With our youngest son almost in high school and never having visited any of the major theme parks, time was running out for us to fulfill what has become an American rite of passage that our two eldest boys had experienced when they were younger. Once in high school and playing competitive sports, it becomes difficult to get away. We hadn’t gone before, because quite frankly, this kind of trip always took on lesser importance to more culturally oriented trips centered around, what else – food.
Amusement parks can be a lot of fun, but they aren’t typically breeding grounds for great food. That said, I didn’t let that deter me as I sought and found two superb dining experiences in the Orlando area as well as others of varying quality. We arrived late on the evening of Good Friday at the start of our son’s spring break.
I’m not a huge fan of Disney and have enjoyed Universal Studios more in the past. In addition, my wife, my son and I are all fans of Harry Potter and we were all curious to check out the still new Harry Potter’s Wizarding World at Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure Park. We made it a long weekend at Universal with a stay at their Portofino Bay Resort. If one is going to get the most out of the Universal parks, it makes sense to stay at one of their hotels, especially during one of the busiest weeks of the year and especially if one wants to experience Harry Potter without wasting an entire day waiting in verrrry long lines.
While certainly not inexpensive, the Italian themed Portofino Hotel is comfortable enough, but the real advantage to staying at any of the Universal properties is the ability to walk into Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, aka Hogwarts and Hogsmede at the unholy hour of 7AM, fully one hour before the general public. That hour is huge! It allows those lucky enough to be there the opportunity to explore the area thoroughly and avoid insane lines. Combined with their Express Pass, waiting times can be limited to very manageable levels in both parks. We ate at the Portofino the night we arrived, but we were tired and settled for pizzas at one of their more casual venues. While unexciting, they were edible and at least assuaged our hunger. We ate two other meals at the hotel, both breakfast. An Easter Sunday buffet at Mama Della’s was a standard resort breakfast buffet, neither better nor worse than most of its ilk. At $21pp it was certainly pricey, but breakfast options were quite limited in the parks and did not appear to be better options.
We did have lunch one day at Portofino’s sister resort, The Royal Pacific at the restaurant that bore the name of a well known chef. The space was beautiful, but the pork bahn mi that I ordered turned out to be nothing more than a pulled pork sandwich on a hamburger bun with some nondescript slaw on top. The pork was gloppy sweet to the point that I couldn’t even eat it. It’s resemblance to a real bahn mi “with crusty French bread” was a flight of someone’s imagination. The reality was that this dish and others at this restaurant and throughout the area were mostly one-dimensional with that single dimension consisting of sugar. One could make an argument, I suppose for a second dimension – fat, but that was actually less of an issue to me than the sugary glop I saw everywhere.
We did find a restaurant at Universal – in City Walk, that was relatively reasonable with passable food and a fun atmosphere that worked well for a large party with kids – Bob Marley: A Tribute to Freedom, where we had some overcooked, but still tasty Jamaican jerk chicken amongst other dishes. There are other options for food in the hotels at Universal, but after our lunch time fiasco, I had no faith that they would justify their relatively steep prices. I did have two aces in the hole, however, but they were not at Universal.
I have come to know Chef Chris Windus of Todd English’s Bluezoo at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort through the StarChefs International Chefs Congress and saw him work in a Vita-Prep Challenge at StarChefs. He was very impressive. I had since recommended the place to a number of friends and family who were in the area or visiting, all of whom returned with raves. We took a ride over on Saturday night for dinner and despite what I had heard from those who I had sent, Chris Windus’s cooking still blew me away. We had a superb meal of quality product prepared with imagination, skill and care. Bluezoo exceeded my expectations. It is a quality restaurant in a place where one need not be to be successful. I intend to write more about this meal with photos down the line.
Our Easter dinner was at the lovely Norman’s at The Ritz Carlton Hotel in a swanky, mostly residential area of Orlando. I had been wanting to try legendary chef Norman Van Akens food for some time and finally had a good opportunity. We weren’t disappointed. Chef Van Aken’s cuisine continued his adventures furthering the cause of fusion cuisine with well conceived and delicious blends of traditional American, Latino and Asian components in a very elegant setting. I also expect to post more on this meal.I would be remiss if I didn’t write a few more words about the Universal theme parks, the reason we were there in the first place. There are two separate parks, each with its own admission fee. We spent our first two days at Islands of Adventure, predominantly for the Harry Potter World of Wizarding.
The other parts of the park were good, with the water rides being especially appreciated during the hot and sunny afternoons. The Dr. Seuss area is charming and would be particularly delightful for younger children, but the rest, including Jurassic Park seemed a bit tired and ordinary (relatively).
Harry Potter’s World of Wizarding, however, lived up to its hype, especially in the early hours before the park opened to the general public. The sets were designed down to the finest details, including a well done wand-fitting at Ollivander’s Shop in Diagon Alley, where my son was selected from the audience for the fitting. As per the stories, the wand selected him. He was led into another room with his wand away from us and the rest of the audience as the show broke up. I naively thought that was so they could prepare and wrap the wand up for him, but I was wrong. I think that was the impression that they wanted the audience to have, but we still had to pay full price for it.
The Hogwarts ride was truly exceptional and if any ride would be worth long waits, this would certainly be for all but the most Harry Potter numb park-goers. We truly had the sensation of flying through the stories via a superb roller coaster and brilliant special effects. At the time I didn’t see how this ride could ever be topped, but it turned out to be only my second favorite ride of the trip!
The most incredible ride didn’t come until later and it was a bit unexpected for me. We spent our last day at the other park – Universal Studios. This was the park I had known and preferred to Disney and I still enjoyed its movie set style. The rides, like the Harry Potter ride tend to the more thematic.The new Despicable Me ride – Become a Minion was outstanding and truly enjoyable for the entire family with excellent simulation. Shrek 4D was fun as was The Terminator, but a few of the attractions started to show their age and seemed a bit tired. Twister was underwhelming and ET needs a rest. My video-gaming son loved Men in Black. A Beetlejuice rock show was ok, but the crowd seemed more dead than the charcters that supposedly came from the grave. A Fear Factor live show, however, was surprisingly fun and I generally abhor that type of show. Of course, there was a segment that featured volunteers forced to eat a repulsive cocktail of rotten octopus, sour milk, a cacophony of insects and a few other choice ingredients. Only one of the contestants could force it down without vomiting. The ride that I would have to say was the most fun I had ever been on was the Simpsons in Krustyland. I like the Simpsons, but I can’t say that I have ever been a fanatic, but this ride featuring an IMAX simulation was so clever and so well put together, it really felt like we had become part of the cartoon. This, like Harry Potter, are in my opinion the two “must” rides of Universal with Despicable Me close behind. The rest was entertaining, but not mind-blowing. Universal was fun and I’m glad that my wife and I finally took the opportunity to do it with our son, before it was too late. Staying at a Universal property made sense despite the high cost and continual nickle and dimeing that always irritates me with hotels. It made sense because of the ease of getting to the parks, the ability to leave and chill out and mostly for that early access to experience Harry Potter.
We left Orlando to head to Miami for a couple of days and opted to try to find some place on the road for breakfast. Not expecting to find and stop at anything other than a chain, we fortuitously came upon a small restaurant called Cafe Latino in a small, unremarkable strip mall that we initially pulled on to just to turn around. It was open and we stopped in to discover and enjoy a delicious variety of Colombian empanadas. This was perhaps the biggest and most pleasant surprise of our Orlando experience.
Next… on to Miami!