Universal Orlando’s CityWalk hasn’t always been much of a draw for many visitors. It was often viewed as the place that you have to walk through in order to get to the parks. By contrast, it is actually the catalyst for me becoming a Universal Orlando Annual Passholder. I spent so much time enjoying the restaurants (I’m looking at you Margaritaville), bars (oh the stories we could tell about Cigarz) and nightclubs (yes, I do love to shake my groove thing). Whenever I said I was going to “Universal” I’d be referring to CityWalk. But it is no secret that a revamp was needed.
Other than replacing the no-one-is-going-to-miss-it NBA City, the new and improved CityWalk has arrived. Let’s talk about some of the highlights of the reborn CityWalk.
The original restaurants are keeping it fresh
CityWalk has welcomed a wave of new restaurants over the past two years, but there are three restaurants from the early days that are still going strong. What’s more is these restaurants have updated their menus within the past year or so. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Cafe compares to no other when it comes to transporting patrons to the tropics. Margaritas and boat drinks, burgers, seafood, and sweets are waiting to be enjoyed. Radio Margaritaville DJ, JD Spradlin broastcasts live Wednesdays – Sundays 11:00 AM – 3:00 PM, live musicians strum their guitars on the Porch of Indecision in the early evening, and a live band rocks the house on the main stage inside after 9:00 PM, so there’s always something to entertain you.
Emeril’s Orlando is the most upscale of the CityWalk restaurants. The dining room is impressive, with its high ceilings, staircase, white table clothes and warm lighting. A long, curved bar awaits along the left side of the dining room. This class act of a restaurant recently launched a new menu just a few months ago.
Finally, the world’s largest Hard Rock Cafe sits just outside the gates of Universal Studios. Anyone looking for an energetic environment with incredible rock and roll memorabilia and a hearty, satisfying menu will find happiness here. The menus at practically every Hard Rock Cafe around the world recently received some updates; yet another example of the well-establish CityWalk landmarks keeping it fresh.
More quick options
Sometimes you just need something quick and less costly, and for a while CityWalk did not offer much to satisfy this need. The “mini food court” located on the second level of CityWalk long stood as the only substantial quick service option. Patrons could choose between Burger King’s Whopper Bar, Panda Express, and Moe’s Southwestern Grill. These three outlets still welcome hungry guests looking for a quick bite, but now there are there are five new options. Right behind the “mini food court” sit Bread Box Gourmet Sandwiches and Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt.
When Bread Box first opened I was a fan, then a few things changed on the menu and I wasn’t a fan so much. I have not been back recently, but plenty of other Universal Orlando frequent visitors have expressed renewed satisfaction with this establishment. Menchie’s is one of the most well known frozen yogurt chains nationwide. There’s nothing out of the ordinary at this location, but the do-it-yourself experience has plenty of health-conscious options while satisfying your sweet tooth.
For something even more indulgent and sinfully sweet, make a visit to Coldstone Creamery. Also another popular chain, your ice cream is mixed fresh in front of you on a cold stone slab once you’ve selected your mix-ins. I’ve indulged a few times, there is no doubt your sweets craving will be satiated after visiting here.
Right next door is the Red Oven Bakery. This little place is usually fairly busy, but not often talked about. I’ve enjoyed every meal I’ve had here, especially the ones I have had delivered to me at one of the waterfront bars at CityWalk.
Finally, regional flavors from around the country can be found at Hot Dog Hall of Fame. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend leaving one of the theme parks to visit here, but if you do happen to be strolling through CityWalk or perhaps you’re wrapping up a late night and you need something hearty, this is a great option. I’ve enjoyed the Kansas City and Chicago style dogs, as well as the chicken sausage.
Surprise hit: VIVO Italian Kitchen
Many Orlando residents probably believe the last thing Orlando needed was yet another Italian restaurant. And with Loew’s Portofino Bay Hotel just a short, beautiful boat ride from CityWalk it is hard to believe that VIVO Italian Kitchen could fill any sort of need. And yet, it does.
VIVO is warm, cozy, and modern. The portions are generous without being overwhelming and the price is fair. It’s been a while since my last visit so I am overdue for a good glass of Italian wine and a plate of rustic Italian fare.
Surprise struggle: Cowfish (but it’s still good)
The concept of Cowfish is intriguing: gourmet burgers crafted side by side with fresh sushi. There’s even “burgushi” combining the art of sushi and the tasty combinations often crafted with burgers and sandwiches. The creativity doesn’t stop there though, spiked milkshakes and cocktails are just as artful as the food.
Many patrons have shared that they’ve found service to be a small challenge. Remarks about slow service and inaccurate special orders have been seen online. Personally, I’ve enjoyed every single one of my visits have been satisfactory. My advice is to sit at the bar if you can, typically the service is a smidge faster. Plus there are cool touch screen monitors embedded into the bar.
Antojitos: good food and live entertainment
Being a night club fan, I mourn the loss of Latin Quarter, but Antojitos is a pretty decent replacement. The food is delicious and packs a punch of flavor. The selection of tequila comes close to rivaling the ultimate tequila bar in Walt Disney World’s La Cava del Tequila. But what makes Antojitos a great place at which to dine is the live mariachi band. Rather than playing traditional mariachi music, the small but mighty band takes pop songs and puts a mariachi spin on them.
Let’s face it, no one comes to CityWalk with the sole purpose of shopping. But Universal would be crazy not to have a few shops on hand. The biggest change to the shopping scene at CityWalk is a fully revamped Universal Studios Store. Inside and out long, slender video screens show scenes from all the attractions at both parks, acting as a highlight reel. The shop itself offers the best of all the merchandise offered at both parks.
NBC Sports Grill & Brew: the un-sports bar sports themed restaurant
As many mourned the loss of the Nascar Sports Grille, many other’s looked on with anticipation. The construction of the NBC Sports Grill & Brew was easy to watch given its prominent location. Now that it is complete and open, the massive video screen out front makes it impossible to miss. The interior is lively and much more sophisticated than your average sports bar. In fact, the challenge with this sports themed restaurant is that it does not want to be a sports bar at all, and it excels at this goal.
If there is a particular big game you want to watch while dining on elevated sports bar fare, this is not the place for you. They are very stringent about what games they will show on their many flat screen TVs. And unless there has been a change in procedure, they will not switch any TV over to a game if you request it.
The reason for dining here is to enjoy a good burger, sandwich, salad, or flatbread and wash it down with an ice cold brew or even a beer flight.
Improved outdoor bars and snack stands
I’ll wrap up our list of CityWalk highlights with one of my favorite features. Along the waterfront you can enjoy a snack or cocktail at an outdoor bar or snack stand. My two favorite outdoor bars at the Shoreline craft beer cart in between Margaritaville and Emeril’s as well as the cocktail bar near NBC Sports Grill Brew. Both offer outdoor high top tables as well as lounge chairs perfect for kicking back. You can’t beat the views here, so I invite you to take a break, grab something to drink, and savor the electrifying, yet relaxing views of Universal Orlando and the new and improved CityWalk.