Luau Apocalypse

BY MIKE WARING – NOVEMBER 2008

It’s been a couple of years since the last time I threw myself and my lovely wife on the hand grenade and reviewed all of the dinner shows (well all that I could stomach) in the Orlando area. Obviously my life in the interim had become too humdrum, what with parachuting food relief aid into Terre Haute and setting up the fund to save the yellow striped Socialist Pacific Loon from extinction. So it was time for another stab at the vast and surprisingly resilient dinner theatre industry – Orlando Division.

This time the target of our disdain would be luaus. One might ask – and one should, really – why is it that Orlando has so many luaus? I mean, the traditional luau is defined as a Hawaiian feast. So I guess the reason must be the many similarities between Hawaii and Orlando. Oh sure, Orlando is nowhere near the ocean, and it’s the wrong ocean, and it isn’t an island, and Hawaii has volcanoes whereas Orlando gives flatness a whole new meaning. Perhaps it’s the cultures of the two locales: let’s see, Orlando has a certain “you’re not from around here” vibe with a dash of grasping mercantilism, versus Hawaii’s completely laid back island lifestyle with an extra dollop of taking it easy. So perhaps it’s not that, then. Ahh – it must be the palm trees, undoubtedly.

Whatever the reason, Orlando has three major public luaus and an unknown number of black market speakeasy luaus. Although we attempted to bribe a series of taxi drivers, none would consent to take us to these dark twisted variants on the traditional luau, where lamb is devoured instead of pig and the fire dancers use laser batons instead of the more effete flaming sticks.

Since we only had a week to get in all three of the luaus, we needed to compress what should have been a schedule where we could recover for a couple of months between luaus into a marathon of Hawaiian kitsch. Our mission: three luaus over four nights. There have been a few times in my life when I feared for my sanity, but none compared to this. Thankfully, except for a somewhat unfortunate tendency to twitch uncontrollably when confronted with sweet, sticky pork ribs, I’ve come through the experience basically undamaged.

The same cannot be said in Mary’s case. She has taken to sleeping eighteen hours a day and spends her time awake humming “Tiny Bubbles.” Fortuitously, it’s a happy kind of insanity that only occasionally requires a drool bucket, so our marriage is essentially unchanged.

Jump to:

Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Luau

Held at the Polynesian Resort, the Disney version of the traditional feast is inarguably the biggest and thus the most popular. Because bigger = popular, right? The venue is located in a dedicated pavilion on the grounds of the resort, from which, if you crane your head just right and an enormous man in a fluorescent Hawaiian shirt doesn’t block your view, you can see Seven Seas Lagoon. This makes the Disney venue the only one of the three where you can see water, though the similarities between the mighty Pacific Ocean and a man-made lake are slight.

Tickets have to be bought in advance. We had some issues getting a table, as there are almost no tables for two available and we had to resort to some clever finagling to get in. As with all three of the luaus, they recommend that you arrive at least a half hour early. We discovered while researching this article that you can arrive two minutes before the event starts, missing all the lines and waiting, since in every case seats are pre-assigned. So after reserving your tickets in advance – and you have to make them far in advance since the Disney luau fills up quickly – come just before the show starts and skip the waiting.

If you don’t follow our advice and instead arrive early, you wait in a line to show your ticket (or get crossed off a list – turns out it doesn’t matter if you pick up your ticket in advance or not, so don’t bother) and then get your picture taken and then you stand around in a holding area until they open the gates and allow the mobs in shortly before the event starts. Oh, and you get a lei. It’s plastic, but what the hey. A waiter shows you to a reserved table when you enter, so there’s little benefit to arriving early. Each family or couple is assigned its own table. We had a table in the most expensive area and still couldn’t see that well due to a post in our way. People sitting in the cheap seats probably don’t have a great view, though the very back tables are somewhat elevated.

As soon as you are seated, the wait staff starts taking drink orders and then brings out platters of the starters: salad with mandarin orange segments (that makes it tropical I guess) and a bland and inoffensive dressing. Also included are slices of fresh pineapple and pineapple-coconut bread rolls. I didn’t really taste any pineapple in the rolls but the coconut is sure present. It is kind of sweet and again inoffensive.

The second and main platter is brought out after the introductory segment of the live entertainment is concluded. This consists of roast chicken (not bad, still fairly juicy), meaty pork ribs with the usual “island” sweet and sticky sauce, Polynesian rice mixed with veggies, and steamed vegetables which would be pretty good if they didn’t consist of 97% broccoli. I’m not a fan of the ribs as they don’t seem to have been grilled or roasted and instead I suspect are pressure cooked.

