This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at the latest happenings at the UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT! As both Disney and Universal prepare for the busy holiday season, a lot is going on at the center of the theme park universe down in Orlando, Florida. This week was especially big for news as Disney officially introduced the Gran Destino Pleasure Palace Hotel & Casino at Coronado Springs, revealed the ride vehicles of the (somehow still happening) Guardians of the Galaxy coaster in EPCOT, and completely broke DisTwitter with the announcement of Disney PhotoPass photographers being replaced by large boxes. Since we here at the SATURDAY SIX are knee deep in preparation for next week’s highly anticipated THEME PARK TURKEY OF THE YEAR AWARDS, we had to stay clear of such drama as to not distract us. So instead we went down I4 to check out everything new at the Universal, and here’s what we found…
# 6 – The BELLHOP BAR debuts at the Royal Pacific, Portofino Bay, and Sapphire Falls
Starting with Butterbeer, Universal has been killing it in the signature drink game. Not only have they created exclusive drinks for the parks including Duff Beer and Wizard’s Brew, but their batting average in the themed bar department is just about perfect. Moe’s Tavern in Springfield, the Hog’s Head in Hogsmeade, Bar 17 Bistro at the top of Aventura Hotel, and Cabana Bay’s Swizzle Lounge are just some of the fantastic areas they have created in the past few years.
Now comes an incredibly cool pop-up bar that will be available for a limited time at several onsite hotels including Royal Pacific, Sapphire Falls, and Portofino Bay. The BELLHOP BAR will be appearing nightly from 5-7PM through January 13, 2019, and consists of an E-ticket steamer trunk that opens up to create a themed bar experience. Most of us reading this like bars, but know what we really like? A bar-within-a-bar. That’s right, we’ve finally achieved bar Inception as the Bellhop Bar trunks will be found at the Royal Pacific’s Orchid Court Lounge, Portofino’s Bar American, and at Sapphire Fall’s incredible Strong Water Tavern.
While there is a shared drink menu, each location will also offer exclusive drinks themed to that particular resort. These include Royal Lycheetini & Smoked Jake’s Envy at Royal Pacific, Italy’s Envy & Magari #2 at Portofino, and Island Envy & Lemon Tini at Sapphire Falls. These particular drinks were born from a partnership between Loews Hotels (who operate all of Universal’s onsite resorts), Angel’s Envy bourbon, and Hangar 1 vodka. Each of these drinks are premixed in single serve bottles, which definitely helps out the balance of the overall drink compared to the larger jugs we’ve all seen in other theme park bars (cough – we’re looking in your direction La Cava – cough.) The small batch bottles themselves even have that Old Timey look and feel that is certainly going to appeal to guests that enjoy a speakeasy vibe.
We at the SATURDAY SIX are huge fans of themed napkins, so you can imagine the smile on our face discovering that the Bellhop Bar has napkins not only emblazoned with the logo, but with many different sayings on them.
# 5 – Universal food gets healthy!
In the “battle” between the Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World, Universal definitely has some feathers in its cap. The compactness of the entire resort makes everything easy to get to, you don’t have to make ADRs 180 days in advance (you just go to whatever restaurant you want to when you’re hungry,) and Volcano Bay is the greatest water park in Orlando.
THAT SAID, there are also some things that The Mouse does much better than Universal. For example, all my experiences at the Universal parking garage seems like it’s every single Team Member’s first day on the job. I’m not sure if “uncontrollable road rage” from just parking my car is the absolute best first impression of a theme park, but maybe that’s just me. Meanwhile, Disney has parking down to a science.
When it comes to dining at the parks, I am generally traveling with a vegetarian and a vegan. At Walt Disney World, eating with people that have dietary restrictions – whether its a choice to eat vegan or a specific food allergy – is generally great. Oftentimes the chef will come to our table and discuss the various foods a guest could order, and many times will make something off the menu. This is one example of what I like to refer to as “the Disney Difference.” Until recently, our experiences at Universal’s restaurants were much different. In fact, I don’t think a chef has EVER come out to speak to us. Inside the parks, vegan friendly options were very poor. However, since the debut of the Wizarding World – Hogsmeade Village, and especially since the opening of Diagon Alley, Universal has upped their food game.
