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Almost universally great food at Universal Orlando

2016 was a very busy year.  A long (but flying by), busy, grinding year for both of us, although unusually draining for me at work.  Consequently, when the date for the plane tickets to Florida that we’d purchased way back at the beginning of the year was finally approaching, I decided we should splurge on a few days at Universal Orlando.  We’ve never been and I wanted to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter stuff they’ve added.univ00All in all it was an enjoyable visit, although I’m already looking forward to going back.  Thanks to a weird injury I suffered in my side/back that sent me to the ER shortly before we left I was often in pain when just sitting, so I had to skip most of the rides (and I really liked the sound of that Hulk coaster).

I bought tickets and booked rooms only a month or so before we went, so we didn’t have the full range of hotels to choose from, but I was splurging anyway, so we stayed at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, which isn’t insanely overpriced, but is the nicest and most expensive of the on-site hotels.univ08This is a view approaching via the water taxis that shuttle you back and forth from the parks and City Walk lagoon (you can walk also, but the Portofino Bay is the farthest from the parks).  And what you see here is only a part of the ginormous hotel.  Be prepared for a lot of walking…and I don’t just mean in the parks, walking around the hotels can be exhausting (I heard someone say that at one of the other hotels they have a Coke Freestyle machine in the lobby, but it was literally a 15 min walk from their room).  It was a nice room, early park entrance is a bonus with on-site hotels, and with the higher tier hotels you also get unlimited express access to rides and attractions.  It was slow when we were there, so it wasn’t a big deal, but a nice bonus if you dare go during busier times of the year (I don’t think we could stomach that, ‘slow’ was quite busy enough for us).  I didn’t plan much, but most of the limited planning I managed was from the official website and the Orlando Informer websites (the latter has a good feature where you can see what the typical crowds are like when you’re planning to visit…slow, busy, etc.).  Plus I listened to the Orlando Informer and Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast podcasts a bit.  I also recommend the Universal app, it has maps of both parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure – the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is split between them, so you need a multi-park ticket if you want to see both in the same day and/or if you want to ride the Hogwarts Express, which travels between them), locations AND current wait times for rides (which is awesome), locations of shops, places to eat, bathrooms, and some other stuff.  Plus there’s free wi-fi in the parks that generally works OK.

That out of the way…let’s talk about the food.  Almost across the board, everything we had was above-average to excellent…and we didn’t even go anywhere fancy or even quasi-fancy.  I don’t plan to talk much, if at all, about prices – in general the prices are elevated, but, given the captive audience, they didn’t strike me as outrageous.  Especially for the quality.  If something was $16, I wouldn’t blink if it were $12 elsewhere.

We arrived early Friday evening and left Monday morning after breakfast, with park tickets for Saturday and Sunday.  After we checked in and hoofed it to our room we headed to City Walk for dinner, because I was really looking forward to trying the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.  Jen, half of the couple behind Cake Wrecks, has a LOT of great pictures and information on her other blog here: Toothsome visit page 1 and page 2.univ01After a solid 90 minute wait (yes, seriously), we were seated.  It was OK, instead of pagers they take your phone number and text you when your table is ready, so we spent the time wandering around City Walk and getting our bearings ahead of the weekend.  Despite the insanity around this place (people trying to get their name in, people trying to get seated after being called, people going into the candy shop, and people trying to just get desserts from the Foundry), once you get seated it’s comfortable enough.  Though the ‘animated’ walls could use a little more variety and the music is really repetitive and gets irritating after a while.  I had the May Contain Bacon Burger with fries and my wife had the Southern Fried Chicken BLT sandwich with fries – minus the ‘B’.  (for much better pictures of a couple of items we ate here, please check out the visit by Disney Food Blog: link) They were both fine, though nothing worth writing home about.  Sadly, this was about the only place we ate that was basically average.  The pineapple chutney was a neat addition to the burger, but it could have used a bit more.  To be honest, we didn’t go all in on the chocolate accented items and didn’t try one of their ridiculous shakes, which seemed to place us squarely in the minority, based on seeing what other people were having and carrying around City Walk.  So, grain of salt.  I did like their twist on the fry cone thing that restaurants are still doing:univ02The bucket is nice theming for this steampunky place.  Another insane touch to the evening was our waiter asking if we wanted dessert I think when he brought our food because the wait for dessert, he said, was like 45 minutes!

