Monday, July 4, 2011

Walking and Drinking Beer in Disney’s World

The Rose & Crown
 I was standing at the bar of the Rose & Crown pub in Epcot, a third of the way through a pint of Guinness, when my friends decided it was time to move on. No worries. I was about to chug the rest when the bar maid said, “would you like that to go, Love?” What a pleasant idea! She poured the remaining beer into a plastic cup and I was soon out the front door, sipping stout as I strolled around a lake, into the gardens of Paris on my way to the back alleys of Tangiers.

Welcome to Epcot, where Disney has a surprisingly liberal, and enlightened drinking policy. Three of the four Disney theme parks (Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios) allow you to walk and drink beer – or wine, tequila, sake, whiskey, or frozen Margaritas. Even better, they make all these drinks readily available with infinite choices. The nearby Cava del Tequila bar has 70 tequilas. No wonder it’s the happiest place on earth.

The Magic Kingdom is the only place you can't drink.

And great fun too. Make no mistake, Disney is for adults, as well as for kids. Families with children will best enjoy the Magic Kingdom (the one park with a strict no drinking policy), but adults taking a break from an Orlando convention …or from winter… can spend a couple of crazy days with Disney at Epcot, eating, drinking and shopping your way around the world. There’s great food and drink, thrill rides and wild architecture, manicured gardens and celebrity chefs, music acts and at night, the skies light up with amazing fireworks displays that blow away any Las Vegas spectacle. All this with no cigarette smoke and no clanging slot machines….although you may hear piped music playing “It’s a Small World After All.” Try forgetting that song.

It might not be the place for a bachelor party, but it’s certainly as hip and drink friendly as the average resort, and a lot more fun.

Epcot’s World Showcase

A replica of Beijing"s Temple of Heaven

Of all the parks, the best places for adults are Epcot and the free commercial center called Downtown Disney.  Epcot is Disney’s version of a permanent world’s fair. Shaped like an hour glass, one bulge is devoted to science and the world we inhabit, with exhibitions on land, the ocean and space mixed with thrill rides that take you hang gliding over California (Soarin) or blasting off and landing a space capsule on Mars (Mission: SPACE). Those two rides, and Test Track (the longest and fastest ride in Disney history) are definitely worth the long lines. Soarin’ is particularly wonderful, a ride that takes you hang gliding with wind blowing in your face and the smell of orange blossoms, in the air as you bank and curve, legs dangling over orchards, mountains and seacoasts.

There are gardens everywhere in Epcot, and monorail or boats to the hotels.

The bottom bulge of Epcot’s hourglass is the World Showcase, a circular, mile-long pathway around a lake surrounded with pavilions glorifying the shopping, drinks, culture, architecture and history of 11 nations. It’s a blast.

The “Imagineers,” as the Disney people call themselves, have used an architectural device known as forced perspective to make the park seem much larger than it is. The bottom floors of buildings are done at 100 percent size, the second floor at 75 percent and the top floors at 30 percent and less. This can create the illusion that you are seeing an entire German village built around a town fountain, topped by a gigantic castle miles in the distance. In reality, the whole German site might occupy just two acres.

The German town square has pretzels and beer.

In this same way, you can see the Eiffel Tower looming behind a Paris street, a Mayan temple that looks many times its actual size, the famous St. Mark’s Square of Venice with a 100-foot high campanile, a wooden stave church of Norway sitting beneath a 14th Century fortress, and even the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

This replica of Piazza San Marco in Venice has a 100-foot Campanile.

It’s the Disney attention to detail that keeps the showcase from being corny or just another bad Irish pub or Vegas casino imitation. The British street has eight different architectural styles, from Tudor to Victorian. Although the “thatch” roof is made out of plastic, it looks real. The local pub appears to be airlifted from the U.K., from the shabby carpet to the “bulls eyes” in the hand blown window glass to the standing room only policy at the bar.

Every tile has a crack, a nod to Islamic belielf that only Allah is perfect.

The Morocco pavilion used nine tons of handmade, hand-cut tiles and had 19 native craftsmen put them together into a replica of the Koutoubia Minaret, a prayer tower in Marrakesh.

