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  • Cheryl Bowie, CTA

My Orlando Surprise

Updated: May 6, 2022

Universal Orlando globe

It was not my intention to write about my trip to Orlando, but here it is. I attended the Travel Leaders Network International Conference, held at Loew’s Pacific Resort at Universal. There were 2,100 travel professionals in attendance, we had an amazing number of interesting training sessions and informative general sessions. What does this mean for you? Simply put, it means the service level of my travel agency has gone up some notches.

Conference Pre-event

Some pre-conference tours were offered, the excursion to the Kennedy Space

Center was the one for me. (I toured the Space Center in Houston a few years ago and could now see where it all started.) It’s a must-see, fascinating, educational experience about why and how the US got involved is space travel and why it’s still NASA’s mission today. You take a bus tour around the area where the vessels are assembled and launched. We saw one of the vehicles used to carry the massive rockets to their launch pads (I would really love to see that process). Since our tour was the day before the SpaceX launch we could not get close to the launch site, we could see the rocket from a distance. We spent some time in the area that houses the Saturn V and Apollo vessels and their history. At the end of the bus tour we had time for Atlantis, it was an inspiring presentation. This tour bought to mind the ladies of “Hidden Figures”: Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. These Black women were instrumental in our competition with Russia during the era of the Space Race (you should read the book and see the movie, if you haven’t done it).

CityWalk Orlando

When time allowed, I took the short ride on a water taxi to Universal’s CityWalk

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium @ Universal CityWalk Orlando

and for a look-see. It’s the shopping, dining, and entertainment center of the theme park. They have a whimsical chocolate store and restaurant called The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, think Willy Wonka. I didn’t have time to sample one their decadent looking desserts, but their macaroons were pretty good. From the CityWalk, you have easy access to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Their third park, Volcano Bay, opens later this month.

Universal Studios Night

During the first general session, we were welcomed by Optimus Prime. I love the

voice of the man, Peter Cullen, who speaks for Optimus. So, I was thrilled to see him and hear that voice. On Monday night, the theme park was partially open for the conventioneers to enjoy. My first stop was the Transformers section to see Optimus Prime and take their 3D ride. The next ride was “Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon”. The illusions that are created for these rides are pretty amazing. I went back to the Transformers to take a photo with Bumblebee. He played “Hello” for me which happens to be one of my favorite Lionel Richie songs. Of course, couldn’t leave without seeing Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. It was really refreshing to have my inner child come out and play!

Restaurants and Points of Interest

We ate well during the conference and I had some delicious meals at other restaurants in Orlando. I read about Slate online, they are a locally sourced eatery located on what’s called Restaurant Row. Their reviews were good and they happened to be next door to Trader Joe’s (I wanted to go there to purchase some snacks). When I went to Slate they were serving their Brunch menu, I ordered their fried green tomatoes to start and a chopped salad for my main course. Both dishes had a salty & sweet thing happening that I loved. I ordered their buttermilk biscuits to go, but unfortunately they were flat and greasy. (The drop biscuits at the Stagecoach Restaurant in Sacramento are much better.)

I went to Disney Springs which is the same concept as City Walk, but larger. AMC, Cirque du Soleil, and Planet Hollywood, have formidable presences there. For pastries reminiscent of France, go to Amorette’s Patisserie, their key lime tart was très bonne. Joan, who works there, suggested I go to the Animal Kingdom Lodge to experience the Jambo House and Kidani Village. So glad I took her advice, I had dinner at the bar of the Sanaa, priority seating is for the guests staying at the lodge plus they were fully booked. The cool thing about the restaurant is window seating gives you a view of animals in their mini-savanna. But when I started eating my oxtail appetizer, not having a table by the window didn’t matter. The deboned oxtail was setting on top of hominy and blacked-eyed peas, perfectly seasoned. (I will try to recreate that dish.) My entrée was lamb kabobs with apricots, and onions on a bed of spinach with nuts and diced yams, another well-seasoned dish. Loved it! Thank you Joan.

After my last workshop, I headed back to Disney Springs to return a purchased item. The sales person at Planet Hollywood suggested I try a restaurant that was close to the airport. My meal would be after visiting a museum in downtown Orlando, the Wells’ Built Museum of African American History and Culture. It began as a hotel built by Dr. William Wells in 1921, four years after he moved to Orlando. This was the segregated south, so Black people needed a hotel of their own for lodging. Later, he opened a multi-purpose entertainment and recreation center next door called the South Street Casino where Black entertainers on the Chitlin’ Circuit would perform at night. During the day, the young community used it's basketball court and skating rink. The entertainers stayed in his hotel. It was so cool to see the names of some of the entertainers who stayed there in copies of the hotel register: Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and Cab Calloway. Katrece Pitts, the Museum Educator, showed a short video and gave me an overview of the museum, she is the go-to person. She explained the hotel was upstairs and there were Black owned businesses downstairs. The South

Street Casino no longer exists next door, but Dr. Wells’ home has been moved to that location. (The home is not open to the public, yet.) It is estimated that Dr. Wells delivered over 5,000 babies while in Orlando, he was the only Black physician at the time. The hotel was added the US National Register of Historic Places on February 4, 2000. There is a rich, varied, and cultural history at the Wells’ Built Museum, this visit was well worth my time. Thanks Katrece!

Now, it was time to eat and checkout another restaurant suggestion, I was on my way to Chroma Modern Bar + Kitchen. This restaurant’s specialty are small plates, but not Spanish tapas, they serve small dishes of all types of food. I started with the flash-fried goat cheese and could have eaten nothing else but that. I wanted to try something new, so my entrée was wild tuna poke with crispy wontons and avocado. Since I love tuna tartare and sushi, poke was a must to sample. Though the crispy wontons were too salty, I will definitely eat poke again. I finished with bread pudding and salted caramel ice cream for dessert. (Growing up I did not like bread pudding, so glad I tried it again about 5 years ago.)

My time in Orlando was far more interesting than I imagined it would be and the conference was great too. I just wish the conference would have been scheduled closer to the opening of Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Well, I guess I’ll just have to do a return trip.


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