Princesses and mouse ears make room for tech-fueled fun and superhero-sized thrills.
By Allan Richter
Many young adults probably remember Orlando as the place where they once met a princess and donned a set of mouse ears. For many, however, Orlando is no longer just the ephemeral escape it once was. The city has become one of the country’s top draws for Millennials to both live in and, yes, visit, albeit for reasons other than those that drew their younger selves.
Last year, Orlando was ranked as the No. 3 hotspot among potential homebuyers between the ages of 25 and 34, according to realtor.com, the site of the National Association of Realtors. These people were attracted to Orlando for its strong economy and job growth.
Central Florida’s near year-round sunshine, freshwater springs and plentiful lakes provide ample outdoor activities. And the same theme parks with kid-friendly cartoon characters are luring people now in their 20s again – this time with virtual reality, 3D and sensors. Pulse-pounding rides are filling the parks with young adults who have forgotten they once had to stand at least 48 inches tall to ride anything remotely as thrilling.
No wonder the theme parks are accommodating younger visitors. A report last year found that 18- to 29-year-olds accounted for the largest group of theme park visitors at 46%, a nearly 10% increase from 2015. The study, by St. Louis consultancy PGAV Destinations, found that this generation was also the most impressed with technology, with 59% saying it made them more likely to return.
Orlando, along with the young visitors who helped shape this city’s image as a carefree escape, has grown up. Here are some ways to enjoy the city.
WHERE TO FIND ADVENTURE
One of the newer amenities at the 500-acre Grand Lakes Resort is its two-mile Hidden Lake mountain bike trail. With log obstacles and ramps of mounded earth, the trail rivals much of what you might see on ESPN; it will have you working up a sweat like a professional. Signs leading to the trail caution
bikers to beware of alligators and other wildlife along the way; we came across a family of deer. Helmets off to the resort for providing solid Swiss-made Scott bikes (guides are available). Contact Grande Lakes Sports (407- 393-4531, grandlakes.com).
For all the air you can catch jumping over obstacles, you’ll be nowhere near as high as you’ll find yourself at Forever Florida; its 1,000-foot Zipcoaster has you soaring at 20 miles per hour, beginning with a launch of a 65-foot-high platform. Or try the racing zipline, with two side-by-side, 1,300-foot lines that send thrill seekers off at 30 mph. Then head to the Panther Pounce, a 68-foot-high free fall. Visit foreverflorida.com.
Visitors to Orlando can score a healthy workout rock climbing, even without any natural rock walls. Aiguille Gym boasts 10,000 square feet of walls up to 36 feet high with plenty of variety, such as dedicated bouldering sections for a more freestyle approach. A fitness area features free weights, a squat rack, pull-up bars and a training wall; yoga lets you loosen up before a climb. Visit aiguille.com.
Orlando Paintball touts eight indoor and outdoor courses with obstacles that include bridges, tunnels, trenches, forts, towers, bunkers and staircases. As you battle it out with advanced paintball guns, lose yourself in scenarios such as SWAT vs. Convicts, in which you, as a member of an elite police unit, have 10 minutes to track down the convicts, lest they win. (The actual Orlando SWAT team uses the facility for its training.) Visit orlandopaintball.com.
WHERE TO FIND THEME PARK FUN
The glimpse into the future that Walt Disney World used to provide to guests was on the People Mover in its Magic Kingdom theme park’s Tomorrowland. Today it’s in its many virtual reality attractions.
One of the hottest since it opened last year, Avatar Flight of Passage will have you riding on the back of a flying “banshee,” navigating, via VR and 3D, through immense rock formations, giant walls of water and lush jungles. (We heard several older visitors say they had to close their eyes for part of this attraction.) It is part of the park’s Pandora—the World of Avatar area, inspired by the James Cameron–directed movie.
One of the tech-centric rides at the new Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the expanded Toy Story Mania! a virtual gallery of carnival games based on the animated film series, including Green Army Men Shoot Camp, where you toss baseballs to break plates at a green army men firing range. At Toy Story Land, you can “shrink” to the size of a toy or join in on the Green Army Men interactive boot camp to become an official recruit in Andy’s Backyard.
