Thousands of people walk through the gates of Universal Orlando Resort every day. Some come for a day, some come for the week and some choose to spend every vacation here.
And then there’s you. Yes, you, Passholder, who comes to Universal whenever you get a chance and only leaves because well, that’s what “Park Close” entails. You’ve become such an intricate part of Universal that you don’t merely visit — you belong here.
“Our Passholders are considered each time we plan an event or a new menu,” says Executive Chef Ron Cope at Universal Studios Florida. “They inspire us to continue to reinvent ourselves, so we make sure we’re giving them a great experience every time they visit us. When Universal reopened [after our March 2020 closure], they were the ones who brought us back. We felt their support throughout it all and we want to show them how much it’s appreciated.”
Well, timing couldn’t be better. It’s the Passholder Appreciation Days season, the time of the year for Universal to say thank you.
And luckily, I had the opportunity to go around the theme parks, Universal CityWalk, and Universal Hotels sampling the items that the brilliant chefs prepared exclusively for the event, which runs from August 15th to September 30th. You already know the food options are going to be delicious, but I figured I’d do you a big favor and go on a tasting anyway… You know, get some research in, just to be sure.
Crab Okonomiyaki from Lombard’s Seafood and Grille in Universal Studios Florida
Asian-style savory crab and cabbage pancake, hoisin sauce, wasabi mayo and sriracha drizzles, served with lettuce tossed in sesame oil and pickled onions
You know a dish was well-thought out when even the name translates how special and tailored it is. “Okonomi means ‘to your liking’ and that’s what we want to offer Passholders, something we know they’ll like,” says Chef Robert A. Walter, who lived in both Japan and Korea for over 10 years and is responsible for bringing some Japanese flair to this year’s menu. “This is a very casual and flavorful Japanese appetizer, commonly served in bars, so it pairs well with different beers or white wine,” he says. Or, can I suggest pairing this with Lombard’s Mule?
How do I know you’re going to love this appetizer? Well, during the 20 minutes we were standing in front of Lombard’s taking these incredible photos with the Chefs, more than a few guests approached us just to ask them what that dish was and where they could get it. I mean, this alone tells you that the Crab Okonomiyaki is a true show-stopper.
“Guests are a great measure of satisfaction, especially our UOAP,” says Chef Ron. “We love that our Passholders aren’t afraid to tell us what they think. With this appetizer and all others on this year’s menu, we want them to know how important they are to us and that we’re always listening to what they have to say.”
Hummus Kawarma from Mythos Restaurant in Universal Islands of Adventure
Lemon hummus, spiced ground lamb, toasted chickpeas and charred scallions, served with grilled pita
You know that Sunday-dinner-at-home feeling, when you sit at the table with all your favorite dishes and just know it was made with lots of love? That’s the feeling Chef Justin Jones wants you to get at Mythos: “We cook like we’re cooking for family,” he says. “And our Passholders are an extension of our family. They do so much for us that by creating a special dish just for them, we’re also creating a memorable experience.”
And because you’re at Mythos, the “wow” factor is inevitably there. Hummus is the obvious star of this dish, but it’s the lamb that takes it to a whole new level. “Hummus and lamb are both staples of Mediterranean cuisine and together they hit all the right notes when it comes to texture and flavor: you’ve got the smooth hummus, the spicy ground lamb, the crunchy chickpeas. It’s a simple, light and delicious dish,” explains the Chef, who admits that even though this is technically an appetizer and meant to be shared, he would order it as an entrée just for himself — oh, we’re definitely on the same page about that, Chef Justin.
Mt Fuji Roll from Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar in CityWalk
Tempura shrimp roll with kani, jalapeño cream cheese and avocado, topped with chipotle salmon, tuna, and pickled green apples
You know what I loved the most about this dish? Learning that it’s the result of great teamwork. When I sat down with Cowfish’s Chef Aaron Hiner to hear more about this exclusive roll, I could tell how proud he was of one of his cooks, Victor, for having created such a unique item for UOAP Appreciation Days. “Whenever we roll out a new dish, especially for UOAP, it garners a very big buzz,” Chef Arron says. “So, when Victor came to me with an idea that was so out of the box, I was excited to feature it in this year’s menu.”
And this is definitely not your regular roll: it has multiple layers of surprisingly different flavors such as chipotle mayo, jalapeño and pickled green apples (oh, the pickled green apples!) “We want every dining experience to be unique, especially for Passholders who are here often,” says Chef Aaron. “I’m hoping they’ll appreciate the innovation and the overall flavor profile of this roll, made just for them.” Order your Mt. Fuji and just watch as other guests ask their servers if they can have what you’re having… They can’t. Welp, perks of being an UOAP, I guess.
Mango Ginger Kiss from Voodoo Doughnut in CityWalk
Glazed yeast shell doughnut, mango custard filling, topped with ginger icing and crystalized ginger
I had always dreamed about peeking behind the counter of Voodoo and catching a glimpse of the magic that happens behind the scenes. And I can now tell you it’s everything I ever thought it would be (plus, it smells so, so good). I got to sample *first-hand* the new flavor Chef Marcos Colón and team came up with exclusively for UOAPs. “Voodoo offering something this unique just for Passholders is like your favorite band making a song just for you: it feels pretty special,” says Chef Marcos.
