Groups gather before sunset at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge for the guided Wanyama Safari across whispering savannahs to observe bongo, kudu, zebra, wildebeest, African spoonbills and the rare blue crane. Afterwards, everyone sits down to dine on Pokanoket Farm seared ostrich served with pomegranate gastrique at the Lodge’s AAA 4-diamond restaurant, Jiko—The Cooking Place, home to the largest collection of South African wine in North America.
We’re not ready to anoint Orlando as America’s next big food town. Not yet, anyway. But no one who’s visited here recently will deny that this city is all grown up.
“I often hear, ‘I thought I was in Orlando, but now I’m not sure,’” says Dennis Wirzman, managing director of Disney Event Group. “Jiko’s fine-dining menu and 1,800-bottle wine list is always a big surprise for groups.”
One chef who’s witnessed the evolution of Orlando is Robert Mason, executive chef at the signature Fiorella’s restaurant at The Westin Imagine Orlando. He first came here in 1991 from San Francisco to open The Westin Bohemian Orlando, and he’s enjoyed the honor of being invited as a guest chef to NYC’s James Beard House.
“Back then, anything new and edgy was a hard sell, even downtown,” he says. “In the last five years or so, a lot more celebrity chefs like Todd English have moved into town, and our guests’ overall palate is much more sophisticated…. The demand has grown, we have a lot of convention-goers who are used to dining in San Francisco, Chicago and New York.”
Chef, what are planners asking from you for their groups?
“They’re looking for an à la carte experience in a banquet environment. We do simple, market-driven Tuscan cuisine that’s fresh, authentic and seasonal. People are looking for healthy, green and sometimes vegetarian food, and coming from California, there’s a lot we can do with that.” Chef Mason, for instance, grows his own vegetables for the restaurant and he operates beehives to make his own honey.
If you’re still not convinced, meet Jennifer Janette, CMP, senior account executive for DMC Hello Florida!.
“I love it when a client says they’re adverse to coming to Orlando because there’s nothing sophisticated or high-end that would fit their group,” she triumphs.
Why’s that, Jennifer?
“Because I love proving them wrong.”
For example, towering 27 stories high atop Downtown Disney’s Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa, the newly re-imagined 20Seven is a corporate event venue with “a remarkable view of Disney’s spectacular evening fireworks from several theme parks,” she says. “The fireworks are one of the biggest draws because the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Disney provide clear views from any part of the room. It’s the perfect classy environment for networking and chef-attended food stations.”
Janette says 20Seven is known for their deconstructed international cheese stations, their gnocci bar and their raw seafood bar in front of picture glass windows that greet guests as soon as they emerge from the elevator. 20Seven serves 300 reception-style, 200 seated.
Over at Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin, celebrity chef Todd English is making waves at his bluezoo restaurant, serving “Coastal Cuisine,” ranging from Baja octopus to jumbo shrimp from the Carolinas. General manager Doug Draper says bluezoo is known for its organic seasonal and regional ingredients, including six types of oysters delivered daily and the house favorite: a 1½-pound, tempura-battered Cantonese Lobster flash-fried in a sticky soy glaze.
As expected with the Todd English name attached to the venue, lots of attention goes into cocktails, too.
“We don’t want to be pretentious but we try to stay on the cutting edge,” says Draper. “The big thing these days is putting twists on cocktails, with a sense of humor. Our corporate clients anticipate our infusions of liquors, such as our Bazooka Joe Martini or Bacon Bourbon Smash. We deliver cool concepts, but with classic flavors.”
Do clients ever ask you to “brand” drinks?
“We’ll do whatever we can to cater to the client, such as creating a signature event cocktail around their corporate colors. For a Solution’s Conference client, we served their cocktail in a beaker and named it The Solution. Another client asked for a Cosmo with a twist, so we made it clear, topped with cranberry foam. We’re not lowering our standards of fresh and original just because it’s a cocktail.” Group capacity at bluezoo is 250 seated, 400 for receptions.
TOP TABLES For independent group restaurants, Jennifer Janette’s favorite is The Wine Room, located in tony Winter Park about 20 minutes northeast of the theme parks. “Park Avenue is often referred to as ‘Little Europe’ due of the scenic stroll down brick streets with flowering bougainvillea, boutique shops, sidewalk cafes and white lights entwined in all the trees.”
Typically, planners provide attendees with a prepaid debit card to use for the Enomatic dispensing system, which allows them to sample 150 wines in 1, 2½ or 5-ounce portions. “There are only three other locations in the country that have this system, so this is seen as an exclusive experience.”
Janette says The Wine Room is perfect for a reception, but for dinner she leads groups to either the downstairs, chateaux-style Vault private room (seats 24), or the neighboring wine cellar at Luma On Park, which seats 48. Either is an exceptional gourmet experience in a unique setting.