Building on the nostalgia for such content, Disney World’s conventions and meetings specialists are giving event planners a chance to capitalize on “Toy Story” and other darlings of the Millennial set with themed meetings. Think ballrooms filled with toys featured in the films and appearances by Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody. Or event planners can set meetings around Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction, which Disney World, in an immersive experience called Room for One More, will recreate in any of its convention hotel ballrooms or private event venues.
Universal Orlando, too, is working its magic with young adults. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, set in both Universal Studios and its Islands of Adventure, is connected by the Hogwarts Express. It’s not just nostalgia, but thrills that attract young adults: In Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, guests soar above castle grounds with Harry Potter and his friends.
The allure of thrills combining 3D and real motion also drive the action at Skull Island Reign of Kong and at the chase-paced Fast & Furious Supercharged, complete with props, live actors and recordings of Vin Diesel and other film stars.
WHERE TO DRINK
The World Showcase at Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park is a convenient stomping ground for beer and wine enthusiasts looking for a sampling of authentic spirits from around the globe—all in one location.
You can chow down on powdered sugar-coated funnel cake or a Mickey Mouse-shaped pretzel at the American pavilion and wash it down with a Warrior IPA, an ale with pine and citrus aromatics from the Honor Brewing Company in Chantilly, Virginia. Or you can follow a California roll with a chaser of Kirin Ichiban draft beer, Sapporo Premium bottled beer or sake, hot or cold, at the Japanese pavilion’s Kabuki Café.
La Cava del Tequila, a tequila specialty bar at Epcot’s Mexican pavilion, offers more than 200 drinks, many crafted around three classes of tequila: A light Blanco distilled twice aged for less than two months in oak barrels; Reposado, aged less than a year, with a balance of wood, fruity notes, vanilla and spices; and soft, sweet Añejo, aged in small, white-oak barrels for a minimum of 12 months, which offers the aromas of chocolate, almonds and wood. “
A hundred times people tell me, ‘I’m an annual Disney pass holder and I only come here for my margarita,” says Cristina Renteria, manager of La Cava del Tequila. Renteria is one of three tequila “ambassadors” at La Cava del Tequila certified by the Consejo Regulados del Tequila, or Tequila Regulatory Council, the authority in the Mexican state of Jalisco that oversees tequila authenticity.
At the German pavilion, visitors can choose from an array of beer steins before buying what manager Reid Dotson said were beers and wines typically unavailable in America, noting that many customers “buy beer in bulk.” The shop’s most popular dark is a wheat beer from the Erdinger Weissbrau brewery in Erding, Germany; other big sellers include Williams-Birne Pear brandy, with a pear grown inside the bottle whilestill on the tree, and a Schloss Vollrads estate Riesling. “It’s between a dry and a sweet,” Dotson said of the Reisling, “so it’s got something for everybody.”
At Italy’s beer and wine shop, buyers scoop up large quantities of what a manager said were two hard-to-find beers from the same brewery, a blonde and an amber from Birra Menabrea in Biella. The shop’s most popular wine, Prosecco, a sparkling white, is “very dry, which makes it a good mixer,” said the manager, who identified himself only as Chris. “It mixes well with juices.”
Sparkling wine was also a top seller at Les Vines de France at the French pavilion. While children were lapping up sorbet, their parents were sipping glasses of Avive grapefruit sparkling wine, a big seller produced in Provence. Coming in at No. 2: Maison Veuve Clicquot champagne. Driving demand? A glass cost $13, versus the $26-per-glass price for most of the shop’s other champagnes, a sales associate said.
By the British pavilion, across from a Twinings tea shop, the Rose & Crown pub was packed shoulder-to-shoulder and doing brisk business with its top sellers, Harp Premium Lager, a rich, golden pilsner-style Irish lager, and the stalwart Guinness Stout.
Britain and Canada are an ocean apart but only steps from each other at Epcot. For those frequenting the Canada pavilion’s bar, Molson was the clear favorite, while an apple maple hard cider difficult to find in the US was selling well in the shop downstairs.
