My sister-in-law’s birthday is the day before my birthday. She asked me if I would join her at “Harry Potter World” (technically called The Wizarding World of Harry Potter) at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida to celebrate our birthdays because we’re cute like that. We woke up at 4:30 AM on her birthday (January 25th) to fly to Orlando so that we would have as much time as possible in the park on her birthday.
We stayed at the Loew’s Portofino Bay Hotel which did not disappoint. Portofino Bay has a sort of quiet beauty that becomes increasingly stunning the longer you gaze upon it. Wrapped around a charming bay, the hotel boasts stellar restaurants and easy access to Universal Orlando: all you have to do is hop in a water taxi and you’re at the gate in minutes.
Our room was relaxing and had a spa-like air about it. The beds were so comfortable, I’d like to exchange my own bed for a Loew’s bed. The bathroom was spacious but I would have preferred to have the commode separate from the shower to expedite the getting-ready process.
By 11 am we were marching up to Islands of Adventure, park-to-park tickets in hand. My sister-in-law, Heather, had been to Islands of Adventure before and I’d been to Universal Studios in Hollywood, but neither of us had seen the Harry Potter lands in Orlando. The original, Hogsmeade, is located in Islands of Adventure. Recently Universal Orlando opened Diagon Alley in their original park next door, which is a short train ride away thanks to the newly opened Hogwarts Express.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter did not disappoint. Both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley had plenty of shops to explore and rides to enjoy. One wonderful thing about going to a theme park in January is that we never waited more than twenty minutes for a ride. We also got into the habit of choosing single rider – meaning we were in the same car but not next to each other – which allowed us to hop on after waiting just five minutes.
One of my favorite parts about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the interactive wands. We loved the authentic Ollivander and Ollivander’s Wand Shop. He selected two little girls and went through the whole “the wand chooses the wizard” bit, much to the girls’ delight. We then got to select our own wands. I ended up buying a replica of Harry Potter’s wand because it was the most comfortable to hold.
Heather and I sprung for the more expensive interactive wands which are worth the cost. The wands come with a map (which I might frame) that allows you to run around Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley looking for symbols that mark magic. The symbol tells you what incantation to say and how to move your wand. If you cast the spell correctly, magic happens. Fountains spray water, books open and shut, broken statues magically repair. Whether you’re six, sixteen, or sixty, it’s undeniably fun.
Before the trip, I did countless research on the best dining at Universal Orlando and kept coming up with results for the cheapest dining at Universal Orlando. Personally, vacation is 50% about the food for me so I’m here to report the culinary highlights of my trip. Here are my top dining picks in no particular order.
Mama Della’s Ristorante at Loew’s Portofino Bay Hotel
Mama knows her stuff and her staff adores her for it. The restaurant is beyond charming: it’s like being transported to Italy. A musician and opera singer walk around taking requests from tables. The candlelit atmosphere makes you order more food than you ought to eat. And the food itself? Divine.
Fried calamari might seem like a boring basic but not at Mama Della’s. This is the best calamari I’ve had since studying abroad in Greece. It’s thick, meaty calamari fried to perfection with a perfectly crisp exterior. The marinara was too spicy for my taste but it should be noted that I have a low tolerance for spicy food.
The first night a Texan has dinner in Florida, you’d think she would order seafood but I could not resist this gnocchi in a classic beef sauce. Besides, we had walked over 15,000 steps in the park that day and I was ravenous! The airy gnocchi hit the spot (though the sauce was a bit salty) and the portion wasn’t too huge, which I appreciated. It paired beautifully with my Chianti.
Tiramisu was a real treat! You often see a giant slab parked in front of you, but at Mama Della’s the portion is manageable after multiple italian courses. (By manageable, I mean I practically licked the plate.) Rather than being soaked in rum, the lady fingers are soaked in espresso, making it a classic Italian tiramisu instead of an American style tiramisu. A+.
Gelateria… for breakfast!
You wouldn’t immediately think “GELATERIA!” when considering where to have breakfast, but you should. The first I heard when I opened my eyes on my birthday was my sister-in-law shouting, “Be right back!” Before I had even gotten dressed, she returned with a cinnamon dolce latte from Starbucks and a chocolate chocolate chip muffin from the Gelateria downstairs.
This feels like a good time to mention that one of the great loves of my life is the chocolate chocolate chip muffin. Obviously it’s not a nutritionally sound breakfast that one would want to eat every day but not only was I on vacation, it was my birthday for heaven’s sake.
Now, I’m very picky about my chocolate chocolate chip muffins. This one was heaven. It had a deep chocolate flavor, moist texture, and an abundance of miniature chocolate chips. It should also be noted that a cinnamon dolce latte is the perfect accompaniment.
I’d like to tell you I stuck to one muffin on the trip, but I went back for the same muffin the next two days. What a blogging faux pas! I wish I could tell you about other breakfast options at Universal Orlando but I simply could not resist the sweet siren call of the Gelateria’s chocolate chocolate chip muffin. I could have at least tried the Gelateria’s banana muffin or blueberry muffin, but nope. Alas, I’ll have to plan another trip to blog about more breakfast options!
