Universal Studios – Must Try Foods

Allergen-free eating on the road, family, Florida, food, geek, Travel
Ivy showing off her cupcake at Cinderella’s Royal table

In an Instaworthy land of food treats, it’s easy to get caught up on the trends and seek out the photo, not the FOOD. I am a terrible food-grammer (see my page for evidence) as I get so caught up in enjoying a meal or cupcake or snack that I forget the photo. Instead of showing off my Butterbeer, I guzzle it. Instead of treasuring my cupcake, I inhale it….you get the picture.

However, while Disney may win with new colors, bows, and ears on everything. Universal has its fair share of options for foodies seeking delicious and equally delightful treats.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter

My absolute favorite in “Harry Potter World” is the Butterbeer. I love it, and the versions of cold, iced, or hot through the year are a must try. While Gluten-Free, the treat is not dairy free, but that does not stop me from having one or two!

I also happen to think the sweets and other goodies, all Potter themed, in this part of the park are worth a try! Don’t miss the Bertie Botts, Pumpkin Juice, and other gems that are sprinkled throughout. So far, nothing has disappointed. Even better, if you have food allergies, the staff at every location will work hard to make sure you have plenty of deliciousness to eat and enjoy. Read more here. Our meal at the Hogs Head was one of the best I have had in years (I maybe ate my weight in potatoes)!

Fast Food

Universal is full of dining options for all preferences. If you are trying to maximize fun time, and minimize other “wasted” time then opting for more “fast casual” food places are sure to please. We tried Mel’s Diner for burgers, shakes, and soda on our last trip and we were thoroughly delighted. Not only were the burgers (vegan Beyond Burgers too), fries, and drinks DELICIOUS, the restaurant was well staffed, quick, and made for an enjoyable time. This was true for our group of people aged 12 to 82!

If Mel’s isn’t your style, the park offers Krusty Burger for fans of the Simpsons and other locations with pub-style and American fare! The best part, more and more people are serving allergy-friendly and vegan options for those with different dietary needs!

City Walk

If you are sick of the parks, or simply wanting to try something different, head to City Walk and try some more refined dining and drinks. The prices and options are similar to that of a downtown in a bigger city *think Denver or London* but the quality is a step above!

We dined at The Cowfish (I don’t get the name either), which offered exciting Asian fusion. This was perfect for us that enjoy sushi, and those that are more land-based eaters. I would give the food a 3.5 out of 5 and atmosphere a 4/5. This is a good option for those wanting a healthier dining option and something beyond regular theme park Americana Food.

My absolute favorite (in the park and not) for entertainment, food, and atmosphere is Toothsome. While almost imposing on the Universal skyline, Toothsome is a steampunked themed “Chocolate Restaurant” with everything you imagine that would include. The ambiance is full of vintage-style prints. The servers and other employees are all decked out in Steampunk garb and ALL of them are a 100% delight. Our server alone set the bar for servers to an entirely new level! Not only did he have the ENTIRE (very large) menu memorized, but he knew allergens in each dish and how to either modify the dish or direct someone elsewhere. He was so great we even had to take a picture with him!

Perhaps the biggest draw for the restaurant, and definitely something our group loved, were the giant and delicious sweets. Toothsome serves up crazy shakes with desserts topping them (brownies, pie, cookies) AND they have a chocolate shop inside. My stepdaughter opted for a crazy brownie shake, and I opted for candies to bring home to my work team. All around they were considered a roaring success.

Most importantly, Toothsome has a charm to it through all of these features combined. My husband had the “best Rubin of his life” but I just had one of the best dining experiences of my life. While my salad was above and beyond, my amazement was with our server (who we tipped 30%), and his skills to make our night magical. All of us left with giant grins, massive gratitude, and overwhelming joy. Which, ultimately, is what we all seek on vacation!

My advise – jump on that Toothsome train and love it!

Happy Travels & Eats!

Universal Studios – Dining with Allergies

Allergen-free eating on the road, Florida, food, geek, Travel, United States

It is so unbelievably hard traveling with food allergies. Living in the western United States with food allergies is Russian Roulette on where you go, with who, and how sick you might become. The biggest issue overall is that people don’t understand that allergies are serious, and that eating said food means hours, if not days, of discomfort and upset!

When I travel abroad I usually can find items without issue, it is taken pretty seriously in most establishments (if you can cross the language barrier). While in the United States, half the people you work with don’t care, or don’t understand. I am not picking on servers who are underpaid, overworked, and often undertrained, but rather a system that doesn’t always take it seriously. For instance, I have celiac, that means that if you make me a dish after someone else, you need to either use a CLEAN pan or CLEAN the pan to remove any residue from the last order. Sometimes the care is taken, sometimes it is not.

Therefore, when I went to Universal Studios this time around, I was really nervous about what I could eat and what would be offered. When I visited in 2015, I found it hard to find enough to eat that was worth the money and worth the sit-down meal time. Four years later I was worried I would be faced with similar issues. I even packed emergency food because I had no idea if I could eat all day.

