LAKE BUENA VISTA
Some years back I spent a weekend exploring all the allures of Downtown Disney's Pleasure Island for a book I was writing. As far as I could tell, it was Disney's version of Vegas, the place overrun with pharmaceutical conventioneers behaving badly. What happened in PI stayed in PI, largely because most folks had only a vague memory of what precisely had transpired. It was "adult" in the slightly salacious sense of the word, but also in the "we all know that we're really just tall children" sense.
There are no quotation marks around Disney Springs, the reimagined dining, shopping and entertainment complex that used to be Downtown Disney. It's for grownups. In 2016 it set out to double the number of shops, restaurants and others venues, the whole thing divided into four distinct, outdoor neighborhoods: the Landing, Town Center, Marketplace and West Side. Kids are welcome and, yes, you would feel comfortable wearing mouse ears, but based on recent exploration, it's an adult playground in the best sense.
On Jan. 30 Planet Hollywood, now called Planet Hollywood Observatory, reopened. We got a sneak preview when it was still working out the kinks: A multimillion-dollar renovation has transformed the 36,000-square-foot restaurant's iconic globe into a four-story stargazing observatory with a new outdoor terrace and lounge, and a new menu. The centerpiece is a 4,500-square-foot video wall that displays three-dimensional imagery (it's some kind of newfangled trompe l'oeil optical illusion dealio), but it still has all the movie memorabilia that the brand has come to be known for. (This one has a Deadpool stunt sword, Ferris Bueller's oh-so-'80s patterned vest, a scary Predator prop weapon and an autographed Fender guitar from Wayne's World.)
The menu has kept some of the classic Planet Hollywood dishes, but they've introduced a selection of "Big Bite Burgers" and signature sandwiches masterminded by chef, restaurateur and television personality Guy Fieri. And the new 5,000-square-foot Stargazers lounge is ideal for enjoying cocktails and live entertainment al fresco. In the when-in-Rome spirit, you've got to grab a Stargazer with Stoli Blueberi vodka, lemonade, fresh blueberries and basil.
Located in the Town Center section, Planet Hollywood Observatory is open daily from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
A short walk away in the Landing area is Morimoto Asia, easily the most stunning restaurant in Orlando. Don't take my word for it: Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's first pan-Asian restaurant received the Design Built Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects. It's hard to describe, its Asian motifs juxtaposed with theatrical touches in a dramatic space that includes a multilevel bar, upper mezzanine and two levels of outdoor terraces. There's a triple-height wall of windows and conveyor belts of illuminated glass bottles that spiral into a chandelier. The restaurant's dramatic winding sculptural bar, one of the largest in the world at more than 270 feet, snakes through the soaring 36-foot tall space to connect the grand dining room on the ground floor with the upper level and wrapping around the grand stairway.
Despite all the glamor, the menu is fairly accessible pan-Asian dishes: some dim sum, a curated list of sushi rolls and nigiri, noodles, buns and a crazy-long list of sakes (including Morimoto's own). The centerpiece in the glassed-off exhibition kitchen is a row of mahogany-skinned Peking ducks hanging sadly from their necks and waiting for a meetup with steamed flour pancakes, apricot sweet chili and hoisin miso.
It is open until midnight on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends. Oh, and there's a takeaway option with bao tacos, donburi and snacks like takoyaki (octopus, nori, okonomiyaki sauce) and Morimoto's sticky ribs.
Well done, indeed
Within eyesight of Morimoto is another sleek newcomer, STK Orlando. It's the 11th STK worldwide, and at more than 14,000 square feet is the largest to date, with towering dogwood arrangements, stunning slate floors and a live DJ in the evenings who slides through a repertoire of '80s, '90s and pop. Despite the vowel challenge, it's a modern steakhouse, but its nods to classic steakhousery are funny: The ceilings feature a subtle cattle rib effect and one wall is decorated with interpretations of steer horns. In the main downstairs dining room it's all banquette seating, each booth set slightly at an angle for optimal people watching. (The true voyeur will enjoy the angled mirrors against one wall.)
Rooftop dining showcases scenic views, with both indoor and outdoor seating on both levels, a bistro, bar, private dining room and a fire pit. And the menu, overseen by chef James O'Donnell, is a study in sumptuousness. It's not cheap, but I'm still dreaming of the Lincoln Log stack of Parmesan truffle fries we had ($11) alongside a stunning loin strip ($31), which followed on the heels of a lovely tuna tartare with avocado and an octopus dish that features the mollusk both grilled and citrus-cured.
STK serves until 11 p.m. most nights, midnight on the weekends.
Art Smith spent years as Oprah's chef before winning a James Beard award and appearing on Iron Chef America, Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. He recently opened Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Shine Bar, which represents a return to Disney. (After he attended Florida State University, Smith did a culinary internship with the Walt Disney World College Program.) The design of this 200-seat, 6,000-square-foot newcomer in the Landing area is not as over-the-top jaw-dropping as Morimoto and STK, a more rustic-chic subtle nod to old Florida.
Featuring farm-to-fork cuisine, it focuses on the state's culinary bounty from far south to Key West to the western edge of the Florida Panhandle's Perdido Key. There's a decided Southern inflection to things, from homemade pimento cheese, Church Lady deviled eggs, low country shrimp and grits, kale salad with Sweet Grass Dairy cheese and spiced pecans, and a grilled Blackstrap pork chop with sawmill gravy. For my money, the fried chicken, followed swiftly by a fat slice of hummingbird cake, is the way to go.
It's open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays and until midnight on the weekends.
A scoop of Italy
And lest you feel too grownup with all these sophisticated dining options, take it back to the glee of childhood with a visit to Disney Springs' new Vivoli il Gelato in the Landing. One of the oldest gelato shops in Florence, Italy, started by the Vivoli brothers in 1932, is now serving up scoops here. Silvana Vivoli, granddaughter of Vivoli's founders, still runs the company today with recipes that date to the '30s. Fun fact: She made custom gelato for Kim and Kayne's wedding. You can opt for contemporary flavors like burro d'arachidi (that's peanut butter) or bacio (chocolate with hazelnut pieces), but don't miss out on the old-timey glories of the rice pudding flavor or the brandied Italian sweet cherry called Amarena.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.