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Wine, Food and General Musings from our Holiday Trip to Universal Studios and Disney World

Question: How do you know you did at least some things right when your children were growing up?

Answer: They still ask as adults to go to Disney World with you on vacation.

Entrance to Universal Studios

Entrance to Universal Studios

This is a very good thing, and to reinforce it we flew down to Orlando again this Christmas to spend some time at Universal Studios and the Mouse House.  As our children have grown these vacations also grew into more adult excursions, without giving up all of the magic.  We wine and dine, we ride and we still visit characters and get our pictures taken.  I hope that never changes.  In the end what we really do is spend some very

Cheri and... well you know who

Cheri and… well you know who

quality family time together, and that is, as the saying goes, priceless.

Unfortunately not all of the children could make it, so we segmented the trip and added a stop in North Carolina on the way home to complete our circle.  Still, we had five days in Florida, it was 86 degrees and beautiful every day and there was little to do but enjoy ourselves.  Here are some observations:

The Hotels:

At Universal it is the Hard Rock Hotel, a top end luxury hotel with a laid back attitude and lack of

Lobby tree at the Hard Rock

Lobby tree at the Hard Rock

pretension that makes it feel like home.  We love it here.  It doesn’t hurt that the hotel is about a five minute walk from the parks and you get front of the line passes (they call them ExpressPass) by staying there.  They also have good onsite restaurants and bars.

At Disney it is Shades of Green, unfortunately not open to all but if you qualify it is worth checking out.  Right across from the Polynesian this hotel is a steal at the price paid.  It is very convenient and comfortable.

We have nothing but good things to say about the hotels, and that even includes the Fairfield Inn and Suites Brier Creek in Raleigh on the way home.

The Parks:

Universal Orlando

There was much fun, but also a little disappointment.  In Universal Islands of Adventure the Hulk roller coaster is gone while they redesign it.  We came around a corner the first morning and there was a gaping hole over the lagoon where the track had been.  All that remains is the launch ramp.

The dragon atop Gringott's Bank

The dragon atop Gringott’s Bank

We should have immediately noticed that absence of the low mechanical roar it always made while running, but somehow we didn’t.  The good news is it is coming back.

With that gone there isn’t that much to do in Islands of Adventure in the winter.  If you are up for water rides that changes with Dudley Dooright and Bluto’s raft ride.  They are building out a Skull Island attraction featuring, of course, King Kong.  It looks incredible and should be a show stopper.  Suess Landing continues to be fun and a bright spot for those

The Grinch was there!

The Grinch was there!

young and young at heart.  Harry Potter World, Hogsmeade and Hogwart’s in this park, continues to be good and incredibly crowded.  You can get in an hour early if you are staying in one of their hotels, and this privilege  alone is almost worth it.

Over at Universal Studios there is a bit more to do, with the new Transformers ride and especially Diagon Alley.  This addition to the Harry Potter theming is very well done, authentic and a bit larger than it’s counterpart in Hogsmeade.  The ride within Gringott’s Bank is also quite good, although we all gave the nod to the original inside Hogwart’s castle as being better.  The shops are open and sell everything you might expect.  Once again this gets crowded.  Early is much, much better if you are doing the ride.  Be sure to look for a hidden area while visiting Diagon Alley.  Also, there is the Hogwart’s Express which can take you between the Harry Potter lands and in doing so take you between the parks.  You must have a multi-park pass to ride.  Early in the day it is an efficient way to change over.   Later it becomes crowded and it is shorter in time to walk between the parks.  There are some cool things happening while you ride as well.

Disney World

Much is the same here, although there are major changes in the works.  At the Animal Kingdom the new Avatar land is growing, and you can see some of the “floating” islands over the tree line.  They are also getting ready for a new nighttime spectacular similar, from what we could see, to the Disney Studios show.  Otherwise Expedition Everest is still great, and we had the best animal safari ever with all the animals out.  It even included a mini parade around the rock by the male lion.

The Magic Kingdom is just jammed at the holidays, and we had only a brief three hour jaunt into the park.  Two of the days it was closed to new visitors by 12:00.  It is pretty crazy there this time of year.  Disney Studios was much more manageable, and we got there at opening and rode

Storm Troopers on the loose

Storm Troopers on the loose

everything with the help of three strategic Fast Passes.  We didn’t really need the one for Muppet 3D, but they certainly helped at Toy Story and Star Tours.  Speaking of Star Wars, it was everywhere, from Storm Troopers walking around, to people in full Star Wars regalia and merchandise absolutely everyplace.  This is big, and they are planning a new Star Wars area.  We think it’s going to go where the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular currently is, but are not sure about that.

