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Mickey Mouse Cuisine | Orlando restaurants

People visit Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to ride all of the roller coasters, get Mickey Mouse's autograph and—most of all—please their children. But on a family vacation, a writer finds personal satisfaction at the terrific new restaurants that are changing the local dining scene.

"It's a palace, Mommy! It's perfect for me." We'd just driven up to the entrance of the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa in Orlando's Walt Disney World, an 867-room Victorian-style hotel with five stories of balustrades, turrets and towers. As my seven-year-old daughter, Zoe, jumped up and down, a princess returning to her rightful home, I realized that the resort had been modeled on San Diego's Hotel del Coronado. It was the location of one of my favorite movies, Some Like It Hot, in which Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon go on the lam disguised as women. Above our heads, Minnie Mouse disembarked from the monorail that connects the Grand Floridian to the Magic Kingdom theme park. Echoes of men in drag for Mommy, I thought; Disney "cast members" in costume for my daughter. That's what this vacation was all about: something for everyone.

Our own cast members: Zoe, who had been lobbying for this trip since the moment she could talk. Her goals: to get a hair wrap and hug Cinderella. Isaac, age five. His objectives: to go on the Buzz Lightyear ride and meet Buzz Lightyear and get Buzz Lightyear's autograph. Husband Bruce wanted only to ride the Incredible Hulk roller coaster at Universal Orlando and to make his offspring happy. And then there was me: allergic to organized fun, afraid of heights and susceptible to motion sickness on the subway.

Amusement parks may not be my thing, but I like good food. Luckily, I'd heard that there were a lot of new restaurants in Orlando—some with celebrity chefs like Todd English and Norman Van Aken. Still, there are so many places to eat—more than 500 in Disney World alone—that it's hard to know where to begin. Plus, I don't eat meat, my husband is a healthy eater, my daughter an adventurous one and my son eats only kid food. A trip to Disney World can include ice cream bars with chocolate-dipped Mickey Mouse-shaped ears and barbecued turkey legs—caramel-colored appendages seemingly designed with Fred Flintstone in mind that appeared to be the street food of choice—but there are other choices too. Our lunches were better than expected (though honestly not great), but each night of our vacation Bruce and I ate and drank well, and our kids didn't go to bed hungry either.

We began in the true spirit of the trip, by braving the infamous "Character Breakfast," available at several Disney restaurants. Cast members (Disney's term for all their employees, costumed or not) dressed up as Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and the like sing, dance, sign autographs and pose for pictures with your enraptured children. You need to make a reservation for the breakfast beforehand (way beforehand, we were advised by Disney World veterans). At Chef Mickey's in the Contemporary Resort, a hotel near the Magic Kingdom, we loaded our plates with Mickey Waffles and a breakfast pizza topped with peanut butter, jelly, chocolate chips and mini marshmallows—while waving our napkins in the air in time to a dancing Chip 'n Dale.

Next we headed to Animal Kingdom, with 1,500 animals representing 250 species. The newest of the four Disney parks—Disney World also includes Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios—Animal Kingdom is divided into six "lands": Oasis, Africa, Asia, Discovery Island, Camp Minnie-Mickey and DinoLand U.S.A. Bruce and I made a beeline for the African safari, dragging Zoe and Isaac, who kept moaning that they'd come to Disney to go on rides, not to be eaten by lions. The safari was great fun: We rode in an open-air vehicle through beautiful faux African savannas watching wild animals roam. We saw ostriches and baby elephants, and at the end of our journey, a gorilla stood on his hind legs and beat his chest, rendering the trip "awesome" for everybody. Then we walked over to DinoLand, where a mock-paleontological dig called The Boneyard (a massive sandbox) kept us occupied for a while. Isaac loved the Primeval Whirl roller coaster and Zoe enjoyed the TriceraTop Spin (a lot like the flying Dumbos at the Magic Kingdom).

At last it was time for lunch. As is true of the parks in general, there's nary an opportunity missed to market and sell: The coffee, for instance, is Nescafé, and logos are everywhere. The food is a step above the usual stadium/mall provisions, with plenty of healthy salads and wraps, and a nod toward the theme of the location (for example, chicken satays are sold in Animal Kingdom's Asia).