Recently, the two theme parks along with Volcano Bay have added some incredible offerings specifically for vegetarians and vegans. The Impossible Burger is quite possibly the best vegan friendly burger that has ever been made. It’s popularity has exploded, especially in Florida, and can be found at several Walt Disney World restaurants. The Impossible Burger is now being offered in Islands of Adventure (at Captain America Diner,) Universal Studios Florida (at Richter’s Burger Co.,) and Volcano Bay (Kohola Reef Restaurant & Social Club.)
When you go to your local supermarket, one of the most popular vegan food brands is Gardein. At both IOA (at Cafe 4) and USF (Louie’s Italian Restaurant) there is a spaghetti bolognese plate with Gardein Italian sausage crumbles. This tasted FANTASTIC and the sausage crumbles are an item Gardein only offers to restaurants, as it is no longer sold to the public. Other healthy options include a Gardein Chick’n & avocado sandwich (Mel’s Drive-In, The Burger Digs, and Bambu,) tomato pesto pasta (Mythos) and Penne Genovese (Lombard’s Seafood Grille.)
It’s still a learning curve for Universal, but they are definitely headed in the right direction. I thought it was fun when the Team Members went out of their way twice to tell me that the spaghetti bolognese plate was vegan, possibly because several meat eaters have already complained about the plant based “sausage.” The quality so far has been through the roof, and its refreshing for every member of the party to have something they actually want to eat rather than having to choose some sort of poorly made “house salad.”
Allow me to also present the danger of traveling with someone who is not an official theme park blogger and doesn’t quite understand the rigid rules of Theme Park Food Photography. We ordered The Impossible Burger at Richter’s Burger Co., but before I could get a picture of it, my girlfriend had already covered it up with stuff from the nearby toppings bar. There’s never been a better case of irreconcilable differences, I assure you.
# 4 – Mobile Ordering expands at the parks
Universal has allowed guests to use mobile ordering at quick service restaurants only in the past few months. The mobile ordering program has been slowly rolled out, with several more locations added to the service this week including Fast Food Boulevard in Springfield USA and Thunder Falls Terrace in Jurassic Park. This was wonderful news because the Chicken and Waffle sandwich at Krusty Burger is one of our favorite foods at Universal, but at times the line at Fast Food Blvd can be unbearable. There are still no options to get discounts while mobile ordering, while ordering in person will allow you to get the Annual Passholder discount. Unlike Disney, the Universal app also almost never goes down, so the system is just about flawless (although we’ll get to that shortly.)
At locations which offer mobile ordering, you will find Team Members encouraging guests to do so.
Here’s how mobile ordering worked for me this past week. My girlfriend and I made a quick trip to Universal to get some Christmas shopping done, and we finally got her on Escape From Gringotts. As we left Diagon Alley, she went to use the restrooms directly next to the London Waterfront. While she went in the loo (have to be thematically accurate here) I started an order for an Impossible Burger at Richter’s Burger Co. Much like mobile ordering at WDW, choosing the items was easy. We then began to walk over to Richter’s and I pressed “place my order.” By the time we got to Richter’s I got a notification that my order was ready.
We walked into Richter’s and there was probably a line of about 10-20 people. Even though this is a restaurant which has less than 10 items on the menu – ALL OF THEM BURGERS – in my experience many guests look at the menu like they are trying to figure out Disney’s new ticketing system. This couldn’t have been easier.
