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Dazzling Disney: 'Downtown' Entertainment Complex Wows Day & Night
By Karen Rubin

Anyone who still thinks of Disney World as a kiddie place, hasn't been Downtown-Downtown Disney, that is. Just like the Mickey Mousketeers we baby boomers grew up with, Disney has grown up and now offers sophisticated fare-like the extraordinary Cirque du Soleil. Here Pleasure Island is not the all-the-sweets you can eat of Pinocchio, but all the clubs and nightspots you can handle to the wee hours. Disney has grown up, but you can still take the kids along-particularly to Disney Quest-to all but two of the clubs (where the language is not deemed suitable for young audiences. Indeed, it isn't for nothing that Disney is a leading destination for honeymoons and destination weddings.

Downtown Disney is a 120-acre complex of entertainment, world-class restaurants, nightclubs and shopping with three distinct areas: Downtown Disney West Side, sprawling on 66 acres, offers the Cirque du Soleil in its own specially built theater, DisneyQuest, a 24-screen AMC movie theater, the Virgin Megastore, celebrity-studded restaurants including Bongos Cuban Cafe (created by Gloria Estefan and her husband/producer Emilio), House of Blues (serving up Mississippi Delta cuisine and live music nightly, owned by Dan Zykroyd, Jim Belushi, John Goodman and Aerosmith, with a 2,000-seat concert facility), Planet Hollywood (whose owners include Demi Moore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis) and the Wolfgang Puck Cafe with signature dishes created by the superchef. Downtown Disney Marketplace offers a strolling street environment with more than 20 shops and eateries, such as the Rainforest Cafe (a second Rainforest Cafe is at Animal Kingdom), Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop, and themed shops such as LEGO Imagination Center and Candy Cauldron, which looks like the dungeon of the Wicked Queen from "Snow White" and where the price is in "stones."

The third area is Pleasure Island-where you pay one admission fee, cross the bridge, and go club-hopping at 11 clubs and venues, with showcases for everything from rock-n-roll (at the Rock n Roll Beach Club) to hip-hop to country-western (at the Wildhorse Saloon where you can even join a dance lesson). This is like one humongous block party, like Carnival every night, with music al fresco from the West End Stage, and at the Hub Video Stage. Meanwhile, Disney is counting down to the Millennium with New Year's fireworks and performances nightly at 11:45 p.m.

The two areas we enjoyed best were the two comedy clubs, Comedy Warehouse, with an improv comedy troop that was most entertaining, and the Adventurers Club. The Adventures Club looks like a 1930s British library, complete with mementos, photos of explorations and plush easy chairs, and you are entertained by an extremely comical collection of "veteran world travelers" who interact with the audience (that means that anyone in the audience is a prime target for barbed humor); there is also a marvelous comic "magic" show.

Two of the clubs in Pleasure Island are restricted to people 21 years or older: the BET Soundstage Club with DJ nightly, and the Mannequins Dance Palace, where there is a rotating dance floor with colored strobes, laser shows and "hot" music.

The admission charge to Pleasure Island is $18.95 for everyone (children under 18 have to be accompanied by an adult); however, the admission is included in the five-day All-In-One Hopper Pass.

There is so much to do, we found ourselves spending three nights in Downtown Disney.

DisneyQuest

Imagine five floors of every video, virtual reality and arcade game in existence--and then some--where you can play as much as you like without having to plunk in coins or tokens because it is free. A dream? A fantasy? It's DisneyQuest (which isn't quite free; you pay an entrance admission and then the place is yours).

DisneyQuest is an orgy of video games, with unlimited play on every conceivable video and arcade game and virtual reality experience imaginable-even the oldtimers like PacMan, and low-tech games like basketball shoot. There are many games where you earn tickets which can be exchanged for prizes (the kids get hooked on these).

There are also immensely pleasant dining areas-the Cheesecake Factory offers FoodQuest, serving up an excellent selection of well prepared, well presented offerings, everything from pizza and pasta to hamburgers and chicken, at moderate prices with huge portions (one lasagne entree, $7.95, is sufficient for two people; $6.95 for a half-chicken, Caesar salad and garlic roll), and a marvelous The Wonderland Cafe featuring indulgent desserts, elaborate coffees and drinks in an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of ambiance. Here too, when you sit at your table, you don't have to miss a moment of interactive fun, because there are computer terminals linking to an Internet-based attraction, Wonderland Web Adventures.

