Have you ever heard it said that those who vacation more work harder? Well, we firmly believe this to be true and this year decided to go on a winter vacay. Given as her experience gift for Christmas, we explored another fantastic thing about living in Miami – how close we are to Orlando, specifically, Harry Potter World and Disney Springs. With the upcoming construction of the Brightline Train, a high-speed system that will eventually reach Orlando, vacationing there will be even easier! We decided to leave on Wednesday, and came back Saturday night. We hope you enjoy our experience and are inspired to do the same!
Being on vacation, we did not want to rush things. So, although we planned to leave at 8:30 in the morning, having failed to pack the night before left us leaving at 10:30 AM. This actually worked out quite well, as we discussed life and reconnected in the car – it made the ride, and time, feel much shorter. Although we packed snacks for on the road, the hunger game was strong when we arrived in Orlando. Now, at this point, I need to say a few things, be warned, a bit of a rant. The quality of food, in parks in general, is pretty bad. Being foodies, it’s quite upsetting that a ticket to experience all the lines is so expensive, and they cannot reduce their profits just a bit to improve their food quality. Furthermore, the restaurants at City Walk, quite frankly, do not compare to Disney Springs. Topping that all off, parking for Disney Springs is free! Not the atrocious $25 it costs to park at Universal, even if just going to City Walk. (At least, at the time of this post, parking cost $25).
As expected, we headed to Disney Springs. A recent craze of ours has been pizza. Maybe it’s the whole gluten free thing and not being able to eat any bread any time, making you kind of want it more… I don’t know. Maybe some Atkins or Keto people can way in on that sentiment? Do you want it more, now that you can’t have it? Anyway, pizza also fit the bill for something that would be relatively fast, so our gluten free search brought us to Blaze Pizza.
The staff here was cheerful, energetic and excited to be working there, from the person who helped you choose your dough, to the toppings person, to the cashier! (You don’t really interact with the cooks). Everyone genuinely seemed to enjoy having their job, and provided the highest level of service, including ensuring we got a coupon for a free cookie, which they also heated up for us (I choose the salted chocolate chip cookie). The food was promptly finished, and although you have to go pick it up, for gluten free pizza that cost only $12, I mean, you can’t beat that! Plus, the outside seating was stunning to be in, surrounded by Disney quality landscaping. In fact, the landscaping was so pretty, we decided to continue walking around, just to explore!
We didn’t actually find our way to Universal until around 4:30, which, again, please note my rant about the insane cost of parking. And I know you are wondering, and the answer is no, they do NOT prorate the parking, despite the fact that the give FREE parking after 6PM!
That all being said, we have been to Universal plenty of times before – of course, our favorite part is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. If you have not been during the Christmas season, then you are missing out! There are different decorations for every store, yet somehow, they make it all cohesive! They also have different songs and skits during for their shows, and even some “falling snow.” For the first day, we spent it walking around and noticing all of the nuances of Diagon Alley. Truly, a job well done, Universal. The attention to detail is on point! I can’t even imagine how long it took for them to put everything up for the holiday season! Thank you for keeping the Christmas spirit going!
Looking at all the rides having over 3 hour wait lines, and now having walked up an appetite, we decided to turn it in and get some dinner. Naturally, it was back to Disney Springs! Iron Chef Morimoto has a restaurant there that we always love, plus, sushi always sits well with Anjane. Unfortunately, we did not think to make reservations, as it was a Thursday evening. To our disappointment, when we arrived, they were completely booked. While this may have deterred others, we persevered and requested seats at the bar, where it was a first come, first serve policy. Plus, we took it as a sign – if the restaurant can pack out this many people on a Thursday night, then you know it must be amazing!
Our brief wait was not in vain! We had the Buri-Bop, a dish created by Chef Morimoto on an Iron Chef Japan challenge, chased by the Mango Matcha Punch. I mean, you can definitely see why he won that challenge! Served in a 400 degree clay bowl, the Buri-Bop gets mixed and presented right in front of you, with the final touch being that the Korean style yellow tail is placed on the clay in order to sear it to perfection! The punch was an exquisite mixture of Charbay Green Tea Vodka, which was so smooth that you could not even feel the alcohol – it tasted like drinking juice! With exceptional service, wonderful modern decor and award winning food, it was easy to see why it was so packed. We resolved to return the next day for lunch. That’s how much of an impact the meal had on us.
Being gluten free, we knew that we were going to head on over to Sprinkles bakery for their outstanding cupcakes, enjoyed our final meal of the day and headed back to the hotel.
The early morning air greeted us quite unexpectedly as a cold front was beginning to come through! Crisp air is always some of our favorite, so we pressed on into our day, Anjane getting ready with her morning smoothie, and me with my cup of greek yogurt, fruit and honey. Since I couldn’t bring the yogurt up from Miami, we decided to have breakfast at a local Starbucks that was on the way to Universal. With breakfast in our tummies, and our daily dose of caffeine, we were off to conquer the day!