With the group older now, we find ourselves spending the most time at EPCOT.  This was crowded but manageable, although you really need a Fast Pass for the rides during Christmas unless you are there at opening.  Wait times for Soarin and Test Track approached and surpassed three hours during our stay, which is crazy.  We did Fast Pass Soarin.  Most of our time was spent strolling the World Showcase and eating and drinking.  From the Tequila Bar in Mexico to the Rose and Crown in England there are many choices.  Somehow we

Inside Tutto Gusto

Inside Tutto Gusto

found our way into the wine bar at Italy, Tutto Gusto, two times in two days.  This was a great addition to the parks, and you can try some out of the ordinary Italian wines and some good food as well.  Between us around EPCOT we tried the tequila inside the Mexican pavilion, the Tipsy Duck in China (twice!), wine in Germany, grapefruit beer in Germany, wine in Italy, wine in France and a Margarita in Mexico on another swing through.  This was over two days with four people though, and I assure you no one had to carry us out.

This was fun.  Another very nice show to watch during this time of year is the Candlelight Processional, which features a huge choir singing Christmas carols along with the story of the baby Jesus told by a celebrity guest.  It is colorful and powerful.  Somehow I know we’ll be back.

The Restaurants:

Here’s what we would recommend from the trip, and some will get separate reviews of their own.

Emeril’s Orlando – at City Walk at Universal – Elegant and reasonable.  Great for lunch.  Review

Award winning wine list at Emeril's

Award winning wine list at Emeril’s

coming.

Margaritaville at City Walk – walk in service.  Open and airy with Jimmy Buffet playing in the background at all times.  Also great for lunch.

The Palm at Hard Rock Hotel – always excellent.  Good wine list. Review coming.

Bice at Portofino Bay Hotel – also always excellent.  Five star service, ambiance and food and drink (heavy focus on Italian wine of course!).  We love it here.

Sci Fi Dine-in Theater – at Disney Studios.  Sit in car tables and watch old sci-fi and horror movie trailers.  Much fun.  Good food and a great selection of craft beers.

Yak n Yeti – at Animal Kingdom, we grab the bar and relax.  Good drinks and a wide selection of food.  One of our favorite lunch spots.

Tutto Italia – classic Italian at the Italy pavilion at EPCOT.  Good place for a family meal.  Good wine list.

Tutto Gusto – the wine bar right next to Tutto Italia in the Italy pavilion.  They have food, beer and wine.  This is the place to go for a good glass of wine and a full pour while in Epcot.  You can get a quartino as well.

Chef’s de France – bustling French bistro with classic French offerings and a good wine list.  This place has a great feel to it and we had an excellent dinner.  In the French Pavilion at Epcot.

Those are the good ones from this trip.  There are many, many more to choose from.

The Wine:

There were lots of good wine lists and many choices.  We had several bottles at dinner, glasses here and there and a two quartinos at Tutto Gusto.  Here are some highlights:

2012 Joel Gott 815 Cabernet Sauvignon – this was with dinner at the Palm, and was fruit driven

The wine

The wine

with lots of subtle notes and good length and nice acid and balance.  It went beautifully with my linguini Fra Diavola.

IMG_19492011 Lungarotti Rubesco Rosso di Torgiano – from Umbria, Torgiano must be at least 70% Sangiovese.  You get the cherries as part of a complex profile, full body and a long finish.  This is a fantastic wine.

2011 Bosco del Merlo Roggio dei Roveri Refosco Riserva – an ancient grape from the Veneto region, this wine is dark red with red and black fruits.  A medium+ body and a long finish.  Different, unusual and worth trying.refosco

2013 Stemmari Nero d’Avola – typical Nero d’Avola with full body, dark fruits and a long finish.  Always dependable and inexpensive.

IMG_19422013 Selbach Oster Riesling Spatlese – very classic German Spatlese, barely off dry with crisp fruit.  Delicious.

 

There are so many things to do, places to eat and options for everyone in the family while in the Orlando area.  Of course it helps if you like theme parks.  It just so happens that we do!

A votre santé!

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