Mount Rushmore handcrafted in solid milk chocolate at the World of Chocolate Museum & Cafe'. photo by Karen Kuzsel.

Mount Rushmore handcrafted in solid milk chocolate at the World of Chocolate Museum & Cafe’. photo by Karen Kuzsel.

Russell Crowe’s movie, “Noah” has me seeing things in pairs.

I first noticed that the small strip mall near my house contains three sets of restaurants: Chinese, barbeque, and Italian. I thought it odd that a second restaurant would come into the same plaza with a similar menu, but then noticed venues recreating in the same manner.

As an active member of both the Orlando area chapters of MPI (Meeting Professionals International) and ISES (International Special Events Society), I attend meetings at many newly-opened venues that cater to corporate and leisure groups. The latest pairs are upscale bowling alleys, museums about chocolate, and the unfolding of Diagon Alley, the famed street favored by wizards, witches and now muggles.

I was frankly curious how an upscale bowling alley would differ from the ones I used to frequent. And what exactly does one do at a museum about chocolate other than dream of mouth-melting morsels sans calories? Will the expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley be as skillfully-replicated as its Hogsmeade counterpart at Universal Orlando Resorts’ Islands of Adventure?

So here’s what I’ve discovered.

Both Chocolate Kingdom and The World of Chocolate Museum & Café are surrounded by the trappings of Orlando’s famed tourism districts. Both museums offer amusing and educational guided tours of how chocolate went from being a drink only the wealthy could afford to the favorite reason to crash a diet, including the ever-popular “It’s dark chocolate so its oxidants are healthy for you” excuse. Both museums offer limited chocolate samples along the roughly 45-minute interactive tour, have event space, and each has a convenient gift store. That’s where the similarities end. Here’s what makes each of them stand out.

Chocolate Kingdom is an interactive journey that includes an animated tale of a prince and his sidekick dragon seeking to save Princess Chocolina. The story plays out on screens and moves guests from one room to the next, with the assistance of a live guide. You taste what cocoa first must have been like (bitter), visit the Cacao Tree Greenhouse, stroll by the Mystical River of Chocolate and a Micro Batch Bean-to-the-Bar Factory utilizing old world machinery. At the end of the tour, for an additional sum, you can have a chocolate bar customized to your taste. Options include bacon, caramel, pretzels, marshmallows, nuts and more. Just past the chocolate bar is the bakery, a potpourri of reasonably-priced chocolates and chocolate pastries, produced by the parent company, Schakolad Chocolate Factory. Group tours can include up to 25, but check out some of these fun additions for groups in the Chocolate Party Room.

*Have your bar customized or make it yourself

*Create chocolate molds

*Learn to write with chocolate on your own creation.

*Did I mention adults receive chocolate wine samples?

www.chocolatekingdom.com; 407-705-3475

The beauty of the Taj Mahal expressed in solid white chocolate. Photo by Karen Kuzsel

The beauty of the Taj Mahal expressed in solid white chocolate. Photo by Karen Kuzsel

At World of Chocolate Museum & Café, our witty guide’s stand-up comedy-worthy bits led our group room-by-room through the history of chocolate from its early Central and South American roots to Europe and then to its popularity in the U.S. Prior to our tour, our group hosted a wine and cheese reception in the private event space that holds up to 60, reception style. On the tour, we passed through a representation of a Rainforest environment where cacao trees grow before reaching a u-shaped hall of 25 handcrafted solid chocolate sculptures ranging from three to just over six feet tall. International icons such as Mount Rushmore, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the Taj Mahal are depicted in tasty detail. Another room features labels from chocolate bars produced around the world. Although the private event space and the café (32 max) can be rented separately, the entire facility can be bought out and holds up to 250 comfortably. Up to four tours can run simultaneously to accommodate larger groups. www.worldofchocolatemuseum.com; 407-778-4871

When I was younger than 30, bowling was my family’s idea of sports togetherness without breaking the bank. Each of us bowled on different leagues and we bowled together on weekends as an outing. We kept our own score (my mother’s way of reminding us how important math was), ate greasy fries and cardboard pizza, and ignored the inevitable dinginess of the surroundings, especially the ubiquitous bar lounge that no one under 21 was allowed to enter. The first time I walked into Splitsville Luxury Lanes in Disney’s Downtown West Side I thought I’d entered a futuristic Twilight Zone of dazzling décor and bright lights. This was not the bowling alley I’d ever known. Not long after, Kings Bowl Orlando opened in the International Drive area. Like Splitsville, it is a two-story establishment that breaks into a nightclub atmosphere when the sun goes down. Both have contemporary styling, tables spread throughout two floors (not just by the individual lanes), atmospheric music, and flat screen TV’s. This is not a row of lanes side-by-side. Lanes are sectioned off in small groups, offset by funky couches and conversation pits, patios and jazzed up bar areas set into the middle of the room.

