Drinking Through Disney World

On a quest to understand the adult allure of Disney World, Sarah Baird takes the underground "drinking around the world" challenge—11 drinks in Epcot's 11 different "countries"—and lives to tell the tale.

I have never been a “Disney person.”

As a kid, I was legitimately terrified by Mickey Mouse. I never chose a favorite princess or Disney theme song. And during my lone trip to Disney World when I was four, I broke out in a debilitating rash and had to be carried around by my long-suffering father. Thus my relationship with the magical creations of Walt Disney has been acrimonious at best, and maybe even a little cursed.

But last fall, my 20-plus years of Disney ambivalence came to stare me directly in the face when my best friend—a true lover of all things Magic Kingdom—was proposed to in front of the Cinderella Castle on Main Street USA, in the heart of Disney World. The pictures were full of nuptial-themed Mickey Mouse ears, Goofy and Pluto reacting gleefully to the new rock on her left hand, and big smooches in front of the Country Bear Jamboree. Through my joyful text messages, a knot grew in my stomach: I have to prep for an impending Disney wedding.

While visions of Sleeping Beauty bridesmaid dresses swirled in my head, I knew there was only one way I could conquer Disney: drink through it.

Prior to beginning my journey, I was curious about the intersection of alcohol and America’s favorite cartoon enterprise over the decades. Not surprisingly, the relationship has been complicated since the beginning. Walt Disney was reputably quite a heavy drinker, but hated the way inebriated people ruined local carnivals for families. In turn, he banned all liquor sales from the Magic Kingdom.

According to Disney lore, the theme park was originally slated to open in St. Louis, but soon after announcing his intentions, Walt received a catty letter from an executive at Anheuser Busch stating that, “anyone who thinks he can design an attraction in this city and not serve beer or liquor…should have his head examined.” Perturbed, Disney uprooted his operation to the wilds of Orlando.

Over the past decade, Disney World has made a concerted effort to appeal more to adults, specifically by upping their game on higher quality culinary options and, as of 2012, liquor.

The epicenter of the Disney empire’s boozy options is inside Epcot, where futuristic Tomorrowland cohabitates with the World Showcase. The showcase is a long, winding walk around the globe, hopping between 11 “countries”—colossal mini-exhibitions of nations during an important time in their history—featuring food, drink, quasi-educational tropes and all the $25 country-specific Mickey Mouse ears you can buy. (Germany’s ears have a pretzel on them, for what it’s worth.)

In her supportive excitement, my best friend made a short itinerary for the trip, complete with must-try cocktails and a logistical plan of action. “Definitely focus on Epcot, but whatever you do—don’t drink around the world,” it read. In fine print, the warning continued: “I’m serious, Sarah, you will get very sick.”

Challenge accepted.

“Drinking around the world” is an underground challenge for adults without children at Epcot who either are very interested in early-morning drinking, or have no qualms about downing 11 different drinks of varying potency and muddled ingredients. I fit strongly into both of those camps. Successful completion of the challenge would not only allow me to learn more about the adult underbelly of Disney World, but just why so many people have fallen for its charms.

The situation quickly escalated from drinking an entire souvenir mug of Sam Adams to me gnawing on a giant turkey leg and contra-dancing with a couple of Ben Franklin lookalikes in the town square. I was buzzy and briefly believed it was the Fourth of July. I took a blurry selfie wearing a tri-cornered hat before heading to Mexico, where the watered-down passionfruit margarita provided the hydration respite I was craving.

I arrived just as the World Showcase was opening up, and began my boozy exploration in the quaint, giant teacup-filled gardens of England. The berry tea cocktail—a perfectly twee mix of mixed berry tea, strawberry-flavored vodka and acai syrup—was equal parts refreshing and none-too-sweet. I tottered through lush floral displays of herbs and flower trellises, spiked teacup in hand, down faux-cobblestones streets of Victorian London and past ale houses and pubs with laughably stereotypical names like the “Rose and Crown.” I tipped my hat to a Mary Poppins character, who was signing autographs for a gleeful line of girls singing “A Spoon Full of Sugar” in a round. I found myself singing along. Everyone—and I mean everyone—was smiling like Cheshire cats. I smiled too.