Dessert is something called a volcano cake or something of that nature. The lights are turned down and the waiters bring out something like those dry ice volcanoes that elementary school science fairs specialize in. The actual edible (and I’m using that term loosely) dessert is some sort of pyramid-shaped chocolate mousse thing (the “volcano”) with a citrusy syrup poured over it (the “lava”), which most definitely isn’t very good though it is very sweet.

Besides the usual soft drinks, tea, coffee, lemonade and milk, they also offer unlimited Budweiser products and a choice between a Cabernet and a Chardonnay. I tried the Cab and it would have made a nice sink cleanser. Well, it wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t that good either, though I didn’t really expect much different.

I didn’t take as much advantage of the unlimited beer as I am wont to do, because it was, after all, Bud. This did not faze our neighboring diners, who I’m guessing were Brits based on their accent and their amazing capacity for beer in all its manifold forms. The husband kept a couple of servers on the hops all evening.

Mary also tried one of the tropical drinks (pretty much a mai tai) that comes with a plastic glass you can keep and in an electric ice cube which changes color. Isn’t technology amazing? Mary was convinced that the drink contained no actual alcohol and since it cost about $10 extra she wasn’t a happy camper.

The food is probably not why one comes to these things. Well, actually I cannot state with any authority why anyone who isn’t writing an article about them comes to these things, so there. In any case, if my suppositions are correct, then at least some people come primarily for the entertainment.

The Disney approach to luau entertainment is different in many ways from the other two luaus we observed, and not in a good way. Disney has constructed a wholly extraneous story on which they layer the usual Polynesian entertainments of hula dances, fire dances, and lots of drumming. In this case I believe that there is a sweet girl who’s forgotten her heritage after going away to the mainland to get a college education and her friends and family want to re-edumacate her. They do this by dancing for her. There is also a really, really lame ‘humorous’ subplot.

All of this is overseen by the ninety-fifth version of Bloody Mary I’ve seen now. Why is it that since South Pacific came out, every person who’s written something about Polynesian culture has included a version of this character? It’s bloody annoying.

As I may have mentioned previously, the show is lame. The dancing is so-so and Mary noticed several performers who were so bored they couldn’t even be bothered to stay in character while on stage, and instead leaned toward each other to whisper when they weren’t in the spotlight. Children are brought up on stage and encouraged to participate, but they mostly looked bored except for the fire dance portion. They were very bored during the “humor” and romance sections. All in all, it is not the worst live show I’ve ever seen, but it’s most definitely not anywhere near good either.

Two hours of my life gone forever later, the show was finally over and we could repair to our hotel room and quietly cry into our pillows, for two more luaus still remained.

Makahiki Luau at SeaWorld Orlando

Back in the far distant past – a few years ago or so – Mary and I lived in San Diego, where among the other wonderful tourist attractions was SeaWorld. So we decided, when we settled on doing the series on luaus in Orlando, to combine the luau at SeaWorld with a visit to the park itself and compare it to its San Diego cousin. But that’s another article, which I’ll get to whenever Mary gets tired of waiting and starts tapping her foot until I succumb to the unholy torture and do what she wants, right now!

Anyway, the second luau at SeaWorld, Orlando: another plastic lei, another photo, more sweet pork ribs, ahh the horror, the horror, another show with flaming torches, show over, bedtime, some more crying. And that’s the article in haiku form, if haiku allowed around six times as many syllables. The long version follows:

The SeaWorld version of the luau is called the Makahiki Luau, which means either “year” in Hawaiian or “the Hawaiian New Year,” or “random Hawaiian word we threw in to make the luau seem more authentic.” Or all three – Wikipedia isn’t helping me here. The luau is held inside the park in the rear half of one of the restaurants near the main entrance. A ticket to the park itself is not required to attend the luau if you arrive at the park after 5:00 pm.

Again we were told to arrive promptly 30 minutes before the Polynesian extravaganza was to commence, but there is a pavilion at SeaWorld that serves free beer (more on this in the SeaWorld article) and we arrived a little late, and in my case, possibly weaving a little. Unlike the Disney luau, they serve beverages while you wait to go inside. I had the lemonade and Mary had the mai tai. The upside was there was detectable rum in this version of the mai tai. The downside was that it appeared the rum had been mixed with something that tasted suspiciously or more honestly exactly like Hawaiian Punch. In writing this article I did a little research and was shocked to discover that this substance (I refuse to use the term, beverage) is still available for purchase. I am in awe of the refusal of the American palate to recognize that there are some things man was not meant to drink.

