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Lani Kai Resort on Fort Myers Beach turns 40

June 8, 2018
By JESSICA SALMOND ( , Cape Coral Daily Breeze

Robert Conidaris didn't know he was poor growing up.

It was the Great Depression.

"Nobody had anything," he said.

Article Photos

Jessica Salmond

Robert Conidaris’ favorite thing to do is to visit his restaurant and go up to tables of families and tell the children they get to have whatever dessert they want. “It's the cutest thing,” he said. “They don't even know who I am.”

Now, many years later, 86-year-old Conidaris is able to make sure every child at his establishment, The Lani Kai Resort, can get free dessert when they're eating in his restaurants.

The Lani Kai opened in 1978. In its 40 years on the beach, the resort has become something of an icon. The five-story building, with its colorful artwork, draws the eye as someone drives over the Matanzas Pass Bridge.

Conidaris decided to build the hotel while he was working in Florida as a contractor. He and his wife, Grace, moved down in 1974 and he was building four lane roads on the east coast of the state.

"Now they're six lanes," he said, chuckling.

His wife liked the Fort Myers Beach area, so he purchased some property and decided to build a resort as an investment. The beach was still small and sleepy in the '70s, and Grace wanted to help the area, he said.

The Lani Kai launched several crowd-drawing events: JetSki races, boat races and an air show.

"People came from all over. It brought people from all over to stay and invest here," Conidaris said.

During the early years of the establishment, Conidaris was still working as a contractor across the U.S. He said he got to the point where his other work and the resort became too much to handle. He wanted to move back to their Rochester hometown. But Grace loved the Lani Kai - and so they stayed, he said.

So, the Lani Kai stayed in Conidaris' hands, and it looks to stay that way.

The resort became a family affair: their children and grandchildren have or are working at the various businesses within the resort. It houses not only the hotel, but several restaurants, bars, a coffee shop and a gift shop.

Twenty-three-year-old Miranda Conidaris, one of Robert's grandchildren, literally grew up in the resort. There were so many grandchildren (25 in total) that the Conidarises ran a daycare in part of the resort to house the kids. Now, she and her older sister, Allie, are the resort's event managers.

"There's one Conidaris in every department," she said.

Her parent,s Ann and Michael, met at the Lani Kai, when Michael worked as a bartender; one of her cousin's parents met there, too. In the next 40 years, Miranda expects to see the Conidaris population growing at the resort as more and more of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up and start working at the family business.

Miranda moved to Tallahassee after graduating college, but it didn't last.

"I was driving home two to three times a month," she said.

The family aspect is what makes the resort dear to her heart, but for the resort's patrons, Miranda thinks it's her grandpa's charisma that makes people return again and again.

"He remembers a lot of people's names. He remembers all my friends' names," she said. "My grandpa brings people back."

Miranda also attributes the Lani Kai's loyal following to her grandfather's generous nature.

The Lani Kai, by way of the Conidarises, has been involved in a myriad of charitable events.

For 26 years, the Lani Kai hosted a special Christmas celebration for economically disadvantaged children in the beach area. For three days, the kids stayed with their families at the resort and were given gifts from their wish lists from Santa - who was portrayed by former Lee County Sheriff John McDougall for 10 years.

Although the charitable effort went on for so many years, Conidaris said he didn't want any publicity about it in the press. He wanted to make sure the children were sure that Santa Claus was doing all this for them.

Each year, the number of kids grew. It was a project Grace was fully in charge of; she died 10 years ago from cancer.

"I'm more proud of her," he said. "She loved Fort Myers Beach."

Conidaris is involved in lots of other fundraisers, as well. Every year, the Lani Kai hosts the Cincinnati Firefighters Show, which has grown in popularity over the nine years it's been hosted there. The show raises money for the ARABA Shriners.

The Lani Kai also picked up about half the bill for the New Year's Eve fireworks this year, giving $10,000 to the event that almost didn't happen because of a lack of community funding. Among other events, the resort has held appreciation breakfasts for law enforcement and hosted blood drives.

Conidaris said he's tried to make sure his resort is affordable and welcoming to anyone who wants to stay - two ideas that originally drew in families but have also made the Lani Kai a hot spot for spring breakers.

The Lani Kai has a colorful reputation as a haven for college students taking a break from school to party - and it's not a localized reputation. It's nationally known, having landed on several top spring break destination lists. In May, two journalists from gave the Lani Kai a generous spread as they came down to experience the place in their piece titled "Where spring breaks eternal." The story was shared in the Washington Post's daily newsletter wrap-up, WorldView.

While some of the spring breakers who come to the Lani Kai might give the resort a bad rap, Conidaris said he doesn't have anything bad to say about them.

"Nobody wants them. I've always had them," he said. "They come here for fun. They're good kids."

He's protective of the young college students. He gives them free "God Bless America" shirts. He dedicated three parking spots in his parking lot for the Sheriff's Office, as well as having his own security at the facility.

"We have rules, and we stick to them," he said.

MTV's "Girls Gone Wild" tried to do a segment on the Lani Kai, and he wouldn't let them in.

He even makes sure the kids get a good breakfast after one of the wild spring break nights by having his restaurant serve brunch for $8.

"They're my kids when they come here," he said.

The Lani Kai isn't going into its 40th anniversary peacefully; Conidaris opened a lawsuit against the Town of Fort Myers Beach and several surrounding businesses on parking regulations and business expansion, saying that the town has allowed "outrageous expansions" without the additional parking such expansions require. Next week, he's hosting lunch at the resort for a meeting of the minds of people who still oppose the TPI-FMB project approved May 21. He's planning to seek more legal action to oppose the development and the town's approval.

But it will be celebrating 40 years on the beach in true Lani Kai style: a party on Sunday, June 10.

From 1-4 p.m. Sunday, the resort welcomes its loyal patrons to a barbecue, games and prizes, as well as family-friendly attractions like a bounce house and slide, arts and crafts, face painting and balloon artists. The event is free to attend.

Over the years, Conidaris has taken guests' and patrons' suggestions to heart, trying to make sure if anyone asks for something, they can get it. The rooftop bar, the SunDeck, was a product of a request; so was serving Starbucks products in the Casablanca Cafe.

"I've had the happiest people on the island. It's the people's beach," Conidaris said. "All the businesses help contribute to that."

But what he thinks made the Lani Kai so special was Grace. Her presence is still felt everywhere - and physically manifested. In the lobby dining area, a heart with RC+GC is carved into a pillar. In the Casablanca Cafe, her portrait is painted into the artwork.

"She loved this place," he said.

As for Robert, he's just happy to help other people be happy.

"Thanks for being here," he said. It's the Lani Kai's motto.



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