Luxury homes inside Disney World attracting families

Golden Oak offers homes on site of former Disney golf course

ORLANDO, Fla. – On a recent vacation to Walt Disney World, Carl Guidice and his family found themselves on the northeast corner of the property near the Fort Wilderness campground, puzzled by what appeared to be a residential neighborhood tucked behind a guard house and a gate.

[WEB EXTRA:  Pics show Golden Oak inside Disney ]

"We drove by the entrance. My wife went online and looked it up, and we realized there was a community here," said Guidice, who was surprised to learn luxury homes were being built less than three miles from the Magic Kingdom theme park.

Golden Oak is a neighborhood of 400 homes now under construction on the site of a former Disney golf course. Unlike the Town of Celebration, which Disney developed in the 1990s on land adjacent to Interstate 4, residents must drive deep into Walt Disney World property to access the private subdivision's gated entryway.

With home prices beginning at $1.8 million and community fees that can exceed $20,000 a year, the company has primarily marketed Golden Oak to wealthy travelers as a vacation resort community.

However, some families who initially purchased homes to use a few times a year while visiting the theme parks have decided to make Golden Oak their permanent residence.

"We were living in Maui, which in many people's eyes is paradise," said Guidice. "So I knew if I was going to get them back to the mainland, I had to find a place that could rival Maui. And we found it here at Golden Oak."

The former business owner and his wife did not have to convince their daughter, Mikayla, who's now in sixth grade. "Let's do it," she said she told them. "I would love to live in Disney World!"

Likewise, Jonathan Ledden said he had no trouble leaving behind his job in Chicago's financial services industry to relocate his family to Golden Oak.

"We were probably down here 40 or 50 days a year," said Ledden. "And we reached a point where we said, ‘Why are we going back to the snow and the cold when we can live here?'"

Disney first began offering home sites in late 2010, with the first residents moving in about a year later. The company has now sold more than 115 lots, an average of two or three every month. Nearly 40 of the homes are complete, according to Orange County property records.

At 3,110 square feet, the Guidice family's home is one of the smallest in Golden Oak. The largest to date -- still under construction -- will be 14,642 square feet, with seven bedrooms and 11 bathrooms.

Although homes start at $1.8 million, county records indicated most far exceed that. The priciest mansion so far sold for $5.8 million.

The only entrance to Golden Oak sits on Disney property.  Prior to construction, the subdivision was de-annexed from the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which provides government services to the Disney resort.   Now part of unincorporated Orange County, the development generated $2.3 million in property tax revenue in 2014, with only about 10 percent of the homes complete.

Disney selected seven Central Florida builders to construct the custom homes in Golden Oak, which is named after a California ranch where Walt Disney shot films and TV shows. The company established strict architectural design guidelines for the homes' exteriors, but owners have more flexibility to personalize the interior, including Disney-themed decor.

"Everyone here certainly likes Disney," said Ledden. "Some are absolutely Disneyphiles and their whole house is decorated that way. And then you have us, who just like living here, with or without Disney."

A child's bedroom in one of the community's model homes is decorated with a "Frozen" theme, including Elsa's dress encased in a glass frame and a chandelier that resembles a glowing ice crystal. However, other Disney touches are much more subtle.

"We were here two months before we found out there's a ‘Hidden Mickey' up there," said Guidice, pointing to a stone embedded in their outdoor fireplace chimney that is shaped like the mouse's head. "One of the kids playing in the pool recognized it."

Besides the $5,300 annual homeowners association fee, Golden Oak residents must also pay $15,000 a year for access to Summerhouse, a Tuscan-style clubhouse designed by Walt Disney Imagineering that features a gym, swimming pool, cocktail lounge and restaurant.

Since this is Disney World, Golden Oak homeowners also receive annual passes to the theme parks and private shuttle service to the main entrances.

"If it's a quiet Friday afternoon and you want to go ride Space Mountain, you're there in 15 minutes," said Ledden.

But he insisted Golden Oak is far from being a stereotypical playground for the ultra-rich.

"It's not the Hamptons," said Ledden. "It's regular folks."

The Guidice family admits they were a bit apprehensive about what their new neighbors might be like.

"I have to be honest," said Rebecca Guidice, "we were a little concerned when we moved in that there would be an element of..."

"Snobbiness," interjected her husband.

But the Guidices said they quickly discovered most of the people moving into Golden Oak were down-to-earth families.

"We've got this great group of people who have been very successful financially," said Rebecca Guidice. "But they know they're just lucky, and they know where it comes from. And there's just a sense of realness that you don't find everywhere else."

No famous celebrities or athletes are residents of Golden Oak yet, according to county records, nor have any Disney executives purchased lots there. But the community is populated with attorneys, entrepreneurs and numerous high-level business leaders, including a former CEO of Walmart.

"Nobody cares what kind of car you drive. Nobody cares what company you used to run," said Carl Guidice. "That doesn't matter here. Nobody cares. They want to know what you did at the park today. Or what character you met."

Guidice estimated about one-third of Golden Oak's current residents live in the community full time, with the rest vacationing there several times a year, or lending their homes to extended family and friends. About a dozen owners have ties to Brazil or Great Britain, according to county records.

"It's almost like a homecoming when your neighbors come back at Christmas and Easter," said Ledden. "Then, this time between the holidays, it's pretty quiet around here."

While some of the children who live in Golden Oak are home-schooled or attend private schools like Windermere Prep, the neighborhood is zoned for Orange County public schools -- specifically Sunset Park Elementary, Bridgewater Middle School and West Orange High School. Last year, a school bus drove onto Disney property every day to pick up a student who lived there, according to a school district spokeswoman.

Although Golden Oak residents are just a quick shuttle ride away from Disney World's numerous restaurants, most frequently venture off Disney property.

"Our grocery store is Publix, right up (County Road) 535," said Ledden. He decided to move his family to Golden Oak, in part, because of Central Florida's amenities and economic opportunities outside of the theme parks.

"Over the course of my children's lifetime, they're better off here," said Ledden. "(There are) lower taxes (and a) business-friendly environment."

"Once you experience this place, you're going to be hard-pressed to match it," said Guidice, who is building a larger home in Golden Oak now that they have become permanent residents.

"I've been all over the world. I've been fortunate to see all kinds of cultures. I've lived in some very nice places," he said. "There is nothing like this. It doesn't exist."