What do snow cones, cotton candy, hot dogs and fountain soda have in common? They’re all mainstays at theme parks. Back in the day, they came together to form a meal for desperate theme park goers. But times have changed, and it’s now possible to dine at a theme park without sending your stomach into a tizzy before the roller coaster.
Apparently, telling anyone that culinary gems can be found at theme parks causes the mind to temporarily malfunction—resulting in furrowed eyebrows and strings of conversation continuing in a questioning tone. But yes, you can truly find quality food at amusement parks.
Orlando’s Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Universal CityWalk have stepped up their culinary game; we’ve come a long way since the debut of oversized turkey legs and cinnamon-sugar churros.
A VIP experiences guide for Universal Studios and Islands of Adventures informed us that cuisine standards have increased dramatically. People have come to expect the food will match the level of entertainment provided at theme parks. And this comes as no surprise; the general populace is fascinated with food media and culture, resulting in a greater desire to dine out.
No longer will you have to venture outside the park to find delectable eats. It’s a feast for the senses and an immersive storytelling experience through food at Universal Studios and its park family.
These are the top culinary finds to try at Universal parks:
1. Duck Confit Flatbread at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, Universal CityWalk
In the 1990s we were introduced to “themed” restaurants outside of amusement park territory. Brands that spring to mind include Planet Hollywood and The Rainforest Cafe. While people could tolerate the kitschiness and saturation of corporate branding, once the novelty of animatronics and celebrity endorsements wore off, the food had to speak for itself. But it failed, miserably. Ratings have never been positive. The nail in the coffin was getting labeled as a “tourist trap,” and that’s precisely what these were. Burger patties were dry, pasta was gloopy, and most foods tasted like they came out of pre-frozen bags that had been reheated in the microwave.
Enter Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, a new generation of themed restaurants. Opened in September 2016 at Universal’s CityWalk, it looks like another heavily branded and themed restaurant from the outside. But things are not always as they seem. Certainly, there’s an elaborate story to go with the building’s towering smokestacks: set against a 19th century steampunk backdrop, the restaurant’s tale centers around a female Indiana Jones, a lady named Professor Doctor Penelope Tibeaux-Tinker Toothsome. The explorer returns home to London and opens this restaurant so everyone has an opportunity to taste what she’s learned about food abroad. Penelope and her robot friend, Jacques, make rounds with the diners and ensure they’re enjoying their meals. And fortunately, the interactions are not overbearing—on the contrary, they’re actually quirky and endearing. While their story aims to provide an overall immersive experience, it is only one part of an important equation—the other being the food. It’s refreshing to take a bite of their Duck Confit Flatbread and grin from ear to ear. Behold! It is possible to have good food in “commercial-esque” places. Portions are generous and the chunks of duck meat are tender and delicately sweet. The flavors are reminiscent of a holiday meal: crisp flatbread provides the base; mushroom puree is laid over that; it gets a sprinkling of roasted Brussels sprouts, blistered red cherries, fontina cheese and scallions. Wash it all down with milkshakes that are larger than your head. The Brownie or Bacon Brittle shakes have a thick, dense and creamy texture. However, despite their sugary components, a sip will not send you into a diabetic coma; rather, they have a restrained sweetness that makes it easy to slurp up.
2. Lard Lad Donut at Springfield, Universal Studios Florida
The Simpsons have come to life. Everything in Springfield, located inside Universal Studios, is larger than life, including the food. In what began as a Simpsons-themed simulation ride, Springfield has expanded to include some hallmark elements; most notable has been the iconic fare to indulge in.
A slew of fast-casual eateries are in Springfield to dole out artery-clogging delights. From Luigi’s Pizza to Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck, all your favorite characters are here and ready to fill your tummies. Krusty Burger for instance, features the Clogger: two six-ounce pure beef patties slathered with secret sauce, runny cheddar cheese sauce and applewood smoked bacon. Cletus’ Chicken Shack offers Chicken & Waffles with a cutlet that gets drenched in seasoned cornflake-breadcrumb mix. After a visit to the deep fryer, it gets a smear of maple-mayonnaise and sandwiched in Eggo-style waffles. The chicken is welcomingly moist and crunchy. If you’re thirsty and need to wash all this rich food down, how about a citrus-y Flaming Moe? Theatrics aside (it fizzes and smokes, thanks to dry ice), it tastes like an extra carbonated Orange Crush drink. If you’re hankering for something alcoholic, stay at Moe’s Tavern and order a beer flight. All brews are specially made for Springfield and can only be found here. Try one or all three: Duff Dry is a stout, Duff Light is a Pilsner and Duff (original) is a lager.
But the talk of the town would have to be Homer’s favorite food—doughnuts. Prepared fresh daily, the gigantic Lard Lad Donut (pictured at top) is taken straight from the kooky world of The Simpsons. It’s a yeast-leavened dough finished with pink glaze and confetti sprinkles. More miraculous isn’t the enormous size (remember when Homer’s head becomes a doughnut in one of the Halloween specials? Yes, it’s about that size), but the taste. Its delicate chew, fluffiness and tender crumb make it a surprise winner of the day. The chef wagers that it can stand up to any overpriced artisan doughnut out there; and with one taste of it yourself, you’ll be apt to agree.