At Wdwinfo.com, a website run by fans of all things Disney, drinking holes outside of Epcot—but still within Disney World— were also being recommended. Among them: Hollywood Studios‘ Tune-In Lounge, offering specialty cocktails with light-up ice cubes; Thirsty River Bar and Trek Snacks in Animal Kingdom; The AbracadaBAR at Disney’s Boardwalk; and Trader Sam’s at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
Kyle Van Osten, 27, a Cranford, New Jersey, medical products sales rep, was at Epcot’s World Showcase feting two family birthdays with what has come to be known as a “drinking- around- the world” celebration. He was fascinated by some styles of beer at the World Showcase that typically could be ordered only through a specialty store back home, although they came from familiar brands.
Van Osten was similarly impressed with some of the mixed drinks and cocktails. “I can’t just go down to the bar at the end of the street and get an avocado margarita,” Van Osten said. “You combine that with some of the foods, and it’s a full experience.”
This wasn’t Van Osten’s first trip to Epcot and its World Showcase. “I had a senior trip here when I was in high school,” he said, “but I wasn’t of legal drinking age back then.”
Where to Get Close to Nature
The vessel glides gently through the water. We are in a tunnel of sorts, with a light show streaming through the ceiling. Creatures surround us. The trunks of trees around us are dotted with what looks like chewed pink bubblegum. A family attraction in a theme park?
No. We are kayaking in Shingle Creek, the headwaters of the Florida Everglades by way of Lake Tohokepaliga and the Kissimmee River to the south. The “ceiling” is the green canopy of cypress and oak trees, and the light show is unleashed by the sun’s rays poking through and reflecting off the dark water around us. The “pink bubblegum” on the trees is the pink egg sack of Apple snails attached to the bark.
The calm waters are at once blissful and thrilling. Minutes after slipping our kayaks into the water from a stretch of shore on the Grande Lakes Orlando property, an alligator rises from beneath the water we had just paddled over. Along the way, we navigate through hanging Spanish moss and around a downed tree here and there, and pass turtles in the water and white egrets along the shore.
Our immersion into this natural environment begins well beforehand. The Certified Master Naturalist who guides us takes us by golf cart to the departure point, but not before we stop at an osprey nest to see the birds poking their heads up. The 500-acre Grande Lakes resort is also home to whitetail deer, bobcat, North American river otter, fox, raccoons and a variety of birds, from great horned owls to roseate spoonbills. Contact Grande Lakes Sports (407-393-4531, grandelakes.com) to schedule an eco-tour. You can also explore Shingle Creek in nearby Kissimmee by visiting the Paddling Center at Shingle Creek (407-344- 0881, paddlingcenter.com).
You can spot alligators, black bear and other wildlife by canoe or kayak at Wekiwa Springs State Park, about 16 miles from downtown Orlando. Wekiwa Springs boasts 13 miles of trails for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. A section of the Wekiwa River is set aside for swimming, and you can camp in the park. Park officials are currently developing a lushly landscaped Serenity Garden. Designed around principles of the American Therapeutic Horticultural Association, it will be an “interactive and sensory” space for seniors, the visually impaired, veterans and people with autism. Visit floridastateparks.org.
Where to Stay
Some Orlando resorts compete with the theme parks on the merit of their on-site activities. Grande Lakes Orlando, which houses both a JW Marriott and, for those with deeper pockets, a Ritz-Carlton, is one such resort.
This jewel of a property sports its own brewery, a sprawling pool at the Ritz-Carlton, a lazy river surrounded by bamboo and other lush vegetation at the JW Marriott, golf, tennis, and volleyball and bocce ball courts. You can capture it all with your own “photography concierge”—a 45-minute photo shoot with a professional photographer; the session is gratis, but the photos are for sale, with no obligation to buy.
