Unwrap The Magic at Disney Springs and Hollywood Studios
"Oh man... Florida Mall is in big trouble."
An astute observation made by a fellow Disney Springs shopper pretty accurately sums up what appears to be the directive of the renamed and rebranded Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney). We locals have seen our fair share of tourists towing empty suitcases on wheels behind them through our crowded shopping and outlet malls, and Disney Springs is now making a very targeted bid to keep that business on property rather than meandering the local retail centers. No longer is this a shopping center for extensive Parks Merchandise and a few select brands (Harley Davidson, anyone?); this is a full-fledged upscale shopping center touting major brands and even flagships (and for Annual Passholders and Cast Members? The possibility of some discounts, too.)
For families on Disney Vacations looking to exorcise some retail demons? Disney Springs is awfully attractive. On site transportation readily available. Entertainment, quality dining. "Convenient" was never a word I used to describe Downtown Disney, but now that the construction is nearing completion and the two parking garages are done? Disney Springs really IS convenient. Navigable. Speaking of those garages, I am spoiled. They have magical sensors on every aisle to let you see without driving down it if there is a spot open. I had to use a parking garage at the premium outlets without the sensors and the endless toiling up and down aisles made me yearn for the glorious Orange and Lime garages at DS.
Disney Springs is lovely, particularly the new Town Center area. It reminds me of the vibrant outdoor malls of southeast Florida. Of course, it's decked out for the holidays, too.
Last week's Unwrap the Magic event was scheduled to begin bright and early the morning after MVMCP. I had some obligations at my other Full Time job, so I arrived around 11:30. I was greeted with a map, list of participating stores, a loose itinerary, and a shopping tote. Y'all... I got to go swag-or-treating. Tons of stores and guest appearances and goodies and OH DEAR WHERE DO I START?! My desperate need to plan and itinerize reared it's head, so I sat down with my guide and map and started circling prioritized stops (Basin, Sprinkles, the Ganachery...). By the time I looked up from the guide, it was already time to start our "lunch walk." We got to stop by 4 participating restaurants for small plates/drinks. I started at Paddlefish.
There's the lobster roll they gave us and in the background is Paddlefish itself, still heavily under construction and hoping for an opening before the end of the year. I've never actually had a lobster roll, but this was fresh-tasting and lobster-y, so that's good, right? I was super excited about stop #2- D-Luxe Burger.
We could choose from an original slider or the southern which had a FRIED GREEN TOMATO and pimento cheesy goodness. Of course, I went FGT. I am so please to report, as a connoisseur of FGT's, that it was a welcome and appropriately made addition to that burger. The burger was super tasty, and the fries were lovely. I was particularly enamored of all my dipping options.
Not unlike other gourmet burger chains, there are some fun options, but D-Luxe is clearly catering directly to ME with curry ketchup, honey mustard, and horseradish sauce. I couldn't pick between the ketchup and mustard as my favorite, so I ended up mixing them together and descending into french fry dipping bliss.
The next stop on the tour-de-food was Blaze Pizza. I was plenty curious to give this place a try, since there's also one up near my house.
Firstly, hats off to Blaze for being the only stop I noticed offering a vegetarian option. I may not be a vegetarian (if the burger above hadn't clued you in yet), but I certainly can appreciate the difficulties vegetarians face when eating. (D-Luxe does have vegetarian burger options, they just didn't appear to be a part of the spread for the lunch walk). There was a smorgasbord of pizzas spread out, but I fell in love with their margherita and this bacony-arugula white pizza. The pizzas are nice and thin/crispy and all the ingredients tasted really fresh. Also, addressing a personal pet peeve, I had given up ordering bacon on pizza lately, because people are so stingy. Not Blaze. That pizza was baconlicious. So tasty was the pizza, I ended up staying and having more... and stuffing myself to the point of not being up for more food at what would have been the fourth stop on the food walk (Planet Hollywood Observatory, sorry PHO!).