We did go back Sunday to try to find some souvenirs, but the place was a little picked over, which was sort of pathetic.  The only kind of signature chocolate bars they had left were white chocolate.  No milk.  No dark.  We did grab some dark chocolate bark that we haven’t tried yet – mine had dried fruits and was actually pretty tasty and my wife’s had salted caramel and apparently there is simply too much salt.  They have a lot of in-house chocolate bon bon types of candies and some other things.  We got a couple of chocolate covered cookies that were pretty forgettable.  There were some neat bottles with powdered candy, but they just had a tag on them with the name.  I would have gotten one if it had a nice etched label.  They also have generic bulk candy that you can get in a bag or a glass jar with the logo on it.  I skipped the candy and just got the jar…still trying to figure out what to put in it.

So then, we find ourselves at Saturday morning.  We took advantage of early entry to head quickly in to Universal Studios and Diagon Alley and a trip on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride (as good as advertised).  Despite crowds being ‘slow’ this ride often sported 45 minute waits when we were there.  By going there first we waited maybe 10-15 minutes (we didn’t get there right at open).  After that it was time for a spot of breakfast and we popped into the Leaky Cauldron.univ03The process here was a little baffling on first look, but the staff kept things moving and cheerily explained how it worked.  One person directs you to one of the ordering/cashier stations and you order and pay, they give you beverages and a number.  Then another person escorts you to an open table sized for your party.  Your food comes out within a couple of minutes, way before you expect it.  The menu is pretty limited, so surely they’re just churning stuff out – someone will order it.  Despite the quick service atmosphere, the food was quite excellent.

I was brave (kidding) and got the American Breakfast – a hearty portion of scrambled eggs with bacon and sausage, some decent potatoes, and a reasonable croissant.  I think I probably got apple juice with it.  My wife had the Apple Oatmeal Flan with Yogurt and Fruit with orange juice.  The name of the dish pretty much explains it all.  The fresh fruit we always swoon over in Florida was good (we usually go when fresh local fruit is out of season here).  The flan was a bit odd, but tasty.  I will say that the plates are pretty big, so the portion, at least mine, didn’t look like much, but I was  stuffed after finishing everything.  It wasn’t a bad deal.  My wife’s was a bit less so, especially since I think I ate her grapefruit, which she doesn’t like…the grapefruit, not me eating it. 🙂

Then we poked around Diagon Alley for the rest of the morning.  My research told me that one of the best options for quick service lunch was Thunder Falls Terrace (remember, no kids, so we don’t necessarily have to stick to burgers and chicken fingers).  We took the Hogwarts Express over to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure and rode Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (awesome, by the way).univ04After that and Gringotts, I was hurting a bit, so we just walked around until lunch.  It was OK, maybe different choices would have served us better since they have some interesting options there for quick service.  I got a rotisserie chicken salad (salad with rotisserie chicken on it), thinking I’d best try to get something vaguely healthy this weekend (this was probably the last time I went that route).  The chicken was quite dry and the dressing was tasty but skimpy.  Coupled with the fact that I couldn’t sit still as I was waiting for painkillers to kick back in, this was probably our least successful meal of the whole trip. I think I got a side of black beans and rice or something to add some fiber, and they were fine.  My wife stuck with some sides – rice and beans and something else that we’ve both forgotten, and shared my salad.  We got there at an early lunch time, so there was very little wait and most things were hot, but it got pretty busy by the time we left, so I can understand some of the complaints about long lines and cold food.

Needing a drink later, we stopped into the Three Broomsticks, but they didn’t have ‘normal’ beverages so we went to the nearby Honeydukes for a drink and snack to keep us going.  My wife got a chocolate wand (chocolate covered pretzel rod with a lot of chocolate that was very good) and I was just going to get a drink until I spotted the enormous rice krispie treat with chocolate, a nostalgic treat that went in my belly – well made, fresh, and yummy.  We found a spot to sit and relax a bit, which was a nice break.  Most of the wares in Honeydukes were exactly the same stuff as Sugarplum’s in Diagon Alley, which we’d already explored, but weren’t overly interested in.  Though I will admit to being sorely tempted by the Chocolate Cauldrons.

