With the end of another semester at Penn, we were finally home for the holidays! But having flown in at night, we hardly had any time to settle in before packing our bags again to embark on a mini Florida family vacation the very next morning. On the agenda were two days in Orlando and two days in Tampa. While touring a different city of course entails sightseeing, for us the emphasis is usually equally on the food. Filled with good eats and holiday cheer, this trip is one for the records!
Day 1: Magic Kingdom
Last summer, we had visited the expanded Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, so this time while we were in Orlando, we decided to go the Disney route instead. Magic Kingdom had also recently expanded their Fantasyland, and since we hadn’t been post-reno, we chose to go there over the other three Disney parks.
Once we arrived at Magic Kingdom, we headed straight for Fantasyland. Immediately, the noticeable difference was the arches and walls that were built to emulate the village in Beauty and the Beast. They also built a new ride, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. We braced ourselves for the 90 minute wait time (which thankfully turned out to be 70 minutes), but like all rides with such a long wait, the ride itself seemed too short. Being a rather mild ride, it paled in comparison to the new Gringott’s ride at Universal, but then again, I’m comparing apples and oranges. We also went on Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, another of Fantasyland’s new rides, as well as the classics Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, and Buzz Light Year’s Space Ranger Spin. Having been to Magic Kingdom our fair share of times, we passed on most of the rides and switched to food scouting and pin trading. For lunch we ate at Pinocchio’s Village where we shared a salad and Italian flat bread sandwich. For dessert, we trekked across the park for soft serve at Aloha Isle. I got the Dole Whip Float that had pineapple soft serve with pineapple juice while Crystal opted for a cup of pineapple and vanilla swirled soft serve. The pin trading mission was also very fruitful. Normally F-letter merchandise is hard to find, but I actually found and traded for two “F” pins! I also traded for a “Y” to spell out my initials as well as a 101 Dalmatians-inspired Mickey hat and Ariel pin.
The bonus of going to Disney during the holiday season is all the lights and themed performances they have. So we were extremely excited that there would be a night time Frozen-themed performance at Cinderella’s castle and that the castle itself would be illuminated with dazzling lights. Before then though, we watched another holiday performance in front of the castle, this time the castle being lit with a snowflake pattern. No less than 30 seconds after the performance ended, however, it started POURING. Stranded under a small pavilion with no umbrella or Mickey Mouse poncho, we waited about 30 minutes for the storm to pass, meanwhile hearing the news that “A Frozen Holiday Wish” was canceled for the night. Although obviously disappointed, that disappointment was replaced with awe when they illuminated the castle. Everyone has a different idea of what they classify as comfort food, and for me, a crispy chicken sandwich is one of the things under that category. So for dinner, we each had a crispy chicken sandwich at Tomorrowland Terrace followed up with a shared chocolate peppermint cupcake at Main Street Bakery, a sweet ending to a magical day.
Day 2: Outlet Shopping + Downtown Orlando
On our second day, we spent the entire morning outlet shopping, scoring some last-minute Christmas presents. Soon enough it was lunch time, and although the outlet area did have a food court, we checked online to see if there was any place more exciting to eat at nearby. A quick Yelp search later, we found that there was a Noodles & Company only half a mile away. Although it’s still a chain store, we were interested in going here to see what all the hype was about (their stock had doubled within a day of its market debut a year and a half ago). Marketing themselves as a “world kitchen,” they sell all different kinds of noodles from beef stroganoff to pad thai. Service-wise, it’s a bit like Panera Bread in that you get real cutlery (metal not plastic), and your food is served in a nicer bowl. But unlike Panera, they also bring your food to you and clear your table when you’re done (no tip necessary). Although the atmosphere and service were impressive, the food was pretty standard, not bad but not exceptional. Post-lunch, we drove beyond the Disney area towards downtown Orlando. The downtown area was rather organic in that freestanding houses were cramped right next to the commercial areas and many houses had actually been converted into medical and law practices (although from the outside, they looked just like homes). We had dinner downtown at Shari Sushi Lounge, where menu items like their Pink Buddha roll (enoki, cucumber, avocado, takuwan, kampong, gobo, and asparagus, topped with strawberries and balsamic eel sauce) and Chiquita roll (eel, volcano blue crab, and avocado, laced with sliced bananas, kabayaki honey sauce, and toasted sesame seeds) piqued our curiosity. Living up to expectations, these two rolls were a well-balanced combo of sweet and savory. The strawberry flavor complemented the acidity and saltiness of the pickled vegetables, elevating an otherwise typical veggie roll, and the bananas were actually very sweet but so thinly sliced as to provide just the right touch of fruitiness. We also got the Alaska Summer roll with spicy tuna, tempura flakes, and avocado topped with salmon sashimi, thin slices of lemon, and sriracha. Once again, the touch of fruit really elevated the roll! We decided to pass on dessert here because we’d already researched a liquid nitrogen ice cream parlor that we were saving up room in the dessert pouch for. But before then, we strolled along the waterfront that had been festively adorned for the holidays. We had to drive 20 minutes to get to the liquid nitrogen ice cream place, but we were set on going there after craving liquid nitrogen ice cream ever since having it in science camp back in elementary school! My favorite part is getting to create your own flavor combination, but the texture of the ice cream itself is also a bit different; it’s a bit firmer but still smooth, which I like. For our first creation, we mixed in raspberries, Nutella, and pistachios, and it was AWESOME!! Salty and sweet, fruity and nutty, it was so yummy we wanted to concoct another combo. This time we chose banana, blueberry, and birthday cake. Unfortunately, this combo wasn’t quite as successful since the birthday cake flavor was too sweet, but nonetheless I’m appreciative to have been able to try this combo at all! Cheerfully full on ice cream, it was finally time to head back to the hotel where we rounded out the night with rounds of shengji (an addicting Chinese card game) till it was time to call it a day. Part II: Tampa coming soon!