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Florida Day Trip: Disney Springs

If, like me, you’ve been seeing a lot of articles about Disney Springs recently, then you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s just Downtown Disney with a new name, right? Well, yes and no. Disney Springs is a re-branding of Downtown Disney, but they’ve added a few things. Actually, they’ve added more than just a few things. According to the official Disney Blog, there was a 2-fold expansion in both the size and number of retailers when Downtown Disney became Disney Springs in September 2015. They brought in more restaurants and shops, and they even added a fake spring. The goal was to make Disney Springs a premier destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment. Or you can imagine it as a small Florida town that grew up around a natural spring. At Disney, everything needs a backstory.

The Springs:

There was never a natural spring running through Downtown Disney, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Inspired by towns in central Florida that actually do have a natural spring – like Ocala and Silver Springs – Disney Imagineers built a fake spring right through the middle of Downtown Disney. It wasn’t easy. First, they had to find a new way to utilize pool material. They used pigmented cement to paint the spring bottom in vibrant shades of blue and green, adding colorful glass pebbles along the way to introduce an even greater variation in color. To make the spring’s banks look more realistic, they planted new cypress and incorporated real oak trees into the design. The result is the most realistic artificial springs I have ever seen.

The Food:

Real town or not, Disney Springs has become a major foodie destination. With their recent expansion, there are now five James Beard Award-Winning Chefs represented at Disney Springs:

  1. Art Smith with Homecoming Kitchen, serving southern/Florida cuisine, opened in July 2016
  2. Rick Bayless with Frontera Cocina, serving Mexican cuisine, opened in June 2016
  3. Masahuru Morimoto with Morimoto Asia, serving Pan-Asian cuisine, opened in September 2015
  4. Wolfgang Puck with Wolfgang Puck Grand Café, serving California cuisine, opened in 1997
  5. Tony Mantuano with Portobello, serving Italian cuisine, opened in 1989

My dream would be to eat at every single one of these restaurants, but I had to select one of them for this particular visit. Due to recent press and hype, I decided on Morimoto Asia.

Morimoto Asia

Chef Morimoto won his James Beard award for outstanding restaurant design with the opening of Morimoto New York in 2006. After seeing promotional videos for Orlando’s Morimoto Asia, I expected the dining room to be impressive and I wasn’t disappointed. Cylindrical crystal chandeliers hang from the 2nd floor down to the 1st, shining like gold streamers in the light. A glass wall separates the dining area from the kitchen, allowing patrons to observe the chefs in action. Through the glass, I saw rows of ducks and chefs in white hats.

The food, although good, was not on the same level of greatness as the restaurant design. The menu was perhaps a little too ambitious. It seems like you can order every major dish from every Asian country in the world here: Kung Pao Chicken, Orange Chicken, Peking Duck, Spare Ribs, Fried Rice, Lo Mein, Ramen, and Dim Sum from China; Miso Soup, Shrimp Tempura, and Sushi from Japan; Pad Thai from Thailand; and Buri-Bop from Korea. With so much to choose from, I was left to wonder what the actual specialties were.

I started with the Pork Bao, a common Dim Sum item. The flavor was great, but the meat was about 70% fat, which I found unappealing. My main dish, the Duck Ramen, was significantly better. The broth was the richest, most delicious broth I have ever tasted—it was clearly made by an expert hand. The fresh scallions and cilantro complimented the broth beautifully, countering the richness of the broth with their bright, fresh flavor. My only complaint is that here again, I thought that the meat in the dish was too fatty for the price.

For dessert, I ordered the churros. Churros are the last thing I would ever expect to order for dessert in an Asian restaurant, but of all the items on the dessert menu, these appealed to me the most. As it turns out, churros are quite popular in Manila. I am used to seeing churros as a greasy festival food, but these churros were more like gourmet doughnuts. Slightly crispy on the outside, and delightfully cakey on the inside, these churros were absolutely perfect. They came with a little tube of Nutella and a dish of vanilla cream for dipping, which further enhanced the experience.

Except for the churros, I left Morimoto Asia with a sneaking suspicion that I had ordered all wrong. So many of the items on the Morimoto Asia menu are meant for sharing and I should have come with a larger group that was more interested in family-style dining. I would have loved to have shared the spare ribs appetizer and the Peking Duck for two. I also didn’t know then that Morimoto started his career in a sushi kitchen and became famous for his Japanese cooking. Had I had known this, I would have ordered some sushi or shrimp tempura.