My fears were actually overhyped. Completely overhyped. What I found on the food landscape at Universal in late 2019 was a complete overhaul of their menus, offering a vast and delicious variety of food for people like me. Not only am I celiac, but I don’t eat any meat but fish (pescatarian), and I try really hard to avoid dairy and soy. The true key to the success of their grab and go menus was the use of one magic little patty, the Beyond Burger. For those not in the know, the Beyond Burger is a protein packed veggie patty that is gluten, soy, and dairy free. It is also vegan, and the thing is really tasty when prepared right. Universal now offers this burger at most quick eat burger-type locations AND they offer a gluten-free bun.

This meant that I could go to Mel’s Drive-In with the rest of my group and eat a burger with everyone. To top it off they even had a gluten-free french fry fryer. This meant I could sit down in a burger joint and eat with my family. I almost cried with joy, I had not been able to do something like this EVER with my husband (we have been together 9 years) and stepdaughter. To top it off, it was soooooo tasty.

AND the better part is it wasn’t just Mel’s that worked hard to make our time great. We went to the Three Broomsticks for dinner that same night, and we ordered their Great Feast platter which is full of veggies, potatoes, and chicken. It feeds like four to six people. All of us but my husband and stepdaughter had allergies, so the chef came out and discussed our options. So wonderful was he that he made individual plates for my sister’s and I (the most common allergies) and made sure no one got sick. This was equally delicious, and we practically rolled everyone out of the pub after dinner we were all so full. This care and concern MADE the trip really magical.

Did I mention that Butterbeer is also GLUTEN FREE (not vegan/dairy free) and extremely tasty hot or frozen!

It didn’t stop there either, we ate at the cafeteria at Cabana Bay the nights we were there, and we had the same care and precision with our burgers there. We ate at Cowfish at City Walk and they were equally cautious and thorough. Then we ate at Toothsome, also at City Walk, and the gentleman there was so good that he had every menu item memorized and could tell us when we could and could not eat at the drop of a hat. He also did it without flinching, without checking with a chef, and without concerning anyone!

This meant many things, including that we all had a much easier and enjoyable time on vacation, and that we all left the restaurants without stomach aches, needing an Epi-pen, or days of discomfort. This precision made our vacation an elevated and magical experience, which I have only ever seen in the contained workings of a cruise ship kitchen.

This comes down to offering a variety of food at each location and well-trained EXPERT staff that do their job with love and dedication. Without the people that have the knowledge of ingredients, cooking, and allergies, none of this would work.

Therefore, I write this as a thank you to the fantastic employees of Universal Studios Orlando!

Happy EATS (and Travels)!

Universal Studios – Islands of Adventure

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While the original Universal Studios is a fabulous trek down memory lane, Islands of Adventure offers a blast through additional fun and journeys. The second park opened in 1999, and is a bright and bold blend of 90s fun with futuristic excitement, the park is equally, if not more enjoyable than the main park.

For the Potterheads take the Hogwarts Express from Diagon Alley to Hogsmead and begin exploring the rest of the park from there. Hogsmead is home to several great rides including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff and my absolute new favorite ride EVER Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventures!

A side note on Hagrid’s, this ride opened in 2019 and has been a runaway hit, clocking in wait times of 10+ hours on opening week. I was a little cautious about all the hype, but I have to say it was well worth our wait of 70 minutes or so! The build up to the ride was taken with immense care to create a well-crafted and detailed line ride that tells the stories of Hagrid and brings more of the Hogwarts grounds to life. Massive pumpkin, Hagrid’s hut, carved building ruins, paintings, and much more bring the story to life and build on the excitement. Harry Potter fans can’t miss this ride if even for the build up. Beyond that, the ride itself is a fantastic high speed roller coaster experience that stretches almost a mile long! The coaster seamlessly blends story and speed bursts, with some amazing surprises, to make a fabulous experience for all. I have never been on a ride I loved so very much and I can’t wait to return to Universal to ride again!

Beyond the rides, the area is home to fan favorite locations from the stories including the Three Broomsticks and Hogshead. Shops sell things like Pumpkin Juice, and a treat shop is sure to please any sugar rush. There is even a wand shop for those that missed Olivander’s or need to replace one they left on the train (I know this from personal experience….12 year olds).

As an additional charm they have ample outdoor seating and wonderful views of the castle made with a distorted perspective, allowing guests to REALLY feel engrossed in the Wizarding World.

My last tip is to check if they are doing any light shows or events for the season you are visiting. When we were there they had their Halloween Death Eaters Show and it was phenomenal to watch and enjoy. My stepdaughter even had a showdown with a Death Eater!

Death Eater Show Hogsmeade

Now, if you must venture out of Hogsmead and Harry Potter world, the Islands of Adventure offers something for everyone! Exit by the castle and you can’t miss the Jurassic Park education zone, an exact replica from the 1993 movie! This family-friendly area brings to life moments from the movie’s work with DNA and eggs to create new-age dinos and it’s a blast for kiddos to get involved with. Even if they haven’t seen the movies.

