I was hopeful leading up to my gluten-free trip to Universal Studios Orlando. I read and researched. I joined the Gluten-Free Orlando Facebook group, posted and read responses. And I had a plan for the restaurants. I reached out to the dining management for the theme park and hotel. Even the best-laid plans fail.
Universal Studios is a completely different theme park experience than Disney, because it is:
- More sophisticated
- Less friendly
- More stomach-turning
- Less clean
- More thrills
- Less allergen-friendly
Did you catch that last one? I emailed their corporate staff for guidance on gluten-free options and received a jumbled response outlining the options in the park. Summarizing, it outlines that fresh fruit and turkey legs are gluten-free at the park stands. That’s it. It then discusses the full-service restaurants in a choppy fashion without much detail. Very frustrating.
Theme parks need quick service options for those with allergies. Sitting down at restaurants for long periods of time throughout the day is a huge waste of time when you are paying for jam-packed days of rides and character encounters.
Here is a recap of the restaurants we dined at and the tips for making your visit to Universal a gluten-free one!
Universal Park Dining
Monster Café – Universal Studios Florida: B
The first full day at the parks was busy! We looked for a quick-service restaurant while we were busy hitting the rides. The Monster Café had pizza, ribs and turkey legs. I spoke with the manager and had read that the turkey legs were safe from the Universal Dining sheet. I asked him to pull the leg and steamed plain broccoli from the back of the restaurant and he was happy to do so. It was actually really good and I shared it with my oldest and hubby. It was huge! Nothing on the menus was marked GF.
Three Broomsticks: B
Our Harry Potter fan family had to stop at the Three Broomsticks for a quick lunch our second day at the parks. Three Broomsticks serves fairly simple food, roasted chicken, ribs, shepherds pie. There didn’t appear to be a significant amount of contamination risk coming here. I chose the rotisserie smoked chicken salad. The hubs went for ribs and the kids for fish and chips and mac and cheese. Again, using the resource sent to me from the dietary service, I made my selection. Nothing on the boards was notated for allergens. The manager did take my order but my food was delivered on the same tray with everyone else’s food. The salad was fine. You pay for the experience here; the food isn’t the star.
This themed restaurant within Universal’s Islands of Adventure Park definitely had the most gluten-free reviews out there. They won “Best Theme Park Restaurant” from 2003-2009 and they still proudly display that signage, albeit outdated.
The inside of the restaurant is built to look like you are immersed in Greek mythology, with waterfalls, rock carvings and even a replica of the River Styx running through the restaurant. It was quiet the evening we were there as we snuck in at the end of the day. Definitely try to make a reservation as they do book up, we walked in about 20 minutes before closing and they were kind enough to accommodate us.
At this point in the trip, being our last night, I was already not feeling well. Too much exposure for sure and one poorly handled meal had sent my system over the edge. I ordered the simplest item on the menu, the beef medallions with herb roasted fingerling potatoes, corn succotash, herb salad and chimichurri. It was delicious and the rest of my crew loved their food as well.
We really liked the ambiance of the restaurant and the kids loved watching The Incredible Hulk roller coaster go over and over again. A great win, I just wished I could have enjoyed the meal more without the worry of feeling more sick the next day.
Dining at Loew’s Portofino Bay Hotel
Mama Della’s Ristorante: D
This may have been the meal that put my system over the edge. Mama Della’s came recommended by the hotel staff as the most accommodating gluten-free restaurant on their property. The menu was far from kid-friendly, the prices were high and there was gluten everywhere. On the menu and off the menu.
I went for custom dish, asking for a shrimp salad. It was mediocre at best. The salad was drowning in oil and had an odd flavor. I ate the shrimp and left the rest. I had a bad feeling from the start of the meal, the way the server and manager handled my requests and I was even more annoyed when we got the bill and they charged me for the full price shrimp entrée instead of a salad with added shrimp. $34 for a shrimp salad seemed outrageous.
The next day I felt awful. I contacted hotel management and tried to meet with them twice in the hotel lobby. It never worked for them to be accessible when we had the time. We played phone tag for a few days. He wanted to follow a health protocol with me. No offer of real action to discount our pricey meal that ended up causing a downward spiral that made the end of our trip extremely difficult for me to manage. I didn’t have the energy to keep calling and attempt to reach them. I left voicemails that never got returned.
Universal City Walk
The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar: B+
This spot seemed intriguing for our larger group of both burger and sushi aficionados. We stopped the day before to make the reservation and the manager chatted with me at length about their procedures and I was impressed. I was really hoping to score a mini burger and sushi combo but their burger buns have dairy. Boo. So I ordered some of their plainer sushi options. This is pretty Americanized sushi here. They served it with a sauce that once questioned was quickly swiped from my plate. Must not have been safe. The sushi was just okay. Nothing to write much about, but it is a cool atmosphere and I feel like they did execute the meal well. The burgers got good reviews from the rest of the group.
This is a lively place at Universal’s City Walk. Antonito’s is a very large restaurant with live mariachi bands and lots of chips and margaritas. I called ahead for this reservation and asked for a manager but that was lost in communication during our seating. I ordered late due to the manager being late getting out to see our table. I ordered shrimp tacos on corn tortillas and roasted plantains. Their menu does have gluten-free items noted. I didn’t feel great the next day. After thinking about the plantains, they may have been flash-fried and since their tortilla chips weren’t safe, I am guessing the fryer was contaminated. Either that or the tortillas were warmed on a shared surface? It’s hard to know. It was the first night there and I think I was too excited to ask all the right questions. Not a perfect start. On the upside, everyone else really liked their food!
Contacting management is always a top priority. If you are traveling to Universal please make those calls, set reservations and stick to them. It is very hard to know where you will be and what you will be in the mood for, but it is worth it to plan your trip around those reservations. Take the safer route, make a plan and be an advocate for yourself.
At the end of this trip I was struggling and it was a struggle that lasted for weeks. It changed my perspective on being able to travel and trust restaurants to accommodate me.
Family vacations are worth the time and cost, and the memories are forever. I just sure wish my kids had fewer memories of mom scraping together meals out of the hotel fridge. I’d take fewer memories of mom questioning waiters, asking for managers and going without food. And getting sick.
Ultimately, I want people to be educated and understand how this sort of trip can end up being such a struggle. As easy and accommodating as Disney is regarding allergens, Universal was not.