These are bowling venues designed to entice corporate buyouts and fun outings. Bowling is no longer the inexpensive way to spend a leisurely afternoon with the family, but it can definitely be an interactive party on steroids.

Splitsville Luxury Lanes’ 50,000 sf has 30 bowling lanes, divided into smaller sections. Your group can take over a section and never have to engage with a group occupying another section. The last time I was there, working as Natasha, The Psychic Lady for a corporate buyout, there was a DJ upstairs and a full band rocking out downstairs. The place is so well designed that the music blasting from downstairs never bled into the upstairs. The overhanging second floor patio curves, offering extensive views and musical sounds of other Downtown Disney West Side venues. There were roughly 900 guests that night and the place was crowded, but not cramped.

Bring your appetite. Splitsville’s menu contains the expected bowling alley nachos, burgers, and fries (albeit with a gourmet tweak), but then there are also 11 types of freshly-made sushi rolls, nine types of pizza including gluten-free, rice bowls, salads, and unexpected entrees such as Mahi-Mahi with Voodoo Shrimp or Steak Chimichurri. www.disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/downtown-disney/splitsville;(407) 938-7467

 

One of two private rooms at King's Bowl Orlando comes with four bowling lanes, giant hdtv projector, leather seating and dedicated buffet area

One of two private rooms at King’s Bowl Orlando comes with four bowling lanes, giant hdtv projector, leather seating and dedicated buffet area

Kings Bowl Orlando has 22 regulation-length lanes, a regulation-sized outdoor bocce ball court, a regulation shuffleboard table, and four full-sized billiards tables within its 30,000-sf entertainment venue. (900 max) Who says size doesn’t matter?

There are 60 giant HDTVs and HD projector screens, and two private function spaces with HDTV, buffet space, and private lanes. Two premium bars serve handcrafted cocktails (after 6 pm everyone must be 21+ years old) and an executive chef cooks up a menu that would do any restaurant proud.There is a diverse array of appetizers, wrap sandwiches, burgers, and pizza, but when have you been to a bowling alley that served entrees such as Pretzel-crusted Baked Dijun Chicken or Maple Glazed Sea Scallops?www.kingsbowlamerica.com/orlando; (407) 363-0200

I am a Harry Potter diehard fan. Note, I said fan, not fanatic. Don’t test me on how to stupefy or why Professor Trelawney’s divinations just seem… well, less than divine. I have gaped and gawked at the explicit rendering of Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. I have had a butterbeer mustache, watched the owls swoop around The Three Broomsticks’ wooden rafters, and braved riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride (and if you had motion sickness like I do, you’d know I pushed my personal limits for this must-do experience).

Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort's Universal Studios opens this summer.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort’s Universal Studios opens this summer.

I have bemoaned that the Hogwarts Express preening in immobile glory at the entrance of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogmeade wouldn’t carry me off to London or Diagon Alley… and now that too will be possible. With author J.K Rowling’s cooperation and advice guiding Universal Orlando Resorts’ design team, I have no doubts whatsoever that the expansion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter– Diagon Alley into the Universal Studios theme park will be no less magical, mystical, or exacting. What’s most exciting for me is that I will be able to board the Hogwarts Express (after safely making it through the brick wall archway at King’s Cross Station’s Platform 9-3/4) and exit in the opposite park of where I boarded. OK, there will be an additional fee, but hey, where else in the entire world could you duplicate this experience? Universal Orlando Resorts reveals that depending on whether you’re travelling to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley, what you see from the window (thanks to the magic of technology) might be Hagrid flying by on his motorbike, the Hippogriff swoop gracefully over black lake, or maybe the Knight Bus swerving through London traffic. Designers insist the train experience is authentic, from the paint to the sound of the whistle.

The details are fast emerging about what to expect from this latest experience. I know that the Gringotts Bank ride, said to be a “multi-sensory, multi-dimensional journey” will incorporate innovative ride technology and it looks to be a thrilling roller coaster experience. (My stomach is already tightening!) Many of Diagon Alley’s famed shops will line the street, from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes to Quality Quidditch Supplies. You might want to check out Scribbulus for authentic writing implements and stationery or try the strawberry-and-peanut-butter ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour.

You can look up all the particulars on Universal Orlando Resorts’ website, but what you may not see are the infinite possibilities that these venues create for group events. I’ve been a guest in a few of those events and I have worked as Natasha, The Psychic Lady just outside the entrance gates at Islands of Adventures for parties. What I have observed is that no matter the age, people do not walk to the arched entrance. They trot, they run… almost as if they fear someone will wave a wand and the place will vanish. When you are in this elaborately recreated space and eating fish sticks, munching on bangars and mash, or snarfing up treacle fudge, it’s as if you are in sensory-immersion heaven. At Diagon Alley, you will dine at The Leaky Cauldron and maybe try on cloaks at Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions. www.universalorlando.com

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

 

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