We met a friend who lives locally for dinner that night and suggested Toothsome again (it was the only place that was both interesting and not a chain in City Walk).univ05

This time, Saturday night, the wait we were told was 1:50, but we waited a little over two solid hours for our table.  Just crazy.  I should note that this was the final night of Halloween Horror Nights, which may have made the crowds worse.  We had put our name in and waited a bit for our friend, then did like two laps of City Walk with her, then still had more waiting to wait.  Dinner was better, though.  My companions both let their sweet tooth out and had the Banana and Nutella French Toast from the always available brunch part of the menu.univ06You’ll notice that the lyonnaise potatoes are nowhere to be seen, but they weren’t really missed.  They both found the french toast extremely tasty.  I got the very long pepperoni flatbread that was fine, but again nothing special.  It did leave me room for dessert, so I indulged in a glorious slice of chocolate cream pie.  I love chocolate cream pie but almost never have it, so this was a real treat.  Humorously, I think we managed to drive off both character actors during this meal with our indifference – Jacques the robot showed up along with our food, so he was ignored and properly wandered off to a table with kids.  Penelope Toothsome came by just before my pie showed up, which gave her an excuse to leave after my wife confused her mightily by telling her we were waiting for chocolate cake…which is not on the menu.

The plan for Sunday morning was again to arrive early and use our early access to ride the other ride that is always busy, despite slow crowds – Despicable Me Minion Mayhem.  Unfortunately, the handy Universal App informed us that the ride was down upon entry, so we decided to grab breakfast before the crowds settled in and detoured to the Beverly Hills Boulangerie, which is right by the entrance and within sight of the ride, so we could keep an eye on crowds.  This was one of our favorite meals and so simple.univ07Most people were streaming towards Diagon Alley or queuing for Minion Mayhem (only a few attractions are actually open early), so there was almost no one else here.  We got a fruit plate to share, juice, and two giant streusel-topped blueberry muffins.  We took our food outside and sat and watched the crowds rush by, listened to the guy welcoming people to the park, etc.  The muffins were delicious, not ‘food service generic’ tasting or dry (though my wife did get one with many more blueberries than I did).  The fruit plate was glorious, you can see most of it in this picture, giant slices of honeydew, cantaloupe, watermelon, and pineapple…I can’t clearly remember if there was any citrus as well.  For a not-outrageous price, this was such a great in-park-sitting-in-the-sun-people-watching breakfast.  As a bonus, the crowds weren’t cranky and whiny, yet 🙂

Minion Mayhem was up and running before we finished but only at a 15 minute wait when we ambled over, we used our express passes anyway.  The queue was a blast because we’re huge Despicable Me and particularly Minion fans.  The ride itself was only so-so – it was excessively, seemingly unnecessarily, harsh – slamming and smashing all over the place.  We were in the front of our car so the 3-D was blurry and off center, also.  It was a let down.  Still, we didn’t have trouble spending like $100 in the gift shop later 😀

Lunch on Sunday was another return trip – this time to the Leaky Cauldron again, after a ride in the opposite direction on the Hogwarts Express (the trip is different in each direction, so try to ride it both ways, but the Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade direction is far superior). This was after a mid-morning ice cream stop at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.  We got 2 cups of hard ice cream (they also have soft serve flavors…or I guess I should say flavours) – Apple Crumble and Strawberry and Peanut Butter.  We steered clear of the ‘weird’ flavours.  The apple crumble was tasty, but very mild, bordering on bland.  The strawberry and peanut butter was about what you’d expect from the name and was really quite good.  There were a few others I’d like to try another time, we just didn’t get around to eating much ice cream this trip.  The quality of the ice cream was high.

It was busier and a slight wait for lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, but still not a big deal, the food comes out so fast that they turn tables really quickly.

