waste bunker will result.

The green can't be seen from the tee at the 14th. All that is visible is a wide, crowned fairway corridor and a large waste area on the left. Challenging the inside left corner of this remote dogleg seems like the bold play, but it might not help-the green is still blocked on the left by trees from this position, secluded in a severe wrap around section behind the wetlands. A better play is to the right portion of the fairway because even though the approach is longer, the small and well-bunkered green is at least visible. Anything too close to the left will have a blind iron that must get quickly up and over the trees. Though not long, the 14th is a position hole that yields access from only certain locations away from the aggressive line.

Many greens are guarded by water-eight to be exact, including the nerve-racking 425-yard 10th, which calls for a full-throttle middle- to long-iron directly over the center of the hazard to a sloping, shallow green-but others are more sublime. The green complex at the fifth is heavily contoured but without a bunker, and the eighth is set simply against a forested backdrop, one small bunker to the right and only its crowned surface to otherwise protect it.

Other notable features include the alternate tees at the par three 12th, a good, short par four (drivable for some), and plenty of risk-reward pin placements. The 18th is one of the wildest par fours on the course (and long at 440 yards from the tips), reminiscent of the 13th at North Hampton for its convolution and sheer abundance of hazards.

The variety of holes and throwback features is refreshing even if it is wrapped in the glossy, busy landscaping (and some will be turned off by the multi-story condos that will backdrop holes 1 and 10 when they are completed). The design credit for much of what is good here should go to Harrison Minchew, who seems to be the on-site common denominator in the Palmer Course Design Co.'s recent Florida successes.

Despite its obvious strengths, The Legends seems to get lost in the south Orlando golf scene, but that doesn't seem to bother West. The course does well for itself with the majority of rounds coming from resort guests, and in that way, it's been a success at what it was designed to do. Though West says The Legends is not in competition with the nearby Disney courses, ChampionsGate, Falcons Fire, or any other nearby hot spots, he could easily put his track up against any of them. Pound for pound, this course is a contender and has the capability to go the distance with any on this side of town.

Derek DuncanDerek Duncan, Contributor

Derek Duncan's writing has appeared in,,,, LINKS Magazine and more. He lives in Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and is a graduate of the University of Colorado with interests in wine, literary fiction, and golf course architecture.

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