Dining at Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando Dining Overview

When asked to name great gourmet vacation spots around the world – New York, Paris, Singapore – Orlando probably doesn't immediately pop to the top of most foodies' wish lists. But believe it or not, Central Florida has developed a substantial culinary culture, from the prototype concepts tested by Darden and other major chains along Sand Lake Road's “Restaurant Row” and lauded gastropubs that have sprouted around downtown, to the explosive local growth of upscale food trucks.

Even so, while adventurous eaters have always known there's plenty to explore in the greater Orlando area, and even tourist-phobic locals have long been lured to WDW property by its lengthy list of restaurants, Universal has often been left out of the comestible conversation. Thanks to the uniform mediocrity of Universal Studios Florida's counter service food during the resort's formative years, the conventional wisdom was that Universal Orlando's food options simply weren't as delicious or diverse as those at Disney.

The good news is that today, food in Universal is almost always on par with, or a step ahead of, what you can find at Walt Disney World and other parks. Thanks largely to the efforts of the resort's award-winning executive chef Steven Jayson, more variety, better preparations, and more current trends are generally the rule at Universal. And best of all, a first-class meal at Universal will almost always leave less of a dent in your credit card than the equivalent repast would at Mickey's table.

Quick service (or “counter service,” as it is called at Disney) offerings are largely comparable to Disney, both in quality and cost, with the newest additions – Harry Potter's Leaky Cauldron and Three Broomsticks, and The Simpsons' Fast Food Boulevard – setting a new bar for theme park fast-food. USF's two full-service restaurants are Finnegan's Bar and Grill, in New York, and Lombard's Seafood Grille, in San Francisco. Finnegan's serves typical bar food – burgers and wings – as well as fresh fish-and-chips and other takes on Irish cuisine. Lombard's is the better restaurant, but it's not in the same stratosphere as Disney's Hollywood Brown Derby (in quality or price).

Islands of Adventure has two sit-down restaurants: Confisco Grille in the Port of Entry and Mythos Restaurant in The Lost Continent. Confisco is fine for pizza and drinks. Despite its Hellenic-sounding name, Mythos isn’t a Greek restaurant; rather it serves something-for-everyone fusion fare, including Italian risotto, Asian noodles, and Mexican fish tacos, plus steaks and burgers. Diners with dietary restrictions will be happy to see that Mythos has more options for vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diners than almost any other in-park Universal restaurant.

For even better eating options, exit the parks into VIVO Italian Kitchen and Antojitos Authentic Mexican, along with The Cowfish's much-better-than-it-sounds burger/sushi bar. The best choice for a white-linen experience at CityWalk is Bob Marley and Pat O'Brien's restaurants for drinks and music.

Many of the older CityWalk restaurants’ menus are similar to Applebee’s or Chili’s. Given the average entree from the Hard Rock Cafe Orlando, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville, or NBA City, it would be difficult for a blindfolded diner to be certain from which restaurant it came. That blindfolded diner would probably guess that any plate with shrimp on it had a decent chance of coming from the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, but there's little else of note on its menu.

Some of Universal's best sit-down restaurants are found at the resort hotels. The Palm Restaurant, an upscale steak house in the Hard Rock Hotel, serves Grade A meat at prices to match. If you’re in the mood for Italian, try Bice Ristorante (expensive) or Mama Della’s Ristorante (moderate), both at the Portofino. Asian food is the specialty at Universal’s Royal Pacific, where Emeril Lagasse’s Tchoup Chop is the top destination. Probably because they handle a lot of convention traffic, menu prices at Universal's deluxe resorts tend to be higher than you might expect, though they are still easier to swallow than the bill at Disney's top tables.

Reservations

One of the biggest differences between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando is the ease with which you can secure dining reservations at the latter resort. If you're used to frantically booking your Disney ADRs 180 days before your vacation, you can relax. During much of the year, you can walk up and get a table at most Universal Orlando eateries with only a modest wait; guests staying at an on-site deluxe hotel can flash their key card to get seated even sooner.

