The 2019 MLS All Star Game presented by Target is in Orlando and you want to know what it’s all about. Well, it’s obviously about sports.
Orlando has recently played host to each of the NFL Pro Bowl, college football’s Citrus Bowl, the NCAA’s March Madness, and golf’s annual Arnold Palmer Invitational. And it’s also hosted the Monster Jam World Finals, and WWE’s WrestleMania and is home to the US Tennis Association.
It’s also about high-profile soccer. Camping World Stadium and Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium – home of Wednesday night’s game – have staged major games for the US men’s and women’s national teams, as well as five World Cup games in 1994, Olympic soccer in 1996, Copa America in 2016 and the International Champions Cup in 2017.
There was also the little matter of an MLS All Star Game at the Citrus Bowl in 1998, when an MLS USA team including Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos, Cobi Jones and Tony Meola beat an MLS World XI featuring Marco Etcheverry, Carlos Valderrama, Jorge Campos and Mo Johnston 6-1 in front of almost 35,000 fans. Twenty-one years ago.
So, if you were wondering “Why Orlando?” that should be more than enough to punch the city’s credentials as a bona fide Big Game Sporting Capital.
But the All-Star Game is not all about what happens on the playing field. In fact, a city’s rep as a legit host often has more to do with what happens OUTSIDE the lines than between them.
In which case, welcome to the ideal city for a well-rounded, all-out party occasion. From great bars to memorable dining, Orlando offers a genuine adventure in just about everything that goes into A Good Time Had By All.
Where To Enjoy A Drink
This may not be uppermost in every visitor’s mind this week, but it’s unarguable that soccer and adult beverages are close companions, hence a reliable source of alcoholic libations is essential. In which case, welcome to Orlando!
The best thing about Exploria Stadium is that it is downtown, and downtown Orlando is eminently walkable. You don’t have to go far to find a decent pub, a modern speakeasy, a cocktail lounge or just a plain, old-fashioned bar. The city is well stocked with everything you could want.
Proper soccer pubs? Check out the Orlando-centric Lion’s Pride on Church Street, or the twin bar set-up of self-pronounced ‘Soccer Republic’ the Harp & Celt (open until 2 am). In between, you also have Wall Street an, ahem, wall-to-wall night-time emporium of convivial gathering, with seven different venues fitted under one eclectic roof that often spills outside for a genuine street party.
All three occupy the city’s fertile ground along Church Street, Orange Avenue and S. Magnolia Avenue, a 12-block stretch of pure bar-hopping and beer-sipping pleasure, capped by the formidable Ace Café, a multi-faceted pleasure dome of good drinks, lively sounds and decent grub. It is also the home of Digital HQ presented by Wells Fargo.
If you prefer something a touch more upscale, head for the swanky Bosendorfer Lounge inside the Grand Bohemian Hotel on Orange, where hand-crafted cocktails mix with smooth jazz sounds until late in the evening.
On gameday, you should also check out the Broken Cauldron Taproom, one of many high-quality craft breweries (part of the vaunted Central Florida Ale Trail) that offer a seemingly endless stream of great beers and lively locals’ hangouts.
Alternatively, mix it up with a visit to Topgolf Orlando, where soccer watch parties rub shoulders with state-of-the-art golf facilities, as well as terrific food and drink, with a tempting menu – including breakfast starting at 9:00 am – along with a good array of local craft beers.
Where to Eat
If anyone thinks Orlando is still about theme park food (see, we’ve got halfway through before mentioning the D-word), that was SO 1990s. Welcome to (modern) Orlando.
In fact, Disney actually needs to get some credit here. It was almost 25 years ago when the House of Mouse decided people needed world-class dining to go with the world-class theme parks, opening their revolutionary California Grill and spawning a foodie movement that has been in overdrive ever since.
Now, celebrity chefs mix with celebrity guests, and you are just as likely to find a five-star restaurant as a five-star thrill ride. Downtown hasn’t been slow to reflect this trend, hence you’ll find fine-dining experiences at the likes of Dovecote Brasserie, Kres Chophouse, Ceviche and The Rusty Spoon, not forgetting The Boheme at the Grand Bohemian Hotel and the Artisan’s Table in its new Church Street location.
But that’s not Orlando’s secret. Oh no. The real heart of The City Beautiful these days is its Districts. From SoDo (South Downtown) to Audubon Park, and College Park to Curry Ford West, there are 10 genuine neighborhoods of living, breathing local life, packed with one-off shops, bars and restaurants that all offer a Millennial-tinged vibe of contemporary urban cool.
If nothing else, you should check out Mills 50 with its great Vietnamese cuisine, breweries (don’t miss Ten10 or Ivanhoe Park Brewing Co.) and cafes, where a Floridian Bohemia has come to life in recent years. Likewise, the Milk District is a happening local cultural hub of live music, juice bars, dive bars, and retro boutique shops, all jostling for attention.
This is also the place for a great breakfast, with each of Se7en Bites (modern flair with Southern cooking), the vegan-friendly Easy Luck Coffee & Bodega, and the emblematic Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar all go-to spots hereabouts.
Finally, for that whole Instagrammable-photo thing, check out Craft & Common, Orlando’s answer to Central Perk from the TV series Friends, a genuine neighborhood hangout featuring great coffee, beer, cocktails and small-plate food, all with a 21st century social media vibe.
Where to Play
How do I entertain thee? Let me count the ways…with apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, this is the most obvious reason for staging any event here. If there’s one thing this part of central Florida can do, it’s provide entertainment and diversions aplenty, and of every (high-quality) kind you could want. Welcome to Orlando.
Yes, there’s that whole Disney-Universal-SeaWorld thing, with 12 of the world’s greatest theme parks and water parks (yup, we did say 12. Even given two weeks you can’t ‘do-it-all’). There is also International Drive, packed with smaller-scale diversions and another host of tempting bars and restaurants (including that shameless South Beach import, Mango’s Tropical Café). And you don’t have to go far to find the more natural side of Florida, with state parks, wildlife and even great beaches all within an hour’s drive, or less.
But even that doesn’t encompass the full range of fun and games on offer. Downtown has museums, art galleries and live theater; nightclubs, comedy clubs and activity centers. Want to learn how to throw an axe? Seriously, you can. There’s Epic Axe Throwing for a whole different workout.
And, if you just need a good kickabout, there is a ready-made source for that, too, with XL Soccer – just a 10-minute Uber ride from downtown – offering an extensive range of indoor/outdoor facilities, including pick-up games most evenings.
Ultimately, though, Orlando wants you to know it is a diverse, inclusive and empathetic city, a representation of a caring, local, neighborhood-focused community, an urban landscape with a decidedly small-town mindset. With a kickin’ soccer scene. Welcome to Orlando.