A special sneak peek at the new Waldorf Astoria

Newly constructed hotels almost never invite the media to check them out a month before the ribbon-cutting. But this is no ordinary year, and this is no ordinary hotel opening. The Waldorf Astoria, a grande dame of American hotels, has chosen this economic climate, of all times, to open its first outpost beyond the borders of Manhattan, and it’s doing it at Walt Disney World, of all places.

The hotel has taken $70 million in group bookings since June of 2007,” said Tom Parke, its Director of Marketing, who said the so-called AIG Effect may end up benefiting the hotel in its opening months. “This whole year, corporations haven’t really met. But they’ve got to meet in the fourth quarter. When are we open? Fourth quarter.”

On October 1, 78 years to the day after the opening of its Park Avenue flagship and 38 years to the day after the opening of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the 497-room Waldorf opens in Orlando. Times are rough for the Florida tourism industry, and the hunger for business may account for how smoothly construction has apparently gone: We’re three weeks away, and nearly everything is in place. The AC has been cranking all summer, and the pool has had water in it for three months.

In an effort to make sure everything came in on time and with no funny business, the hotel hired two security firms — so they could keep an eye on each other. No wonder the management had no shame in inviting Gadling to see their handiwork, through the clutter of ladders and plastic sheeting.

%Gallery-72994%Although the New York City namesake is known for its oaky, old-world staunchness, the new version is decidedly Florida, complete with Rees Jones-designed golf course and 24,000-foot Guerlain spa. Strange as it is to imagine the Waldorf with an all-day kid’s club, this one will have one, and it’s also decorated with the sort of primary colors and vibrant palette that might scandalize Manhattanites but define the American tropics.

The Florida Waldorf has shaken some of the stodgy trappings that have attracted U.S. presidents and industrialists for years — this is the cheery Waldorf that Cole Porter might have preferred — but it’s still full of bespoke touches that few other Florida mass-market luxury properties have, including fabric wallpaper, complicated ceiling moldings, marble that won’t quit, and that towering lobby clock, a riff on the original. Check out that sumptuous blue carpeting in the new Peacock Alley.

At check-in, guests will also borrow an iPod Touch that can be stocked with movies and music. In-room docks will stream entertainment, and the devices can be taken into Orlando and used for navigation and on-the-go destination research.

The hotel is more or less swaddled in Disney property, but it won’t be beholden to Disney lines. The Waldorf has talked the resort into servicing it with its free bus system, but so guests won’t have to endure their crowds and the waits, the hotel will also furnish its own shuttles. Look past the stately pool — no slide here, although kids can use the one at the new Hilton, next door — and over the thin parcel of woods in the Bonnet Creek Nature Reserve, and you can just make out the day-glo rooftop of the tacky Disney’s Pop Century, the lowest-priced of The Mouse’s lodging options.

The new Waldorf is the first of a planned expansion of the brand, with more hotels to come in Jerusalem and New Orleans. Does the venerable name risk, like the once-vaunted Ritz-Carlton, becoming another watered-down brand name in the luxury hotel world? A lovely stage has been set, but the drama will be played out by the hotel’s clientele.