It’s an easy stumble from England to nearby France, which had the architectural styling of a quaint village in Provence and an array of native French-speakers to match. Even though it was still technically before noon, I was ready to try what had been dubbed by my handy guide as the “greatest drink in Epcot”: the la vie en rose frozen slush. A relatively highbrow mixture of vodka, Grey Goose L’Orange, St. Germain and two different types of cranberry juice, the cool pink drink was worthy of its martini glass. Despite a texture reminiscent of silt, it went down a little too easy. I wandered the French shops, sprayed myself with no fewer than six expensive perfumes, and continued my globe-hopping trek.

Make no mistake about it: Epcot is a pricey place, with high-end items and gifts alongside the expected array of character-themed oddities. The attention to detail and concern for every Disney World patron’s experience, though, is otherworldly. I was beginning to buy into the hype. Every time I found myself flagging, I posited the question WWMD—What Would Mickey Do? (I convinced myself that Mickey would keep drinking, obviously.)

I downed a ho-hum Sultan’s Colada in Morocco, which had enough almond liqueur to almost congeal into marzipan, then backtracked to Canada, where I descended into an underground cave and watched a tourism movie which was, curiously, narrated by Martin Short. I drank half of an underwhelming Moosehead beer and chucked it somewhere between a geodes table and faux-redwood exhibition.

By this time—my patriotic pride in full effect—I decided to head to the “American Adventure,” which pays homage to the era of our founding fathers. The situation quickly escalated from drinking an entire souvenir mug of Sam Adams (take that, Moosehead!) to me gnawing on a giant turkey leg and contra-dancing with a couple of Ben Franklin lookalikes in the town square. I was buzzy and briefly believed it was the Fourth of July. I took a blurry selfie wearing a tri-cornered hat before heading to Mexico, where the watered-down passionfruit margarita provided the hydration respite I was craving.

With over half of the day’s drinks in me, it seemed like the perfect time to get on the lone ride in the World Showcase: The Malestrom in Norway. The ride—a gussied up, Viking-horn-adorned log flume—was a sight to behold. I did a “glacier shot” (aquavit, lime, vodka and—disgustingly—Sprite) and hopped on board. My affection for all things animatronic runs deep, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the ride was a perfectly creepy blend of stoic Norse gods and pragmatic men in hard hats educating riders about the Norwegian fishing industry.

The true highlight of my Epcot drinking experience came as a late-afternoon storm was quickly approaching. I begrudgingly slogged back over to Japan, and while my boozy brain and Viking-battered body weren’t expecting much, upon entering the expansive gift-store-meets-fake-temple, I was awestruck. The overwhelming sake selections and imported Japanese wines comprise perhaps one of the finest collections in the country, with tastings happening throughout the day.

A few sips of Hama Fuga (sparkling sake), Choya (plum wine) and Himezen (sweet sake) later, I found myself trying on an incredibly expensive, crane-patterned kimono and snacking on strawberry-flavored Pocky, regretting anything negative I’d ever said about Disney World. Little boys played with ceremonial drums as teens tried to figure out their Japanese spirit animal. (For the record, I am the fox-like kitsune.) In love with the thoughtfulness and serenity of the space, I splurged on the kimono, and have since worn it with alarming regularity.

The final three drinks are something of an unimpressive blur, as my internal organs began to feel as if they were slowly turning into aspic. I hustled through China where I drank a cantaloupe and vodka concoction, puckered up for tart lemon liqueur in the (sadly underwhelming) Italy section, and finished in Germany with a shot of Apfelkorn, which tasted like a 1970s suburban key party and had a decidedly wheat-flavored aftertaste.

Having completed the around-the-world challenge and high-fived myself, I knew where I had to end my day: the enchanted tiki room. Hopping on the monorail for my final pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom, the ability of Disney World to transport visitors to another place came clearly into focus. The park wasn’t about characters, rides and knick-knacks, but the feeling that anyone can regain a sense of childlike wonder inside Disney World’s hallowed grounds. It’s about an unfiltered joy that seems to be so often lost in the day-to-day hustle. It’s about feeling as if contentment is something that you can pluck from the sky, if only for a moment.

Sufficiently inebriated and laughing like a madwoman underneath the watchful eyes of the tiki room’s animatronic birds, I’d become the perfect Disney bridesmaid.