While reservations are generally not needed at Universal, you can use OpenTable.com or the OpenTable smartphone app to book a table at most of the sit down restaurants in CityWalk, the hotels, and the theme parks (including Mythos and Finnegan's). A handful of restaurants now use NexTable.com for reservations; you'll find booking info in those venues' reviews below. Unlike at Disney, no deposit is necessary to book a Universal restaurant reservation, so there's no penalty when your dinner plans inevitably change. The in-park restaurants only take reservations 30 days in advance, but most of the CityWalk and hotel restaurants accept bookings 90 day out, and a couple (Emeril's and The Palm) will let you reserve for next year. If you are visiting at a peak time of the year (like Thanksgiving or Christmas) or during a major convention, we suggest making table service reservations a couple weeks to a month in advance.

Dress

Dress is informal at all theme park restaurants and in CityWalk's restaurants. At upscale resort restaurants such as Hard Rock's Palm Restaurant or Emeril's Tchoup Chop, men are not permitted to wear sleeveless shirts, and “resort casual” wear is appropriate (but not required) for dinner: khakis, dress slacks, jeans or dress shorts with a collared shirt for men and capris, skirts, dresses, jeans and dress shorts for women.

Food Allergies and Special Requests

For sit-down meals, if you have food allergies or observe some kind of specific diet like eating kosher or gluten-free, make your needs known when you make your dining reservation and again when your waiter introduces himself at your table. The waitstaff or chef will be able to tell you the kinds of accommodations the kitchen is prepared to make for your meal.

Accommodating dietary needs is more difficult at fast food places, since the staff may not be as familiar with the menu’s ingredients or preparation. Ask to see the allergen information book, which should be kept behind the counter at every quick service location; it lists the menu items that can made or modified for various diets. When our vegetarians and vegans have doubts about menu descriptions, their strategy is usually to default to the simplest, most-likely-to-be-acceptable item.

See our Universal Orlando Special Needs page for more dietary details.

Character Meals

Universal offers one year-round in-park character breakfast, held from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays at Cafe La Bamba in Universal Studios. During the Superstar Character Breakfast, guests dine with characters from Despicable Me, Spongebob SquarePants, Hop, and Dora the Explorer. Cost is $25.99 for adults and $12.99 for kids; park admission is required and not included. A plated meal with your choice of breakfast favorites (scrambled eggs, pancakes, fruit and yogurt) is served, and attendees also get reserved viewing for that afternoon's character parade. Days and times are subject to change; call 407-224-7554 for reservations, or book at this website.

During the Christmas season, Universal offers a holiday breakfast in Islands of Adventure's Seuss Landing with the Grinch, played by an extremely interactive actor in film-quality prosthetic makeup. This meal is only held on select mornings in December, and pricing and reservations info is the same for the Superstar breakfast.

There’s also a weekly character breakfast every Sunday morning from 8 a.m. to noon at Jake's in the Royal Pacific Resort. Gru and his Minions from Despicable Me are the guests of honor, and E.B. and the Pink Beret bunnies from Hop also appear. The cost is $26.99 for adults, $14.99 for kids, and includes both a continental buffet (featuring a Make-Your-Own-Pancake machine) and a plated entree – the Tahitian french toast and Yukon potato hash get high marks. Reserve by calling 407-503-3463 or online at opentable.com.

In the evenings, Universal characters show up for dinner at the resort hotels on select nights each week. The cast of characters changes frequently, and it’s possible to see the same characters in different restaurants during the same week. It’s common to see Scooby-Doo and Shaggy from the Scooby-Doo cartoons, Shrek, Woody Woodpecker, or characters from The Simpsons at these evening meals.

You'll find characters at Trattoria del Porto in the Portofino Bay Hotel on Friday nights from 6:30 to 9:30 pm. Characters also make appearances at The Kitchen at Hard Rock Hotel on Saturdays from 6 to 9 pm and at the Islands Dining Room at the Royal Pacific Resort on Monday and Wednesday nights from 6:30 to 9:30 pm.

Fast Food in Universal Orlando's Theme Parks

Quick service fast food is available throughout Islands of Adventure. The food compares in quality to McDonald’s, Arby’s, or Taco Bell, but is more expensive, though often served in larger portions. Quick service prices are fairly consistent from park to park. Expect to pay about the same for your coffee or hot dog at USF or IOA as at WDW.

Quick Service Recommendations at Universal Studios Florida

Much of the quick service at Universal Studios Florida is utterly unremarkable: burgers, pizza, pasta, chicken fingers, sandwiches, and salads. The mediocre food is matched by the predictable theming in the park's original fast-food joints: American diner? Check. New York Italian? Got it. We’re a little surprised that there’s not a Chinese-takeout place next to a laundry in the San Francisco section.

