Dani’s Best Week Ever March 31, 2016: Universal Orlando CityWalk

Spring has sprung! Orlando has welcomed Spring Breakers and Easter holidayers with open arms. Word on the street is that this past Saturday marked the most amount of passengers through Orlando International Airport in a single day! After a quick, less-than-24 hour trip to visit my parents in North Florida, I headed to Universal Orlando for an extensive stroll around CityWalk and a movie. It was evident that the Spring Break / Easter crowd had descended upon Universal Orlando, but I easily had an enjoyable time. I noticed a few details I hadn’t before and although I had the ability to go into the parks, the desire to do so gave way to enjoying CityWalk instead.

I journeyed to Universal property via exit 75A (West bound just after Kirkman), this ramp provides a great vantage point of Volcano Bay water park and Sapphire Falls resort construction. This side of Universal property has been under construction for a few years now with the building of Cabana Bay and now its expansion and the addition of Sapphire Falls and Volcano Bay.

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I arrived around 2:00 PM and of course there was a large amount of cars waiting at the parking plaza, and not all lanes were open; thankfully things moved relatively quickly. One tip I can offer for parking is to make sure you have your form of payment ready to go and know ahead of time whether or not you want to shell out the extra money for preferred parking. If, like me, you’re an annual passholder then have your pass and photo ID in hand ready to go.

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After parking, the walk from the massive parking structure provided a few interesting sights. First up, a temporary merchandise set-up caused me to raise my eyebrow. Obviously set up due to the increased amount of guests, this small merchandise set up offers sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, a few t-shirts, and other items that guests might see and think “oh we forgot to bring this, let’s buy it now.” The location is a bit awkward–at the end of the parking lanes just before the final moving walkway that leads to the central hub and security checkpoint.

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Speaking of the checkpoint, as I approached I asked the Team Member if I should remove my bracelets, she replied “you should be fine.” Not very assured, I went through the metal detector and sure enough my metal bracelets set off the buzzer and thus I was wanded front and back. No big deal, but kind of annoying. When in doubt, remove any item you think might cause the detector to go off and place in one of the provided containers so it can go through the machine instead.

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Rainy and severe weather came to visit Florida on Friday and Saturday, but alas on this Easter Sunday the sun came shining through. I enjoy the arrival experience at CityWalk, long covered walkways give way to an open plaza with tall structures leading the eye up. (The Universal Orlando sign hanging high above is also a popular photo opportunity.) The weather was lovely, but the walkways were pretty busy.

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On this visit I was interested in taking the time to stroll through parts of CityWalk I don’t often frequent. First up, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Hard to believe this worldwide chain restaurant is celebrating 20 years! If during your Orlando visit you have an interest in dining at Bubba Gump as well as Rainforest Café, T-Rex restaurant, or Yak & Yeti at Disney I suggest joining the Landry’s loyalty program. It costs $25 to join, but you immediately get $25 on your account. Plus you get $25 on your birthday, you earn one point for every dollar you spend, and once you reach $250 you automatically get another $25. For a family of four it is real easy to reach $250 just with a visit to Bubba Gump and one other participating restaurant.

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Due to its location at the top of CityWalk, Bubba Gump is a popular location and can often have long waits. If you do not have kids with you considering sitting at one of the two bars inside. Many people do not know about the bar located in the back right corner. In fact when I popped in there was no one seated at this bar.

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I quickly browsed the merchandise shop and the amount of tropical and nautical themed items pleasantly surprised me. There is also a small sale section–bargains! A wall of Orlando souvenir merchandise caught my eye and sparked my interest. What other Orlando specific merchandise could I find here at CityWalk?

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On my way out I encountered the new-to-me shrimp costumed character. This cute, but kind of creepy crustacean usually greets guests just outside the entrance to the restaurant in the afternoon and evening hours. I’m not sure what purpose this character really serves. I can’t imagine anyone passing by Bubba Gump making the decision to dine there because of the shrimp character, but perhaps I am mistaken.

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One of the things I love about being a frequent visitor to Orlando’s theme parks is the ability to explore these stimulating destinations with full spontaneity. I hadn’t been up to Bread Box in a while–in fact not since their latest menu update–so I decided to head upstairs for a quick visit. Their menu really focuses on classic deli sandwiches: It’s nice to see that the Hot Turkey ($10.99) is still around and I am interested in trying the Ham & Brie ($10.99) as well as the BLTA (bacon, tomato, argula, mayo, and avocado – $7.99).

Down the steps I went to take a peek inside NBC Sports Grill Brew–admittedly I have an apprehension toward this place. When it first opened I was completely turned off by the fact that every staff member and manager we talked to that night would not turn a single TV to a college football game, being broadcast on NBC itself. Instead every TV displayed various games on various ESPN networks. Ever since I have had no desire to go back.

In the spirit of spontaneity I decided to stop in and considered grabbing a seat at the bar. It was around 2:30 PM on a Sunday and most tables were occupied and about half of the seats at the bar were too. Those seated at the foosball tables played the game while they waited for their food. I opted to keep strolling around CityWalk.

