Sometimes the best days, as in the best ever days, are when you cram in a ton of attractions area fun into one day. In this case, I crammed a quick visit to Universal Orlando, drove to Walt Disney World, checked my dog Dodger (#DodgertheDog) into Best Friend’s Pet Care, joined my family at the amazing Treehouse Villas, took a boat ride to Disney Springs, and had one of the best meals of my life at Morimoto Asia. And this all took place after I had gone to work that day. So come along with me for a whirlwind trip over the river and into the woods from Universal Orlando to the Treehouse Villas at Walt Disney World.
After work I headed to Universal Orlando to check out the brand new Hello Kitty store. Though I am not the biggest Hello Kitty fan, it’s always fun to see something when it first opens. There’s excitement in the air, management is hovering over their new pride and joy, it’s clean and unharmed. The store is bright, bubbly, and almost saccharine. All kinds of Hello Kitty and Sanrio character merchandise fill the walls from apparel to house wares.
Soon there will be exclusive Universal Orlando Hello Kitty merchandise. I feel that this type of merchandise is a better value, all the other regular Hello Kitty merchandise can be found in other shops and online. Still, I witnessed many guests coming into the store and expressing how much they enjoyed the cute appearance of the store and merchandise. My personal favorite items are the themed candies and sweets. Desserts are already lovable but add the adorable Sanrio characters and it’s cuteness overload!
After a stroll through the Hello Kitty store, the call of that one particular harbor had to be answered. National Margarita Day is February 22nd each year so in the spirit of this time of year I found myself a bar stool at the iconic Volcano Bar. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Cafe at Universal Orlando has three bars inside and one incredible outside bar, the Lone Palm. At the Volcano Bar patrons can worship the drink that spawned a song in 1977 that lead to Jimmy’s empire. A volcano blows and water cascades down the volcano and into a giant blender in the middle of the bar. It never fails to capture the attention of everyone inside the cafe. Though I opted to sit inside, the weather was lovely and the Lone Palm bar was well attended rightfully so.
According to my watch the time is now (shameless use of Jimmy Buffett lyrics) and thus I needed to head to Walt Disney World, take my dog to Best Friends Pet Care, and meet my family at the Treehouse Villas. This trip actually marked Dodger the dog’s first time setting paw on Walt Disney World property. The Best Friends Pet Care facility is located just across the street from Disney’s Port Orleans resort, a fairly central location in relation to the rest of Walt Disney World.
You can check your furry family member into Best Friends Pet Care for the length of your stay or if you are just visiting for the day they do offer day care as well. Pricing and care options are available here. I had made my reservation online about a month prior. It was a fairly easy process.
Dodger only spent two nights, one full day really, so I didn’t take a whole lot of time looking around and exploring. Checking him in took about 15 minutes, a little longer than expected. However, plenty of good questions were asked including when Dodger should be fed, given treats, confirming his vaccinations, and confirming any activities or grooming for which I had signed Dodger up. Grooming pricing is about 15-20% higher than what I am used to outside of the World, so I passed on the beauty treatments but I did opt for Dodger to be part of a play group so he could get out and run around.
The facility is lovely with two great outdoor areas for your pups to play around. The first is a fenced dog park area where doggies can run around leash free, with their owner’s supervision or as part of a scheduled play group. There is also a picturesque dog walk just behind the building that winds through a natural wooded area. Registered family members can stop by for some play time with their pet during visiting hours, just make sure you provide the names of anyone who is authorized to pick up or visit when you check in.
At check out they provided a cute “report card” that indicated Dodger’s behavior and gave the staff an opportunity to communicate any concerns they may have. With Dodger all checked in it was time to finally take my place in the tree tops. My family and I have stayed at Treehouse Villas once before, and when they were first built I was fortunate enough to work for Disney Vacation Club and participate in a test stay before the unit opened to guests. The Treehouse Villas are one of the most unique accommodations anywhere in Orlando.
As I pulled in it was nearly sunset. The tranquility of this preserved part of Walt Disney World put me at ease. There are only 60 villas, which is smaller a smaller “room count” than your average boutique hotel. It is part of Disney’s Saratoga Springs which is the most sprawling resort on Disney property. You are staying among the trees as each villa rises one story above the ground. It is enchanting to drive through a forest of trees and treehouses.
One of the defining characteristics of the Treehouse Villas is that they are on protected wetlands. That is why the roads are narrow. Nothing can be changed to the overall footprint of this mini-resort. When units were converted from defunct Disney Insititute turned college program housing, the old units were removed, save for the foundation. Disney Vacation Club took over the long vacant land. The villas were built offsite then lifted into the air by cranes and placed on top of the stilts and foundation. Pretty cool, right?
Each villa is exactly the same (though there are two ADA compliant units with a long, low angled ramp instead of stairs to get into the villas). Inside is warm, cozy, yet sophisticated. I adore the color scheme. The beautiful, natural tones of the surrounding wetlands is carried into the villas. Various green, brown, and tan tones wash over the unit. Wood, leaf, trees, and other natural elements are weaved into art and furniture. An open living room, dining room, and kitchen make gathering together as a family a breeze, this area takes up about 40% of the unit. There are technically three bedrooms, though one is a kids bedroom with bunk beds. Two very well appointed bathrooms make getting ready for the day or settling down for the night a relaxing experience. Both the master and guest bedroom are very comfortable.
You can also enjoy a large wooden deck with seating for six people. Each unit also has its own charcoal grill near the base of the stairs. When sitting on our wooden deck we could hear the boats traveling up and down the Sassagoula River, the ping of golf clubs meeting the surface of golf balls on the Lake Buena Vista Golf Course that borders the villas, and as the sun had set the sounds of live musicians at Disney Springs.