3. Fish and Chips at Leaky Cauldron, Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida
If the Universal family were to pinpoint the catalyst to “raising the stakes” of theme park food, Ric Florell, GM & SVP of resort revenue operations, says it probably was when the parks were tasked with bringing the realms of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to life (Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure in 2010 and Diagon Alley in 2014 at Universal Studios).
Keeping in mind discerning “die-hard” fans and their eye for authentic details, as well as needing J.K. Rowling’s approval, Florell said that “if we were going to do it … we were going to do it right.” The Leaky Cauldron is a testament to this. Located in Diagon Alley, this famous inn and restaurant run by Tom (the innkeeper) is where Harry stayed and slept when school was not in session. It is also where he met up with friends Hermione and Ron to plot against He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
To bolster the storyline, English pub comfort food is served in a casual dining hall space. For fans in the know, you can sometimes hear a loud train roaring overhead—the same one that kept Harry up at night. It’s too bad he never tried the Fish and Chips dish (pictured at top); it probably would have soothed his stressed soul. Despite its fast-casual ambiance, the food at the Leaky Cauldron receives the respectful treatment it deserves. Fresh North Atlantic cod is dipped in beer batter and deep-fried to a golden brown. The flesh of the fish is tender and delicately sweet; it provides the perfect counterbalance to the salt-kissed, crispy crust.
4. Goat Curry at Strongwater Tavern, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort Outside Universal
Rum may have once been considered a lowbrow spirit, but it can have as much sophistication and history as, say, an Irish malt whiskey. Passionately leading the tasting and education is Strongwater Tavern, a tapas restaurant located inside the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. With over 60 rum types and in-house infusions, this spot warrants numerous return visits. Chris Meiman, the rum captain, is happy to delve into specifics and guide guests through a flight to pair with their vast selection of tapas. The ingredients showcased in the shared plates come from hallmark rum-producing regions: Puerto Rico, Little Havana, Colombia, West Indies, Mexico and Cuba. Many dishes have punches of assertive flavors and spices, components that marry well with the strong libations.
Leading the culinary brigade is executive chef Carlos, who beams with enthusiasm at his menu creations. Before he signed on with the Universal family, he wanted to ensure that this “themed” restaurant would avoid “prepackaged” foods and “umbrellas in drinks.” His philosophy is straightforward: “our menu is a streamlined version of stuff we would eat at home—dishes our parents would eat too … good street food we’d get in the ‘hood.” And because he was given complete creative control, guests will definitely be able to taste the authenticity and quality in every dish. In order to honor the dishes he grew up on, he insists on using fresh, locally sourced ingredients. An example of this is Strongwater’s homemade Steak Empanadas, which follows his mother’s recipe. Homemade buttery pastry encases a hearty mixture of beef, onions, carrots, potatoes and spicy green garlic sauce. But the not-to-miss dish would have to be the Goat Curry, whose intense flavors immediately transport you to Jamaica. The mildly gamy meat is cooked down to a creamy softness with garlic, onion, scotch bonnet peppers, curry, potatoes and thyme.
5. Ribeye Steak at Emeril’s, Universal CityWalk
Emeril’s is a veteran of Universal CityWalk. For 18 years, this New Orleans transplant has seen the ebb and flow of restaurants on this stretch of land. Emeril’s has always been regarded as a fine dining hot spot, but interestingly, for the first couple of years, the kitchen staff had a bit of learning to do; they had to accommodate a wide range of discerning palates. Perhaps (un)surprisingly, were the immediate requests for burgers to be featured on the adult menus.
It was an initial challenge to scale-back the “foreign flavors” and off-cuts of meat (lamb neck is on their New Orleans menu but not their Orlando one) to appease the needs of the average tourist, but eventually a balance was struck and now there’s a sprinkling of the “weird” and wonderful every now and then. With time, hopefully Emeril’s can return to its roots and fully celebrate the flavors of creole and Cajun cuisine.
This is not to say that foodies should overlook the Emeril’s in Orlando. On the contrary, chef de cuisine Douglas Braselman is exercising creative flair, but in an accessible manner for all to enjoy. For instance, the Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread is given a fanciful upgrade. The bread arrives to the table as a cake-y and crisp wonder, then a mountain’s worth of pork belly jam is piled on top and finished with honey butter. Sticky, fatty and delicately sweet, the pig-ified dish makes for an extra decadent affair to devour.
But the winner would have to be the Chargrilled Ribeye. Certainly, it sounds like something only a lumberjack could conquer but there’s a twist to this dish—there are no potatoes. The corn-fed beef comes from Arkansas City, Kansas. It’s cooked to medium so some of the fat renders off, and you’re left with a spectrum of flavors and tender textures from one piece of meat. Then, to balance the richness, the dish comes with rosemary-charred cabbage, onion jam, roasted oyster mushrooms and arugula, and is sprinkled with buttermilk blue cheese. It’s amped up on so much umami goodness that you don’t miss the usual “meat and potatoes” pairing. Best of all, the vegetables lighten up the overall profile of the dish so you don’t feel weighed down by the end of the meal.
Honorable mention: If you have room for dessert, make sure you try the Banana Cream Pie. Every person who says they don’t like banana cream pie has never tasted this one. This pie is king. Banana slices are suspended in the creamy folds of vanilla custard. It sits on a graham cracker crust and is topped with dark chocolate shards. Even though it seems like a massive portion, the delicate sweetness makes for easy eating.
Tiffany Leigh is a Toronto-based food, travel and science writer.