Heading over to Hard Rock Café my curiosity about Orlando specific merchandise continued, so I decided to peek around. Hard Rock has a lot of Orlando specific items, it turns out. I personally once had a collection of shot glasses from various Hard Rock Cafes that I had visited around the world. From t-shirts to Tervis tumblers, there’s lots of items available that will make a good Orlando souvenir.

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Right next door the former site of NBA City is being transformed into the Toothsome Chocolate Factory. This ambitious concept is the latest buzz, and not just a sugar buzz. Savory items will be offered, but the star of the menu is definitely chocolate and sweets. The name, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Case in point, as I walked by the construction site a couple of guests conversed to each other that they had heard the news that Universal was building “this chocolate place” to which a member of the party asked “Ghiradelli?” and the original guest replied “no, that’s at Disney, this place has some weird name I can’t remember.” Side note, the day after I visited, the clocks that were on the front of building were removed.

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As I came around the lagoon a familiar sight that temporarily was gone has returned: The Incredible Hulk roller coaster track has been replaced and is complete. I walked up to the entrance, tempted to go in, when a message came in from a friend asking me if I wanted to meet at the CityWalk theater for a movie. Spontaneity wins again! Time to finish the lap around the lagoon.

The sound of guitars strumming and steel drums playing called me to my favorite spot, Margaritaville. It’s no secret that I am a full fledged Parrothead and will find any excuse to pull into this one particular harbor. I decided to stick with my little mission of checking out Orlando specific merchandise. Upon walking into Smuggler’s Hold (Margaritaville’s merchandise shop) a display of Orlando labeled items immediately welcomed me.

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Just like with Bubba Gump and Hard Rock Café, a wide selection of t-shirts and drink ware featured the Margaritaville logo with one of the most beautiful words in the English language, Orlando, right underneath. Even though all this Orlando labeled merchandise is geared towards tourists it’s hard for a hometown girl like me to resist adding some of the goods to my collection.

Two more quick stops and then it’s movie time.  I exited Margaritaville and suddenly the sweet sounds of mariachi music called me to Antojitos. I don’t frequent Antojitos often: it’s a solid choice, but since it’s right next to Margaritaville you can imagine how often Antojitos successfully lures me away. The mariachi band alternates between playing out front and inside on the main stage. They tend to play traditional music out front then they put a twist of classic pop and rock music inside. I enjoyed a few songs and delighted in their celebration of a few guests’ birthdays, then continued on my way.

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A few months ago the CityWalk stage began housing a piece of performance art. A graffiti wall is displayed center stage, changing with the season and based on any special events like Halloween Horror Nights or Mardi Gras. Personally I’ve never been fortunate enough to see the wall being painted (hence the term performance art), but anytime I’ve seen it the graffiti art has been impressive. My understanding is the wall is cleaned and reused every few days.

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Movie time came upon me so I headed to the AMC Universal Cineplex. This movie theater is one the original CityWalk establishments. There are some clearly 1990’s features to it, including old movie posters on some of the walls. It does offer a true IMAX experience, comfortable seats, and occasionally offer special program. For example, about a year ago they showed every Harry Potter film, one a day, in chronological order. It was a cool experience to see the movies on the big screen and then head into Wizarding World afterwards. There is also a monthly “performance” of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, at midnight of course.

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The concession stand offers some food, the standard fried and grease laden items. There is a bar that has been given the AMC McGuffins label; any AMC movie theater with a bar labels it as McGuffins. However, this bar is far different than any other McGuffins I’ve been to. You’ll also have to show your ID and you’ll receive a CityWalk wristband to show you are of age at any CityWalk establishment. On my visit service was a bit slow and when I went to grab a drink to break up the two and a half hour slow moving movie that is Batman v Superman, it nearly took 10 minutes to get my drink. Plus all the food and drink is downstairs whereas the larger auditoriums including IMAX are upstairs.

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After a stroll around CityWalk, doing some nice window shopping, enjoying a little bit of live music, catching a movie at the AMC Theater was a nice way to end the day. Before I was an annual passholder, I spent lots of time at CityWalk. It’s nice every once in a while to go to CityWalk and just focus on the shopping, dining, and entertainment it has to offer. Certainly Disney Springs is giving it a run for it’s money, but with new restaurants, revamped shopping, and an electric atmosphere, you can still have the best time ever in CityWalk.

Dani

Born and raised in the land of sunshine and dreams come true, Dani has always had a passion for tourism and hospitality. She is a proud Orlando Native who loves sharing her hometown with others. With work experience in six of Orlando's theme parks, she now works in the world of hotels. Follow her adventures on Twitter @thisfloridalife

One thought on “Dani’s Best Week Ever March 31, 2016: Universal Orlando CityWalk

  • April 2, 2016 at 11:36 am
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    Enjoyed the tour, thank you for the nice pictures.

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