Back in September, I was happy to host my younger brother Jared for his second annual Orlando trip. Okay, maybe it’s not an annual tradition yet, but I can hope! Jared’s first Orlando visit was centered around the Food and Wine Festival at Epcot, and Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando. We did a ton of park hopping and came home sweaty and exhausted every single night.
So for Jared’s return visit, I planned something a little more laid back, with plenty of breaks between park hopping to eat, have some downtime, and explore some of my favorite places in and around Orlando. What did this trip really revolve around? FOOD. We emptied our wallets at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, feasted on specialty burgers at my favorite local restaurant, and took advantage of Magical Dining Month for the first time ever.
Here’s how it all went down.
Our first day in Orlando was pretty laid back, with nary a theme park visit in sight. Jared had just landed in Orlando the evening before, fresh off of a two week trip to France, so I wanted to make sure he had the opportunity to catch up on his sleep and adjust to the new time zone before venturing out anywhere. We wound up just hanging around the apartment, catching up, and exploring the immediate area until Dan arrived home from work in the afternoon.
We knew we wanted to take advantage of Magical Dining Month, an annual event in which over 100 upscale Orlando restaurants offer a special prix fixe, three course menu for just $35 per person. Magical Dining Month, for those interested in learning a bit more, is hosted throughout the month of September every year, and $1 from each Magical Dining meal is donated to charity. You can see the full 2017 Magical Dining lineup here. Jared works for one of the most popular (and delicious!) restaurants back home in Seattle, and is generally awesome when it comes to sniffing out the best new places to eat. I knew he would want a say in which restaurant we went to, and after carefully perusing the various Magical Dining specialty menus, we decided to head on over to Emeril’s Tchoup Chop, an Asian-Polynesian fusion restaurant located on the grounds of the Loews Royal Pacific Resort.
Since the hotel is conveniently located on the grounds of Universal Orlando Resort and its famous theme parks, we decided to grab a drink or two beforehand at CityWalk, the resort’s nightlife, dining and entertainment complex. Happy Hour was well under way at Emeril’s Orlando (not to be confused with Emeril’s Tchoup Chop!), so we settled in at the bar for cocktails and small plates.
Then it was off to Tchoup Chop! We had nabbed one of the last reservation times when booking our Magical Dining experience, but the downside was, it started at 5:30 PM! We hopped a water taxi from CityWalk over to the Royal Pacific, and checked in at the restaurant, only to find that there were no other guests in sight! Guess we could have grabbed an extra drink or two at Emeril’s, but no worries. After all, Tchoup Chop has a pretty fantastic bar of its own, with an impressive lineup of specialty cocktails. I wasn’t planning on ordering any more drinks, but once I had a sip of Jared’s “West Coast Lychee,” I had to order one for myself as well.
Tchoup Chop is my very favorite restaurant in Orlando, though it can be a bit cost-prohibitive, and I was thrilled to see that Jared loved it almost as much as I do! The main dining room is beautifully decorated, with rich cherry-hued tables, a wall of blue stained glass, and a stunning reflecting pool running down the center of the room. The restaurant filled quickly as we ordered our food and kicked back to enjoy the tranquil setting.
As part of the Magical Dining menu, Dan, Jared and I each enjoyed an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert.
I just love how creative all of the menu options are! Even the Garlic Pepper Steak (my entree!) brought something new to the table: delicious lobster mashed potatoes! The food was divine and the setting unbeatable.
It wouldn’t be a true Orlando visit without at least one day in the theme parks. On Saturday we visited two Disney parks: Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Epcot.
Hollywood Studios is a charming little park that offers visitors a little behind the scenes look at the magic of the movies. Or it used to, anyway! The rides and shows that once paid homage to special effects, stunt work, and set visits are increasingly being phased out in favor of entire lands dedicated to the latest and greatest in Disney/Pixar movies. And by latest and greatest, I of course mean whatever will bring in the most money while totally disregarding the original concept of Hollywood Studios. Whatever, I’m only a little bit bitter. In a few years, this park will probably just be referred to as “Star Wars land” anyway, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pretty pumped to see that fan favorite come to life.
