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Two of Orlando’s best independent bar attractions: Vault 5421 and Joe's NYC Bar

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Last weekend Disney rocked the themed entertainment world with a string of announcements at their D23 Expo convention. Among the long list of new attractions coming to Walt Disney World – including Tomorrowland's Tron roller coaster, Epcot's Ratatouille and Guardians of the Galaxy E-tickets, and Hollywood Studios' Mickey Mouse dark ride – the one I'm most excited for is Galaxy's Edge, the new Star Wars themed land, if only for the opportunity to sip blue milk inside an authentic interactive alien cantina. But here in Orlando, you don't have to wait until 2019 to have an immersive imbibing experience.

Ever since the much-missed Adventurers Club closed at Disney's Pleasure Island, people have been trying to recapture that perfect balance of alcohol and entertainment, and recently I bellied up at two of Orlando best independent bar attractions. One is a new effort inspired by the dystopian future that's planting roots on I-Drive; the other is a longtime local theater fixture rooted in reality that's spreading its wings abroad. They may seem very different, but both are taking the traditional watering hole where no bar has gone before, and doing it with the financial backing of their followers.

Gods & Monsters Vault 5421

When Artegon Marketplace abruptly shuttered in January, one of the few silver linings to that sad story was how swiftly Gods & Monsters, the arts mall's massive sci-fi and comics superstore, found a new (albeit smaller) home in the nearby Orlando Crossings Mall. The relocation into the International Drive shopping center was initially supposed to be for a single year, but store co-owner Todd Fisher told me they plan to stay put. "When we first jumped on board here, we were still so sideswiped by the Artegon incident that we imagined this would be a temporary solution," Fisher says, but then he realized "there's a lot of opportunities opening up for us here."

Those opportunities include Vault 5421, the new themed bar that debuted inside Gods & Monsters on July 15. I paid a visit on opening afternoon, prying open the forbidding prison-like door in the collectible shop's rear corner to discover a petite pub overflowing with doomsday detail. Artists Phillip Buchanan and Chad Laubach helped create a theme park-quality environment inspired by the Mad Max movies and Fallout video games, along with countless other post-apocalyptic pieces of pop culture. "We tried to cover all our bases," says Fisher, revealing hidden references to Tank Girl, Rick & Morty, Adventure Time and the Terminator. The only thing not authentically post-apocalyptic is the generous selection of craft beers and wine-based cocktails, but at least my tasty chocolate porter was served by a battle-hardened barkeep who could have stepped straight out of Fury Road.

Fisher expects further expansions "sooner rather than later, especially if the bar takes off." To make it this far, Gods & Monsters enlisted the aid of their fans through an IndieGogo campaign. "It was very helpful; we didn't meet our goal but we raised almost $15 grand," Fisher says. Fisher encourages others exploring crowdfunding to "limit the amount of choices you have for swag," saying that fulfilling rewards promised to backers can become a "nightmare."

Joe's NYC Bar

A day after visiting Vault 5421, I took a trip to Brooklyn for the last Joe's NYC Bar before the barflies are bound for Europe. Joe's was founded in downtown Orlando over a decade ago and enjoyed a rebirth in recent years, becoming the anchor of the St. Matthew's Tavern's Fringe Festival offerings. On July 16, St. Matt's hosted a special edition of the improvised dramatic experience as a fundraiser for their visit to August's Edinburgh Fringe.

With a focus on the theme of surprises, last Sunday's one-time-only Joe's performance was perhaps the best-paced one I've attended in years, with a near-perfect balance between loosely scripted scenes, deeply engaged dialogue among the semi-sloshed spectators, and toe-tapping musical interludes featuring Eugene Snowden. Theater vet (but Joe's virgin) Meghan Moroney, in particular, made a big impact with her adultery-abetting character, stirring up a fierce debate about fidelity.

Moroney will join creator Christian Kelty and Joe's regulars Jenn Gannon, Tim Williams and Ali Flores at the Edinburgh Fringe, where the show scored with audiences and critics alike last year. "Our show is designed for you to challenge us, so those Edinburgh audiences took it really seriously," Kelty tells me, recalling his 2016 Edinburgh experience. "They're smart, they're savvy, so we learned last year that we can't repeat ourselves. It's a real dangerous place to be, but it's the best place for Joe's to be."

After Scotland, the real NYC will hopefully be the next place for Joe's to be; Tilted Windmills Theatrical has a two-year option on North American rights to the property, and plans to open a Manhattan company (under Kelty's direction) next January. But until the big Broadway bucks roll in, Joe's still relies on financial support from local businesses and fellow artists. Kelty hasn't tried online crowdfunding yet, but the July 16 show was a "pay what you want" fundraiser ("We wanted the energy of the people as much as we wanted the money"), and contributions toward their Fringe travels are still being accepted at carla@carlastanton.com.

"We're a tight community," says Kelty, "and the people who support us are the people we support."

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