Digging In At Disney Springs
With a record 68 million visitors last year, Orlando retains its title as the No. 1 vacation destination in the U.S. That’s a lot of mouths to feed, and nowhere is the power of visitors’ palates and pockets more evident than at Disney Springs at Walt Disney World. Here’s a look at recent openings and anticipated restaurant rollouts this year. Cross the gangplank to board the new Paddlefish and the smell of Old Bay Seasoning and a sophisticated slate of coastal blues and grays promises a traditional Eastern-shore seafood boil isn’t far away. This paddlewheeler has been an anchor of Walt Disney World dining since it was christened the Empress Lilly (in honor of Walt’s wife Lillian) in 1977, then remade as Fulton Fish House in 1996. After a transformation of more than two years, Paddlefish opened anew on Feb. 4 in the style of a sophisticated yacht rather than a glittery showboat, a transformation not dissimilar from Disney Springs’ itself. Executive chef Mark Boor’s inventive menu is also the result of two years of research and development to “take an iconic restaurant with a 40-year history and reimagine it.” Though the Paddle wheel is a massive food palace that can seat up to 750 diners at once, every single item, right down to the condiments, is made from scratch and cooked to order. The seafood is ethically sourced and brought in only from environmentally friendly fish farms and marine fisheries with healthy ecosystems. Boor’s creations, such as the perfectly seared scallops served on a bed of pureed cauliflower with roasted Brussels sprouts and browned butter and bacon (an entree that can easily be shared as an appetizer) as well as his “bet you can’t eat just one” lobster corndogs served with a chili aioli easily stand up to those of his James Beard award-winning neighbors at Disney Springs. Other seafood standouts include the tableside-made lobster guacamole (for real!) and a whole branzino that’s been crusted in sea salt, baked for 30 minutes and carved tableside. Though Paddlefish sounds enormous, it actually comprises several indoor and outdoor spaces. I suggest reserving a table in the trophy room for elegant, waterfront dining with floor-to-ceiling windows. For cocktails and apps, the rooftop lounge offers breezes and a bird’s-eye view of Disney Springs. There is a common thread in all of these restaurants: camaraderie and a sense of community. Says longtime Florida food writer Heather McPherson, “What you see in the food and beverage scene in Central Florida are people who lift each other up and who work together. All the James Beard nominees here are good friends, they never talk behind each other’s back and will call for help when needed. We’re growing up as a city but still have old-fashioned values.” Miliotes agrees about the shared spirit of restaurateurs at Disney Springs. “It’s about the community of restaurants, not about individuals. Everyone wants to see each other be successful.” The clear winners in this approach, of course, are the diners.