ORLANDO — I have had a long history with this city. In the summer of 1972, when I was 10 years old, my uncle took my cousin and me to the newly opened Disney World. I don’t remember too much. But I do remember buying a fake plaster arm cast and a sling at the magic shop on Main Street and waited a week until I got home to trick my mom into thinking I had a broken arm.
The next visit to Disney World was in May of 1979 on my high school’s senior trip. I remember even less about that trip. But I do know we stayed in the Polynesian Hotel. When my wife and I were dating we didn’t have any money, though we both enjoyed Disney World, so we would drive down and stay at one of the cheap, off-property hotels and have the time of our lives. We dated for five years before we were married and were married for five years before we started having children. In that 10-year span, we probably visited Disney six times.
Once our children were born, we started going the week after Thanksgiving almost every year. That period is one of the least-attended weeks, but still decked out for Christmas. By the time we loaded our kids up and travelled to Europe for a long six-month stay in 2011, I had probably visited Walt Disney World almost two dozen times. This is the first time we have been back.
I am down here for a trade show, and it just so happened that our son is down here for a music festival. Since the trade show is work related, and since he wants to go into the restaurant business, he stayed for a few days and attended the show with me.
We are in the middle of opening a bowling alley and movie theatre in Jackson. I know very little about those two businesses, so I am doing what I did when I first got into the restaurant business and submerging myself in knowledge and experience — other people’s knowledge and experience. The trade show went a long way in helping me get a handle on what lies ahead.
During our off days from the trade show my wife, son, and I visited the Walt Disney World parks and Universal Studios. My first trip to Disney World was almost 50 years ago. There is still a little of that wonder and amazement that hits me when I visit one of those parks. But these days I am even more impressed with the business model and how an entity that size can be managed so effectively and efficiently. I have reached an age where I take more enjoyment appreciating the creative energy and serious management acumen used to operate that place than I am a roller coaster or theme ride. Seriously, I can just walk around the parks and have fun just being there observing, admiring, and respecting.
A friend who lives down there and has worked with the Walt Disney company for a long time on all the parks — and side-by-side with the folks in the Imagineering department all over the world — is a member of something called the 33 Club. He invited us on a guided VIP tour. My wife and I had taken a behind-the-scenes tour years ago and traveled through the tunnels under Main Street and discovered other out-of-sight things. But during this visit we knocked out three of the Disney parks in a matter of four or five hours. Seeing those properties from the back side of the rides shed a new light on the creativity, innovation, and attention to detail that is present throughout the entire system and deeply ingrained in the corporate culture.
In those years when we took the kids down after Thanksgiving, we started taking a day to go to Universal Studios. We all enjoyed both. In the 11 years since we have set foot in one of the parks, a lot has changed. The whole Harry Potter thing at Universal was new to us, and it was also our first time to see the new Star Wars attractions at Disney Hollywood Studios. Both companies knocked it out of the park with those attractions and have taken the game up another level of in the authenticity, creativity, and enjoyment department.
Walt Disney World is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. As we were walking through one of the parks, I decided to Google ticket prices from my first visit in 1972. They were $3.50 each, which is the cost of a bottle of water inside one of the parks today. While we were watching the new fireworks display at EPCOT someone commented that Walt Disney World spends over $100,000 every day on fireworks. With those two figures floating around in my brain I started Googling other Walt Disney World statistics, and the further I went down the rabbit hole the more I became impressed with the company and how well it is run.
In 2007, while on a promotional book tour, my publisher sent me to the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival for a cooking demo and book signing. It was there that I started to appreciate the level of volume that the kitchens in those parks produce. Each year, Disney visitors consume seven million hamburgers, a half-million pounds of mac and cheese, one million pounds of watermelon, and two million pounds of ketchup. It takes 350 chefs to keep up with the demand, and the dining choices — especially in EPCOT — have seriously improved over the years. So much so that we ate at one of Rick Bayless’ restaurants in Disney Springs and it was every bit as good as his home base Frontera Grill in Chicago.
The entire Walt Disney World property covers 27,258 acres (43 square miles, or the size of two Manhattan islands), and Walt paid $5 million dollars for all of it. That’s about the current cost of a high-end home and lot in the neighborhood Golden Oak, located within the property. The road and highway system within the grounds is so impressive and nicer than any road or highway I’ve ever traveled on.
Pre-COVID, Disney World Parks drew an estimated 150 million people each year, which would have to make them some of the most vacationed spots in the world. Back in 2018, the Magic Kingdom was topping out at 21 million visitors a year. It’s hard not to be impressed with an entity that can not only take care of that many people, but take care of them so well.
There is never any trash on the ground. Disney makes sure that there is always a trash can every 30 feet and there is a massive underground vacuum system that transports trash to a central location. More than 12% of the parks are taken up with greenery — gardens and other maintained landscapes.
And my favorite Disney statistic: An estimated 1.65 million sunglasses have been lost at Disney World since it opened. After this visit, make it 1.65 million and one.
Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author. He has written a syndicated weekly newspaper column for more than 20 years.
Tasso and Cheese Biscuits with Pepper Jelly
Yield: 30-36 small biscuits
Experiment with your favorite pepper jelly flavor. The hotter the better. The dough freezes well and can be made in advance.
• 2 cups flour
• 1 tablespoon sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon Kosher Salt
• 1 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
• 1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and chilled
• 1/4 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
• 1/4 cup tasso ham, finely minced
• 3/4 cup buttermilk
• 1 egg
• 2 tablespoons melted butter
1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. Combine all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Using a pastry cutter or fork, blend cold butter into the dry mix until flour resembles coarse bread crumbs.
3. Mix in cheese and ham.
4. Separately, blend together the buttermilk and egg and add to dry mixture. Blend the dough. Do not over mix.
5. Fold dough onto floured surface and roll to one-inch thickness. Cut biscuits using a 1 1 /2-inch cookie cutter. Place biscuits on ungreased baking sheet and brush the tops with melted butter. Bake15-18 minutes.
6. Split open and spread with your favorite pepper jelly.