The food scene in Orlando has changed – for the better!

PB&J Sushi at Cowfish
PB&J Sushi at Cowfish

By Eileen Ogintz

ORLANDO, FL (Day Two) — The line forms outside the door of Trader Sam’s new Grog Grotto in Walt Disney World’s Polynesian Village Resort before it’s 4 p.m. opening and the wait can stretch to two hours.

Where else will an interactive volcano picture erupt if you order a particular drink or a goddess light up?

A few minutes away at the new Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, you won’t find such elaborate theming—just a focus on carefully prepared food from local purveyors. Think chef made charcuterie at the character breakfasts, homemade pasta and pizza, prime steaks in the roof top restaurant where you can watch the fireworks both from Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Kids can order a small fillet or “paella”—chicken and rice.

“I like to see more kids order different things,” said Four Seasons Executive Chef Fabrizio Schenardi. “The parents want to see the kids order different things and some kids do.  But others stick to the basics.”

He said it is up to parents to teach kids about food. “Make them try everything!” By the time young guests are eight, he added, they’ve outgrown the kids’ menu so the Four Seasons encourages them to split portions.

The food scene has changed dramatically in Orlando, he and other chefs agree.

JW Marriott Executive Chef Jadan Sheive points to the popularity of the resort’s new Whisper Creek Kitchen, with kitchen-made sausages and vegetables and fruit right from the resort’s 7,000-square foot garden. (Think Kale pesto flatbreads)  There are cooking classes for parents as well as kids.  At first, he said, his team wasn’t sure kids would take to the new restaurant—there aren’t even kids menus—but it has been increasingly popular, especially as kids taste their parents food and like what they are eating.

He said you don’t often see kids who refuse to eat anything green. “That whole trend has been turned on its head,” he said.

“Dining out has become an experience,” he said.

At the theme parks too, said   Gary Jones, a culinary dietary specialist who helped introduce the “Mickey Checks” on kids meals to indicate the healthiest options.   “When you build food into the story, it’s pretty cool,” he said, like at the Be Our Guest restaurant in the Beast’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom. Soon, Disney will be unrolling allergy-friendly menus at some 120 food outlets here in Orlando and in California.  You will find veggie wraps with hummus and kids meals served up with carrots and juice or water—you have to ask for fries and soft drinks. Still, about half those ordering kids meals do.

There seems a focus on healthy kids’ menus inside and outside the parks. Hyatt Regency Orlando and Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress have launched an innovative menu, “For Kids By Kids,” which provides nutritious, fresh and interactive offerings for children. The “For Kids By Kids” menu was tasted, tested and approved by kids and includes options like a three-course organic menu for children and creative ways for kids to engage with their food. Healthy selections include Top Your Own Taco, Waffle Dipping Sticks, Shaken Chopped Salad and a full organic meal offering including a salad, chicken entrée and a dessert.

Orlando Eye
Orlando Eye

“In the last two years, there are a lot more healthy choices for kids,” said Nando Belmonte, the executive chef at Universal Orlando’s Royal Pacific Hotel.  But that doesn’t mean they always opt for them. At the same time, guests are gobbling up Vegan Lasagna and veggie dishes.

Disney is revamping Downtown Disney into Disney Springs with new restaurants like the Boathouse  with its floating artwork and the chance to take a ride in an Amphicar.  When finished there will be more than 150 shopping, dining and entertainment venues.  City Walk has added new restaurants like Cowfish that sells burgers and sushi fusion rolls. Kids love their Bento boxes complete with PB&J sushi.

The new Tusker House Restaurant at Disney’s Animal Kingdom now features “Donald’s Safari Dinner with spit-roasted carved meats, stews, veggie offerings—all with an African twist.

And I-Drive Orlando, with the new Orlando Eye, is home to Tin Roof which serves up  a cross between Tex-Mex and Southern cooking with live music.

At the Ritz-Carlton at Grande Lakes Orlando, every dish at Highball and Harvest includes something from the farm—tomatoes, peppers, Swiss chard, rosemary…  The honey produced on site is used in signature cocktails; there’s an on-site brewery and chicken coop as well as 18 varieties of citrus trees, avocado trees, bananas, mango and cherries. Everything from beets to yucca to blueberries, broccoli and mint are grown here.

Kids like to sit up at the counter and watch how their food is being made, said Chef Sheive. “Wellness has got to be part of your concept these days,” he added. “If not, you’re going to miss out.”

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