Beyond the Ballroom

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When you want an event that’s entirely original, these venues get playful.

The linens are lovely, the centerpieces are lovely, the menu is lovely … enough! Now and then, we need an event that’s inspirational, noteworthy or downright fun. Luckily, Orlando is loaded with planners, chefs, decorators and entertainers who will use their collective noodles to put together a wallapalooza of a party—often far from their sophisticated ballrooms.

Farm to Table, Literally

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Loads of chefs talk about farm-to-table feeding, meaning they cook with ingredients raised on local lands. Grande Lakes Orlando goes further. Way further. The luxury resort complex opened Whisper Creek Farm in 2012, a 7,000-square-foot area that doubles as both a working farm and an event space. As the plantings mature, much of the food served at dinner there will have been raised right on the property.

Tucked away beyond the resort’s JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels, Whisper Creek Farm is lined with 120 pineapple plants and features 18 citrus trees ranging from kumquat to kaffir lime. Throughout the year, sweet potatoes, avocados, mangoes, collard greens, cucumbers and herbs go, essentially, from the ground to the buffet table—with a visit to a Grande Lakes kitchen in between.

The event space itself is a large open area. For big groups, the chefs set up barbecue areas along the edges and cook meats and vegetables in Argentinean and Uruguayan style, then serve in small batches for guests to help themselves. Smaller groups can opt for plated dinners with a view of the chefs; for family-style meals at long communal tables and, for 12 or fewer, a Chef’s Table, where guests can lounge on hammocks when not feasting around a hand-crafted wooden table.

Mexico Aútentico

Chips and salsa? “That’s exactly where we don’t want to go with a Mexican-themed event,” Cornelia Jung was told. And so Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress’s senior director of catering went loco creating a Mexicato event with a menu that was “just so out of the box and unusual.”

She set the party on Windsong Greens, which, when not an impromptu event venue with rolling hills and Lake Windsong views, is a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. Interactive food stations were staffed by chefs who chatted up the offerings “because the foods aren’t familiar to American guests,” Jung says. “They’d point to condiments and suggest, ‘Try this, add a dash of that.’” As for the stations themselves, they were created out of rustic, colorful barn doors, flower carts and such. Light-up tables covered in heavy linens in deep shades of purple, orange and green added a glow.

To create the menu, the Hyatt Grand Cypress team asked their peers at sister Hyatt Mexican resorts for ideas, going for part street-party fare, part home-cooked meal. They ended up with a salad of lamb shanks and cactus,  and quesadillas and tacos with fillings such as wild mushrooms, squash blossoms and marinated pork with pineapple. The Cochinita Pibil & Grilled Red Snapper “Tikin-Xic” came with roasted plantains, pickled onions and orange “supreme.”

Beverage options included sangria, a tequila bar and fresh fruit juices.

When guests sat down to eat, they saw centerpieces created from foodstuffs and flowers used in the menu items. A duo playing Spanish guitar music entertained.

The Ole College Try

TheConservatoryThe Alfond Inn just opened for business, but the new staffers at the boutique hotel owned by Rollins College are already enamored of the hotel’s Conservatory as the space for smaller events.

Located right off the lobby, the Conservatory is a glass room—the 40-foot dome that covers its 1,600 square feet is glass, as are some walls. By day, the space is “very light, very bright,” says director of social catering Jane McLean. After dark, it will be “fabulous for late-evening events like gala after-parties.”

According to McLean, the catering menus are likely to follow those of Hamilton’s Kitchen, the hotel’s Florida-inspired restaurant. “The chef likes local, sustainable foods, and of course will use a lot of local vendors,” she says.

Oh Yes We Did

GrnChocltFnt_01_v002With its knee-slappin’, gross-’em-out kid shows, Nickelodeon is known for fun. So at its Nickelodeon Suites Resort, even weddings, corporate meetings and other to-dos have an overriding theme of “oh-no-you-dit-ten.”

Take slime. The ooey gooey green stuff takes center stage at events staged within the hotel’s theater. Centerpieces might be made of slime illuminated from underneath, and the eight guests chosen to participate in a trivia and physical Double Dare show might be doused in the stuff.