Even those who would not otherwise play video games (like grandparents, parents), find themselves caught up-there is a virtual reality "horse race" where you get to ride like a jockey (my favorite); Grandma found this "whack the alien" game and couldn't stop.

There are four major areas, and each has a major attraction: in the Create Zone, an Imagineering studio, you can design the roller coaster of your dreams (or nightmares), then buckle up and ride your creation on CyberSpace Mountain, a 360-degree, pitch-and-roll simulator. In the Explore Zone, you ride a raft on the Jungle Cruise that bops and rolls as if on water, and seems to react as your group is paddling to avoid hungry dinosaurs as well as a cataclysmic comet. In this section, Treasures of the Incas is an extremely engaging game where you manipulate a camera-equipped, radio-controlled model car on a treasure hunt through a maze beneath the glass floor. You also can fly through the streets of Agrabah on a hunt to release the Genie in a virtual reality Aladdin's Magic Carpet Ride. Help Hercules and his friends battle the evil Hades in a virtual adventureland, Hercules in the Underworld, and pilot a space jet to rescue stranded colonists in Invasion! An ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter (I was the pilot and we all died without rescuing anybody). In another virtual reality attraction, Ride the Comix, you done a virtual-reality headset, sit on what looks like the bow of a fighter plane, and wave a wand to battle super villains in a 3-D comicbook world (you look absolutely ridiculous to everyone else standing on line).

People, like me, who get motion sick in virtual reality games cannot do many of these major attractions, but there is plenty of other games to enjoy.

You can be part of a life-size Mighty Ducks Pinball game, or join in a variation on bumper-cars, Buzz Lightyear's AstroBlaster, where you also shoot "cannon balls" at each other.

In the Create Zone, you can also learn the secrets of Disney animation at the Animation Academy.

DisneyQuest, which is open daily from 10:30 a.m. until midnight, is a particularly great entertainment to schedule for your afternoon of arrival in Orlando (or on a rainy day), because it is an entire theme-park in itself (we arrived at 5 p.m., thinking we would stay two hours, and wound up staying until midnight). Admission is $25/adult, $20 for children 3-9 (all children under 10 must be accompanied by an adult). For info, call 407-828-4600; www.disneyquest.com.

Actually, you won't have to travel to Orlando to enjoy DisneyQuest, because there may very well be one opening near you. A Chicago site is scheduled to open this summer, with future sites in 20 to 30 other major domestic and international cities.

Cirque du Soleil

Combining Carnival-dance-theater-acrobatics and circus all in one, the Cirque du Soleil's newest production, "La Nuba" is a breathtaking extravaganza and an artistic triumph. It is as if Dali had designed a circus with a little help from Escher and Charles Addams. The music is provocative and captivating-New Age meets Ringling; the choreography is stunning.

The staging is unbelievable and adds to the surprise-performers emerge from the floor, the ceiling; the floor takes on three dimension, as when a cube rises and is used in an amazing trampoline act. This is very much an adult circus, sophisticated and intelligent with an air of mystique; the acts, featuring more than 65 artists from all over the world, are dazzling, spell binding, and exciting.

Originating in Montreal, Cirque du Soleil has established a permanent residence in Las Vegas and established this new residence, in a specially built theater, at Downtown Disney West Side.

Tickets are $56.50/adults (plus tax) and $45.20 for children (3-9); reservations can be made up to 12 months in advance by calling 407-939-7600. There are two 90-minute performances nightly Wednesday through Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. (no performances on Mondays and Tuesdays).

Abuzz With New Attractions

Disney World is in the midst of unprecedented growth, with major shows and attractions opening in just about every area.

Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, in Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland, is an interactive space fantasy set in the playful world of "Toy Story." Guests get to pilot their own XP-37 Space Cruisers and get spun through various scenes scaled to the universe of toys. They fire infrared lasers at targets throughout the attraction, triggering sight and sound gags, while a lighted display inside the vehicle keeps the shooter's score.