I'd been advised by friends to try Tusker House, a fast-food restaurant disguised as a safari orientation center. Rotisserie chicken won a thumbs-up from the kids, and Bruce liked his chicken salad, though I was less happy with some tasteless grilled salmon. Bruce accused me of being a snob—the food was fresh, after all, and the restaurant clean. I had to admit that at least our kids nibbled on some fruit salad—far healthier than the McDonald's french fries that children with nicer parents were eating two continents over at the Restaurantosaurus in DinoLand.

At dinnertime it's much easier to find good food, because many of the better restaurants are at the hotels, which aren't that convenient to get to while you're in the parks. Disney executives wisely realized about 12 years ago that to draw more adults they needed to provide better dining options. In 1992, they brought over Dieter Hannig from EuroDisney to clone California Grill at Disney World's Contemporary Resort. With its wood-burning oven and open kitchen, the restaurant is strongly influenced by Wolfgang Puck. Before Hannig, all the Disney restaurants were supplied by a single commissary that prepared everything en masse. Hannig insisted that cooking be done on site at Disney restaurants and that chefs retain creative control over their menus, thus changing dining in the parks—and Orlando—forever. ("Fifteen years ago, a big night out in Orlando was Red Lobster," a Disney cast member told us.)

One of the newest and best Disney restaurants is Jiko—The Cooking Place at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, where chef Anette Grecchi Gray creates sophisticated dishes using ingredients commonly found in Africa (plus there's an impressive South African wine list). The dining room is all earth tones, with wooden tables and chairs, and white bird sculptures hang from light fixtures on the dark-blue ceiling. As at all Disney restaurants, Zoe and Isaac received crayons and coloring books even before we were seated. Plus, the kids' menu featured healthy food they would actually eat—carrots and celery with peanut butter, flat-bread pizzas they could watch being cooked in the open kitchen. ("There's wood in the oven!" shouted my poor, deprived Isaac. I think prior to this seminal experience he thought pizzas only came out of delivery boxes.) Lentil pastillas—phyllo pockets filled with curried lentils and papaya—were my favorite appetizer, and my daughter concurred: "These triangles rock." Tender octopus tossed with tomato and capers and accompanied by a pea-shoot salad perfectly matched a 2001 Rustenberg Five Soldiers Chardonnay from Stellenbosch.

The next night, we dressed up and drove off the Disney property for a more adult dinner at Primo in the JW Marriott Orlando, Grande Lakes, a new outpost of chef Melissa Kelly's Mediterranean restaurant in Maine with the same name. I say "more adult" because even though the staff were perfectly gracious to our children, from the minute we entered the beautiful dining room, with Murano fixtures that gave off a soft, flattering glow, I wished I was out on a date night alone with my husband. And there were no coloring books.

Our waiter immediately took our family's emotional temperature (worn-out and cranky), so the sodas and wine arrived promptly. My glass of Rudd Chardonnay from California's Russian River Valley was superb (I bought a bottle as soon as I returned home). Known for her seasonal Mediterranean food, Kelly will soon be growing some produce for the restaurant in a one-acre garden, which she insisted the hotel provide before she agreed to open in Orlando. The squash blossoms she fried and stuffed with fresh ricotta were greaseless. The main ingredient in a timbale of Maine Jonah crab, a beautiful strata of delicate crab, hearts of palm and avocado, was hardly local but still delicious. Spicy fried calamari served with a tangle of radishes, carrots and cress disappointed Princess Zoe, so her father happily finished the leftovers. (She favored the more standard, milder version we had the next day at lunch at Tony's Town Square, an Italian restaurant in the Magic Kingdom.) Zoe and Isaac were just starting to melt into their gelato when the check arrived.

