Every few years one of Jim's national organizations plans their annual meeting at Disney. Three years ago they were at Grand Floridian, and my understanding is that this time they were shooting for Contemporary but at the last stages of planning got put back to Grand instead.
I was ok with that.
We invited another couple who we are close with to go along this time. Neither had been to Disney World since they were in college, so I knew we were in for a Magical time. (Especially since exactly 60 days out two of us spent 4 hours at my dining room table hammering out the schedule....)
We had a wonderful time, needless to say, and rather than give you a blow by blow I think instead I'll touch on some highlights, some new experiences, and some things that stick in my mind for one reason or another.
Around Christmas, one evening over drinks, this couple we went with said "So we can't be in Orlando without going to Pulse to pay our respects, right?" And I said "No, we won't be doing that. Well, one, it's in town and nowhere near, and two, we're using Magical Express and won't have a car." The next thing I knew they were on the phone renting a car from the Hertz at WDW for one day so we could all go. We chose our day of arrival for the trip to S. Orange Ave, as the day would be half eaten up anyway. Once we got there and in the hotel, picking up the car was easy, so I took some time to drive everyone around the tourist areas. We went by Universal, down I Drive, and cruised by Fun Spot. Then we went on to Pulse.
Have you ever finally gone somewhere that you've seen a million times, on film or television but never in person? Has your pre-set notion ever matched what it really turned out to be? Never for me, and that was the case here. We pulled up to the club and I tried really hard to match the surroundings to the images we saw on the news of people running, terrified in the dark. Nothing seemed right. But there it was, and we had the sobering privilege of walking around the tall fence to view the endless notes, mementos, and memorials. There were probably 20 or so other people who came and went during our time there. We visited with a few, but for the most part we stayed quiet. It was sad to see and quite humbling, and I'm so grateful that we took the time and trouble to go. I'll never forget it.
We also got to eat at Sweet Tomatoes on the way back to WDW. Yay!
Speaking of food, we had some awesome meals this trip. We took advantage of some old standbys, but tried quite a few new spots as well. I think Orlando is slowly becoming the Las Vegas of the south in terms of fine dining, and celebrity chefs are opening more and more rooms around town. On our first night we ubered over to Springs where I had made us reservations for dinner at Art Smith's Homecoming. The place promises good, Southern/Florida cuisine, a farm-to-table philosophy, and serves legendary fried chicken. The drink menu is shine-centric, not my favorite, so I tried a local, Tampa IPA of some sort. All of our meals were great, and the decor is beautiful, so Homecoming comes highly recommended by me.
We also planned an evening at Frontera Cocina by Rick Bayless, at Springs as well. It was higher-end, and featured a very imaginative Mexican menu. I'd been wanting to try a Bayless restaurant for years and I wasn't disappointed by his famous, awesome flavors. The place itself was very casual, and in the back there's a nice bar and tables on the water.
And I found this interesting, but anytime we ate at a nice, non-Disney restaurant we were approached outside and asked to take a survey about our experience. Apparently Disney is keeping a very close eye on these newcomers to make sure they are supplying visitors with the acceptable level of experience. Makes sense, but I've got news for them- many of these places were every bit as good or better than the the Disney restaurants we ate at this time. (Be Our Guest? Just awful-never again) Perhaps they're trying to avoid the debacle that Cat Cora's restaurant at Boardwalk turned out to be. (Or so I've heard. I liked it the night we went, but I guess Disney cut her loose, prematurely ending the contract.)
California Grill at Contemporary is one of our all time favorites and after this last visit remains so. The view is spectacular, the food is awesome, and the place looks terrific. Decor there is mid-century, and the art, fabrics, and carpets are Mary Blair inspired. I imagine we'll never skip it.
Poor Boardwalk. I like it there, but it always seems like the forgotten stepchild of Disney, especially now that Springs is drawing such huge crowds. There are plenty of resorts within walking or boating distance, but in all my visits I've never seen it very busy.
And back to fine dining for a sec, one night we tried Flying Fish over there, and I'm hear to tell you that we all agreed it was one of the best meals any of us had had anywhere. Just delicious. They've recently renovated and refurbished and the room was spectacular, and the service was impeccable. There was also some authentic art and pieces-parts from Coney Island's Flying Turns in the vestibule so that was fun to see.