Which isn’t to say the party won’t be tasteful. Yes, participants might be asked to eat a whipped cream pie without using their hands, but most of the food consumption is merely playful. The main foods will be tasty, but meant to be eaten with your fingers. The chocolate fountain will flow green, not brown, although strawberries, pineapple chunks and marshmallows will be standard dunking items. “Slime shooters” made with Midori will be as tasty as any honeydew martini. A pineapple cake might recall SpongeBob SquarePants, but will be traditional. And another dessert, dirt ’n’ worms, will in fact be made of chocolate pudding, Oreo crumbs and gummy candies.

Poolside is a more common hotel event venue, but Nick takes its alfresco events in unusual directions. A dance party might include a mass 400-person sliming along with dancing, poolside shows and SpongeBob-themed games. All parties are custom, notes food and beverage director Robert Baldwin, and might include buffet stations with carved alligator, tenderloin or tuna or even a luau-style whole roasted pig with poi.

The Art of the Meal

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It’s common at wine-pairing dinners for an expert to precede each course talking about the juice being poured—the vineyard, the soil, the grape varieties within. At the Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando, an art gallery manager may take the floor instead—enlightening guests about the artists, the mediums, the inspirations. Choose a Palettes to Plates theme, and your entire event will revolve around select pieces of art.

The Grand Bohemian is filled with art, both in the first-floor gallery and throughout the property. Hosts who choose a Palettes to Plates meal can pre-select three pieces to feature, with the help of gallery manager Debby Roberts. Then the fun begins.

As guests enter the venue, they’ll see the featured works of art displayed on easels. Roberts might be on hand to greet guests; a featured artist could be in attendance, too, budget allowing, perhaps demonstrating technique. Servers might be offering themed “artinis,” such as a Klimt Kiss, if a piece by artist Gustav Klimt is featured. The cocktail might be made with Russian Standard, St. Germain, simple syrup, muddled cucumber, lime and mint.

Once guests are seated, Roberts might give an introduction. She’ll then talk in detail about what makes each artist, and his or her creations, special.

Grand_Bo_CrabCake2The meal will be themed to the art. At a recent dinner, for instance, guests learned about Thomas Arvid’s wine-focused paintings, then about Tom Sadler, whose namesake crab cakes recall the waterscapes, wetland and oceans he skillfully creates on canvas. For dessert, guests ate Peter Kiel’s lingonberry cheesecake. The contemporary painter is from Berlin, where lingonberries are popular.

As a take-home gift, the hotel suggests having local chocolatier Maralyn Berdan of Sweet Maralyn’s Chocolates create an edible replica of a painting. She prints a likeness on rice paper, dusts the “frame” with 24-karat gold dust, and packages it attractively in a cellophane bag tied with ribbon.

Richard Kessler, who owns the hotel, “really wants our guests to feel like they’re spending a night in a museum,” says guest experience curator Sandra Thornton. “Palettes to Plates takes that a step further. It helps guests emotionally connect to the selected pieces.” The events can be held in the Boheme restaurant, in a private gallery room with constantly changing artwork or by the rooftop pool.

HOLIDAYS WITH CITRUS ZEST

In the heart of downtown Orlando, the Citrus Club is a den of civility, a private enterprise where Central Florida’s Who’s Who dine, entertain and network. Its seven private event rooms are available to us all, though. One needn’t be a member to host a lunch, dinner or party there.

When the holiday season ho ho ho’s its way to town, groups from five to 270 find their ways to the Citrus Club.

In the private dining rooms, hosts can choose their holiday elements. The background is a simple room with city views and traditional ornaments dangling from the ceiling. Other ornaments serve as table centerpieces, placed within hurricane glass. One might tie the colors in with specialty linens such as red and gold satin or textured pintuck. Holiday music is piped in. Feel free to request special appearances from Santa Claus or carolers.

Guests can enjoy seasonal beverages such as eggnog, set up at a special station where they can choose add-ons such as nutmeg or cinnamon, and warm apple cider, which they can ladle into mugs. For dessert, cheesecake martinis are a holiday hit: small cheesecakes are set out in martini glasses, and guests are invited to spoon on the toppings of their choice.

Dinner can be buffet-style or seated with menus creative or traditional. On the old-fashioned end, look for turkey with giblet gravy, roasted chicken with maple-cranberry jus, and brown sugar-glazed ham, as examples. More adventurous hosts might opt for duck confit fritters, pepper-crusted flatiron steak, and walnut-encrusted mahi-mahi.

As a send-off, hosts can request personal gingerbread houses or boxed holiday cookies for each guest.

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