I took my full tummy and set out, determined to explore shops and get my swag-or-treat on. So many stores. So many things. Sprinkles was right in front of me, and I figured I could nibble on a cupcake while I walked around digesting. Grabbed my complimentary cupcake and then... I just got swept away in how gorgeous it was outside. The weather was perfect, the view was incredible... I found myself pulling out my laptop to edit photos while I picked at the cupcake and used Disney Springs wifi. Some people hate editing photos, I am not one of them. Lightroom is my zen.
Can you blame me for stopping to smell the... uh... cupcakes? The next thing I knew, it was time for the 2 hour window of drink vouchers we'd been offered to be active. 4 drinks in 2 hours??? I haven't attempted such a feat since I was 22...
Have you been to Frontera yet? I have. I love it. I'm also a Rick Bayless fangirl, so I was at Frontera within the first couple of weeks of opening, inhaling bacon guacamole and tacos with my eyes rolled back in my head while I groaned in appreciation. This cocktail was named "All the Pretty Girls" (a mix of grapefruit, sparkling wine, and St Germain), and it was so crisp and perfect for enjoying outside as I tried to focus myself back on stores. So tasty was it, being a responsible adult and NOT finishing it just about broke my heart.
I strolled to the Ganachery. I probably should have been a mature adult and checked out shops I haven't been to yet, instead I was seduced by promises of sampling delectable chocolatey goodness. I have no regrets.
Headed into Morimoto for my next drink stop. Like Frontera, I've also visited Morimoto before (for my husband's birthday) and highly recommend it. It's not easy to eat at these restaurants on a budget, but the Tonkatsu Ramen bowl, which comes in under $20, is a delicious and complete meal all by itself. Snagged a delicious White Lily cocktail. As a fair warning, for those of you thinking about taking my drink recommendations: I don't care for sweet cocktails generally. I tend to be a negroni drinker, so if I'm saying I liked a drink and you normally go for strawberry daiquiris? You probably want to pick out something else. I was also that tacky person who asked for her drinks in to-go cups instead of swanky martini glasses so I could keep exploring. THAT'S A GOOD NOTE, THOUGH! It's kind of like being in New Orleans, where you can just grab a drink and then meander the "streets" at your leisure (within Disney Springs, anyway).
My next stop on cocktail-palooza was Chef Art Smith's Homecoming (which was also selected as my dinner spot). I've been so excited to try this place. Like much of the country, Chef Art Smith came to my attention via Top Chef Masters, and I wasthrilled when he was announced as one of the chefs Disney Springs had brought in to expand their restaurant offerings. Here's where I make another confession: I fell in love with Homecoming. Everything about it. So enamored am I, I almost wrote an entirely separate post just to celebrate the restaurant. I just have too much on my plate right now (HAH!), so it's going to just get prominently featured here.
The decor and design is first for discussion. Frontera is chic and modern, Morimoto is swanky, and Homecoming? Totally approachable. There is absolutely nothing pretentious about this place. Chef's directive was that he wanted a place that felt like you were coming to eat with his family, and he's succeeded in spades with just a touch of rustic chic modernity thrown in. There's an incredible wrap-around porch with covered and screened seating and a bar that can be reached inside or out. I found myself pulling my massive camera out for the first time all day, truly inspired by the aesthetic of this restaurant. Speaking of Chef...
The man himself was hanging out on the porch, greeting guests, talking about life and his food philosophy. Art Smith is passionate about sustainable and local farming, fresh ingredients, and everything eaten at the restaurant (and much of the decor, as well) is locally sourced. I found myself just hanging out, occasionally snapping photos, and guzzling water in anticipation of the wine pairings I found out we'd be having with our dinner (no more cocktail-palooza, time to be a responsible adult at last).
Chef is the first Disney College Program Alumnus to return to property and open up his own restaurant. How cool is that? He's a florida native, through and through, but I'll let him tell you all about it.
Ready to be totally jealous (just like all the other attendees who didn't get to eat at Homecoming with us)? Our wine pairings came from this guy.