Image result for islands of adventure map

Follow along that same path and you will see a raptor encounter, recently updated with Blue from the Jurassic World trilogy. A little further along you will see the River Adventure Ride that offers so much fun for kids of all ages (my 5-year-old cousin lovingly calls them water coasters). This log flume ride offers some thrills and nostalgia as it reflects the first movies in the series, and some animatronics that could use some love. Regardless, it is a lot of fun!

For thrill seekers, don’t miss the Kong ride they opened in early 2016 which celebrates the stories and thrills over King Kong. The ride is a bus simulated ride through the jungle, in 3-D, offering bumps and falls and much excitement for riders.

After Kong there are several options for fun, including toon land, and a superhero land. The Spiderman Ride is worth a spin, and my husband loved the Hulk Coaster! If you are a fan of 90s superhero cartoons and classic comic books, make sure you visit this area of the park. Rumors are around that the rights to the area may run out soon. Since Disney now owns all the Marvel characters, there is a good chance they will want to create their own Superhero world and they will need to get rid of the competition.

If you are traveling with little ones, exit Hogsmead by the Hogwarts Express and head along that route for some delightful theming and “islands” that are less intense for little adventurers. The Lost Continent is like a mysterious land of shops, shows, and a touch of Arabian Nights. Past that you will land in Suess Landing which is ultimately a “little kid land”. This area is purely delightful for Dr. Suess fans, and it is full of all your favorite characters, such as the Lorax, and Cat in the Hat. If you are a fan, simply walk through and enjoy a piece of your childhood in real life.

The Lorax in Suess Landing

Both sides will loop you back to the front of the park, which exists onto Universal City Walk.

All around, if you are visiting the parks, visit both of them. If you have more than one day, go twice. You will want to ride certain things twice, buy things you forgot, and overall make sure you have time to take it all in.

Universal Studios (the 1990 classic)

Florida, Travel, United States

2019 has been my year of theme parks. I revisited a childhood favorite, added a new one, and revisited an adult favorite. Regardless of how many different ones I go to, or ones I remember from the past I still absolutely adore Universal Studios in Orlando.

While Universal is spread over three different parks at this point, the 1990 classic theme park still offers a phenomenal experience for visitors. The park is full of wonderful rides, character engagements, and theming that create a truly family-oriented adventure for children of all ages.

While the park has seen a few different manifestations, rides, and themes through the years, it still retains a healthy sense of 19th century movie nostalgia (Blues Brothers) and a new generations’ love (Diagon Alley). For geeks of all ages it is well worth a visit. Diagon Alley will always be my favorite, but I found some new delights this visit!

Blues Brothers – While only a show, this delightful show runs hourly in the late morning and afternoon and features some extremely talented acts that really embody the classic film. No it’s not Dan Ackroyd and resurrected Aretha Franklin and John Belushi, but it is people that make the skit truly a joy and worth watching.

Blues Brothers Block Party – Universal Studios, Florida

Minion Mayhem & Other Kid Rides offer a chance for littles to escape into their favorite movies and adventures. Even my 12-year-old stepdaughter enjoyed Minions for the enjoyable “little kid” elements. I was lucky enough to skip a lot of the more kid-engineered rides, I had plenty of family to take Lily to enjoy them!

Diagon Alley – The starting point for many a Potterhead, Diagon offers a jumping off point where one “enters into London”, greets the Knight Bus, and then “finds” Diagon (through a winding entry way). It is there that one can find the excitement of everything described in the Harry Potter books including shops, Knockturn Alley and other surprises one has to experience first hand. For the supreme experience, visit Olivander’s and watch the wand ceremony (or get selected) and make sure someone picks up an interactive wand. Finally, don’t miss the Escape from Gringott’s ride, a Butterbeer in the Leaky Cauldron, and nom some candy at Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes.

Diagon Alley – Universal Studios, Florida

My other favorite, favorite, ride in the park is the Revenge of the Mummy, based on one of my favorite thriller/adventure movies from the 90s, the Mummy (circa 1999)! While the movie turned 20 this year, and the ride is 16 in 2020, it hold strong as one of the most popular in the park. It’s a frightening coaster-themed ride with fire, monsters, Egyptian lore, and hidden gems that make it a legendary ride. While some leave the ride in tears (my poor stepdaughter) my husband and I find it wonderfully thrilling.

Finally, for some nostalgia and Americana, don’t miss the “streets” that are portrayed throughout the park. A little bit of Chicago, some New York, and 1950s charm and sprinkled throughout the park. The entire park expresses a walk through memory lane, and if you are in the mood, stop at the 1950s themed diner, Mel’s Diner, for a milkshake or Gluten Free and Vegan eats.

Mel’s Drive-In

Most importantly, take time to be silly, take photos, be spontaneous, and celebrate being a 90s kid (or 80s kid or 70s kid or…you know).