If you too are a fan of their doughnuts, you probably imagine that, flavorwise, there really isn’t much Voodoo hasn’t already done. Well, then consider this one their gift to you, dear Passholder: a first-time-ever mango and ginger doughnut. The crystallized ginger sprinkled on top was already a doughnut-game-changer for me (can I please get all my doughnuts with it?!), but then I got to the mango custard filling… It’s just crazy how perfect this combination turned out to be. So, if grabbing a pink box is always part of your itinerary when coming to Universal, then know that this time you’re getting something you’ve never seen before. And it’s got your name on it.
Quesadilla Ahogada from Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food in CityWalk
Grilled quesadillas with braised short ribs, menonita cheese and queso fresco, topped with ranchero sauce and served with guacamole, black beans and house rice
Quesadillas are my go-to Mexican dish, but I had never had them ahogadas before — which, if you were wondering, means drowned (in this case, drowned in ranchero sauce). So, seeing such a fresh play on a classic in this year’s UOAP menu got me empolgada to try it! If you’re also a quesadilla fan, you might agree that part of the reason why quesadillas are usually so good is due to the crispiness of the tortilla. So, my first thought was that because it’s drowned in sauce, it would get all soggy. But nope, the crispiness is still there — a HUGE win. “We created this dish for our Passholders because they deserve something truly delicious,” explains Chef Marcos Colón, the executive Chef at CityWalk. “We’re a Mexican restaurant, so we have quesadillas, we have tacos, we have enchiladas. And this dish is just a cool mix of all the different things we do at Antojitos. From texture to flavor to concept, Passholders are getting all of our greatest hits in one dish.”
Plus, if there’s one thing you need to know about Antojitos is that they serve one of the best guacamoles you’re ever gonna try. But as a Passholder you probably know that already 😉
Locuritas (Spanish Cookies) from Strong Water Tavern at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
Assorted Cookies: Heath Bar, Mexican Chocolate, Dulce de Leche, and Double Fudge, among others
I love the idea of going to Strong Water — for drinks, dinner and especially dessert. But during UOAP Appreciation Days, you, fellow Passholder, get to go there for their Spanish Cookies, also known as Locuritas (in English, “crazy little things”).
And if that wasn’t already exclusive enough, know that every time you do, you’ll get a different assortment of cookies whenever you order two select tapas. “Passholders usually know our menu by heart, but with our Locuritas it’s always a surprise,” says Chef Carlos Castaño. “It’s whatever we feel like making that day. And because it’s something that allows us to be creative and spontaneous, you can be sure it’s made with a lot of love.” For the chef, Strong Water is like a lab, where he gets to play around with different ingredients and think outside of the box: “We want guests to be part of that experiment. Yes, they’ll always get something solid and well-executed, but it’s definitely going to be a different experience every time.” He tells me that in the Hispanic culture, a locurita is also the name given to small gifts you give to the people you love. “So these cookies are a thank you to our UOAPs: for their patronage, for them coming to visit us regularly, for eating our food, for showing us a lot of love. That’s really what it comes down to, true appreciation.”
As for me, I’m sure all of the mix-and-match flavors of Locuritas taste great, but I cannot fathom how it could possibly get better than a Heath Bar cookie, Spicy Chocolate, Dulce de Leche and Double-Fudge. If it does, let me know.
Chocolate-Dipped Cannoli from Trattoria del Porto at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
Crisp and flaky shell stuffed with a sweet and creamy ricotta cheese filling dotted with decadent dark chocolate chips
What’s more Italian than sitting by Portofino Bay Hotel’s harbor and taking in that breathtaking view? Well, doing all that but with a chocolate-dipped cannoli in hand. That was me a couple of weeks ago — and it will be you during UOAP Appreciation Days.
Going into this, I already knew that whenever it comes to Italian classics, the chefs at Portofino have us covered. But again, just to be safe, I thought I’d sample the featured item at Trattoria del Porto beforehand so I could give you the down-low. And well, surprise, surprise… The cannoli is absolutely luscious. The pastry is flaky and crispy, the sweetness of the filling is just right and the chocolate chips balance the whole thing out. Lucky Passholder.
Chef Jennifer Augello, the Executive Pastry Chef for all Portofino Bay Hotel, who has a Sicilian background and was born and raised in Long Island, New York, knew right off the bat that the staple dessert would be the star of the menu: “Passholders are vital to the hotels, so this year I wanted to feature something that meant a lot to me growing up, and the cannoli really represents that.” Get the complimentary dessert whenever you order an adult entrée at Trattoria. It’s Chef Jennifer’s way of saying thank you… in cannoli-shaped form 😉
Krab Rangoon from Islands Dining Room at Loews Royal Pacific Resort
Cream cheese, krab, and Thai sweet chili sauce
Words won’t ever do justice to this appetizer. I can certainly try by telling you it’s crispy on the outside and light and airy on the inside. And that the cream cheese and crab mixed together is just so velvety. And that when you dip it into the sweet chili sauce it all suddenly comes together in a perfect balance of flavors. Still, they’re just words that don’t fully translate how wonderful this is. I could also tell you that it’s perfect for sharing, but I won’t since you won’t want to. This is a complimentary appetizer when you order an entrée — I personally recommend the Islands Fried Rice!
Must be 21 years and older with valid photo identification to purchase or consume alcoholic beverages. Drink responsibly.
What was your favorite item on this year’s menu? Share with us in the comments below. And if your mouth is watering but you’re not a UOAP yet, make sure you click here!