I didn’t come with enough money, either. I bet the cocktails are great, but at $14 a glass, I just couldn’t afford to order one. Instead, I had the nonalcoholic Morimoto Punch, which was refreshing and delicious in its own right. If this place had cheaper drinks and a smaller, more focused menu, I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more, but it was still a good experience as is. I would go again to try some of the other menu items. For a more well-rounded review of Morimoto Asia, I am actually going to refer you to the Disney Food Blog (a great reference in general): http://www.disneyfoodblog.com/2015/10/05/full-review-dinner-at-morimoto-asia-in-disney-worlds-disney-springs/. They raved about the Tuna Pizza and Rock Shrimp Tempura.

More Reviews:

Although I have yet to dine at any of the other four restaurants listed above, the Disney Food Blog has already hit every single one of them and provided full reviews for them all.

Art Smith’s Homecoming Kitchen review by Disney Food Blog: http://www.disneyfoodblog.com/2016/08/01/review-chef-art-smiths-homecoming-florida-kitchen-and-southern-shine-at-disney-springs/

Frontera Cocina review by Disney Food Blog: http://www.disneyfoodblog.com/2016/07/04/review-frontera-cocina-by-rick-bayless-in-disney-springs/

Portobello review by Disney Food Blog: http://www.disneyfoodblog.com/2010/07/22/review-portobello-restaurant/

Wolfgang Puck Café review by Disney Food Blog: http://www.disneyfoodblog.com/2011/07/03/review-wolfgang-puck-cafe/

More new restaurants:

Homecoming Kitchen, Frontera Cocina, and Morimoto Asia are not the only newcomers on the Disney Springs dining scene. Fulton Crab House was recently converted to Paddlefish, where you can dine on steaks and seafood on Lake Buena Vista in a paddleboat. Check out the Orlando Sentinel’s first look: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/travel/attractions/the-daily-disney/os-et-paddlefish-disney-springs-20170203-story.html.

Disney Springs has also landed a branch of the original cupcake bakery, California’s Sprinkles, reviewed by Disney Food Blog here: http://www.disneyfoodblog.com/2016/05/15/first-look-and-review-sprinkles-cupcakes-in-disney-springs-town-center/.

The Boathouse restaurant opened in Spring 2015 in Disney Springs’ The Landing. In an area of fine dining, The Boathouse is perhaps the finest (translation: most expensive) dining option in Disney Springs. If you want some lobster and a big fat steak, then this is where you want to go. Here, you can enjoy a 12 ounce filet mignon for $48.50 while looking out onto Lake Buena Vista. If you have $125 left, you can take a 20 minute tour of Disney Springs on one of the Boathouse’s amphibious cars. It’s pricey, but the online reviews seem to suggest it’s totally worth it.

Old favorites:

Planet Hollywood. Facing competition from all the new restaurants, some of the area’s older restaurants are stepping things up. Take Planet Hollywood for example. They recently recruited Guy Fieri to develop a new menu of burgers and sandwiches for their Disney Springs location. They have also added an observatory and a stargazers bar featuring planet- and space-themed cocktails.

House of Blues Restaurant. This is one of my personal favorites. You get Cajun/Creole food with a side of live blues music. I’m a big fan of the shrimp & grits. Be on the lookout for my upcoming Dinner and a Show: House of Blues Orlando post.

Raglan Road. An Irish Pub run by Irish people with live Irish music.

Bongos. Gloria & Emilio Estefan’s Disney Springs restaurant. Known for its Cuban music and cuisine.

Rainforest Café. I really loved this place as a kid. What kid doesn’t want to eat dinner in a fake rainforest?

That’s over a dozen interesting, unique places to eat all packed into one little fake town, and that number is likely to keep growing.

The Drinks:

Vanilla Russian

I’ve been hearing a lot about three new places to drink in Disney Springs:

  1. The Coca-Cola rooftop bar: serving Coke-inspired cocktails in Disney Springs’ Town Center neighborhood
  2. Homecoming Kitchen’s Shine Bar: Art Smith’s Homecoming Kitchen opened in June 2016 to rave reviews. Their Shine Bar serves Florida-inspired cocktails, often made with local spirits.
  3. Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar: Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, an Indiana Jones themed bar in Disney Springs’ The Landings, opened in September 2015. Shortly thereafter, Disney Food Blog went and ordered everything on the menu: http://www.disneyfoodblog.com/2015/09/27/full-menu-review-jock-lindseys-hangar-bar-in-disney-springs-walt-disney-world/.

