Florida Theme Park Tour: Part 0 - Intro and cullinary reviews

Sunday, January 30, 2005 9:00 PM
I flew down from Ottawa January 22 and spent a week visiting the non-Disney parks. My wife and I toured around with another couple, and we had a great time. Since one of our group was 5-1/2 months pregnant, we couldn't do commando-style dawn-to-dusk theme-park-touring every day. But we still experienced a lot.

We visited:
Cypress Gardens - January 23
Busch Gardens Tampa - January 25
Universal Islands of Adventure - January 26, 27, and 29
Universal Studios - January 27, 28 and 29

I'll post reviews of those parks and attractions momentarily.

What we missed in coaster-hunting, we made up for by sampling some of the best (and not-so-great) restaurants in Central Florida. Here are my thoughts on the food:

T.G.I. Friday's (Crossroads Mall) - Not the best food, but it's safe and they move people quickly. When other restaurants had 45-60 minute lines, TGI Fridays had 15-20 minute waits. They moved the crowds. Twice we found ourselves desperate for a sit-down meal, and both times TGI Friday's fit the bill.

Adventure Grill (Cypress Gardens) - It was edible, but I would never recommend a $6 cold hamburger to anyone.

Wolfgang Puck (Downtown Disney) - We visited this restaurant for lunch. The staff goofed up and seated several tables of walk-ins while we waited with our pager in the bar. We were angry and hungry by the time we made it to a table. When the manager stopped by and asked how we were doing, he got an earful. That earned us a free round of desserts and much better attention from the serving staff. The entreeā€™s were good, but not great. The desserts were decadent -- we were practically licking our plates.

Victoria and Albert's (Disney's Grand Floridian Resort) - If you really want to treat yourself, this is the place. We celebrated our 'Last Hurrah', as in our last joint vacation before kids. The service was great, and the multi-course meal was amazing. If you like food and wine pairings, this is the best matching we've found (and we've tried several different 4 and 5-star restaurants). The best match wasn't even a wine: Chimay (a Belgian ale) matched with a mushroom soup. :)

Stanleyville Smokehouse (Busch Gardens Tampa) - This is a cafeteria-style restaurant by the Sheikra construction. The food was quite good (especially the barbeque). What was totally outstanding was the service. Several times throughout the meal, staff asked us how we were doing and if we needed anything else. Wow! This is no ordinary cafeteria!

Olive Garden (Busch Boulevard, Tampa) - Good, safe food.

Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous (Universal Islands of Adventure, Seuss Landing) - An adequate pit-stop. While the fried chicken was bland, the corn, potatoes, biscuits and gravy were good.

Emeril's (Universal City Walk) - Great service, great food, great wine, what else is there? There were three things about this place I didn't expect: 1 - none of our food was doused in Louisiana Hot Sauce, 2 - Emeril's makes their own ice cream, and 3 - no one said 'Bam!' Was I disappointed? Nope. I will recommend it to all my friends.

Mythos (Universal Islands of Adventure, The Lost Continent) - This was by far the most surprising restaurant we visited. The food was as good, if not better than Wolfgang Puck. The managing chef (Mark) regularly toured the restaurant and answered any questions we had. (He even gave us a discount for a return visit.) The restaurant itself is a marvel of architecture, with fountains, interesting cave-like features, and a great view. The servers could have been more attentive, but the food more than made up for their tardiness. We repeated Mythos because it was the best meal we ever ate inside a theme-park.

Jinko (Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge) - The service was good and the food was original. If you want to try something different, this is the place. The wait staff were ok, but not as enthusiastic as I expected, especially since the host staff were so nice. The food was unique and tasty, and the waiter recommended a good wine (South African, of course). The desserts were not remarkable, at least compared to Mythos, Wolfgang Puck and Victoria and Albert's. Jinko is also an architecturally interesting restaurant, with crane-shaped lamps and a continually changing 'sunset' wall.

As a side-note, I will say that Disney staff are the best public relations / crisis management staff I've ever seen in a restaurant. Two tables away, a teenaged guest went into seizures. Her mother gave staff instructions while holding and consoling her struggling daughter. Staff responded immediately, quietly clearing the table of glasses and cutlery (out of reach of the flailing arms), bringing wads of cloth napkins to use as pillows for the girl to rest her head on the table, and escorting the restaurant manager to the table within 2 minutes and hotel doctor a minute or so later. Within 10 minutes paramedics were on the scene and escorting the girl out on a stretcher. Most other diners never noticed anything until the uniformed paramedics rolled the stretcher past their table. Medical emergencies are never easy to deal with, but in my opinion Jinko and Animal Kingdom Resort staff did a superb job.

Mel's Diner (Universal Studios Florida) - The burgers were very good but the chicken fingers were bland beyond comparison.

Beverly Hills Boulangerie (Universal Studios Florida) - You can never go wrong with Cheesecake Factory desserts!

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Tuesday, February 1, 2005 8:32 AM

The best match wasn't even a wine: Chimay (a Belgian ale)

It may not be a wine, but it is properly served in a fluted glass! Chimay is good stuff. Thanks for the culinary reviews! We thought about Jiko , but since we already have kids are planning a visit to Boma instead.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2005 10:36 AM
What a great trip report. It IS all about the food, after all.

Agreed on the Chimay. Good stuff.

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Tuesday, February 1, 2005 4:01 PM
I know this sounds crazy, but Disney employees are trained actors, many of them. Actors are trained to jump in, without hesitation, into any scene. They take direction well, and immediately comply. Actors, for the most part, are compliant, composed improvisers who are trained in the art of spontaneous agreement and instant action. Sounds dopey, but it's true.

Also, actor training includes lots of movement training where the actors interact physically, so they're not afraid to touch people -- lift them up, throw them, whatever. I've hired actors and non-actors in business settings, and the actors are the ones you can count on to respond instantly and excessively to business requests -- urgent or otherwise.

My grouchy boss started choking on some food at our Christmas party, and it was the actors in the group who jumped in and Heimliched her. All the other non-actor employees sat there frozen as they contemplated law suits, their "personal space", and her impending death. The actors saved her. Unfortunately.

BILL *** Edited 2/1/2005 9:02:29 PM UTC by Bill***

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Tuesday, February 1, 2005 4:10 PM
It's nice to see another good review of Mythos. We have gone to IOA a ton of times over the last couple of years and have never gone in. We plan on remedying that on our trip next weekend.
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