Highs and lows in an artificial American paradise

“I’d like to make you what’s called a gris-gris. It’s a good-luck charm for all your travels,” said Meraux Dantes, a magician who had just walked over to me in Disney Springs, Florida. In short order, he’d have me bend a fork with my mind. This, it became clear, was his job. (Gris-gris originated in West Africa and are often worn as amulets or embedded in the entryway of a house to protect against theft.)

We were inside a “dive” called Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, and I was drinking a Cool-Headed Monkey, a watermelon punch served in a commemorative mug meant to evoke that scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” where our heroes are served monkey brains. Lindsey is Jones’ daredevil pilot, and is featured in a scene involving his pet snake, Reggie, that only die-hard fans remember. Yet Walt Disney “Imagineers” created an entire bar and restaurant devoted to him.

Disney Springs, too, is born from the heads of the Imagineers. According to official lore, a cattle rancher stumbled upon its titular body of water (really more like a still river) in what is now Lake Buena Vista, outside Orlando, in the mid-1800s. But the cattle rancher never existed, the springs are man-made, and the “retail, dining, and entertainment district” (as corporate literature calls it) is effectively only five years old. This is actually Disney’s fourth attempt since 1975 to create a hub of retail shops and restaurants separate from its theme parks, and the first one that seems to be a real success. The best known was called Downtown Disney. A cluster of comedy and nightclubs known as Pleasure Island shut down in 2008, with the buildings repurposed or bulldozed.

Despite its proximity to and association with Disney World, the essentials of Disney Springs are that it’s free to enter, it’s essentially a fancy pedestrian mall, and there’s not a costumed character or roller coaster in sight. (Though visitors can pay to take a hot-air balloon ride, try out a Star Wars-themed “hyper-reality” experience or tour in a vintage car that drives on land and water.) Which is all to say it’s for adults: Las Vegas on a Lake, a relaxation paradise for resort-goers and locals alike, open until 2 a.m. — on weekends. Its main draw is restaurants from celebrity chefs like Rick Bayless, Art Smith and Masaharu Morimoto (check out the last one for the jellyfish-like light fixtures alone) — with new openings from José Andrés, Tony Manuato and Wolfgang Puck coming this year. The New York Times named it No. 41 on its 52 Places to Go in 2018 list, which is where I come in, mouse ears and all, as the reporter charged with visiting every place on the list in one year.

Did I love it? No. But I did love that other people love it. Here are my highs and lows.

— HIGH: Wall-to-Wall Entertainment

Over the course of three nights, in addition to Meraux, I saw a juggler, street musicians, burlesque dancers, and drummers from Zambia and South Africa on a hospitality exchange program with Animal Kingdom Lodge. (All performers are selected by talent search and well compensated, no tips requested.) But for my money, the highlight was catching a glimpse of Eddy Maserati, a local legend and retired lawyer and insurance broker. Maserati, originally from Positano, Italy, is known for dancing his heart out on public boardwalks around town; when I saw him, he wore a bedazzled Brazil soccer jersey and gold sneakers.

— HIGH: Adults Who Love Disney

More than its high-profile restaurants, what makes Disney Springs worth a trip is the chance to feed off the energy of adults who make it a priority to keep their inner kids alive and well. I felt immediate secondary joy talking to Adrienne LeBlanc, a diabetes care specialist who comes down from South Carolina eight to 10 times a year, has a Disney-devoted Instagram, and was decked out in a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and black-and-white Mickey Mouse combat boots. “Usually we’d be in bed right now! Let’s be real, Disney is for adults, not for kids!” she said, as burlesque dancers sashayed before us at The Edison, a new 1920s-themed nightclub that goes adults-only at 10 p.m. on weekends. If I had time I would have gone “drinking around the world” at Epcot with her and Sascha Vinson, whom I met coming back from doing just that. Vinson, a realty office manager, lives an hour away, but had been to Disney Springs three weekends that month. “Disney is literally the happiest place on Earth,” she said. “There’s nothing but good vibes.” Though it does seem that the vibes are better if you go with girlfriends in the know.

— LOW: Being an Actual Adult

As a child of the Southwest, I’ve been to Disneyland in Anaheim, California, twice, but never to Disney World. So “I’m going to Disney World!” became a kind of mantra of this trip for me. By the time I got to Florida, though, stress and logistical needs had won out. I had three days in Orlando to get ready for two months in South America. That included setting up a new phone, buying new luggage, sending home my old luggage and trying to get a yellow fever shot in the midst of a yellow fever vaccine shortage. I was finding that sometimes this trip gets in the way of itself.

— HIGH: My Hotel, Water Park Included

I had my heart set on staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge or Polynesian Village inside Disney World, but both were sold out (word to the Disney-wise: plan way, way ahead). So I instead headed to Holiday Inn Resort Orlando Suites-Waterpark. It was considerably cheaper (though beware the daily resort and parking fees) and I laughed and laughed when I found out that their standard room, even for a solo traveler, is a two-bedroom suite with a set of bunk beds. Every morning, I got to walk out of my luxuriously huge room and watch delighted kids flowing down the spirals of a massive orange and yellow water slide right outside my window. I’d rebook in a second.

— LOW: Going (or Rather Not Going) to Disney World by Myself

Disney World is set up for two types of people: annual pass holders who come in groups to drink and be merry (see the “Adults Who Love Disney” section above), and families who have been planning their trip for months, even years. I wanted to ride Animal Kingdom’s “Avatar Flight of Passage,” eat a churro and pay whatever I needed to do that, and fast. My experience, instead: 30 minutes of waiting in line at guest services to try to give them money because the box office was closed; giving up and moving to another guest relations line just inside the park; and encountering an aghast attendant who demanded I rat out the name of the “cast member” who had let me onto park grounds (I didn’t) and then refused to speak to me until I went back outside the entrance to the slow-moving line I had just left. I opted to not wait around again to spend $120 to go to another park and possibly get yelled at again.

— HIGH: Love, Everywhere

I thought if I couldn’t get into Animal Kingdom, I could at least go to the Animal Kingdom Lodge. There, I spotted a pair of white mouse ears with a veil attached bouncing though the buffet line. They belonged to Jhi-eun Gu, 24, of Cranford, New Jersey, who was happy to tell me how she had just gotten engaged that evening to Dave Mulewski, 28. They met at a party while both were playing in the orchestra at Montclair State University (she plays violin, he plays upright and electric bass) and have been together for five years. Mulewski told me he popped the question in front of the Animal Kingdom’s signature Tree of Life, which was lit up in a million colors, and a cast member ran to get them the ears they were wearing. “I asked Jhi’s mom for permission, of course,” he told me. “Though we are millennials, I still have respect for the tradition, and it was the right thing to do.”

— HIGH: The Food Truck 15 Minutes Outside of Disney

By far the best food experience in Central Florida for me, and maybe of the entire trip so far, was the Mi Parrillita Peruvian food truck on the side of the W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway in Kissimmee. Carlo Chavez of Peru and Evelyn Parada of Guatemala wake up at 7 a.m. for their day jobs cleaning vacation houses, then work till 1 a.m. sating Disney workers coming off their shifts. Even they find time to go to Disney once in a while. “Animal Kingdom, that’s my party!” Chavez told me, serving up piping hot lomo saltado and salchipapas from the interior of his tiny truck. At least someone got in.

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