Universal Studios Orlando: Vacation Guide

If you follow my Posterous stream, you’d know that last week my Jewfro and I made our way to Orlando with the kids. As I said in my YouTube video the trip to Orlando was a press trip that I took for two reasons: Jane and Alexander. There is no part of me that had ever once wanted to visit Universal Studios Orlando, I can ride my bicycle to Universal Studios Hollywood (I can, but I don’t). I’m not a Harry Potter fan (I’ve seen the movies but never read the books), and I’m not a travel writer (though I do have a travel category).

I am absolutely thrilled and delighted that I went against all my instincts and took my kids to Universal Orlando. Here are my recommendations forĀ  hotels, dining, and of course Entertainment.

The Hotel:

First of all we stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel. The Hard Rock Hotel is one of three huge resorts that Loews manages. It’s fairly new, and (like the other two properties) immaculate. My kids and I shared a standard room, which was surprisingly okay. When we travel, we typically get a suite, because I’m of the mind that a vacation spent sleeping in a room with your children isn’t much of a vacation. I found that we spent almost no time whatsoever in the room. We showered and we slept, there was just too much to do. The Hard Rock Hotel has a fabulous HUGE pool with beach entries, and it’s only about 4 feet deep. They show movies at night and the kids absolutely loved standing in the pool watching a movie while us moms sipped merlot ice water. The lifeguards were impressive and attentive.

If you stay for longer than two days, or if you have kids that still nap I’d heartily recommend the kid’s suites. Each of the three properties has them, and they are designed with your family in mind. Yes, yours. Even you.

The Portofino is stunning, and my friends who have older kids stayed there recently. The Royal Pacific was a tropical paradise, and if you love the sight of banana trees and orchids, you really ought to stay there. All three hotels seem to have the same level of service, and similarly sized guestrooms. The Portofino has one pool that’s become adult, so if you’re looking to run away from your kids, you could run there.

If you stay at any of these three hotels you get early park admission as well as express ride privileges.

The Food:

While at the Hard Rock Hotel we ate at The Kitchen. The Kitchen is supposed to be their low key casual dining. It’s totally low key, and absolutely casual for you, the diner, but the chef is clearly working overtime. The food at The Kitchen was the perfect combination of homey and gourmet. We were there twice, both with large groups, once with staff from Universal and Loews, and another time without. I have to say, the service was very good both times. There’s an outdoor patio area where you can eat and the kids can run around without bothering anyone.

If you go to The Kitchen I recommend the Tuna Ceviche (add a salad and you have a meal) and the Paella. I hear the Pot Roast is very good too.

Room Service was one of the big standouts at the hotel. The first morning we ordered kids waffles, kids eggs and bacon and a continental breakfast. The children’s meals were HUGE and we ultimately ended up all nibbling from the egg plate. I’m pretty sure they scrambled about three eggs for each kids breakfast, which is good, because this was a very active vacation and everyone will need the protein. The continental breakfast wasn’t really for me, when they include a chocolate chip cupcake muffin, I know it’s not my kind of food. The second morning three of us shared two orders of eggs and bacon from the kids menu. The orange juice that comes with it was delicious and fresh and HUGE. What was most remarkable about room service was the promptness of it. The Hard Rock Hotel has 650 guest rooms, and the peril of a hotel that size is slow service. We were delighted by two mornings of prompt courteous in room dining.

The Hard Rock Cafe (at Citywalk): If you’re in any sort of a hurry skip this. The Hard Rock Cafe is very reliable, and they have great burgers, nachos, fajitas and ribs. This is the biggest of all the locations and the servers seemed to have a hard time getting us our food in a timely manner. We were with a large group at the prime dinner hour, so it was to be expected.

Mythos (at Islands of Adventure): This is a fabulous lunch. The restaurant is absolutely beautiful as is the food, and it’s really nice to take a break from “theme parking” without having to leave the park. Our server was stellar. Not good, but amazing, he’s been there many years, and I’m pretty sure you can ask for Eric. I had pad thai and loved it, the kids had pizza, shrimp cocktail, and burgers. Nothing was particularly spicy (which is a bummer for me, but really good for most other people). If you plan on lunch at Mythos definately call their phone reservation line at (407) 224-9255. You can make reservations for Mythos many months in advance if you’re for an early lunch 11.30-12.30. We had a reservation, but we still waited about ten minutes, I would not recommend making hot, tired and hungry children wait much longer than that.

Three Broomsticks: Do NOT MISS THIS fabulous restaurant inside of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. When you walk up and see a line, you might be tempted to walk away and eat off of carts. Do NOT give into temptation. In addition to having a fabulous menu (that features locally grown produce) they have devised a wonderful system of seating. You might wait in a short line at the door and then you order your food cafeteria style. You pay, and then a host brings you to a clean table. There is no more table stalking or cleaning. I cannot begin tell you how this changes the entire atmosphere. While at Three Broomsticks I recommend that you try the following (I’m saying try not eat… share with a friend or just sample but don’t eat this much alone): ButterBeer, Frozen ButterBeer, Shepherds Pie, Pumpkin Juice, Strawberry and Peanut Butter Ice cream, or you can just get the Great Feast and have gobs of food for a family of 4-6 to share. I absolutely must thank Universal for having the wisdom to hire Chef Steve Jayson, in addition to creating awesome ButterBeer, he serves fresh corn. All to often you’d see frozen corn at theme parks, and I appreciate being served real food.

Loews Royal Pacific Luau: This is so much fun. The kids love a buffet, and everyone loves hula dancers. There’s an emcee who has a wonderful manner about him, and a half dozen of the sexiest women your husband’s laid eyes on in a long time. The food is good and fresh, the deserts are very nice, and the mai tais are very mild. No one had too much to drink, no one behaved badly, and you felt like you were at a family camp. The Luau is a wonderful evening for a family, or just adults. Small or large groups would be equally delighted there.

The Entertainment:

Blue Man Group: There’s a reason they’ve been around so long. It’s good, it’s fun, it’s accessible. They’re at the Universal CityWalk and it’s a small theater. You won’t have a bad seat anywhere there, and I promise it’s a good time for any age.

Make your way through the park, but do not, under any circumstances miss Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It is absolutely immersive, it’s beautiful, and it’s fun.

The rides are all fun, really one is more fun than the next, Men In Black, The Simpsons Ride and walking through Seussland were my favorites, but I have one last recommendation for you.

Try the VIP Tour. We were able to visit the theme parks from 9am to 3pm two days in a row and not wait on a single line. It was the last days of August, and the lines weren’t that long, but when you have a guide your group simply walks to the front of the line, and your guide knows that park inside and out. He or she will make sure that you’ve used all of your time well. One of the other ladies and I were saying that the VIP tour really turned a 3 or 4 day trip into a two day trip, if you’re worried about the price, I really do think it pays for itself, and then you’ll have a day left over to just hang out at one of the resort pools. Call 407-363-8295 seven days a week, during normal business hours, or email viptours@universalorlando.com, I heartily recommend the VIP tour to make the most of your vacation.

Our guides were Phil and Joe. Joe speaks four languages (and is teaching himself a fifth) so if you have anyone speaking Spanish, German or French coming to visit, he’s your guy. Joe is also really low key, and was spectacularly calm even when the kids were not. Phil has been with Universal since it opened, and is a big charming man with a heart of gold. He too was very helpful with all our kids, and his enthusiasm will rally even the most irreverent teen.

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