I had decided that butterbeer time had come, so I got both that and Otter’s Fizzy Orange Juice to drink and my wife went for the Peachtree Fizzing Tea.  My biggest issue was the sugared rim on the Orange Juice that, coupled with a full glass, meant that after getting it to the table the glass was a huge, sticky mess (and the sugar didn’t add anything). The tea seemed fine.  The orange juice tasted OK, somewhere between orange juice and orange soda.  The butterbeer was not great, in our opinion.  I’m sure you can find better descriptions of the taste elsewhere.  The biggest issue I had was that neither beverage I got was really all that refreshing.

I got the fish and chips, which was on par with some of the best I’ve had and I’m not kidding.  It was quite nice.  My wife had the specialty chicken sandwich, a decent option to slip in for those looking for something a bit more mainstream.  Grilled chicken, bacon, apple butter mayo, colby cheese, and roasted tomatoes.  She said it was OK, but some of the more intriguing flavors don’t really come through like the apple butter mayo.  Came with wedge fries.  All in all, it was another satisfying meal at the Leaky Cauldron.

Later on we needed a rest stop so I steered us towards where I thought the semi-sorta-not-really-secret American Express lounge is located.  Despite having read where it’s supposed to be, I had to ask a cast team member how to find it after failing to spot it and going in the wrong direction entirely.  If you have an American Express card and a multi-park or annual pass, you can stop here for a break.  They log you in and check your card and ticket.  It’s not much, seating for maybe 15 people, a bathroom, and very light snacks (small bottles of water, granola bars, and bags of chips).  On a hot, busy day at the park this seems like a great little getaway, if only for the fridge stocked with cold water.  Even on the slow day we were there, it was basically full.  We stayed long enough to use the bathroom and drink a bottle of water, then grabbed another and a granola bar and were on our way.  I got the impression that some people were there just because the perq was available and they wanted to take advantage of it.  We’ve all got American Express cards there, you’re not impressing anyone…not that having an American Express is a status symbol the way it used to be, anyway.

At that point it was time to go back and pick up the various souvenirs we wanted, but didn’t want to be carrying around.  A quieter dinner was in order for Sunday night, so we opted to just stop at Sal’s Market Deli off the plaza at our hotel.  My wife was a little under the weather and went for a box of animal crackers and some jello, I got a meat and cheese calzone that was really good and I shouldn’t have eaten all of it, but I did.  They also have some sandwiches, salads, and brick oven pizza.  They had a few other ‘market’ items – mostly crackers and snack foods, as well as refrigerated displays of cold salads, desserts, etc.  A decent little place to stop.

For our final meal at the resort I steered us towards the Hard Rock Hotel where I’d seen they have a breakfast buffet at the Kitchen Restaurant.  We walked over, a bit slowly as the rides had woken the problem with my side back up in almost full measure and I’d slept poorly and was hurting a bit.  It was worth it, though, one of the best breakfast buffets I’ve had.  Made to order omelets as well as griddle items.  They had a few special items at the griddle station that we pounced on.  My wife had Elvis french toast with peanut butter and bananas and I got chocolate chip pancakes (yes, I have seriously refined tastes).  Both were really good despite a somewhat sullen cook.  I won’t even try to list everything…it was everything from oatmeal and cereal to pre-made eggs, potatoes, pancakes…piles of delicious fresh fruit, biscuits, meats, doughnuts, pastries…it was one of those situations where I wished I was 17 again and could eat just about everything there and grab a snack for later.  I wanted to eat everything, but after the pancakes and some fruit I was about done.  I think I grabbed a couple of sausages because I love breakfast sausages but never have them at home.  It wasn’t really busy, if you were staying at the Hard Rock you’d already want to be at the park taking advantage of your early admission by the time we got there.  It was a piece of cake paying, just gave them our hotel room and noted it was the Portofino Bay and it went on our hotel bill.

Despite the personal issues it was fun.  At almost every meal we were remarking out loud to each other how much better the food was than we expected at a theme park and that the prices weren’t crazy.  And there were so many things that I wanted to eat, but didn’t get a chance to.  I really wanted to try the tacos from the Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck.  There were other Florean Fortescue flavors I wanted to try.  Next time.