As an Angelino with Universal Studios Hollywood practically in my own back yard I am absolutely thrilled and delighted that I went against all instincts and took my kids to Universal Studios in Orlando. Here are my recommendations for hotels, dining and of course entertainment.
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 massive pool with beach entries and it’s only about four feet deep. They show movies at night and the kids loved standing in the pool watching a movie while us moms sat poolside. The lifeguards were both impressive and attentive.
If you stay longer than two days or if you have kids that still nap I’d heartily recommend investing in a kid’s suite. 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. 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 guest-rooms. The Portofino has one pool that’s adult only so if you’re looking to run away from your kids that might be a good place to go.
If you stay at any of these three hotels you get early park admission as well as express ride privileges.
While at the Hard Rock Hotel we ate at The Kitchen. The Kitchen is supposed to be low key casual dining. Although it’s low key and casual for you, the diner, the chef is anything but relaxed. The food at The Kitchen was the perfect combination of homey and gourmet. We were there twice, both times with large groups. I have to say, the service was very good both times. There’s an outdoor patio area where you can eat and younger 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 kid’s waffles, kid’s 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 kid sized breakfast which is good because this was a very active vacation and everyone needed the protein. The continental breakfast wasn’t really for me. When they included a chocolate chip muffin I knew 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, fresh and oversized. 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 and 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 They have great burgers, nachos, fajitas and ribs. This is the largest of all their locations and the servers seemed to have a hard time getting us our food in a timely manner. We were with a large group during the prime dinner hour so it wasn’t shocking but it was disappointing. We only went once so it’s possible that it was just a tough night.
Mythos (at Islands of Adventure): This is a fabulous lunch. The restaurant is as beautiful as the food. It’s really nice to take a break from “theme parking” without having to leave Universal Studios. Our server was stellar. Not just good but amazing. 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 a draw for many other people). If you plan to lunch at Mythos definitely call the phone reservation line at (407) 224-9255. You can make reservations for Mythos many months in advance. 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 an interesting menu (that features locally grown produce) they have devised a smart system of seating. You might wait in a short line at the door and then proceed order your food cafeteria style. Here’s where it gets good. 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 I see frozen corn at quick serve restaurants and I appreciate being served real food.
Loews Royal Pacific Luau: This is so much fun. My kids love a buffet and everyone I know 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 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 lovely evening for a family or just adults. Small or large groups would be equally delighted there.
Blue Man Group: There’s a reason The Blue Man Group has 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 guarantee 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’s immersive, it’s beautiful and it’s fun.
The rides are all fun. 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. 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 turned a three or four day trip into a two day trip. If you’re worried about the price I do believe it pays for itself. This way 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 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. 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. If you have anyone speaking Spanish, German or French coming to visit Joe is 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.