Many people have concerns with staying at the Treehouse Villas because of its location and transportation. The tranquil, secluded feel is good for the soul and renewing. However, the bus transportation is shared with Saratoga Springs which in itself is typically slower. There are two bus stops inside the Treehouse Villas and the buses usually are bunched up together because of having to leave Saratoga Springs, turn left onto Disney Vacation Club Way then turn left into the Treehouses. I really recommend having a car with you if you stay at the Treehouse Villas.
There is also one small pool. Here you won’t find an impressive water slide nor is there a perky recreation team ready to throw a dance party or do some Disney trivia. What you will find is tranquility, plenty of seating, and a pool area that is near pristine. In short, if you want to be able to completely relax, spread out with plenty of space, and observe the beauty of natural Florida then add the Treehouse Villas to your list. You don’t have to be a Disney Vacation Club member to stay in one, a select amount are available to rent for cash rather than vacation points, though it’ll cost you.
After relaxing among the trees, dusk had settled in and it was time to take advantage of our location just down the water from Disney Springs. The Treehouse Villas have their own boat dock where you can enjoy a leisurely boat ride over to Disney Springs. We waited about five minutes for the boat to arrive. The ride itself is peaceful and scenic, with one stop at Saratoga Springs before continuing on to Disney Springs. On this particular evening we were mesmerized by the full moon shining down on us. It reflected beautifully in the water and every so often peaked behind soft dots of clouds. The boat dropped us off at the boat dock at The Landing, between Paradiso 37 and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, a perfect central location.
We headed straight to Morimoto Asia where we had 7:30 PM reservations. We arrived about 45 minutes early – my family’s motto “early is on time, and on time is late” so we pulled up a few stools at the downstairs bar for a round of pre-dinner drinks. Everyone in my party remarked on the beautiful decor of the entire restaurant from top to bottom. We also reminisced on the days when this building was Mannequins Dance Palace. Oh the memories…
I sipped on a Japanese Ale brewed with green tea and wasabi. It was a flavorful brew, but I was disappointed that the wasabi flavor didn’t pull through more (I’m one of those weirdos that loves wasabi). My mother enjoyed a refreshing lemongrass mojito, a selection that’ll be even better in the summer. The hit cocktail of the round was my uncle’s Manhattan East, a bourbon based cocktail with an added Asian twist of sake.
Our table became available right at our reservation time. Our party of five seated at one of the large round tables near the center of the dining room. The pristine show kitchen seemed to glisten with the succulent sight of Peking duck hanging in the window. This was my third time dining at Morimoto Asia and like a good little Touring Plans contributing writer I had the full review from Len and company up on my phone to help guide my family. There was a small debate about whether to get appetizers or dessert.
I quickly steered us toward a small order of my two favorites from the dim sum section of the menu. Dim sum refers to a selection of appetizers ranging from dumplings to steamed buns, the defining characteristic is these morsels are served inside a steaming bamboo basket. When eaten immediately upon being served, they practically melt in your mouth.
The Kukini Pork Boa steamed buns are indulgent and heavenly. Pork belly is tucked inside a gooey, tender steamed bun and topped with julienne veggies and Napa cabbage. Usually a drizzle of spicy mayo caps off this heavenly bite, but my family vetoed the condiment. We also ordered the Shrimp Har-Gao from the dim sum menu. These tender dumplings are steamy, light, and delightful. Filled with shrimp, bamboo, and seasonings. My mother is often opposed to any strong fish or seafood taste but she enjoyed these little dumplings.
For the rest of the meal we made a marathon of it. We proposed our desired entrée to the rest of the table to ensure we had a representative sample of the entire menu. Our server mercifully supplied us with multiple plates so we could share in all the glory of everything displayed before us. We ordered: Morimoto Spare Ribs, Morimoto Peking Duck, Morimoto “Buri-Bop”, Sweet and Sour Crispy Branzino, Orange Chicken, Fried Rice with Chicken, and a la carte side of steamed garden vegetables.
My pick was the Sweet and Sour Crispy Branzino and I immediately fell in love (and immediately regretted having to share this dish with anyone else but my own tastebuds). This white fish is meaty, tender, and just enough flavor without an overpowering fish taste. It is served whole and lovingly layered in a sweet and sour sauce and an Asian slaw. A hint of peanut lingered in the sauce. Everyone at the table rated this dish tops.
The other two stand outs, the Morimoto Spare Ribs and Moromoto “Buri Bop” are the stuff that delicious dining dreams are made of. The ribs are succulent, tender, and flavorful. The Buri Bop is one of the most unique dining experiences you can have anywhere. A piping hot clay pot is brought to the table with a mound of rice and vegetables and slices of yellowtail tuna await to be cooked inside the bowl. A server delicately places the pieces of fish one by one around the bowl, immediately searing and cooking the fish. Soon the fish is returned to the rice and vegetables, the mixture made all the more heavenly with the addition of egg yolk.
Our table also shared the Morimoto Peking Duck. I am so glad we tried this dish. It has been on my culinary bucket list for a while. It is everything I imagined; rich, indulgent, the crispy skin is the star. Now that I have tried it my curiosity is satisfied, when I return to Morimoto Asia I will focus on ordering more dim sum and either the Branzino fish or the Buri Bop.
For the remainder of the evening, from the boat ride back to the Treehouse Villas, until we each retired to our own rooms, we couldn’t stop gabbing about how our dinner at Morimoto Asia is one of the best dinners of our lives (and my family is very well dined). It is hard to imagine packing so much into one evening, especially after a work day. But, every so often I have a whirlwind adventure through Orlando’s attractions like this and it reminds me how lucky I am to call this place home. It really is easy to have the Best Week Ever whether you live in or visiting one of the best places ever.