1. Food

This dinner series set in Walt Disney World's most exclusive neighborhood tells a story through whimsical dishes

GOLDEN OAK — It is golden hour in Golden Oak, a luxury neighborhood developed by Disney Imagineers, and I am on my way to eat an eight-course meal.

Just down the road from the world's most popular theme park, on streets like Dream Street Boulevard, residents here pay millions to live in the happiest place on earth. It's the only place Disney diehards can own a piece of Walt Disney World property.

You wouldn't know it was there from the roads traversed daily by eager theme parkgoers. And normally, you can't access the two restaurants in the neighborhood's swanky community center.

But a handful of times a year, anyone who buys a ticket to the Delicious Disney dinner series is welcomed inside. For usually around $349, you can get a taste of Golden Oak, and the Disney fanaticism found inside its well-manicured grounds.

I walk past a small sign that says "PRIVATE CLUB" and into the front room, full of grand flower arrangements and Champagne flutes filled to the brim.

Soon, I'm seated in a sea of Disney devotees for an immersive Dumbo-themed dinner. Awaiting us is a night of over-the-top whimsy, like the little pipettes filled with absinthe we squirted over pastel cotton candy to represent when Dumbo accidentally got drunk. Or the dessert, an uncanny replica of the red and yellow hat Timothy the mouse wears, really a tower of milk chocolate mousse, popcorn creme brulee and smoked chocolate cake.

Kristopher Soto, a Disney advanced sommelier, dons a black top hat and says: "Welcome to the big top, where our job is to surprise you."

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Homes start at $2 million and go beyond $10 million in this gated neighborhood named after the Golden Oak Ranch in California, where many early Disney movies (and The Mickey Mouse Club) were filmed.

At 980 acres, it's twice the size of Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios combined. About 300 homes are planned for the community, which is still adding subdivisions.

More on Golden Oak: 8 things to know about the neighborhood

Nightly fireworks burst just 4 miles away at Magic Kingdom. Chefs from the five-star Four Seasons hotel down the road are on call any time of day to come to a resident's home. And there are other perks, like access to special events and members-only lounges, free shuttles around Disney property and extended hours at the theme parks.

The community is full of Mickey-approved flourishes, like bronze statues of characters including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Many of the custom mansions bring the Disney decor inside, like the home built to resemble the Haunted Mansion ride at Magic Kingdom, or the one in which guests walk through a small door to enter a shrunken room a la Alice in Wonderland.

There are two restaurants at Golden Oak: Markham's, named after Marty Markham on Spin and Marty, a Disney series of TV shorts; and Bolton's, named for Fred Bolton, the lead character in the 1968 Disney movie The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit.

It's the perfect setting for an elaborate dinner series aimed at the Mouse House's most loyal fans.

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Now in its third year, Delicious Disney aims to offer more than just a meal. Featuring chefs from all over Walt Disney World Resort, these dinners are coordinated, immersive experiences that tell a story. Basically, what Disney does best. Plus unlimited wine.

The Delicious Disney dinner I attended in March was all about Dumbo, to coordinate with the release of the new live action version.

A predinner reception took place in a small room filled with circus-themed decor: red and white balloons, a popcorn machine, cotton candy that would get wrapped around bacon for an oddly satisfying appetizer. The cartoon Dumbo played on TV screens as we noshed on caramel corn dipped in liquid nitrogen and fermented french fries served with malted vinegar aioli.

When it was time for dinner, we were led to Markham's, and the evening began with "Dumbo's magic cocktail," a blue-tinted play on a French 75.

Disney event group manager Laurie Gilliar, clad in a Dumbo sweatshirt and a baby blue skirt, explained our place mats, which were vintage-looking maps of Florida.

"Dumbo was born here," Schreiber said.

They also nod to a bit of history about Walt Disney's interest in Florida: "The place mats are signed by Dick Nunes, who was on the plane with Walt when they flew over Florida and helped picked the land for Walt Disney World."

Apparently, Walt favored Sarasota as the spot for Walt Disney World, but Nunes steered him toward Orlando.

Soto, who works at Disney's Yacht Club hotel but had more of a high school thespian vibe, was our ringleader for the night, popping in between courses to tell us what was on the plate. Every dish was presented with grand flourish, each one given a Dumbo-esque name and offered in creative presentations that echoed themes from the movie.

First, the Caged Beginnings, a nod to Dumbo's mother's caged life: citrus-laced burrata housed in an edible dome with large holes in it, served with eggplant confit, shiso-basil pistou and tomato gel.

The Special Delivery contained little bundles made to look like something a stork might carry, essentially spring rolls filled with maple-bourbon duck bacon and pickled vegetables and served with a hoisin-peanut sauce.

Soto slunk around our tables as he described each dish, more like a magician performing a trick than a maitre d'. He whispered, exclaimed and playfully teased forthcoming ingredients. In between such dramatics, he expertly chatted with guests about his speciality — wine — and the different pairings served with each course.

The food was whimsical and executed at a high level, the team in the kitchen led by chef Michael Rodriguez of the Yachtsman Steakhouse (the upscale restaurant at Disney's Yacht Club hotel). The Clowning Around was especially eye-catching, tallegio-sweet corn pasta that had been colored and shaped to resemble little elephant ears, served with tahini creme and toasted buckwheat.

The Magic Feather dish was roasted squab on an English pea puree with morel mushrooms and baby artichokes. Ah, but wait! Soto instructed diners to apply the smoked lavender-honey sauce on the side with the small black feather perched on the plate.

The feather didn't disperse the sauce very well, but we all played along. At that point, the magic of the evening (or at least the unlimited wine) had taken hold of even the most skeptical among us.

Contact Michelle Stark at Follow @mstark17.


Here are other upcoming Delicious Disney dinners. All take place at Markham's at Golden Oak, 10501 Dream Tree Blvd., Orlando. Reservations can be made by calling (407) 939-5773.

A Whole New World ... of Flavor: A Tribute to Aladdin

May 20 and 21. $349 per person, inclusive of tax and gratuity.

Celebrate the 25th Anniversary of The Lion King: Culinary Journey to the African Savannah

June 24 and 25. $349 per person, inclusive of tax and gratuity

A Culinary Tribute to and Selection of Inspired Creations From Each of the Epcot Festivals

July 29 and 30. $349 per person, inclusive of tax and gratuity.