Discover Downtown Orlando – The Rebirth of the Church Street District!

Filed under: Orlando News,Orlando Vacation Tips |

A couple of weeks ago we had the opportunity to visit Downtown Orlando and to see some of the new things taking place in the Church Street District.

In the 70’s and 80’s Church Street and the Church Street Station area was the “in” place to be for entertainment in Orlando. It really all started in the late sixties when Bob Snow started the first Rosie O’Grady’s Good Time Emporium in a derelict area of downtown Pensacola, Florida. This resulted in the Seville Quarter, an entertainment and dining complex which today is considered the first urban entertainment complex in America. The success the venture garnered encouraged Snow to attempt to repeat the feat in a bigger city. He chose Orlando and Church Street Station soon became downtown Orlando’s premier entertainment complex with superb dining, shopping, and entertainment. Music included Dixieland jazz, country and western, bluegrass, top 40 hits, plus there was a variety of other restaurants and unique shops.

The attraction had five spectacular showrooms with entertainment for everyone: Rosie O’Grady’s with strumming banjos, the Goodtime Jazz Band, Charleston dancers, singing waiters, and can-can dancers on the bar; Apple Annie’s Courtyard which was a Victorian garden specializing in frozen drinks; Phineas Phogg’s Balloon Works featuring the day’s top 40 hits surrounded by décor honoring famous balloonists and their historic flights; The Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House featured country and western music Grand Old Opry style and almost every famous country singer of the day performed there; and the Orchid Garden Ballroom which was a beautiful show room with live music from the ‘50s thru the ‘90s.

The restaurants were incredible. Lili Marlene’s Aviator’s Pub and Restaurant catered to the connoisseur of fine dining and featured aged beef and fresh seafood; The Cheyenne Barbeque Restaurant featured beef, pork, and chicken barbeque as well as buffalo burgers; Crackers Oyster Bar served fresh Florida seafood and pasta specialties; Rosie O’Grady’s served deli sandwiches, New Orleans Po-Boys, and Red Hots (hot dogs) in the Gay ‘90s Sandwich Parlour; The Wine Cellar stocked more than 4,000 bottles of fine wine and offered daily tastings from selected vineyards; and The Exchange Food Pavilion featured fast convenient foods.

The Church Street Station Exchange was a 125,000 square foot shopping complex designed to appeal to both tourists and locals alike with more than 60 specialty shops and restaurants in a beautiful Victorian atmosphere. Commander Ragtime’s Midway of Fun, Food and Games had a carnival like feeling with high-tech video games and circus memorabilia. Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus was the official “airline” of Church Street Station and consisted of six classic planes, gas balloons and hot-air balloons. The skies above Orlando were always entertaining with Joe Kittinger (previously featured on this blog here) and Bob Snow’s skywriting and banner towing. Rosie O’Grady’s Flying Circus’ hot air balloons offered guests a champagne balloon flight guided by expert professional pilots.  Upon return to Church Street Station, guests would enjoy a champagne brunch in Lili Marlene’s Aviator’s Pub and Restaurant.

At its peak, Church Street has seen attendances of over 4 million people, many of whom were tourists visiting Disney and SeaWorld. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1990’s, despite several attempts by multiple owners to re-create the success of the mid-’80s, attendance fell drastically. A variety of reasons were behind that, not least of all was Walt Disney World’s opening of its own Pleasure Island club area, but sadly in August 2001, Rosie O’Grady’s closed down for good. The area then became something of a ghost town as empty buildings became the order of the day and no-one seemed to want to visit the area.

So, fast forward to today and our trip to see what’s happening in one of the most famous areas of Orlando. The first thing that strikes you is that something of a mini revival is happening as food, arts and entertainment once again feature. The $480 million Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic, the Orlando Predators, the Orlando Solar Bears as well as many big name concerts, has led the revival and now the whole Church Street area is starting to regain some of its vibrancy. You can visit the Jai and Donnelly galleries where you can see a mix of sculptures, paintings, photography, and mixed media pieces. The galleries offer a high quality art experience for collectors, enthusiasts, and hipsters alike and the exhibits are changed on a regular basis so repeat visits are recommended.

On the entertainment side of things the Mad Cow Theatre Company has moved into 54 W. Church Street and it’s intimate theatres give guests some fabulous productions to enjoy. The Mad Cow has two brand new theatres, The Harriett, with 164 seats and The Black Box with 60 seats and over the coming months you can see such great productions as Dreamgirls, Collected Stories and Death of a Salesman. The Mad Cow is now in its 16th season and you should visit anytime you’re planning a visit to Orlando to see what is going on.