The Wine Room was originally a bank building, so the Vault is literally a walk-in safe modernized with a 42” plasma TV, a DVD player and A/V capabilities for business presentations. Luma’s is progressive American cuisine with delicacies like Ashley Farms chicken stuffed with goat cheese, or scallops dished up with smoked bacon and scallions.
“The food is unbelievable at both restaurants,” says Janette. “Either is perfect for the client who wants an off-the-beaten path experience they likely wouldn’t find on their own.”
HARBOR NIGHTS Prosecco and chianti corks pop. High heels clack on the cobblestone piazza, moving towards kiosks serving sumptuous morsels of roasted lamb bites nestled on polenta, gorgonzola focaccia and gnocci bathing in a saucy mix of eggplant, tomatoes and peppers. White lights woven through trees cast flickering images on diners seated at sidewalk café tables along the tromp l’oeil walls lining the piazza.
Guests arrive to this soigne scene via colorful watercrafts barely causing a ripple in the stilled harbor mirroring starry reflections, while would-be Andrea Bochellis croon Italian love songs from overhanging balconies.
The above is an Italian food and wine event known as Harbor Nights, a Loews Portofino Bay Hotel extravaganza so popular that corporate groups have recreated it.
“We literally copied Harbor Nights for our group of 600, with nearly the same wine pairings and menu adjusted to our budget,” says Rick James, CMP, who planned the event for a large South Floridian data warehouse company. “Then we supplemented their nightly Musica Della Notte balcony singers with Living Statues and invited the onsite Art Gallery’s artists to set up in the Harbor piazza, as if it were a street fair. Making it a real networking dinner event, with no one stuck at banquet tables was a key element.”
Here’s how you sell a recreated, private Harbor Nights party to a client. James invited his client to sample firsthand one of the public events first.
“He could touch it, feel it, sense it,” says James. “Then we told him what else we were going to add and he immediately asked, ‘Where do I sign?’ It was so successful we did it again, not long after.”
The piazzas at Portofino Bay are able to accommodate up to 1,500 guests. “Meeting planners are usually awestruck the first time they realize Portofino is an exact replica of the Italian seaside village of Portofino,” notes Vince LaRuffa, vp of resort sales/marketing.
A 10-minute stroll away down a botanically-rich path or a languid complimentary water shuttle ride from Portofino lands one at Universal Citywalk, a mini-village of shops, restaurants and the Hard Rock Live concert hall.
“One of my favorite upscale events is the Lennon Room at Hard Rock,” says Valerie Lenz, creative specialist for DMC Convention Planning Services, describing the room as a replica of the Dakota building in New York where John Lennon lived. “It’s very white with leather furniture, original artwork and a baby grand piano in the corner. It can only hold 50 for a reception, so it’s used mainly for VIP parties.”
AN INVITE TO ISLEWORTH For the ultimate in elegance, many planners agree that the Isleworth Golf & Country Club ranks towards the top.
“I save Isleworth for my 5-star programs,” says Sandy Pizzarusso, a New Jersey-based manager of meetings/events at the global event production company, Impact Unlimited. “As soon as you drive through the gates and spot this very sophisticated Victorian building that’s famous in own right, and couple that with the reputation of some of its residents who frequent it, you know this is going to be a first-class event.”
Pizzarusso said her last group of 100 financial services company guests were delighted at the exquisite food prepared by executive chef Russell Scott, one of 70 certified Master Chefs in the country. What adds to the allure of Isleworth is that, “It isn’t marketed. You have to know about it, and then you need the connections to get in,” says the former Orlando resident, adding that about 250 can comfortably move about in Isleworth’s interior and exterior spaces.
BLACK TIE BARBECUE We’re going to massage the definition of “fine dining” here, but even the most sophisticated groups will get a rev out of this. Well-situated between downtown and the convention district, the Orlando Harley-Davidson Historic Factory Dealership is a recreated version of the famous industrial motorworks at Harley’s Milwaukee headquarters.
“We also have a replica of the original shack where the first Harley was constructed in 1903,” says Melissa Sanderson, corporate events coordinator. “That and our service tours, with bikes up on lifts and instruction on how they’re repaired, are a real hit for technical groups.”
With 40-ft ceilings inside an 8,000-sf showroom, plus two connecting patios totaling 7,500 sf, the Historic Factory can accommodate 1,500 for buffet receptions and 400 for seated meals prepared by upscale caterers, Puff ’n Stuff and Black Tie & Barbeque.
Forgot to pack your fringed vest and skull bandana?
“No worries. We have clothing, props and our Bar & Shield (HD’s logo) set up as the perfect backdrop,” says Sanderson. Groups especially like “jumping on the back of a motorcycle driven by dealership employees for 10-minute rides on the back streets behind our venue…. The Rev Package gets guests really pumped up for the evening’s action.”