LAKE BUENA VISTA
More than any of Orlando's other theme parks, the Magic Kingdom allows kids to be their most innocent selves, and for adults to tap into a time when they were such creatures. Irrespective of age, country of origin or any genetically encoded sense of gravitas, a giddiness overtakes people at the Magic Kingdom. • But there's always been one fly in the ointment. • You are seated. Tigger is writing in your child's autograph book with a paw-friendly pen. Cinderella is swanning around the dining room in a brassy wig. And the thought bubble over your head says this: "If it really were where dreams come true, I'd have a goblet of chardonnay in my mitt. A big one."
I know I'm not alone. The first of Walt Disney's four Orlando parks has always been dry. While folks are "drinking around the world" in Epcot, those at the Magic Kingdom are coping with "It's A Small World" without benefit of booze.
All that changed last week when Be Our Guest restaurant opened in the newly reimagined Fantasyland. Themed around Beauty and the Beast, this representation of the Beast's Castle is on a grand scale, its menu appropriately French. And what goes with salade Nicoise and ratatouille? A little bit of Beaujolais or Alsatian pinot gris, evidently. Available only at sit-down, table-service dinners, Be Our Guest's wine list includes 20 wines, 13 from France and seven French-style wines from California, all available by the glass, with a quartet of French and Belgian beers to boot.
Wine prices are tough to gauge because vintage years aren't listed, but it seems steep: The current release Caymus Conundrum retails for about $20, it's offered at Be Our Guest for $57 ($13 by the glass). A Belgian Saison Dupont farmhouse ale, on the other hand, often retails for around $5; at Be Our Guest it's $7.25.
These details may be moot to those who object to alcohol in the Magic Kingdom on principle: Walt Disney opposed it. Even so, one can't deny that the setting is majestic enough that a bit of French bubbly doesn't seem out of place.
Enter through a crumbling castle archway guarded by marble lions with rams' horns and eagles with dragons' talons. Dramatic iron gates are festooned with royal crests, red roses at their centers, while inside walls are hung with ornate tapestries and drippy-looking candle sconces. Guests move through a long corridor flanked by armored knights, shiny gentlemen who kibitz over the heads of parkgoers.
At lunchtime visitors use touch screens to order from a short menu with healthy-leaning options like quinoa salad ($9.99) or veggie quiche ($7.19), before being handed a plastic rose (really, more like a red hockey puck with petals). The rose functions as a transponder: Guests make their way into the vast ballrooms with coffered ceiling and outsized crystal chandeliers and find a table, then the transponder is used by food runners to deliver dishes to the appropriate table. Imagine restaurant pagers put to a new use.
There are kinks to be worked out with this system: What if you didn't want dessert at first, but now you do? The touch screen room and all financial transactions are far behind you, and without a designated server, you don't know who to flag down.
At dinner these kinds of problems are avoided by traditional table service, and even in previews the kitchen's standards were consistently high. A bowl of French onion soup ($3.99 at lunch) brought a rich broth, not too salty, with a silky mantle of cheese. The salade Nicoise ($10.79), a lovely composed plate, paired marinated haricots verts with planks of roasted fingerling potato, grape tomatoes, black olives (but not Nicoise olives, a quibble), swaths of rare ahi tuna and a firm poached egg, all atop a bed of mesclun mix and frisee in a kicky vinaigrette. Fairly sophisticated theme park food indeed.
And desserts follow suit, with beautifully executed cupcakes the coin of the realm, a lemon meringue version ($2.39 at lunch) with an elegant vanilla sponge topped with tangy lemon curd, a shiny bruleed meringue and a jaunty disc of white chocolate as garnish.
Whether the kitchen can maintain quality in such a huge venue remains to be seen (there are more than 500 seats in the Ballroom, the West Wing with the "enchanted rose," and the Rose Gallery with twirling figures of Belle and Beast). But sipping a glass of Sauternes from a thronelike chair while watching "snow" fall gently on the mountainside outside the castle windows certainly feels magical. Even if Walt would disapprove of the tippling. I hear he was a Scotch man himself.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected], (727) 892-2293 or on Twitter at @lreiley.