The Church Street District is also gaining something of a reputation for its dining options. Among the thirteen dining establishments currently in the area, there is a wide variety of cuisine to enjoy, from Five Guys Hamburgers, Amura Japanese restaurant, the American type gastropub Rusty Spoon, pizza and flat bread at Urban Flats and the excellent cajun-creole Mojo bar & grill. Of course, while we were there we just had to try out some of the food on offer so we started out at Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant where we enjoyed several wonderful dishes including Ceviche de Gambas, Ensalada Vilafranca, Atun Estilo Tartaro, Haricot Verdes, Gambas Bravas and Albondigas.

From there we moved onto the superb Kres Chophouse where we enjoyed a variety of main course dishes including seared breast of Moscovy Duck, the Kres Mixed grill (consisting of a petite filet, some fantastic Grove Ranch Colorado lamp chops, garlic shrimp, three cheese au gratin and asparagus), the Atlantic grouper and a truly excellent New York prime sixteen steak. The Kres Chophouse has a wonderful Executive Chef in Ralph Oliver and we particularly enjoyed the more relaxed, less stuffy attitude that you find in most fine dining restaurants of this type. Sharing is actually encouraged and it’s OK just to order one course. The owners want their guests to enjoy their experience and astutely, they know that means loads of satisfied customers who will keep returning.

After Kres, it was time to get some exercise and we decided to wander over to the Grand Bohemian gallery located in the Grand Bohemian Hotel just a short stroll away. The gallery itself hosts one of the most eclectic and visually stimulating art galleries in the nation. The galleries were established by hotelier and art enthusiast Richard C. Kessler who enjoys displaying original and rare pieces of artwork ranging from oil paintings, glass, wood, contemporary jewelry, bronze sculptures and unique gift items within the galleries as well as throughout his luxury hotels.

The collections at the Grand Bohemian Gallery are comprised of internationally and locally renowned artists. Exclusive to the Grand Bohemian Galleries are internationally acclaimed artists Stefano Cecchini, a famed Italian artist best known for his depictions of wildlife and French Colorist Expressionist artist Jean Claude Roy. Other featured artists include Ali Launer, Amber Higgins, Donna Dowless, Elizabeth Nelson, Gartner & Blade, James Kitchens, Jerry McKellar, Kathleen Elliot, Mitch Kolbe, Oris, Susan Gott, Peter Keil, Philippe Guillerm, Stefan Horik, Thomas Arvid, and John Duckworth.

It’s essential to keep an eye on the Grand Bohemian Gallery when visiting Central Florida as every month it hosts art exhibitions as well as frequently offering receptions where patrons have the unique opportunity to meet each artist individually.

After enjoying the gallery for some considerable time, we were ready for dessert and what better choice than the Boheme restaurant located in the hotel? The apple tart washed down with a superb espresso made for the perfect combination.

Our evening wasn’t done there though as we strolled by the construction site at the shortly to be opened Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center. The Center is due to open sometime in 2014 in what will be a $386 million project cost and will feature a 2,700-seat amplified hall for Broadway theater class play events,  a 1,700-seat acoustic hall for ballet, operas and orchestral performances, and a 300-seat venue for smaller functions.

We made our way over to the Amway Center where we enjoyed a brief tour and hanging out at the One 80 Grey Goose Lounge that features a wonderful balcony overlooking Downtown Orlando and I4.

It was the perfect end to a lovely evening and we left with an overwhelming feeling that Orlando is making itself into a major city in the United States, nay, the world. Already attracting nearly 60 million people per annum who visit on business or leisure, the intent is clearly to give them an experience they can enjoy in places like New York, Miami, London, Paris and Milan. If you consider that Orange County already has the world class Orange County Convention Center as well as all the terrific facilities located on International Drive and in the theme park areas, it’s not hard to understand the huge attraction the Orlando area has for visitors and why the huge investment is now being made in bringing some much needed culture to the area.

Further, sport is also going to play its part as Orlando City Soccer are hoping to become the next Major League Soccer team and that means a brand new $120 million stadium in the immediate Downtown area. The Orlando Magic have also announced that they plan to invest approximately $100 million in an entertainment center expansion while the Florida Citrus Bowl is also due a $185 million renovation to be complete by the end of April 2015.

Completing the picture is the Sunrail commuter rail system which will have four stops in Orlando including one at Church Street Station. The rail system is being built in two phases with phase one, Deland to Sand Lake Road, due to open by the end of June 2014 and phase two by the Summer of 2016 which will extend the system down to Poinciana Industrial Park. The overall cost will be $615 million for construction plus $432 million to purchase the right of way and tracks and it again shows how serious Orlando and Central Florida takes its role moving into the future.

If you’ve not been into Orlando recently, we’d encourage you to do so. There’s a lot of things to see and do. You can attend a concert, make a visit to the theatre or to one of the wonderful galleries. You can take in some basketball, soccer, ice hockey, arena football or simply chill out at one of the great places to dine. You won’t be disappointed. Orlando’s a great place to be. Do it!

More photos from our visit at


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