This summer, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh debuts at Fantasyland (replacing Mr. Toad's Wild Ride), using special effects and a memorable musical score.

At Disney-MGM Studios, water animation and fireworks are combined in Fantasmic!, a 25-minute spectacular featuring 50 performers, dazzling special effects, colorful pyrotechnics, Disney characters, dancing waters synchronized to the melodies of Disney classics. The presentation lights up the sky nightly above a new 6,500-seat amphitheater behind The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, off Sunset Boulevard. Performance times vary with park hours, but guests are advised to queue up an hour ahead of time.

Also at Disney-MGM this year, Rock 'n'Roller Coaster will be the first Disney World attraction to feature a high-speed launch and multiple complete inversions. Guests will strap in to one of four, 24-passenger "stretch limo" trains and swiftly accelerate into a mangled maze. The indoor thrill ride will surprise guests with unexpected twists and turns including three trips upside-down. The experience is intensified by a synchronized rock 'n'ro9ll soundtrack, and scenes of brilliantly lit Southern California landmarks, highlighted by a trip through an "O" in the HOLLYWOOD sign.

At Epcot, you get to ride in test vehicles for a firsthand look at how GM cars and trucks are tested before being brought to market in Test Track (our kids really loved this ride). The ride throws a dizzying array of maneuvers-you climb hills, experience hairpin turns, bounce down bumpy roadways and zip along straight-aways at speeds pushing 65 mph. Test Track climbs, spirals and snakes through the 150,000-sq-.ft. pavilion, including areas simulating arctic cold and desert heat. About half of the track loops outside the pavilion where maximum speeds are reached.

All Star Resorts

Movies provide the theme for its newest value-priced resort, All-Star Movies Resort. Part of an All-Star Resorts complex, where rates range from $74 to $104 per room per night, the newest cluster are set off by 35-feet tall figures, including Pongo and Perdita from "101 Dalmations" Buzz Lightyear from "Toy Story," and his partner, 25-foot tall Woody. Herbie the famous bug will be about five times his normal size. Giant sorcerers' hats, spell books, brooms and buckets decorate the "Fantasia" area, and "The Might Ducks" section has giant hockey sticks, goalie nets and duck-shaped hockey masks.

Even the pool at "The Might Ducks" is shaped like a hockey rink, with Goofy as the goalie. Sorcerer Mickey seems to direct a liquid symphony at the "Fantasia" pool, which features a kiddie area.

The All Star Movies Resort is adjacent to Disney's All-Star Music and All-Star Sports Resorts, on a 62-acre site west of Disney-MGM Studios.

The complexes feature a cafeteria-style; kids can sit and watch Disney movies playing in a mini-movie theater in the lobby.

Most rooms-which look much like basic motel rooms-sleep four people. Children 17 and under stay free in parents' room. Most rooms have two double beds and a television set.

Guests have all the advantages of being on-site-free shuttle transportation, the ability to arrange for priority seating at restaurants and shows; the ability to have purchases at the Disney stores shipped directly to the room; and the use of a room key that looks and acts like a credit card, early access into the parks, and the opportunity to purchase an E-ticket (for $10 more), for a late-night "private" visit to Magic Kingdom.

Disney has a full-range of on-property accommodations. Moderate priced resorts include Disney's Dixie Landings, Caribbean Beach Resort, Port Orleans and Coronado Springs resorts ($119-$139). Deluxe resorts include Disney's Wilderness Lodge, Contemporary Resort, Polynesian, Disney's Yacht and Beach Club, while the most opulent include the Boardwalk Inn and the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.

For the advantages of a "home-away-from-home" you can choose Disney's Old Key West Resort, the Villas at Disney Institute, BoardWalk Villas ($204-$480), and Fort Wilderness Cabins and Homes ($179-$204). There is even a campground, with campsites from $35-$49.

For information, call 407-W-DISNEY, your travel agent, or click on www.disneyworld.com.

This story was previously published on FTN in 1999.

2001 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. E-mail questions or comments to FamTravLtr@aol.com.


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