We started the day out with a spin on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, followed by a late breakfast at Starbucks. We didn’t want to eat too much, with a visit to Epcot’s Food and Wine Fest still on the horizon! Then it was off to ride the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a drop ride in a haunted 1930’s hotel, and Star Tours, a 3-D adventure across the Star Wars galaxy.
After a short break at home to cool off and refresh, we made our way back to Disney with visions of small plates and beer flights dancing in our heads. Yep, it was time to visit Epcot, and more importantly, spend some time eating around the world at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival!
To read more about what happens each year at the Food & Wine Fest (and to see photos of the tasty little small plates on offer!) check out this roundup post on the 2016 Festival. To put it simply, the Food & Wine Festival takes place every fall around Epcot’s World Showcase Lagoon. World Showcase is made up of several pavilions celebrating various countries across the globe, for example, Italy, China and Morocco. During Food & Wine Fest, an adorable assortment of themed “outdoor kitchens” spring up throughout World Showcase, each offering a taste of various international cuisines. There is a booth for France, one for Poland, and so on. The 2016 Festival even had a booth themed around chocolate! Count me in!
Having been to the festival exactly once before, Jared knew to come prepared with plenty of cash. Those small plates and drinks add up pretty quickly! We spent as much time as possible wandering around and “tasting the world” before the heat and humidity got the better of us, and it was time to head home and cool down.
Day three saw us visit another seasonal theme park offering, this time at Universal Studios Florida! The three of us checked into the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel for the night (read my review here!) and then steeled ourselves for a night full of terror at Halloween Horror Nights. Every Halloween season on the weekends, spooks come out to play, with several themed haunted houses, nightly stage spectaculars, and roaming scare “zones” scattered across the park for a truly immersive horror experience. This is not the kind of place where you can just wait outside, scare-free, while your friends go through the haunted houses. Need some liquid courage? Lucky for you, outdoor bars and kitchens are scattered all over the park, so you never need to go far for a pick-me-up!
On Jared’s first HHN visit in 2015, we tired out early and left the event after visiting just a few houses. This time around, we were determined to see as much as possible, and with the exception of one stage show, we managed to see absolutely everything! We visited all nine haunted houses, laughed irreverently at Bill & Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure, a raunchy pop-culture parody show featuring everybody’s favorite 80’s duo, and still found time to grab dinner at Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters Cafe.
Of course, we were pretty wiped by the time the event ended. In my nine years of attending HHN, I’ve learned to expect long lines for the haunted houses, and I consider it a successful night if I’m able to see at least half of those houses in one evening. So to see every single house and then some was quite the achievement.
I don’t like to post Halloween Horror Nights pictures here without warning, since it can be a bit shocking if you don’t know what to expect. If you are curious and want to find out more about how to attend and make the most of this exciting annual event, be sure to check out my post on HHN 25, held in 2015.
Wondering why we bothered to stay at the Portofino Bay Hotel for just one night? Simple: so that we could take advantage of the free Express access (and shorter wait times!) when we visited the Universal theme parks the following day! Free Express passes are just one of many perks at staying at a deluxe Universal onsite hotel!
We started the day out at Islands of Adventure, one of two (now three!) Universal Orlando theme parks. The parks are always changing and expanding, so even though it had only been one year since Jared’s first Orlando visit, there were already a couple new things for him to explore this time around! We made sure to visit The Incredible Hulk Coaster, which had just opened from a months-long refurbishment and redesign. Jared and I have been on many coasters together over the years, and I was happy to finally be able to share this, one of my favorite Orlando coasters, with him.
Next, we made sure to ride the newly opened Skull Island Reign of Kong, which you can probably guess is based off of King Kong, one of Universal’s most enduring movie characters. This new 3-D ride takes guests into the unsettling depths of Kong’s home on Skull Island, and can be pretty freaky for younger audiences! Jared isn’t the biggest fan of 3-D rides, but we made an exception for Kong, which he actually really liked.
