Since Disney shuttered Pleasure Island last fall (see Live Active Cultures, Sept. 25, 2008), I've repeatedly lamented the lack of grown-up evening entertainment on Mouse property. Things haven't improved any in recent months; the former Virgin Megastore space is now occupied by a secondhand exhibit of Princess Diana's dresses, and the Starabilias movie and music memorabilia shop is sitting silent and vacant. But as the once-flourishing Downtown Disney West Side withers into irrelevance, there's still one spot left at WDW where grownups can drink, dance and (on odd evenings) dabble in old-fashioned diversions.
If you've never been to — or even heard of — Disney's Coronado Springs Resort, don't worry: You're not alone. I'd only ever visited the resort once before, for a tour back when it opened in 1997. With nearly 2,000 guest rooms circling a sprawling lagoon, it's one of Disney's largest hotels, but it's marketed largely to the convention crowd (thanks to the massive adjoining exhibit halls) and Hispanic market (with its Southwestern theme and bilingual signage), so it flies under locals' radar.
The hotel's Maya Grill "Nuevo Latino" restaurant has built little buzz over the years, the gorgeous ziggurat-themed pool is officially off-limits to visitors, and its obscure location near Animal Kingdom defies GPS-guided Google Maps directions. So what reason would an Orlandoan have to visit? In a word, Rix. In 2008 Disney took an underutilized eatery across from a fast-food court and transformed it into a sophisticated nightclub. Rix Lounge features 5,000 square feet of tastefully appointed tile work (more Moorish-Moroccan than Mesoamerican, but whatever), cozy couch clusters and an expansive curving bar. An appetizer menu offers intriguing tapas like chorizo flatbread and seafood cappuccino, VIP bottle service is available (for $150 and up), and live DJs spin until 2 a.m. on the weekend.
While it's probably the best place on Disney property for post-park partying, Rix is no real replacement for the legendary Pleasure Island dance club Mannequins, and on its own probably not worth the long drive from downtown. What drew me there this week was the persistence of Mike Hungerland, promoter of PlayDate Orlando. The concept, a nationwide franchise now found in over a dozen cities, is billed as "an alternative to the typical night out" where adult singles and couples meet and mingle over board, card and video games. Think of it as a less family-oriented version of the Retro Game Night occasionally sponsored by the Orange County Regional History Center, with the emphasis on cocktails instead of kiddies. Hungerland has been asking me to stop by, but now that they've found a semi-stable monthly setting at Rix, I made a point of it.
First impression was positive: PlayDate's sizable staff was friendly and professional, dressed in matching "wanna play?" T-shirts. Another nice touch was the table of "Hello" nametags pre-printed with irreverent emotions and attitudes. (I went with "Kosher," while my guest was feeling "Bubblelicious.") We started by setting up a supersized Connect Four board, then rapidly ADD'ed our way through Hungry Hungry Hippos and Operation (which now features "cellphone wrist disease" — WTF?).
After scoring some well-priced libations (a $4 Blue Moon at Disney is rarer than an actual blue moon), we settled for a second near an unused game box. An intently outgoing pair of total strangers strolled up and asked us to play; they were quickly joined by a trio of random others, and Hungerland even took time from his hosting duties to find us an eighth (unfortunately, that eighth person was stinking drunk). Soon I was playing my first game of Taboo — apparently from 1998, with Linda Tripp, Y2K and Bosnia as featured answers — with new friends "Flirty" and "I'm kind of a big deal," while a fistful of photographers flashed in our faces.
I had fun, and can see this being successful in a downtown environment; the crowd included some hotel guests, but also drew locals from as far away as Ocoee and Maitland. But my cynical side couldn't help but note the schizophrenic nature of the atmosphere, which attempts to fuse sociable intimacy with frat-party antics. As we shouted our Taboo clues over the irritatingly uncreative and overamplified DJ, embarrassing party games like "pin the tail on the inflatable ass" ("for all those guys who love that backside!") were pimped out on the nearby dance floor.
It was a bit like being at an unusually uncomfortable wedding reception, except the schvitzing Simon Says leader was ex-'N Sync-er Joey Fatone. Joey has always seemed like good guy to me since I worked with his brother Steve at Universal a decade ago, and his Fatone Family Foundation (beneficiary of that evening's proceeds) does admirable work with music therapy at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Women. So I won't bust out "Superman" (as his nametag read) for some questionable calls when the Simon standoff got heated (oops). Fatone was still snapping photos with fans when I left (just in time to see the stunning shuttle liftoff) but the party went on for hours after. I'll be back, just as soon as they turn down the firstname.lastname@example.org