The expansion in 2013 of the Springfield U.S.A. themed area revitalized USF's quick service scene by bringing a number of wacky Simpsons-inspired eateries to life along Fast Food Boulevard, including Krusty Burger, The Frying Dutchman for seafood, Cletus' Chicken Shack, Luigi's Pizza, Lard Lad Donuts, Lisa's Teahouse of Horror, Bumblebee Man's Taco Truck, Duff Brewery, and Moe's Tavern. Serving sizes are large, and the food quality is an improvement over your run-of-the-mill theme park fare.

The best food in USF can currently be found at Leaky Cauldron. Diagon Alley's flagship restaurant, the Leaky Cauldron serves authentically hearty British pub fare like bangers and mash, cottage pie, toad in the hole, Guinness stew, and a ploughman’s platter for two of scotch eggs and imported cheeses. When you're done, head over to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour for some delicious Butterbeer ice cream.

Quick Service Recommendations at Islands of Adventure

Of Islands of Adventure's quick service offerings, we like The Three Broomsticks, a counter-service restaurant in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, serves Boston Market-style rotisserie chicken, plus fish & chips, shepherd's pie, and barbecued ribs. The Hog's Head Pub, attached to Broomsticks, serves beer, wine, mixed drinks, and the obligatory Butterbeer (see below).

We also like the gyros at Fire-Eater's Grill, the kebabs at Oasis Coolers, and especially the ribs and roasted corn at Thunder Falls Terrace. Almost all of the other IOA counter-service places serve some variation of burgers, chicken, pizza or pasta, and while your superhero-loving kids are going to be drawn towards Marvel Island’s Café 4, and Captain America Diner as if the Pied Piper himself was leading them to it, avoid both as there are much better places to eat.

Finally, we'd be remiss in our duties if we didn't warn you to avoid eating the green eggs and ham sandwich at the Green Eggs & Ham Cafe. They make a much better photo opportunity than meal.

Quick Service Courtesy

Getting your act together in regard to quick-service restaurants in the parks is more a matter of courtesy than necessity. Rude guests rank fifth among reader complaints. A mother from Fort Wayne, Indiana, points out that indecision can be as maddening as outright discourtesy, especially when you’re hungry:

Every fast-food restaurant has menu signs the size of billboards, but do you think anybody reads them? People waiting in line spend enough time in front of these signs to memorize them and still don’t have a clue what they want when they finally get to the counter. If by some miracle they’ve managed to choose between the hot dog and the hamburger, they then fiddle around another 10 minutes deciding what size Coke to order. Folks, PULEEEZ get your orders together ahead of time!

On that note, it's also courteous to have your form of payment (cash, credit, hotel key, or dining plan card) in hand by the time you approach the cashier.

The Wizarding World of Beverages: Butterbeer and Beyond

The Butterbeer Craze

The first question you are likely to hear from friends upon returning home from a Universal Orlando vacation isn't “how were the rides?” or “did you like the hotel?” but “what does Butterbeer taste like?" In the fictional Wizarding World, Butterbeer is a mildly intoxicating treat favored by Harry Potter and other Hogwarts students. It made its first appearance in the book Prisoner of Azkaban, and ever since has made fans' mouths water with dreams of the taste, enticingly described as “a little bit like less-sickly butterscotch.”

In the real world, the Butterbeer served at Universal Orlando is a nonalcoholic beverage served from a tap, with a butterscotch-y marshmallow foam head that’s added after the drink is poured, and guaranteed to leave you with a selfie-worthy mustache. Whereas in the books Butterbeer can be bought cold in bottles, or hot in “foaming tankards,” at Universal they serve four varieties, none of which are packaged for taking home. All were invented by Chef Steven Jayson for The Wizarding World and had to meet J. K. Rowling’s stringent specifications, which, among other things, required natural sugar (don’t ask for Butterbeer Lite). We didn’t expect to like it but were pleasantly surprised: It’s tasty and refreshing, albeit really sweet.

First, there is the basic Cold Butterbeer, which is a vanilla cream soda-style liquid with the foam topping. There’s also a Frozen Butterbeer that's sort of like a slushie made from the same cream soda base, again topped with foam. Frozen is the only variety that comes with a straw; beware of putting one in the cold kind, because stirring the liquid can cause an embarrassing eruption.