And for that matter, the next time any of you are at Disney be sure to visit the BoardWalk Inn. It's full of authentic seaside amusement relics, from carousel rounding boards and shields in the lobby, to boardwalk "nanny chairs", to a miniature antique working Ilions carousel. I went to the desk to ask a cast member whether the stuff was real or repro, and she just happened to be the guide for the hotel's "Ballyhoo Tour". I was impressed by her knowledge of boardwalk history and learned all kinds of new stuff, and she seemed delighted to be talking to a guest who actually got it. I recommend this diversion to any enthusiast who has a love and appreciation for history and amusement park antiques.
I was there one evening last February. It was cold and so much was still under construction. What a difference now! They've really done a nice job with the place and it's wildly popular-I've never seen such crowds there before. The Edison is still under construction, but it looks to be the last major piece of the pie.
I've heard some people complain about Springs, like, "Eh- any mall in America" but I guess I'm alright with that part. In the end I think it's better than the long-bemoaned Pleasure Island concept. There's no gate and it offers such a wide range of shopping, eating, and entertainment options that no one should be disappointed. I'm certain they get their fair share of looky-loos, but I saw plenty of people queuing up for food, drinks, and at cash registers. We'll see what stays afloat.
What else? One night we had a round at Jock Lindsay's Hangar, (which is very well done), had Sprinkles cupcakes after a dinner, and on the last afternoon of the trip I FINALLY got to try Characters in Flight. It was fun, but probably nothing I'd ever do again. We shopped, and looked through the big new Coca-Cola store. One evening Jim had an event to attend at Splitsville, and said it too was nice, and lots of fun.
The Boathouse is cute, has those amphibious cars for hire, and features DreamBoats, which is a floating museum of antique pleasure boats which I could stare at all day. Wonderful, especially to a boating enthusiast.
That's all for now. I'll visit with you later about our theme park days and maybe even a little about Drinking Around the World.
The problem at Boardwalk is that sometimes the security people are dicks about letting you park at one of the Epcot hotels, especially during F&W. Yeah, I get it, people kind of cheat by parking there, but the rest of the year, what's the problem?
It's still weird to drive by Pulse. I know most of the rest of the country moved on ages ago, but it's still unsettling to go by there. That the owner decided to keep the property and do who knows what has kind of made that drag on, but I don't think there's any nefarious intent there (or on the part of the city when they offered to buy it).
I think Orlando is slowly becoming the Las Vegas of the south in terms of fine dining, and celebrity chefs are opening more and more rooms around town.
I've got news for them- many of these places were every bit as good or better than the the Disney restaurants we ate at this time.
Great trip report and a fun read.
Totally agree about the vast off-site dining options.
I'm in the Orlando area several times a year, including for IAAPA and there is no doubt that there are some amazing dining experiences in the area if you are a foodie and willing to venture off Disney or Universal property.
You can google some of the incredible dining options available, and please stay away from the chains that you can get back at home. If you are into good meals, central Florida (with a quick Uber ride) is really the Las Vegas of the south in many respects.
(Be Our Guest? Just awful-never again)
Please expand on this. I have no interest in the place, but my wife is really disappointed every time we can't get a seat there... which has been every day we've been there since it opened.
(Be Our Guest? Just awful-never again.)
Did you try the grey stuff? I hear it's delicious!
But then again, what do I know?
Glad to. Here's a buck fifty's worth of my two cents.
And I'd like to say maybe it's just me, but all four of us were underwhelmed-especially for the price.
We too have been disappointed on previous visits when we couldn't get in for dinner. The last time we were at MK we got a txt from Disney asking if we'd like an extra FP to try lunch there. We did and it was ok. The atmosphere is huge dining hall, the food was sandwiches, and we concluded that dinner there would surely be a whole lot more magical. And, in fact, we'd heard this hard-to-get was just that.
We didn't have a res. for anywhere on Tuesday night so our concierge got us in to BOG for dinner and we were excited. It was for 7 o'clock and we were hoping to be out in time to catch Wishes. There was a long line to check in and we weren't admitted to the castle for at least 10 minutes. What we found was a place that wasn't much different from lunch- the lighting was brighter than it needed to be, tile floors and kids running everywhere caused the rooms to be very noisy, and I thought I had heard about transformative effects but there were none. Finally, and this is the important part, the food wasn't great. I had salmon, Jim had lamb shank, and the ladies each had the pork chop. We had bites all around, and agreed that the dishes reminded us of what you might get at Texas Roadhouse or something. Not bad, just not all that good. Prices were in the 30-40 range, and we felt it was expensive for what we were getting. I had the Grey Stuff again and it wasn't nearly as "delicious" as I remembered.