That's Master Sommelier George Miliotes of California Grill, who will be opening Wines by George at Disney Springs next fall. The food started arriving and I just sort of got overwhelmed by all the goodness.
Chef taught us the proper way to eat a hush puppy. This food is so unpretentious and approachable, some families might get intimidated by more adventurous menus at other Disney Springs restaurants, but Homecoming is just incredibly high quality ingredients and preparation of totally familiar foods. Mac and Cheese. Collards. Deviled Eggs. THE FRIED CHICKEN. I got to eat the fried chicken that Chef is famous for, and it 100% lived up to the hype. I'd love to show you a picture, but I was too busy stuffing my face. I had a chance to look over the rest of the menu, and I am SO EXCITED to come back with my FAMILY, because (get this) THERE'S A KIDS' MENU MY KID WOULD ACTUALLY ORDER FROM. This has been the #1 problem for us with eating at more foodie-friendly restaurants: my picky 4 year old. BLESS YOU ART SMITH.
We were running short on time before the showing of the new Drone Light show, so I scarfed some of the hummingbird cake and grabbed a slice of the moonshine cake for the walk. Oh. My god. That moonshine cake. It was like doing shots but with doughnuts. It's fortunate I didn't grab more than the one slice, I might have embarrassed myself.
Star Bright Holidays is a collaboration between Intel and Disney Imagineers. 300 drones create a 3-D light spectacle over the water. It's so impressive in person; the video doesn't come close to doing it justice. It's a little short, but such a cool offering for families strolling through Disney Springs after a tasty meal during the Holiday shopping season. The best spot to watch this is on the water near Bongos/Starbucks (this is also where they pump the music out and the perspective is right for the shapes the drones make, you can see the show elsewhere but the perspective will be off and you won't hear the music).
They rolled out the red carpet, literally, for a fashion show. We also got to walk the Christmas Tree Trail (new this year as well). There are several themed trees on the walk that's down near the Marketplace area of Disney Springs (my favorites were the Wonderland and Villains trees). At the end of the walk we were loaded onto buses and hustled over to Hollywood Studios to see the new Jingle Bell Jingle Bam show.
There was a dessert party. I was stuffed with moonshine cake, and showcased just how mature I was by getting myself a heaping cup of hot coffee for what was sure to be a very long drive home. Ok, enough touting all my good decisions, back to the show.
This show is walking into a relatively hostile situation when it comes to Annual Passholders: it has to replace the beloved Osborn Dancing Lights. Studios is plagued with heavy construction and limited areas during construction. I was honestly surprised they decided to push through a new holiday offering (but glad, they need stuff at Studios during the transition period, especially during the crowded holiday season). For anyone who has seen the newest Star Wars night show, this is a very similar set up. Projections on the theater and surrounding buildings with some pyrotechnics and fireworks sprinkled around. I was surprised that the anchors for the show were the elves you might recognize if your kid is like mine and makes you watch the Disney Shorts on Netflix over and over. There are some familiar Christmas numbers and Disney numbers and characters, and a brief fireworks finale. I don't know how to feel about it. It's cute, and it's operating under a lot of limitations, because of both the construction and budget cuts. It's a fun thing, but there's definitely a limited viewing area to be able to get a good look at everything going on (if you are on the main drag but not up near the front past the shops, you will miss a lot of the periphery buildings). I was also tired, so I'm looking forward to seeing this again and also getting a reaction from my kid who is less jaded than I am (you can read about that on the Peanut once it happens).
I was very grateful for that coffee once I finally made it back to my car (which, thanks to the Lime Garage, was so easy to get to. Can you tell yet how much I love the garages at Disney Springs?).
*Disclaimer: I was invited to the Unwrap the Magic Media event at Disney Springs and Hollywood Studios. Food, Beverages, and promotional merchandise at some shops were given gratis, as well as the dessert party at Hollywood Studios. I was not obligated to write anything in exchange. All opinions stated here are my own.*