Orlando, Florida is like visiting another planet. A plastic, overpopulated, abundantly colorful, manic far-satellite where they charge you a quarter every time you take a breath.
Last year, we visited Orlando’s sister kitsch-world Las Vegas, and, in 2014, we made our return to Central Florida after a three year hiatus.
It is just as delightfully suffocating as I recall.
Don’t get me wrong. I actually find comfort in super-commercialized, super-merchandised, super-programmed environments. (Some day I will be brave enough to post photos of our basement filled with sentimental, entertainment-themed tsotchkes culled from years of visiting the Disney Bubble and places like it.)
But it is a rather exhausting place to be, making one ever more grateful for the quiet moments amidst a pile of dirty laundry and credit card receipts when one finally returns home.
The “polar vortex” continues to grasp at the edges of impending springtime, and our weather was rainy and downright cold most of the time. (I even bought an over-priced knit hat at Disney’s Old Key West gift shop … to wear alongside cargo shorts and flip flops. Quite a look, if I do say-so myself … like a drunken Gorton’s Fisherman at a frat party.)
Nonetheless, we hit the outlet malls, the gift shops, and the tourist traps like the good capitalist lemmings Orlando requires.
I’m not much for “food and wine festivals,” but we happened upon EPCOT’s annual International Flower and Garden Festival. What I would have otherwise thought would bore me to tears was actually delightful – if topiaries artificially contorted into the familiar shapes of classic Disney characters is your thing. Surprisingly, it was mine. Who knew? I wonder if my neighbors will mind this summer when I turn our hedges into the cast from Toy Story? (View the full photo album here.)
Even better than the mouse-eared horticulture was the fact that Disney went all out with vegetarian and vegan fare throughout the festival. Each stop around EPCOT’s trademark World Showcase offered at least two or three vegetarian/vegan options and they were good. My favorite was this weird buttery tart scalloped eggplant thingie with a warm beet salad. Yeah, Top Chef‘s Tom Colicchio I will never be – I wouldn’t even be able to describe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and make it sound enticing.
The update to EPCOT’s Test Track is less an overhaul and more a redeco, with the cornier aspects replaced with sleek digital effects and black-light piping everywhere. It works well, though at times I felt I was zooming around Tron‘s rec room.
Kouzzina by Cat Cora at Disney’s Boardwalk was sublime as always … at least food-wise. The chef stopped by our table and worked out an incredible Mediterranean vegetarian spread just for us. Our server, though, seemed to have woken up on the corner of Cranky and Crabby Avenues, while some fellow waitstaff thought it would be nifty to tell the kids at a nearby table to throw their flatware to the ground repeatedly, screaming “Opa!” every time. I may be getting too old for this…
Disney continues to tinker with ways to make you feel even more cash-poor and over-managed during and after your visit. Maybe I am just old and cranky, but I feel they have passed the tipping point in this regard. A one day visit to one park is now over $100 a ticket and there is very little that is new or engaging at this point. In fact, there are visible signs of deterioration and “cast member” malaise at every turn.
Compounding the frustration is this new invention called the “Magic Band” which would make Orwell faint. With great cheerful fanfare (one of the few times I saw downright joy from a Disney employee this trip) you are issued these micro-chipped bracelets adorned with the silhouette of Mickey’s head. These bracelets (conveniently linked directly to your checking account) are your “keys to the world” whereby your every move, purchase, encounter is tracked, measured, predicted, and modified. In fact, while wearing the d*mn thing, I even had a story about them pop up on my iPhone.
The concept is that they make everything easier as you don’t have to carry a wallet or keys and you just touch “mouse-to-mouse” on any kiosk or cash register or door around the mammoth resort. I didn’t like it, and I wonder how Disney CEO Robert Iger would take it if I show up next time with jar full of quarters and an abacus. I may try that.
We made our way to a long-time favorite – no Magic Bands required: Dandelion Communitea Cafe, a progressive vegetarian/vegan restaurant well outside the white-gloved, four-fingered reach of the Mouse. If you’re an animal-loving, adventurous vegan/vegetarian, this place is heaven. And, if you’re not, you will be after leaving. The food is so good, and the people are just delightful and authentic and caring. Try the “hunny mustard tempeh nuggets” – seriously. Do it. Your stomach … and chickens … will thank you. Dandelion’s motto is “If anything can go right … it will.” Good for them. I have to remember that now that I’ve returned to snowy Michigan where the sport du jour is “car swallowing/tire shredding-pothole dodging.”
Our rental Prius (we really were hippies on this trip) also transported us to Cafe Verde in New Smyrna Beach en route to Supercross at the Daytona Speedway. (Yeah, you read that sentence correctly.) Cafe Verde is a relaxing, vegetarian/vegan-friendly establishment with a wide-range of Mexican and Italian-adjacent menu items. Eggplant struck again, as my favorite item was this dip made from said vegetable pureed along with … some other stuff. Told you I’m not a cook, but I know what’s tasty!
We wrapped up our long weekend of vegan-living by hanging out on the Daytona International Speedway track with a gaggle of Supercross fans. We have eclectic tastes to be sure.
Supercross, for the uninitiated, is a sport whereby a bunch of pleasant young fellows (who seem to hail primarily from Florida, California … and Australia?) ride rumbling dirt-bike motorcycles across a man-made muddy track with an endless series of ramps and ruts and hills and peaks (oh my!). These riders are as much acrobats as racers as they sail through the air with the greatest of ease. And, as you can imagine, the people-watching is priceless with a refreshing cross-section of humanity united in their love of standing out in the cold on a steeply banked Daytona track watching these gentlemen and their flying machines.
As much fun as we had, it’s always good to be home again. And I guess that is the best part of taking any trip. (As a side note, I think I’m going to bury my souvenir Magic Bands in a lead-lined box in the backyard for fear of Uncle Walt tracking me on any and all my grocery trips to Meijer.)
Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language, and Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.