The presence of Asian Americans in the theme park capital of the world extends beyond the exhibits at Walt Disney World’s Epcot and festive overlays during key dates in the cultural calendars. In fact, “The City Beautiful” shares its slogan with the Chinese city of Guilin, and you can literally visit a gift of international friendship – a Red Chinese Ting (pagoda-style pavilion) in Lake Eola.
Most Orlandoans would consider the Mills 50 area to be the heart of the Asian-american community. It’s nicknamed “Little Vietnam”, but that’s quite a limiting moniker. The community offers more than just Vietnamese grocery stores, restaurants and shops. Yes, you will find pho at Vietnam Cuisine and Viet Garden and banh mi sandwiches at Banh Mi Nha Trang Subs, Yum-Mi and Mai’s Bistro. You’ll also find authentic Chinese roasted and barbeque meats, noodle dishes, duck feet and jelly fish at Tasty Wok, spicy Sichuan at Chuan Lu Garden, several eastern medicine spots, and refreshing drinks at Chewy Boba. For the street-fare experience, stop by Hawkers and Mamak. Ming’s Bistro and Chan’s serve dim sum – the weekends have the traditional carts. Arrive early for traditional Korean barbeque at Shin Jung Korean Restaurant or you will have to wait for a seat in this cozy spot. (it’s worth it!)
Mills 50 is the center of Lunar New Year celebrations, held in the early part of the year, including the Dragon Parade with cultural dance performances, lion dances, and the serpentining dragon. Don’t forget the ear plugs for the firecrackers!
While more pre-planned than most Chinatowns in the United States, the one established in Orlando in 2004 (5060 W. Colonial Drive) includes a paifang and a more recently erected statute of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, in homage to the founder of the nationalist party. The large 1st Oriental Grocery serves as shopping center anchor to other businesses including an authentic bakery, karaoke bar, and more.
For a moment of peace, check out one of the Buddhist temples in Orlando. Keep in mind, monks live and worship on these grounds, and they’re not considered tourist attractions. But, they do welcome visitors. Many have meditation classes and halls, and offer the chance to walk among gardens. For example, in the fall, the Wat Florida Dhammaran (Thai) holds a Taste of Thailand. The Guang Ming Temple (Taiwan) has a library and a tea house.
Get your blood pumping at Bill Frederick Park at the annual Orlando International Dragon Boat Festival. In addition to the competition, highlights also include food trucks offering international cuisine, displays and performances.
Throughout the year, celebrations of Asian ethnicities can be found with cultural festivals and film festivals. Arab Festival, India Day, Fiesta Filipina, Japan Festival, Korean Festival, Bollywood Film Festival, South Asian Film Festival, and more – are all testaments to the growing population and interest.
And yes, a visit to Walt Disney World offers some flavor. In Epcot, at the Chinese pavilion, a 360 film takes you on a journey through ancient and modern China. Japan’s pavilion has Taiko drum performances throughout the day, and a Bijutsu-kan Gallery features the country’s “cute culture.” Disney’s Animal Kingdom has live exotic animals including a Komodo dragon.