The Beast makes sweeping entrances every so often then goes into the library for pictures. Our server was sweet but maybe we caught her too late in the day. The Stufflebean family sat nearby and the parents were encouraging their toddlers to climb on everything then scream about it. And while we were finally eating we heard the fireworks through the castle walls.
So maybe I'm judging based on anticipointment, but really, we expected something more Magical than what we found at lunch that once. Maybe they would benefit by specific seatings, atmospheric lighting, some rugs on the floor, tablecloths, and a little show of some kind. Like they do on some cruise ships. That wouldn't do much for capacity, granted, but it would up the elegance factor and maybe a 60 buck average dinner would be easier to choke down.
The Beast's castle itself is cool, and there's quite a bit of detailed themeing, but we'd already had that tour. On the plus side, we left there so late that MK was long closed so our journey through Cinderella's Castle to the gate was gorgeous, humanoid-free, and there was great picture taking of Prince Charming Regal Carrousel, the castle, and Main Street.
Not trying to sound like we sniff and turn our noses up at everything, (well, ok, kinda...) and I'm sure there are plenty of satisfied customers down there, but we weren't four of them. One and done.
In another thread a while back, Jeff commented about the relatively bland dining options available throughout the MK and I couldn’t agree more. At least compared to other dining options across WDW.
And BOG is no exception, however, I'm not quite as extreme as RCMAC, but he brings up very valid points and is pretty spot on with his observations. I’ve had both lunch and dinner at BOG several times, just because I was able to score a reservation and didn’t want to waste it. But yea, it’s nothing remarkable other than the bragging rights to be able to have said you had a meal there. The food is ok, the atmosphere is very loud and active and the theming is very cool. But make no mistake, the joint is there to pump people in the masses in and out as quickly as possible. It actually reminds me more of a high capacity diner (with some really cool theming), rather than an intimate dining experience.
Anyway, back to the MK in general…it really is surprising that the MK doesn’t offer more “signature” type restaurants. It’s only the most attended theme park on planet earth after all. But perhaps Disney doesn’t have to, and MK is truly built for the masses, with lots of kids to feed and to pump in and out of their restaurants each day.
But if you are a foodie, I would say that the MK is the weakest of the four parks when it comes to dining experiences. However, playing devil’s advocate, you can also exit the park and hop on the monorail or boat and within minutes have access to some of the best resort dining options at WDW (with alcohol too; although becoming less of a factor of late with MK adding alcohol to some of its restaurants).
I’ve taken the boat to Wilderness for a meal at Artist Point several times (which is a hidden secret) and many would argue that it is the best restaurant in all of WDW.
I noticed a decline in overall quality at quick service locations throughout WDW. For instance, I remember good turkey sandwiches at Studios (Market Something-something there on Hollywood Blvd) but this time it was dried up burgers, pizza, or Mexican. We went for the burgers, and they were not good. At AK we stopped at Yak and Yeti quick serve for a little Chinese. It also wasn't as good as it had been in the past. (And the portions were so tiny... tee hee)
As for MK, it's no secret the food there has never been great, and it is a puzzlement. On our MK all-day we ate at Plaza Restaurant, and it was ok, we'd never been there before. They offer bottomless homemade milkshakes with the can, so I was all about that and it helped my mood tremendously. That and a Dole Whip float later in the day kept me satisfied. Our rule is to schedule a nice dinner somewhere else on MK day so we have something to look forward to, this time it was California Grill.
H n' B, I'll definitely keep Artist Point in the back of my mind for next time. We're always on the prowl for a new, good place to eat. Sad to say, I've never set foot in Wilderness Lodge- from photos it looks beautiful.
We did BOG for breakfast. One and done as well. The only reason we'd do it again is for the early park entry to take pictures on Main Street without the crowds.
Haven't done Artist Point yet, but we love the fun atmosphere at Whispering Canyon at Wilderness. No one will judge you for joining in the hobby horse race, as long as the kids get their turn first. For an extra opportunity to explore the lodge, ask the concierge if they still do the scavenger hunt. They used to give out a print-out with clues to find hidden mickeys around the resort.
We stayed at Boardwalk once with a Boardwalk view, thinking it would be really cool to be there right above it all. The view of Spaceship Earth was nice, but we realized quickly that the view otherwise was over-rated. Our room was directly above the entrance to Big River Grill, and we ended up just being hungry.
Thanks for the BOG notes.
We've done Whispering Canyon a couple times. I thought the food was very good and the atmosphere was great. I really can't think of anything that I like to eat in Magic Kingdom besides the balsamic flatbreads at Pinnochio's. Granted, we haven't done much table service stuff within the park.
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