There are Mediterranean citrus and olive trees in Italy, and native Japanese sago and monkey-puzzle trees decorating nearby Japan. The American pavilion has an Independence Hall-like building made of 110,000 bricks, while China re-creates Beijing’s Temple of Heaven with flute and zither music playing on the speakers while acrobats perform in the courtyard.

The American Pavilion has a show narrated by Mark Twain.

All of the countries have daily shows consistent with their theme. A pretty good Beatles tribute band rocks out their early songs in a garden, while a very sexy belly dancer does a very un-Disney like performance in Tangiers. There’s a not-bad Canadian Celtic rock group, German oompah bands, Mariachis, and Japanese Taiko drummers.

France, China and Canada have films that are worth a look, especially Canada’s 360- degree screen that lets you pass through an attraction like the Mounties on parade, seeing them from front, rear and on the sides.

Most of the countries are set up with back alleys or plazas to explore, leading to shops, restaurants, bars and bakeries. You can munch a pear tart in Norway or a chocolate éclair in Paris. Germany has pretzels and beer, including a full liter of delicious Radenberger pilsner for $12. You can do a tequila tasting in Mexico or buy a wine flight that gives you two, two-ounce samples of regional wines in Italy, Germany and France.

The Mayan pyramid houses a water ride, restaurant, market and tequila bar.
And then there’s shopping. From Italian silk scarves to Norwegian wool sweaters, Japanese kimonos to French perfumes, the Disney touch extends to the stores, giving each of them an authentic feel. At Mexico, you can shop for silver and pottery in an indoor market in Taxco at twilight. There’s probably not much of a market for Norwegian wool sweaters in Orlando, but at $8, the beer stein sunglasses in Germany are a steal.

Better than the Chunnel, there's an easy bridge between England and France

Of course, on the one hand, Disney is charging you to come into a theme park for the privilege of spending more money shopping, eating and drinking…but you won’t mind. It’s all done so well, whether you’re looking at rugs and brass in Morocco, or tea sets in China, have another drink and it all looks real enough. Disney employs people from the native countries (part of 60,000 “cast members” who run the empire) and they’re mostly young and pretty and love to chat about their native lands…and how glad they are to be out of them and living the dream in Florida.

Based on torri gate in Hiroshima Bay.

A wood stave church in Norway.
Dinner is another experience not to miss. Reservations are messy.
You’ll need them in advance, or at least first thing in the morning at the best – and more expensive --restaurants like Bistro de Paris, Marrakesh, Mitsukoshi and Tutto Italia. Easiest is the huge Biergarten, Epcot’s nightly Oktoberfest with a Bavarian band, long tables that you share with strangers, plenty of beer and a buffet of bratwurst, rotisserie chicken, spaetzle, and a couple dozen other German specialties. Also easy is the Rose & Crown for fish and chips; get an outdoor, lakeside table at dusk – it’s one of the best places to watch the fireworks. You can easily do a meal of tapas, getting snacks from outdoor carts and cafes all day and evening like cheese empanadas and tacos at La Cantina, a Mongolian barbecue beef sandwich and pot stickers at the Lotus Blossom Café, sushi and sake at the Yakitori House, or make a meal of a fresh baguette and brie at the Boulangerie Patisserie while you sit in a garden by their version of the Seine, watching boats come and go from nearby hotels.

One of many beautiful gardens, this one in Paris.

Epcot’s hours vary by day with the park generally closing at 9 p.m., but on Tuesdays it often stays open until midnight. Try to go then – the world showcase looks even better by night, and there are no crowds.

Downtown Disney

Downtown Disney is attractive at night with lights, islands and bridges.

Another adult area is Downtown Disney, a series of islands in a lakeside setting, with bridges connecting shops, bars and restaurants. At night (the only time to go) there’s a Vegas feel with bright lights and huge theme restaurants like Planet Hollywood (stop in to see big name props like the dress Judy Garland wore in the Wizard of Oz or the axe Jack Nicholson used in The Shining). There’s a House of Blues with an outdoor concert area, a Wolfgang Puck with pizza to go, and the gigantic Raglan Road Irish Pub with scallops on a stick, step dancing, and a good beer selection, including changing local Orlando brews. Fulton’s Crab House has a good seafood menu in a romantic setting aboard a three-deck river boat, the Empress Lilly, and Bongos Cuban Café is owned by Gloria Estefan and has the overhead fans, shutters and palms of a film-version Cuba, with music and patios, all wrapped around a three-story high pineapple.

