Bob Marley at CityWalk

This reggae nightspot has it all.
Except for one thing.

CityWalk is the hot, happenin’ nighttime entertainment district at Universal Studios Escape in Orlando, Florida. Located strategically between the theme parks Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, it offers non-stop partying until 2:00 a.m. at a kaleidoscopic variety of nightclubs like Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Pat O’Brien’s, Motown Cafe, and the Hard Rock Cafe and its adjoining performance space, Hard Rock Live.

One of my favorite nightclubs at CityWalk is Bob Marley — A Tribute To Freedom. The following review is excerpted from the guidebook Universal Studios Escape: The Ultimate Guide To The Ultimate Theme Park Adventure.

Bob Marley — A Tribute To Freedom
What: Reggae club
Where: On the Promenade
Cover: $4.25 beginning at 8:00 p.m.
Hours: 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.; Friday through Sunday, 2:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.

Reggae fans will appreciate this salute to Bob Marley, the Jamaican-born king of reggae, where the infectious backbeat of Marley’s lilting music mingles with the spicy accents of island cooking. Created under the watchful eye of Marley’s widow, Rita, who has contributed Marley memorabilia for the project, this venue is as much a celebration of Marley’s vision of universal brotherhood as it is a restaurant or performance venue.

When Marley first hit the U.S. scene he was regarded as something of a dope-smoking revolutionary barbarian. Like many black artists, he suffered the indignity of having his songs “covered” by white artists (like Barbra Streisand!). But music hath charms to soothe the conservative as well as the savage breast and Marley’s infectiously charming music gradually became domesticated, despite his occasionally radical-sounding lyrics. Today, his lilting “One Heart” is the unofficial national anthem of Jamaica, made universally familiar through the magic of television commercials.

Sadly and ironically, his too-early death of cancer at age 36 probably helped turn Marley, who was once described by The New York Times as “this wiry, spindle-shanked singer, this self-styled black prince of reggae,” into the sort of cuddly pop icon who could be enshrined in a family theme park.

Marley was a member of the Rastafarians, a religious sect with roots in 1920’s Harlem, that believes in the divinity of the late Emperor Haile Selassie and the coming of a new era in which the African diaspora will return in glory to the Ethiopian motherland. “Rastas” shun alcohol, adhere to a vegetarian diet, and smoke copious quantities of ganja, or marijuana, which is seen as a gift from God and something of a sacrament. The nightclub that bears his name violates all those principles; there’s plenty of booze, meat on the menu, and no ganja.

One thing close to Marley’s heart that does get full expression here is the theme of universal brotherhood. It is preached by the MC and practiced by the patrons, making Bob Marley’s perhaps the most multi-cultural entertainment venue in Orlando, a place that turns up the volume and lives out the words of Marley’s most famous song: “One love. One heart. Let’s get together and feel all right.”

The exterior is an exact replica of 56 Hope Road, Marley’s Kingston Jamaica home. Inside you will find two L-shaped levels, each with its own bar, opening onto a spacious palm-fringed courtyard with a gazebo-like bandstand in the corner. Because both levels are open to the courtyard, Marley’s is not air-conditioned but fans do a good job of keeping a breeze going.

The predominant color scheme is yellow, red and green, the national colors of Ethiopia; the lion statues evoke Haile Selassie’s title of Lion of Judah, a motif that is repeated in the mural on the bandstand. The walls are covered in Marley memorabilia and the sound system pumps out a steady stream of Marley hits.

The nighttime entertainment, which kicks off at about eight, typically consists of a house band of skilled reggae musicians performing a mix of Marley hits, other reggae classics, and the occasional pop standard adapted to the reggae beat. From time to time, a name group will appear, boosting the cover charge.

The music of the house bands is good, but not so good that it makes you forget how much better Bob Marley and the Wailers were. Still, their main job is to get people out onto the dance floor and they accomplish that task easily. After a few drinks and once you are gyrating with the crowds, you’ll find no time for quibbling.

The “Jammin’ Drinks” ($7 to $8) that help get you past your inhibitions and onto the dance floor are fueled with island rum, for the traditionalists, or Absolut vodka, or a combination of the two. Of course, Red Stripe, Jamaica’s favorite beer is also available.

The food is designed more as ballast for the drinks than anything else, but it is quite good and a nice introduction to Jamaican fare for the uninitiated. The portions are about appetizer size, so you could well sample several in the course of a long evening. Marley’s Munchies ($4 to $7) are well named, consisting mostly of plates of nibblies that can be shared around the table. Stir It Up is a cheese fondue laced with Red Stripe and served with vegetables for dipping; Jammin’ is an island version of chips and salsa. There is more substantial fare as well. The Ocho Rios red snapper sandwich ($11) is a good choice, marinated in “jerk” seasoning (a sort of all-purpose Jamaican marinade), grilled, and served with a pineapple salsa. Another jerk specialty is the chicken skewers ($8), which come with a creamy cucumber dipping sauce. There are also both meat and vegetarian versions of Jamaican patties ($7 or $8), filled flaky pastries. Several dishes are served with yucca fries, which look deceptively like French fried potatoes but have a taste and texture all their own. Jamaican cuisine tends to be spicy but, for those who find the dishes here too bland, Cashioux’s Gourmet Mango Hot Sauce is on every table.

Desserts ($4 to $7) are also worth sampling, with Rita’s Sweet Potato Pudding and the Is This Love coconut cake in a shortbread crust especially good.

A small shop counter in a downstairs corner hawks Marley t-shirts ($16 to $22) as well as Marley CDs. This is probably as close as you’ll get to finding the complete Marley discography in one place, a perfect chance to fill in the gaps in your collection. There is also a small selection of books on reggae and Marley for those who would like to learn more.

Bob Marley’s is a popular joint and on weekends can spawn long lines of people waiting for one of the 400 spaces inside to open up. Even early in the week, space can be hard to come by for those who don’t arrive early. If you want to be in the thick of the action, you’ll definitely want to be downstairs. If you’re not the dancing type, a row of stools along the railing of the upstairs balcony offers excellent sightlines to the stage. For a change of scenery, you can take your drink onto a second floor balcony that looks out over the Promenade.

Anyone looking for a fun evening of dancing and drinking and infectious music to go along with it will find little to complain of here. True Marley devotees will find everything they are looking for.

Everything but the ganja.