After the success of the first two temperatures, Universal tested Hot Butterbeer during the 2014 Celebration of Harry Potter fan event, and brought it back full-time at the start of that year's holiday season. The hot variety eschews the soda base for a rich, creamy beverage that resembles a vanilla chai latte (light on the chai). The signature foam stays on top, natch.

Sixteen ounces of the cold version in a plastic cup goes for $4.99, while the same size frozen is $5.99. The same drink in a Harry Potter souvenir cup sells for an additional $8, but there is no discount on Butterbeer refills. The hot version is sold in a twelve ounce paper cup for $4.99.

Note that while Butterbeer is gluten-free, and the base of cold and frozen Butterbeer has no dairy products, the “non-dairy” foam topping contains whey, a protein derived from milk. For licensing reasons, they refuse to serve the drinks without the topping, even if you are vegan or lactose intolerant.

Finally, Diagon Alley introduced the world to soft-serve Butterbeer Ice Cream, which tastes almost exactly like the drinks. You can get it a Florean Flortescue's in a cup ($4.99), waffle cone ($5.99), or plastic souvenir sundae glass for $10.99. If you only want a cup of Butterbeer without toppings, the soft-serve is also served “off menu” at The Hopping Pot and The Fountain of Fair Fortune, where you'll find a much shorter wait.

If forced to choose among the different types of Butterbeer, Seth's hands-down favorite is the frozen version, since the ice crystals seem to dull the overpower sweetness. That is, unless it's cold out or early in the morning, in which case hot Butterbeer is the clear winner. Of course, for the ultimate indulgence, you have to order a cold Butterbeer and a cup of Butterbeer ice cream. Mix the two together for a life-changing Butterbeer float; at the very least, it may send you into a sugar coma. Lastly, while it's officially forbidden to adulterate your Butterbeer, if you want to order a cup of the cold stuff at the Hog's Head alongside a shot of, say, Irish cream...we won't tell if you pour it in while the barkeep's back is turned.

It seems everyone in the parks is dead-set on trying Butterbeer, as confirmed by Universal’s sale of its five millionth cup in December 2013. Unfortunately, in Islands of Adventure's Hogsmeade, the ambrosial liquid is sold only at Three Broomsticks, at the Hog's Head pub, and by two street vendors. That can mean long waits, as many guests buy from the outside carts, waiting 30 minutes or more in line to be served. The outdoor vendors also charge a few pennies more, and don't honor annual pass discounts. We recommend that you try your luck at the Hog’s Head; the wait here is generally 10 minutes or less, and often there’s nobody in line, even when the outdoor carts have lines 30 people deep only 20 feet away. Once served, you can relax with your drink at a table in the pub or out on the rear patio. Universal learned their lesson, and installed more Butterbeer taps around USF's Diagon Alley, where it flows freely in the Leaky Cauldron, The Hopping Pot, and The Fountain of Fair Fortune. Unfortunately, they forgot to install enough seating to enjoy your drink. Once the picnic tables in Carkitt Market are full, your best bet is to squat on the “stairs to nowhere” next to Gringotts.

Beyond Butterbeer

Though Butterbeer gets most of the press, Hogsmeade has had a handful of other signature Harry Potter drinks since its inception, and Diagon Alley debuted many more. You might as well try one, because you aren't going to find any Coca-Cola products whatsoever inside the Wizarding World.

Foremost at both parks is Pumpkin Juice ($3.99), which has a slightly pulpy texture and tastes like Thanksgiving dessert. It is available in a cup or plastic bottle bottle, or in a sparkling Pumpkin Fizz version on tap only. Refreshing non-alcoholic Cider is also on draft in apple or pear flavors. Diagon Alley has expanded the list of exclusive drinks to include:

Finally, adults who imbibe shouldn't feel left out of the fun, since Universal contracted Florida Brewing Company to come up with a trio of exclusive beers to serve only inside the Wizarding World. In Hogsmeade, the Three Broomsticks and Hog's Head Pub serve Hog's Head Brew, a hoppy Scottish Ale. The Leaky Cauldron, Hopping Pot, and Fountain of Fair Fortune pour Wizard's Brew, a heavy dark porter with chocolate notes, and Dragon Scale, a Vienna-style amber lager. All are $7.75 for a 20 ounce cup, and are served from creative custom-carved taps. Cart vendors in the streets and queues around Diagon Alley also sell cans of “domestic” brews like Guinness and Strongbow.

Last updated by Seth Kubersky on January 28, 2015