The reward for all that good restaurant behavior was a full day at the Magic Kingdom. Oh, the Buzz Lightyear ride! We rode it three times. And the Astro-Orbiter, It's a Small World, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. We got our autograph books signed by Tigger, Pooh, Cinderella and Mickey, of course, and we waited in line for 20 minutes—including a bathroom break for Buzz—for Mr. Lightyear's signature. Now Isaac could go home exultant.

That evening, we all headed off for dinner at Flying Fish Café at Disney's BoardWalk, a romanticized, Hollywood set designer's view of Atlantic City (no prostitutes, no Donald Trump). The restaurant embraces its piscine theme wholeheartedly—there are fish sculptures hanging from the ceiling and columns covered with imitation fish scales.When we were handed our menus, we were given the ubiquitous coloring books and crayons. The house specialty, red snapper with a crispy crust of thinly sliced potatoes, was accompanied by a pile of velvety creamed leeks. Grouper was served with a rich cloud of cod brandade and surrounded by tender, sweet clams.

The next day, for a change of pace, we left little-kid-friendly Disney for big, bad, bold Universal Orlando Resort—which, as theme parks go, is a bit like the love child of a video game and a mall. All the adolescents around us seemed happy, though they also all looked like they were heading for a Metallica concert. Isaac opted out of the Shrek ride at Universal Studios—too scary—and Zoe bolted from Jimmy Neutron (based on a movie about aliens kidnapping parents, which thankfully, at her age, is still the stuff of nightmares rather than that of fantasies). After wisely emptying his pockets, Bruce whooshed around upside down on the Hulk roller coaster at Universal's Islands of Adventure for a few seconds, and that experience seemed to satisfy him. We all enjoyed the Cat in the Hat attraction, which was just my speed. As for the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, a spinning, ricocheting pinball of a ride, I was the only one out of the four of us who closed her eyes in terror.

Weak-kneed and hungry, we went to Emeril's Restaurant Orlando on the Universal property for lunch. Bruce and I had always been eager to try Emeril Lagasse's famous Creole-based cuisine; it's one of the needs-to-be-fixed areas of our marriage that we've never been to New Orleans together. We decided to make up for lost time. I ordered the oyster stew, which was full of andouille sausage, mollusks the size of a baby's fist and garlic—Emeril's was the only restaurant we visited with mouthwash in the bathroom. We also shared sloppy and decadent black-truffle pizza, pecan-crusted redfish and—because we were pretending to care about our health—spinach salad. Our kids ate (what else?) chicken fingers and pizza. Here's their lunch conversation:

Zoe: "Yummy. The chicken fingers taste like McDonald's."

Isaac: "If you dip them in ketchup, they taste like ketchup."

High praise indeed.

We continued our tour of Universal—the kids participated in a Nickelodeon game show and watched some lucky child get slimed with what looked like green applesauce—but mentally we were preparing to depart. So we gathered our belongings, our Mickey and Minnie Mouse dolls, our new Orlando sweatshirts and headed out in the fading light of day. We were flying home on Delta's Song, and the kids were speculating about whether the flight attendants would sing the Mickey Mouse Club anthem at the Orlando airport the way the ones in New York had. But first we made one last culinary detour: Bubbalou's Bodacious BBQ, which has four locations, one near Universal Orlando. Bruce, who had eaten at Bubbalou's on a trip to Orlando 11 years ago, had been dreaming about it ever since.

We pulled into a mini mall, and once we opened the door we knew Bubba's was our kind of place, because there was a roll of paper towels on each of the the picnic tables inside. Bruce ordered a chicken-and-ribs combo, plus a pulled-pork sandwich (all the barbecue is cooked over oak on-site daily). Zoe had a burger, fries and fried pickles. Isaac ate—you guessed it—chicken fingers and ketchup. And I ordered a smorgasbord of sides—coleslaw, Texas caviar (black-eyed peas with celery and onions in a vinaigrette), baked beans, and mac and cheese. I also picked around the ham hocks in some excellent collards.

We waddled out to the parking lot speechless with satiation. We'd seen Orlando, we'd survived, and now it was definitely time to go home.

Helen Schulman's most recent novel, P.S., has just been made into a movie.

Published June 2004
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