Moving on, after the free but not very appealing “cocktails,” we were permitted to enter the restaurant where our evening festivities were to be held. All seats are reserved so there is no inherent advantage in lining up early, pushing, shoving or running over small children with your electric personal mobility transporter thingy, to get seated first. Everyone is seated at tables for eight, so you’ll probably be sharing a table with others unless you have a big group.

I’d estimate that the venue, which is the smallest of the three locations, was about two-thirds full, whereas Disney was completely booked. The tables are oriented so everyone has a decent view of the stage from anywhere in the room. Although in this case no amount of neck craning will permit one to see any water, because the luau is held completely indoors.

Again we started off with what I was now coming to see as the essential starters of all luaus: salad with mandarin oranges and a citrus dressing and bread. However, in this case the salad actually has some wontons in it which of course makes it much more Polynesian, as everyone knows, and the bread is actually more akin to banana pound cake. Seriously, pound cake as an appetizer. I stand in awe of Polynesian cultural traditions. I wish more elitist culinary institutions would start thinking outside the box like this. The salad is better than the one at Disney. The poundcake/bread thing is sweet. And I’ll leave it at that.

The main courses, served on a platter of course, are considerably better than the starters and much better than the Disney equivalent. There is the requisite roast chicken, more flavorful than Disney’s. More ribs, though these seem to have been cooked in a manner that does not suck all the taste out and the sauce is not as objectionable. We actually each had a couple of ribs and enjoyed them.

There is mahi-mahi in what is described as a pina colada sauce, but which turns out to be primarily coconut milk and pretty darn tasty. Our fish was a little overcooked, but it was still moist and flaked easily. We both had seconds of the fish. Finally there is the same island rice concoction as at Disney, though in this one case Disney’s version is superior. The veggies this time were stir fried and much better than Disney’s and they didn’t consist primarily of broccoli. I had seconds of them too.

Alcoholic drinks are not free, but then again there isn’t much selection either. I tried a Cabernet and it was Turning Leaf and so surprisingly better than I was expecting. Dessert was a blur. I can’t remember it, but I remember it was better than Disney’s.

The live entertainment at SeaWorld’s luau is held on a large stage at the front of the room. Overall the production values are considerably better than Disney’s, with more professional lighting and stuff like fog machines, which makes all live acts better as everyone knows. Like Disney there is a live band, though in this case there is a much larger percussion element.

The show consists of a wide variety of native dances, fire dancing and some audience interaction. There were relatively few children in the audience the night we attended and there was no special focus on bringing them on stage. Some kids did come up and participate, as did some adults. Participation was purely voluntary.

The MC, a motherly type, does an excellent job of narration, explaining the origin of the various dances without any hokey romance and humor subplots. It is a pretty straightforward show with lots of dancing and a huge cast. The dancers are considerably better than their Disney counterparts and the fire dancers are much better. Since people are also closer to the stage than at Disney, they erect a large net barrier between the audience and the performers during the more energetic aspects of throwing around flaming batons, which is a pretty smart idea.

The meal and show take around two hours. The nice feature here is that when you leave, the park is pretty much empty, having closed while the show is going on, so there are no lines or anything to get out of the parking lot.

Wantilan Luau at Royal Pacific Resort, Universal Orlando

We took a night off before our final luau and cleansed our palates with a vigorous application of much beef at the Texas de Brazil churrascaria. Then back to the grindstone.

The Wantilan Luau is held on the grounds of the Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando, in an open air pavilion which apparently is where the word Wantilan comes from, as according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, wantilan is a term used for pavilions dedicated to staging art performances and/or cock fighting in Indonesia, which pleases me no end. Why Universal decided to use a Balinese word for their luau, which is a Hawaiian feast, is a mystery probably never to be unraveled.

Again we ignored the instructions to arrive early for the show and instead went and checked out the bar in the hotel. This turned out to be one of the only two areas in the Royal Pacific that was not completely overrun with teenagers, the other being the luau itself. It seems that the Universal version of a Halloween party is so gory and over the top that it naturally appeals mainly to the teenaged. The more well-off ones get rooms at the Universal hotels and then attend Halloween Horror Night in the parks. Don’t expect a report on this event anytime soon from yours truly. We’ll have to see if we can first find a teenage nephew or niece to check it out for us and then see if any of them are actually, well, literate. We’re not holding out a lot of hope on that front.