Here is another instance where I had to choose just one. Being a huge fan of Coca-Cola, I went with the Coca-Cola rooftop bar in Disney Springs’ Town Center neighborhood.

The Coca-Cola store and rooftop bar: Disney Springs got its very own Coca-Cola store in July 2016. The three story glass building consists of two floors of Coke branded merchandise and Coke-inspired artwork leading up to a rooftop bar overlooking Disney Springs.

Behind the glass façade, their is a brick building encircled by a ramp leading up to the roof. The Coca-Cola rooftop bar offers soda flights for the kids and Coke-inspired cocktails for the adults. Any Coke fan will love this place. I ordered a Vanilla Russian, a twist upon a Black Russian made with Vanilla Coke, Kahlua, and Vodka and topped with whipped cream. The cocktails here aren’t cheap, but they are unique enough to warrant a purchase for the die-hard Coke fan. You can view the list here: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/disney-springs/coca-cola-rooftop-beverage-bar/menus/.

Dockside Margaritas: One of the first drinks I had after turning 21 was a frozen strawberry margarita at Downtown Disney. Believe it or not, Disney makes great frozen margaritas. In the midst of all these new Disney Springs drinking options, the margaritas will not be denied. You used to buy them at a nondescript stand in Downtown Disney, but Disney Springs has given us Dockside Margaritas. Technically it’s still a stand, but it’s been given a major upgrade: a new waterfront patio to drink your margarita at. I have yet to experience the new Disney Springs’ Dockside Margaritas, but you can read the Disney Food Blog review here: http://www.disneyfoodblog.com/2015/05/21/review-dockside-margaritas-at-disney-springs-marketplace/.

The Shopping:

Compared to all the new dining and drinking options in Disney Springs, shopping and other activities have gotten relatively little attention. However, 30 new retail stores came with the transition to Disney Springs in May 2016. The vast majority of these stores—28 to be exact—are located within the new Town Center neighborhood of Disney Springs. You can view the whole list of them here: http://www.insidethemagic.net/2016/02/disney-springs-is-getting-a-whopping-30-new-retail-stores/. Even if you don’t care for shopping, it’s an attractive area to walk through— it’s full of trees, fountains, and Spanish revival architecture.

Town Center

The Entertainment:

As far as I can tell, Downtown Disney’s reincarnation as Disney Springs didn’t come with any new entertainment options. For some good entertainment, head over to Disney Springs’ West Side, where you can watch movies at AMC Downtown Disney 24, go bowling at Splitsville, see La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil, or go to a concert at the House of Blues. None of these options are new – Downtown Disney’s West Side opened 2 decades ago, back in 1997. Yet the West Side still houses Disney Springs’ best entertainment options. My personal favorite is still the House of Blues, where you can get dinner and a concert all in one place.

Choose your own Disney Springs Adventure:

With all the different dining, drinking, shopping, and show options at the new Disney Springs, there are many ways to spend a day here. Just pick a restaurant, a bar, some shops, and a show and you’ve got yourself a Disney Springs Day Trip.

All the choices may seem overwhelming, but there a lot of great online resources that can help you choose:

The Official Disney Springs website provides a complete list of venues with photos and descriptions: https://www.disneysprings.com/

WDW Prep School’s Complete Guide to Disney Springs: http://wdwprepschool.com/a-complete-guide-to-downtown-disneydisney-springs/

Disney Food Blog: I’m obviously a big fan of this blog. It’s searchable, and you can find a review of pretty much every restaurant in the world of Disney here. http://www.disneyfoodblog.com/

The Official Disney Parks Blog: Find out what’s new at Disney. Use the search box up top to bring up all the posts about Disney Springs. https://disneyparks.disney.go.com/blog

The Orlando Sentinel: The Orlando Sentinel is always writing about all things Disney, and you can access a lot of their articles on Disney Springs online. Search Disney Springs and you will see them all. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/

Jennifer Ring
Jennifer Ring is a freelance writer & photographer living in the Tampa Bay area, on Florida's west coast, home to some of the best beaches in the state.
http://flillustrated.com

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