Mythos in Islands of Adventure
If you take the time to read through restaurant reviews before your vacation – as you always should – you’ll see completely mixed reviews of Mythos. It appears to be downright polarizing. You either love it or hate it. I loved it, as did my sister-in-law.
First of all, the atmosphere can’t be beat as far as theme park restaurants go. Mythos overlooks the lagoon in Islands of Adventure and looks like a giant underwater cave on the inside. There’s even a fish fountain in the center which heads a stream that runs under bridges inside the restaurant. I’m a huge fan of fountains and thoroughly enjoyed the gentle babbling during lunch. The music inside Mythos is that of a harp, which fit in well with the underwater theme.Now, the food. The prettiest restaurant in the world wouldn’t make my Best list if it didn’t serve delicious food. I had read reviews likening Mythos to Chili’s. I don’t know what food the Chili’s in that reviewer’s town serves, but this was a far cry from a typical chain. I ordered crab cake sliders with potato salad and a watermelon tomato salad. The sliders, much to my delight, were more crab than cake and watermelon tomato salad packed punch with the finely chopped onion.
I found no flaws in my lunch but I should mention that my sister-in-law found her burger a bit overdone. So if you go, maybe save the burger for another restaurant.
Dessert at lunch is a must on your birthday, right? I’m so glad that we ordered this Chocolate Gooey Cake with bananas, peanut butter ice cream, and caramel sauce. The crunchy fried banana was the figurative cherry on top of a perfectly executed chocolate cake. I know my cake and I was sincerely impressed with this dessert.
Bice (pronounced Bee-chay)
Of all the restaurants at Universal Orlando, I was the most excited to try Bice. Honestly, I preferred Mama Della’s but Bice is a nice option. The bread basket was practically impressive, as it not only included multiple italian varieties, but also a fun trio of dips: smoked salmon, olive oil, and pesto. The pesto left something to be desired but the smoked salmon was a delicious way to start our meal.
We chose an antipasto platter for an appetizer. I was delighted to see marinated artichokes, peppers, and mushrooms on the plate. The hunks of parmesan were good quality and the prosciutto was a star. Unfortunately we didn’t get the full experience because our entrees came out within minutes of our appetizer. We had only just seated a mere minutes ago. If you’re looking for a quick dinner, this is perfect for you! Unfortunately it was my birthday and we were hoping to have a long, lingering dining experience.
My grilled swordfish was well seasoned and perfectly cooked. I loved the rosemary spear. (Note to self: try this at home!) The dish was light and refreshing, marrying well the flavors of the meaty fish with the saltiness of capers and acidity of tomatoes. I think I will try to mimic this dish at home.
Having dessert twice on your birthday is standard practice, is it not? I had already had the Chocolate Goey Cake after lunch but that didn’t stop me from enjoying amaretto cheesecake at Bice. I wish I could report that I didn’t eat the whole slice, but I did. And I loved it. Every bite. If you’re a fan of amaretto, you will adore this cheesecake, which somehow manages to get better with each and every bite.All in all, I enjoyed Bice except for the timing. I will note that our waiter was superb and apologized profusely for the error in timing. Having had three courses, we were still in and out within the hour.
Lombard’s Seafood Grille
This restaurant is not to be missed. Located in the San Francisco area of Universal Studios, Lombard’s has a view to rival it’s menu.
I ordered a crab cake sandwich again and I am not embarrassed to say that. When in Rome, right? I loved the casual elegance of Lombard’s, right down to its fisherman’s wharf-style menus and paper-lined baskets. The fries were crisp (read: worth it) and the crab cake was … well, let me just show you.
The crab cake packed in SO MUCH CRABI love a nice, meaty crab cake and this sandwich kept me going for the rest of the afternoon.
Butterbeer cast a spell on me. (I couldn’t resist.) Everything you’ve read about buterbeer is true. It’s delicious. It’s creamy. It’s packed with butterscotch flavor. And it’s available everywhere in the two Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands. You can’t swing a hippogriff in the park without running into a butterbeer vendor!
On day two, I ordered another cold butterbeer simply because it sounded more refreshing. The marshmallowy butterscotch head really makes the drink. I was delighted that butterbeer is in fact allowed on the Hogwarts Express. There’s something so surreal about sitting on the train, watching magic happen out the window with your wand in your lap and butterbeer in tow. If you’re a Harry Potter fan like me, you may be a bit teary-eyed.
On the last day of our three-day trip, I finally ordered a frozen butterbeer in a collectible keepsake mug. If you learn anything from this blog, learn this: buy a keepsake mug on day one. Why? It turns out butterbeer is only $1 if you have a mug. Otherwise it’s $4-5 depending on which version you want. Don’t make my mistake, muggles. Spring for one of the collectible mugs in the park (I believe there are five at five different locations) and bother to carry it around with you. Trust me, you’ll want butterbeer every single afternoon.
The Rose Table