Wanting to make the most out of as many rides as we could, using the Universal App, we planned out our routes, starting again in Diagon Alley. Seeing all the decorations and details straight from the movies, Universal has done a fabulous job making you feel as though you were actually walking through Diagon Alley, complete with even the entrance, which is so obscure that you have to be “in the know.” We also made time to go see Despicable Me, very cute, and other rides around town.
For lunch, however, we had to head back to Morimoto Asia to try something different. The Buri-Bop was so good, how could we not! Seating was much more accessible this time, so we got to have a waitress, who was also very well versed in gluten free and other dietary restrictions! Although Morimoto Asia no longer offers a purely Gluten Free menu, it has labeled all of the dishes which can be altered to be gluten free. Upon the recommendation of the waitress, we went with the Spicy Salmon Roll and the Angry Chicken. Again, we were not disappointed! The roll featured some of the best cuts of salmon that were so buttery that they seemed to just melt in your mouth. But then, came the Angry Chicken. With rice flour crispy skin, bell peppers, bamboo shoots, green beans, japanese eggplant and a bed of sushi rice, all swimming in a glorious pool of red thai curry sauce, I found it very difficult to understand how the chicken could be so angry. We both wanted to soak up any sauce remaining and I want to personally challenge the chefs of Miami to step up their gluten free game. This dish alone made the trip worthwhile. We cannot wait for the Brightline to be finished so that we can come up here just for this dish!
After enticing us with their own desserts, to which we politely declined, our waiter asked if we had been to Erin McKenna’s Bakery yet. We had not, so she informed us of how to get there, and suggested it would be of interest to us, since it was a bakery based on being gluten and dairy free, as well as any other harmful additives. She was not wrong. It featured a variety of baked goods, including a Mocha Coffee cupcake that was moist, delicious, and lacked the grainy texture that many gluten free cupcakes tend to have. Our palates cleansed and satisfied, we spent the rest of the day in Universal.
Insider Tip #1: When faced with rainy weather, plan yourselves to go to the indoor shows! You may be able to beat out the weather, like we did, hopping from indoor rides to indoor shows. The train, being mostly in a tunnel, taking you from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade, also does not shut down. Many people did not know that, it seemed as the wait lines were cut down to just an hour when it began to rain.
Insider Tip #2: The evening also features a fireworks show and a holiday themed light show on the Hogwart’s castle. Be sure to check it out during December, as it is different during the regular year!
Insider Tip #3: The best place to eat at inside Universal, without leaving, bar none, is the Three Broomsticks. When considering quality of food, price and options offered.
A long time favorite of our has been to eat at Kobe Japanese Steakhouse. It’s a place where you can get hibachi, see some Orlando Magic players, and most of all, sushi, a long time favorite. And, truthfully, we had every intention of going there. But we didn’t. Waking up to surprisingly cold weather, after breakfast, we decided to go shopping instead of another day at Universal. This brought us to Plato’s Closet, after seeing a fabulous looking Ted Baker duffel bag on their Instagram and then to Disney Springs. It was such a beautiful day, by that point – at a whopping 70 degrees, it was a crime to stay inside. Remaining in awe of all the attention to detail in the Springs alone, we aimlessly walked around until we saw Wolfgang Puck’s newest creation. Having just opened up and having enjoyed his previous restaurants there, we took a look at the menu. That’s when the light fixtures caught our eyes and like flies were drawn to eat there.
Seeing that gluten free options were a part of the menu, it was a win. Stepping inside, we felt as though Joanna Gaines had decorated his restaurant for him. It was absolutely stunning, with high ceilings, exposed woods, Edison lighting, and more, you immediately felt like a hug was just bringing you towards your seats. You could not feel more at home if you tried. Michelle, our bartender / waiter, certainly tried, with her bubbly, charming personality, she served as a most excellent guide! Always ensuring our glasses were filled, she ensured that we never went thirsty.
We started off with something we had not been able to eat since identifying her food sensitivity – calamari. In fact, just days before we were talking about how much we missed having this dish, and the availability of people to make it gluten free. Soft, juicy, crispy calamari, served with a garlic aioli on the side, all freshly made started the party in our mouths. Each bite felt as though it were too good to be true! Puck’s calamari is a shrimp and calamari dish, and he did not disappoint there, either. Although every piece was varying in size, it was as if each one had been purposefully attended to perfection.
Sticking with the fish theme, we decided to go unconventional with the Smoked Salmon pizza. I mean, can we say brunch anyone? Cooked in a stone fire oven, this was by far, the most buttery, crispy crust that we have had yet in our journey! The cream cheese, dill and red onion sauce for the pizza was divine, and the smoked salmon on top was heartily generous. It was literally the pizza version of lox and bagels, yet instead of capers, you had salmon boba, that added a savory texture to the dish. Absolutely a stunning job well done by the chef of the day, Michelle and, of course, Wolfgang Puck.
With that in our bellies, we could not think of a better way to end our trip than a final trip to Erin McKenna’s Bakery for a coffee cake dessert to take back to my sister, who also is gluten free.