My favorite part of the day, of course, was visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is split into two sections: Hogsmeade Village in Islands of Adventure, and Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. You can even ride the Hogwarts Express to get from one park to the next! We didn’t spend too much time at Universal Studios, since it’s primarily shows and 3-D rides, and wound up calling it a night pretty early on.
Since we had the rest of the evening free, Dan and I decided to introduce Jared to one of our favorite local restaurants, Teak. Serving up craft beers, massive handcrafted burgers and an array of fantastic appetizers and specialty entrees, Teak is a foodie’s dream come true. The burgers are absolutely fantastic, with creative toppings and even more inventive names. If you ever make it out to Orlando, I recommend ordering The Children of the Corn burger off of the secret menu, and opt for the side winders or bistro fries on the side! Not a beer drinker? No worries! While Teak’s emphasis is not on wine, their sangria and mimosas are a fantastic addition to any meal.
On Jared’s last full day in Orlando, I planned on taking him to the two remaining Disney parks on our itinerary: Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. You may remember that on Jared’s last visit to Orlando, due to a frustrating ticketing error we were not able to visit Animal Kingdom at all. So to make up for it, the three of us now made it a priority to see Animal Kingdom before going anywhere else on Disney property. The sheer beauty and impressive theming of Animal Kingdom makes it one of my favorite spots to photograph when hanging out at Disney. The park is divided up into themed lands, two of which represent the continents of Africa and Asia! The park is filled with animal experiences, exciting shows, and absolutely beautiful shops and restaurants, but I suspected Jared would be all about the thrilling rides on offer.
Namely, Expedition Everest, a massive roller coaster that takes adventurers up the mountainside of the famed Mount Everest. Just keep an eye out for the mythical yeti, who has been rumored to haunt this unforgiving landscape.
We also took a ride with Kilimanjaro Safaris, an exciting adventure that mimics the experience of a real African safari. While on the safari, you can hope to see lions, giraffes, hippos, cheetahs, and even the endangered black rhino. Animal activists, do not fret! In addition to providing these beautiful animals with a safe place to live, the Disney parks are a longtime advocate of preserving the planet and protecting the creatures that live on it. The safari has an underlying message of the importance of conservation, and throughout the park, you may be asked if you’d like to donate to the Disney Conservation Fund. I think of it as Disney’s way of giving back.
We spent some time roaming through a couple of the nature preserves, zoo-like exhibits that showcase animals like tigers, gorillas and exotic birds in a semblance of their natural habitats. I especially love the Maharajah Jungle Trek, which has some of the prettiest photo ops in the whole park!
There are also a handful of exciting shows and even more animal encounters at Animal Kingdom, but we decided to wrap the morning up with a ride on Dinosaur. Then it was back to the apartment to rest up, regroup, and figure out the rest of the afternoon.
While we had originally planned on going to Magic Kingdom, Jared preferred instead to go for a second round at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. Considering his first Magic Kingdom experience, in which all the exciting rides had long wait times, and we wound up mostly seeing the classics such as the Country Bear Jamboree and the Carousel of Progress, I can’t really say I blamed this thrill-seeker for his choice to bypass Magic Kingdom entirely this time around. So of we went to the land of progress, in search of thrill rides and delicious food.
We arrived at Epcot with just a few hours to spare before park closing, and spent most of that time lingering around the countries of World Showcase, squeezing in a few more drinks and tasty bites, and repurchasing some longtime favorite items. Le Cellier Filet Mignon, I’m looking at you!
And just like that, the trip was over! Five days sure did go by quickly, but for once, I feel like we saw a lot without sacrificing time to relax, take a nap, or just catch up over a meal. Perhaps we were all feeling a bit inspired by the way people live in France? Either way, it was a nice way to wrap up Jared’s multi-destination trip, and a welcome staycation for Dan and I. Jared, can’t wait to have you back soon!
Have you been to Orlando before? Leave me a comment and tell me all about your favorite memories in the Sunshine State!