From June to September, the average daytime low temperature is in the upper 80s, the high in the mid skajillions, with humidity in the upper just-shoot-me-nows. Yet that doesn't keep summer vacation from being the time when Walt Disney World and Orlando's other theme parks and attractions pull in their highest numbers of visitors. The December holiday season and the traditional spring break vacation period are also big draws, with a frenzy uptick around Easter weekend. Yes, September and October are nicer months to visit, but it's still storm season and you can count on your mouse ears getting a little sodden. • And then there's November. The weather has cooled, the holiday decorations and activities are getting into full swing, and you just might have a houseful of Thanksgiving visitors who aren't going to be entertained by three more days of fully loaded turkey sandwiches. • As every annual pass holder knows, Orlando's parks have one thing in common: constant reinvention. Rides and attractions get 86ed to make room for bigger and better. Same goes for restaurants. • Here's what's new to eat these days at WDW and Orlando's other parks.
Making lists of Orlando's top restaurants nearly every year, California Grill at Disney's Contemporary Resort draws locals as well as tourists. Opened in 1995, it was one of Disney's earliest efforts at luxurious destination dining, with panoramic windows of Magic Kingdom and a dynamic open kitchen. The food was always an apt facsimile of what made San Francisco such a culinary mecca in the late 1980s — flatbreads, Sonoma goat cheese ravioli, grilled pork tenderloin with polenta and balsamic-sparked cremini mushrooms: simple, bright flavors, with a heavy reliance on seasonal produce.
After being closed this year to undergo a "reimagining," it reopened in September with warmer, midcentury modern decor (think "space-age" light fixtures as envisioned in 1962) in deep oranges and harvest golds, the colors of 1970s kitchen appliances.
The new menu is less easy to quantify. The sushi menu remains fairly intact, despite veteran sushi chef Yoshie Cabral having retired, but the rest of the menu has moved more toward a lively Mediterranean palette of flavors and techniques, with the odd Asian fillip here and there. The wine list continues to be a treasure trove for the California Cab-ophile, even by the glass, but a new list of edgy craft cocktails gets in on the current mixology madness.
On a recent visit, there were a couple of clunkers (an amuse-bouche of duck liver mousse that was so cold it read like ice cream, perched on a square of super-salty demiglace gelee; an heirloom tomato salad with mealy tomatoes that weren't done any favors by a lack of any discernable dressing). But the dishes that worked featured trendy ingredients (pork belly nigiri, anyone?) and contemporary presentations, many of the best emanating from the wood-burning oven. Baked jumbo prawns with charred lemon, blistered tomatoes and cippolini onion relish showed real dynamism.
At meal's end, there are now two outdoor deck areas for watching the park's Fireworks Spectacular (a rare instance where that noun is not hyperbole) although my table worked just fine. The current show, "Wishes," runs 12 minutes with more than 600 fireworks bursting above the castle and a storyline narrated by Jiminy Cricket.
Downtown Disney, which is staying mum on new restaurants coming in 2014, is, for now, capitalizing on a national obsession: food trucks. Starting in early November, four trucks have rolled in Wednesday through Sunday, parking at Downtown Disney West Side near the House of Blues. Superstar Catering offers different kinds of meatballs; Namaste Café brings Indian classics (tandoori shrimp, butter chicken); Fantasy Fare offers Disney doodads like corn dogs; and World Showcase of Flavors pulls up with the best of Epcot's International Food & Wine Festival.
Speaking of, one wonders what Walt would think of Epcot during November. Yes, the 300 acres of attractions, shows, food vendors and exhibits certainly celebrate human achievement, but maybe not exactly as per his specifications. It seems largely to be a celebration of malt, hops and yeast (oh, and Starbucks, another new addition to WDW parks this year). The 2013 festival, which concluded Nov. 11, featured a number of newcomers (a new Scottish kiosk featuring vegetarian haggis; truly delicious kimchee hot dogs; and Brazilian crispy pork belly).
In the France Pavilion, Bistro de Paris has been transformed into Monsieur Paul, an homage to French chef Paul Bocuse, considered the first celebrity chef. The dinner-only $89 prix-fixe menu (no kids' menu) is classic Francais, from roast duck to creme caramel served with a sea salt caramel ice cream macaron. The pavilion's Les Halles Boulangerie Patisserie, an authentic French bakery, debuted with chocolate mousse, quiches and croissant sandwiches.
Not as recent, but creating a big splash in Magic Kingdom, the Be Our Guest Restaurant launched late in 2012 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.
At SeaWorld Orlando, the newest eats are associated with Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. After observing the tuxedoed antics, proceed to the Expedition Café. It's a mess hall with three completely distinct menus: Italian, Asian and straight-up American (Southern-ish). You can grab-and-go from the coolers, or pull up a seat and eat something more substantial (spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp lo mein) and accompany it with a South Pole Chill, a custom vanilla soda dispensed from one of those cool Coca-Cola Freestyle machines.
Custom bevs are all the rage in Orlando since Butterbeer practically skunked all the rides for top offering at Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. At Universal's new Springfield U.S.A., it should come as no surprise that Duff Beer is a hit (although did you ever get the impression that Homer and Barney Grumble were drinking something approaching craft beer?), which you can sample along Simpsons Fast Food Boulevard, a new dining venue that includes Krusty Burger, Cletus' Chicken Shack and Moe's Tavern. Because when it comes to too many Thanksgiving house guests, it's like Homer says: beer. Now there's a temporary solution.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.