Heading north along the Florida Turnpike through the headwaters of the Everglades and past old-school towns like Yeehaw Junction, I spot Orlando’s Walt Disney World looming on the blank green horizon like a kind of PG-13 Las Vegas. In the classic tradition of the state, the city is reinventing itself all over again, building on its core business of theme parks, but touting sophisticated hotels and restaurants, and a beyond-cool Vietnamese/hipster scene in the emerging Mills 50 neighborhood northeast of downtown.
The Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort ($$$$) epitomizes the city’s transformation. The sleek adults-only pool is straight out of Palm Beach; the stylish restaurant Ravello, done up in wood and Botticino marble, specializes in updated Italian classics; and the hotel’s Explorer Island is like a mini resort for kids, with a tubing creek and faux-Stonehenge garden follies.
That afternoon, seized by nostalgia for my childhood trips to Disney, I find myself clinging desperately to my sanity (and my stomach) on Space Mountain. Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida didn’t get to be figureheads of multinational behemoths by failing to capitalize on the city’s craze for sympathetic adult diversions: these days, Epcot’s new After Hours Wind Down Experience, which allows grown-ups to eat and drink until 11 p.m., is more to my taste. After a stroll past the United Kingdom Pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase, where a cover band is belting out without irony the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” I stop by the France Pavilion for wine and tasty escargot cassoulet.
Orlando has more James Beard Award–nominated chefs than any other Florida destination, and the Grande Lakes Orlando ($$), just a 12-mile drive from downtown, is hoping to build on that fact. A partnership between Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott, the property has an on-site farm complete with beehives and a barn. At the Ritz-Carlton, chef Mark Jeffers’s Highball & Harvest restaurant serves a standout smoked mackerel dip, while Melissa Kelly’s Primo, at the JW, whips up southern Italian farm-to-table fare such as sautéed scaloppine of pork saltimbocca.
The next day, I set out to explore another side of the city’s culinary resurgence. In tow with Ricky Ly, a local food blogger and author of The Food Lovers’ Guide to Orlando, lunch is a marathon of three remarkable Vietnamese restaurants in a tiny mall in Mills 50. The place is like stepping into a slice of Vietnam: the delicious $3.50 kingfish sandwich at Banh Mi Nha Trang ($) is a kind of benediction—and the best of Florida’s new age.
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