Anyhow, fortified with a cocktail, we arrived after seating had begun and after a quick plastic lei’ing (but no photo) we were whisked to our table. None of the tables at the Universal luau are set up for couples or small groups. All of the tables seat 10 people, so chances are you’re going to be eating with strangers. The Saturday night we attended, the pavilion was about three-quarters full.

Unlike the other two luaus, Universal’s is actually a buffet and wait staff is there to clear plates and refill beverages. The buffet is not huge, but it has more than enough food selections to satisfy everyone and some unusual choices as well. There are lots of cold dishes, including clear noodles with ahi poke (marinated, chopped raw ahi tuna), and kim chee (Korean fermented spicy cabbage) with macadamia encrusted rounds of goat cheese, which is a lot better than it sounds. There are also lots of hot dishes like pit roasted suckling pig, shredded pork mixed with pineapple, ribs, stir-fried chicken and vegetables, a whole roasted salmon with a citrus glaze and quite a bit more.

Finally there is a separate dessert table with lots of small bites – key lime pie, chocolate espresso mousse, fruit tarts and the like. There is free wine and beer as well as free mai tais which the servers refill constantly. I tried the wine again and again it wasn’t completely undrinkable. Mary pronounced her mai tai the best of the lot and then vowed never to consume another as long as she lives. Beside the alcoholic beverages there are the usual soft drinks, milk, tea and coffee.

Since the food service is buffet style, the entertainment is pretty much limited to a South Seas band playing quietly while you eat. After the chewing and slurping has died down, the real entertainment starts. The entertainers are all up on an elevated stage and pretty much everyone in the audience has a good view. There is the usual live musical accompaniment, though the band is not quite as good as SeaWorld’s.

The dancers are enthusiastic but not as good as those at SeaWorld, and this show has the smallest cast by far, no doubt because the stage is tiny. The fire dancers are definitely not as talented as at the other shows, though they try hard. The band leader functions largely as the MC and there is no story at all – just singing, dancing and throwing flaming sticks around. The costumes are the least authentic of any of the shows and the dances are not particularly authentic, either.

There is a great deal more audience participation at the Universal luau than at either of the other shows. Mary was of the opinion that they were trying their darndest to get every last audience member up on stage at one point or another. Kids were present, though in a minority compared to Disney, and they were included in the on-stage festivities.

After another two hours, we were finally done and went back to the hotel, where large quantities of spirits were consumed.

Conclusions

We attended three different luaus in four days, something we sincerely and pointedly don’t recommend doing. I wish we could say we had fun but we didn’t. Then again, the dinner shows aren’t aimed at our demographic. They are aimed mainly at families with children who are looking for completely wholesome entertainment. On that measure they deliver.

Overall, we have one clear loser and split winners. First, the winners. The SeaWorld luau has by far the best entertainment of the three shows. Mary thinks the entertainers at SeaWorld are the most authentic we saw. They certainly are the most enthusiastic. The food at this luau is passable: not great, but unless you’re really, really picky, everyone in the family should find enough to eat and enjoy.

On the other hand, the Royal Pacific luau at Universal has by far the best food we encountered among all the luaus. It might not be authentic, but it is quite good in most cases and pretty adventurous in a couple of items. I might caution families with very picky eaters on this luau, but I think most can find enough to satisfy them, and everyone will probably like the desserts. The entertainment is all right, though not as good as the SeaWorld version.

Finally there’s one clear loser and that’s Disney. It is by far the biggest of the venues, with seating for approximately 500, while the next largest at Universal can accommodate around 200. The food is nothing to get excited about and significantly less appealing than the offerings at the other venues. The major disappointment is the live show. Frankly, it isn’t very good. The hokey plotlines are silly and distracting and don’t entertain anyone, from what we saw. The dancing and singing are barely adequate and the cast is by far the least motivated. Some are basically going through the motions and not putting any effort into their performances.

When you consider that the Disney luau is the most expensive of the three offered, you really have to question whether you are getting your money’s worth. We don’t believe you are. For the best show and best buy overall we’d recommend the SeaWorld luau, which is the least expensive and has the best entertainment with okay food. The Universal luau has by far the best food, but a mediocre show and a fairly high price, with no discounts apparently available.

The Universal show is only offered twice a week (three times a week in the summer) versus five days a week (two shows a night) for Disney and every night for SeaWorld.

If you have to attend a luau to round out your Orlando vacation experience, try either SeaWorld or Universal. If you want to stay on Disney property, go to the Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue at Fort Wilderness. It’s a much more entertaining affair and the food is better.