Be warned, in addition to catering to adults, Downtown Disney also attracts lots of families, and the endless shopping opportunities for Mickey souvenirs, princess parafeneilla, toys and dinosaurs seems to whip the kids into a frenzy. One harried dad on line in front of me at Capt’n Jack’s outdoor bar asked for a straight 120 proof rum, and with a pleading voice, said, “can you make it double?” There’s beer, frozen margaritas, and rum galore, at stands and bars and restaurants, and you’re free to carry and drink it anywhere you like – even, amazingly, in the shops.

It’s quite pretty along the lake, with the lights and crazy architecture, but no mistake, this is big time tourism and crowded. The fact that it’s free (at least to get in) with free parking appeals to families tugging kids, hundreds of them done up like princesses, complete with tiaras. It is amazing to see. The princess beauty parlor has a waiting list six months long.

Planet Hollywood

The more adult bars are to the left as you face the lake, with Cirque du Soleil anchoring that side, while the kid-oriented shopping and theme restaurants are to the right. But don’t miss the kid’s side for a look. The sheer scale of the place, the amount and variety of souvenirs stacked to the ceiling, the frantic kids from every country of the world (I saw one young English girl stamp her foot and say, “But mummy, I simply must have it!), the insanity of the family theme restaurants (life-size 30-foot high dinosaurs move around waterfalls in the T-Rex café, while the Rainforest Café has a thunderstorm, tropical fish and animated animals), it’s all designed to overwhelm….and it does. But no worries…have another frozen margarita and always know it’s a quick and easy retreat to Paradiso 37 and their South American menu and 37 tequilas.


Magic Kingdom

Orlando had 50 million visitors in 2010, the first destination in the world to do so. The travel guides to Walt Disney World are thicker than guides to France. There are hundreds of tips on how to save time and money. You’ll have to study the guides, but here’s just a few tips.

Where to stay: If you can afford it, stay on a Disney property. There are hotels in most price ranges, and all are connected by free shuttles, or in the case of the Grand Floridian, Contemporary and Polynesian, by monorail and boat. There’s always a free bus going to where you want to go…the challenge is you can wait 30 minutes for the bus and some of the trips are 40 minutes or more, so it takes longer than you think to get around. The key is, don’t try to do Disney World in one or two days. Ticket prices drop drastically the longer you stay (they know they’re getting their money on lodging and food, so park admissions drop the longer you stay).  Some of the Disney hotel properties are worth visiting just for fun, and many are connected by free boat rides. The Boardwalk area is particularly good, with a Disney brewpub, Big River Grille & Brewing Works, and a honky-tonk, Atlantic City seashore atmosphere on the lake.

The Boardwalk is fun, has a brew pub and boats to Epcot.

Go to Animal Kingdom in the morning, dinner at Epcot.

 The Wilderness Lodge is an incredible thing to see (note the electronic crickets chirping as you walk around the grounds, and the 55-foot high totem pole in the center of a lobby based on the Yellowstone Lodge). The Grand Floridian is a Disneyfied version of a grand hotel where high society would have wintered in Florida at the turn of the century and has one of the great restaurants of central Florida, the Victoria & Albert (no children, jackets for men, and reservations six months in advance, please). You’ll probably never stay there on your own dime, but one of the great “scores” of the corporate world is a meeting at the Swan & Dolphin. If you can’t stay here, stop by for a drink.

A great dinner option is the nightly Oktoberfest in Germany. 

The Grand Floridian
  If you go 100% Disney and stay there, you don’t need a car. You can take the complimentary Magical Express from the airport and get anywhere in Disney by free bus, monorail or ferry boat. If you want to see Harry Potter and Universal too…well, you’ll need to rent a car. Distances are far and cabs expensive.

Another tip, if you’re staying awhile, is get the multi-park pass for a day or two and hop around the parks. The best fireworks are in the Magic Kingdom, which turns the castle into a light show with bombs bursting overhead; Animal Kingdom is fun for a morning when the animals are active and Hollywood Studios has some of the best thrill rides. It’ll take an hour or more to travel between parks, but sometimes after a day on your feet, an hour air conditioned bus ride can be the best ride of all.