The theme at Grande Lakes Orlando is built around eco-consciousness and wellness. The property sources many of its ingredients for its dozen dining outlets (see “Where to Eat”), including its spa’s cafe, from Whisper Creek Farm, the on-site, 7,000-square-foot fruit and vegetable garden that is also home to a chicken coop and apiaries.
Among its amenities, the 40,000-square-foot Ritz-Carlton Spa features 40 treatment rooms and a 4,000-square-foot outdoor heated lap pool, along with healing waters just for spa guests. Guests can create a personalized scrub at the Scrub Bar, featuring fresh herbs like lemongrass and peppermint from the resort’s rooftop eco-garden. Visit GrandeLakes.com, Ritz-Carlton Orlando.com or JWGrandeLakes.com.
Because Walt Disney World is a master of reinventing exotic places, we looked forward to our stay at its Animal Kingdom Lodge. Waking up to see zebra just yards from our balcony made the mornings mystical, and the authentic dishes on the menu at its buffet (see “Where to Eat”) kept us in the mood of the Serengeti. The resort transcends kitsch with its African art pieces like ornamental headwear and masks, and superbly balances family fun (great pool!) with an appreciation of the diversity of the planet’s population. Visit disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts.
The Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress makes it difficult to leave its grounds. It’s got four Jack Nicklaus Signature– designed golf courses, a half-acre pool with 12 waterfalls and multiple slides, a tennis and racquet club, and water sports on its private lake, including paddle boats and other watercraft. If you find time to get off this Hyatt property, you are just a stone’s throw from the theme parks. Visit Hyatt.com.
Staying at some on-site hotels comes with perks at Universal’s theme parks: park admission one hour before regular opening to certain attractions, skipping lines and a free shuttle. We liked the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel for the relaxing vibe of its charming piazza set around a serene harbor and choice of three pools. Visit UniversalOrlando.com.
Where to Eat
If “sustainable” and “fresh” are important to you, head to Orlando’s East End Market, a collection of farm-totable eateries inspired by area farmers and food artisans that reflects the best of Central Florida’s food culture. Located in Orlando’s Audubon Park Garden District, you’ll find sushi, freshly baked bread and freshly roasted coffee, craft beer, kombucha, organic juice, raw food specialties, artisan cheeses and more. Visit eastendmkt.com.
If you enjoy strolling among a collection of eateries in one location, check out Disney Springs. In addition to chains such as Blaze Fast Fired Pizza and House of Blues, you’ll find interesting fare, like that at Bongos Cuban Café – perhaps not as authentic a vibe as Miami’s Little Havana district, but colorful and a reasonable facsimile. Visit disneysprings.com.
If you crave international flavors but can’t spare the travel and expense, you may be in luck in Orlando – the epicenter of recreated worlds, near and far. We were intrigued by the dishes at the Boma: Flavors of Africa buffet at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, so we feasted on bobotie, a South African pie of coarsely ground lamb with curry, lemon leaves and fruits; watermelon rind salad; and other dishes. We weren’t disappointed. Visit disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining.
We like creativity at the dinner table, so we found ourselves back at Grand Lakes, marveling at the innovative dishes at the Southern-themed Highball & Harvest at the Ritz-Carlton. We were impressed by everything that crossed our table; standouts were a prime skirt steak with chimichurri; pickle-brined, smoked and fried Kickin’ Wings; and H&H Jerky, melt-in-your-mouth beef strips with peppercorns and soy. Highball & Harvest, which sources from local farms, also serves a seasonally inspired vegetarian entrée called The Bad Hunter.
You can also enjoy fresh Whisper Creek Farm ingredients at the Grande Lakes farm’s own The Kitchen (sandwiches, flatbreads and small plates) and The Brewery, the first nano-brewery launched by a Marriott property. It produces 28 gallons of beer weekly, including five styles created each season – Dark, Wheat/ Light, Amber, IPA and a seasonal Special Brew made from farm-fresh ingredients. Grande Lakes’ flagship beer, Surplus, a collaboration with Big Storm Brewery, is a signature Floridian honey citrus ale with honey sourced from the resort’s apiaries. Visit grandelakes.com/Dining-107.html.