Remember when I said “flawless?” Well, later that day we wanted to try the spaghetti bolognese plate at Cafe 4 in Marvel Superhero Island. Opened up the app, created my order, but when I went to hit “place my order” a screen popped up telling me that I needed to be in Islands of Adventure to place my order. I was literally standing about 100 feet away from the restaurant. So I restarted my phone and tried again. Same thing. The good news was that the restaurant was completely empty, so I actually spent more time trying to mobile order than it would have taken just to walk up and tell the Team Members what I wanted to order. It also allowed me to get a Annual Passholder discount on the meal.
# 3 – Universal prepares for GRINCHMAS with a video you gotta see
While we were walking through the parks we got to see the early preparations for this year’s Grinchmas celebration in Seuss Landing. The LED trees at the front of the land are jaw droppingly cool. We’ll be doing a SATURDAY SIX on Grinchmas in December, but this week Universal dropped a must see video whetting everyone’s appetites. It stars the one and only Grinch, along with a few residents of Whoville, working in a Universal vacation call center. Lots of shenanigans ensue, and it is done in a mockumentary-style like one of my all time favorite shows, The Office. CLICK HERE to see the video, or watch the embedded video below.
# 2 – Voodoo Doughnut unveils another exclusive offering featuring THE GRINCH
Speaking of the person you wouldn’t want to touch with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole, Voodoo Doughnut released another exclusive donut themed to The Grinch! The green frosting of the donut really pops and the Bavarian cream filling inside is scrumdiddlyumptious, so it’s official: Voodoo has delivered again. Is there anything they can’t do?
It’s one thing to see tons of people walking around the Wizarding World with merchandise bags, but it’s still amazing to see so many guests walking back to their cars with large pink boxes filled with donuts. All I can picture is several Vice Presidents at WDW watching Voodoo Doughnuts with binoculars and screaming, “WHY ARE THESE PEOPLE WAITING IN LINE FOR DONUTS?!!!”
# 1 – Universal opens Annual Passholder Lounge
This past week Universal also opened up a new lounge in Universal Studios Florida for its Annual Passholders. The lounge is located next to Schwab’s Pharmacy at the front of USF, and is open daily from 11AM – 4PM. The space was formerly a generic gift shop, so this is a major plus to the area. As of now Universal is saying it is a limited time offering until the end of January, but this is something that would be GREAT to have a permanent residence. Unfortunately, just saying “I’m friends with Seth Kubersky” won’t get you in the door, as every person in your party must have an active Annual Pass (seasonal passes count) to enter the lounge.
Lots of comfy seating available inside.
Phone charging available.
Free swag can be available, including the UOAP buttons and magnets.
Throughout the room there are chalkboards to write on, along with colored chalks pens.
You may even see a Universal character show up at the lounge. Other than Seth Kubersky of course. Here is Lucy and Marilyn Monroe.
Yes, Disney may have a Wreck-It-Ralph meet and greet at EPCOT, but where else are you going to meet Betty Boop? Universal owns that coveted 80-90 year old demo that most theme parks overlook!
Coke products are available for sale, including frozen ones.. This Arctic gimmick is a machine that basically turns your drink into an ice cold slush right before your very eyes.
Hello frozen Diet Coke! Normally you have to forget this bottle in your freezer overnight to get this experience.
While the sodas are for sale, there are some free snacks available such as granola bars and chips.
For even more details on the lounge, be sure to check out Alicia Stella’s review over at Orlando Park Stop.
So there you have it: The SATURDAY SIX Returns to Universal! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out the E-Ticket Report podcast. You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).
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Special Thanks to The Elite Brandon Glover, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and Nick, the sweet siren of secret shopping Hedgehog’s Corner, Captain Cruiseline Scott Sanders of the world famous Disney Cruise Line Blog, Universal blogger rookie of the year Alicia Stella, crazy cat lady – and our Fearless Leader – Laurel Stewart, and Hermione Granger’s tutor Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.
FINAL PLUG! Did you know The 2018 Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando has a special edition of the SATURDAY SIX in it? Finally, someone came up with an actual reason to read a book. ORDER this baby now!