Food Feature: Escaping the mouse trap

There's more character to Orlando nightlife than Mickey

Ahhhh, Orlando. The magical place where cartoon characters come to life, sea animals leap through hoops and rides whisk you through fantasies. But how often do you get to experience the actual thrills of the theme park? The lines are over an hour long and the sun is blazing. And after paying $50 to act like a kid again, you're determined to stick it out.

Then real kids start screaming.

A trip to the theme parks may have you wishing you could get away from your getaway. But instead of cutting the trip short and hightailing it out of town, why not hightail it downtown and check out the local flavor (and I'm not talking about fried Sea World rejects).

Downtown Orlando is about 20 minutes away from most theme parks. Since most of the clubs are 21-and-up, the area is crawling with childfree nightlife. The only babies you'll see are the beautiful ones dressed to impress.

The street performers of brightly-lit Church Street Station signal your arrival downtown. Steer clear of the pricey bars and tacky souvenir shops that dominate the New Orleans-wannabe strip. Avoid the clubs that beg attention with intense lights and colors. And whatever you do, stay far, far away from anything that boasts being owned by a Backstreet Boy. In a city infested with pop culture, the places to be lie in the back streets, behind unassuming doors without signs.

One such happening street is Wall Street Plaza, where there aren't any angelic boys singing and dancing in the alleys. Nearly a decade ago, Wall Street Plaza was where the alterna-teens would play. Black lipstick, vinyl, facial piercings and grungy plaid flannels were the norm for faux freaks begging for money and cigarettes while wearing $60 jeans.

Then the gutter punks grew up, and the now chic young adults cluster in the smoky spaces within Wall Street's century-old buildings, making it one of the most hip downtown spots.

Some of these kids can be caught with their heads bent together, deep in conversation at Harold & Maude's. This espresso bar fills its mugs — and tables — to the brim nightly with beat-generation look-alikes wearing slim V-neck sweaters and trendy black-framed glasses. Most would claim that their discussions over lattes are about musicians or the local artists' work hanging on the walls. Chances are, however, that more than a few bent heads are in a heated debate over who gets to devour the last bite of Harold & Maude's decadent desserts.

Appetites that crave something a bit more decadent than desserts may want to head next door to the Kit Kat Club. Once inside, you may wonder if the door was actually a portal back to when the Charleston was hip and moonshine was the only liquor. Dark wood countertops, booths and crimson walls make the Kit Kat so reminiscent of a speakeasy you might think twice before ordering a gin and tonic.

And on some nights, that gin and tonic costs almost as little as it would have 100 years ago. Thursday night offers the best deal, with two-for-one drinks sipped to the eclectic tunes brought by DJs from local college station WPRK 91.5. Other nights offer equally good times, with live bands Saturday and Monday, billiards tournaments Tuesday and ladies' night Wednesday.

Venturing downtown on a weekday to enjoy some of the Kit Kat's specials isn't a bad idea, either. The crowds that plague downtown's weekend nights are nonexistent and so are the cops who normally stand on the corners to keep everyone in line. Because the boys in blue are so prevalent downtown, the area is quite safe at night. This safety comes at a high price, however, since tickets for offenses as benign as jaywalking are common. By heading downtown on the weekdays, you avoid the tickets and crowds, with the benefit of finding free parking and seats at the coolest bars.

One such hot spot is Sapphire's "Phat 'n' Jazzy." Every Tuesday, glammed-up girls and guys converge to the smooth sounds of local DJs spinning hip-hop.

The suave crowd at Phat 'n' Jazzy often accessorizes with the frosty martini glasses that the Sapphire is known for. Why get the ordinary vodka and vermouth when there are over 20 other house specialties available? The most popular is the Fris Super Dag Daddy, a souped-up version that tastes like Jolly Ranchers in vodka.

If your stomach is feeling as empty as your wallet by the end of your wanderings, a great place to end up is the Globe back at Wall Street Plaza. There are no greasy eggs and bacon at this 24-hour cafe. The menu features healthy delectables like tarragon grilled chicken salad, portobello enchiladas and just about the only veggie burger to be found at 3 a.m. — light fare gentle on the stomach and the bank account.

But what if your holiday hasn't been as gentle on your conscience? Orlando's newest theme park, the Holy Land Experience, offers a day of soul-cleansing fun for a mere $17. But after all the fun downtown, maybe you'll decide heaven can wait and head back for another round.


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