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Universal Orlando stormed onto the restaurant scene with the 1999 opening of its dining and entertainment venue, CityWalk, which is between and in front of its two parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. But Universal's sudden entry onto the food front doesn't mean quality was lost in the rush. In fact, some of the best dining options around can be found here -- even inside the theme parks (and most especially at Islands of Adventure). Several of Universal's restaurants offer cuisine ranging from respectable light bites to dependable dinners (a few even border on fine dining), with most offering unique and casual atmospheres. Do note, of course, that the better-than-average food and surroundings come with higher-than-average prices.

Universal takes "Priority Seating" arrangements for its park and CityWalk restaurants, which can be made up to 30 days in advance by calling tel. 407/224-3613 for USF restaurants, 407/224-4012 for IOA restaurants, and 407/224-3663 for CityWalk dining spots (except Margaritaville and NBA City). Actual reservations are available only for Mythos (tel. 407/224-4534) and Emeril's (tel. 407/503-2467). For more information on dining at Universal, call tel. 407/224-9255.

International Drive has one of the area's larger collections of fast-food joints, but mixed in around its midsection and southern end are some of the region's better restaurants. South I-Drive is 10 minutes by auto from the Walt Disney World parks. Restaurant Row, located in a small area just above I-Drive along Dr. Phillips Boulevard and Sand Lake Road, is currently the hottest dining area in Orlando.

Self-Service Suppers -- If you're on a tight budget and your room has a kitchen or a spot to sit and enjoy a bite, consider dining in a night or two and saving a few bucks. Area grocers, many with delis that turn out ready-to-eat treats, include Publix, near Universal (Venezia Shopping Plaza, 7640 Sand Lake Rd.; tel. 407/226-3315; and 4606 S. Kirkman Rd.; tel. 407/293-7673; www.publix.com), along I-Drive near SeaWorld (Regency Shopping Village, 8145 Vineland Ave.; tel. 407/238-9924), and in Kissimmee near Disney (Xentury City Shopping Center, 2925 International Dr. S.; tel. 407/397-1711); and Gooding's, in Lake Buena Vista (Crossroads Shopping Plaza, 12521 Hwy. 535/Apopka-Vineland Ave.; tel. 407/827-1200; www.goodings.com) and along I-Drive (8255 International Dr.; tel. 407/352-4215). You can find more options in the Orlando Yellow Pages under "Grocers."

Bargain Buffets -- I won't list them all, but if you spend time on International Drive or U.S. 192/Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway between Kissimmee and Disney, you'll see billboards peddling all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets for $5 to $8. This is a good way to fill your tank early and skip (or at least go easy on) lunch, especially if your day is in the theme parks, where lunches are overpriced. Note that you won't find award-winning cuisine here, except perhaps for the highest concentration of grease! Those with kids, however, will appreciate the inexpensive and kid-friendly fare -- especially over some of the high-priced restaurants at the resorts.

Breakfast buffets are served by Golden Corral, 8033 International Dr. (tel. 407/352-6606); Ponderosa Steak House, 6362 International Dr. (tel. 407/352-9343), and 7598 U.S. 192 W. (tel. 407/396-7721); and Sizzler Restaurant, 9142 International Dr. (tel. 407/351-5369), and 7602 U.S. 192 W. (tel. 407/397-0997). The latter two are the better bets.

Meal Plans

Universal and SeaWorld have also tossed meal plans into the mix of offerings (albeit rather abridged versions when compared to the Disney Dining Plan).

The Universal Meal Deal (good at only a very select number of theme-park restaurants) allows you an unlimited number of trips through the line at participating restaurants, at a cost of $20.99 for adults and $9.99 for children 3 to 9 for 1 day at a single park, $24.99 for adults and $11.99 for children 3 to 9 for 1 day at both parks. A single entree and a dessert are included in each trip through the line. Drinks are not included, but you can add on a Meal Deal Sipper Cup, allowing 1 day of unlimited fountain drinks at participating restaurants, for a price of $8.99. Although the amount of food can make this a cost-effective option, the limited number of participating restaurants makes it far less appealing.

Other Casts of Characters

Not wanting to feel left out, Universal Orlando has instituted its own character dining experiences. Like Disney's meals, these are very popular, so be sure to reserve your spot as far in advance as possible.

At Islands of Adventure, the Confisco Grill is home to a character breakfast buffet where Spider-Man, Captain America, the Cat in the Hat, and Thing 1 and Thing 2 all join in the fun. It runs Thursday and Sunday from 9 to 10:30am. The cost is $18 for adults, $12 for kids 3 to 9, plus the required park admission. Call tel. 407/224-4012 for information or reservations.

Universal characters also make an appearance at the Kitchen (Sat 6-9pm at the Hard Rock Hotel), Trattoria del Porto (Fri 6-9pm at the Portofino Bay Hotel), and the Islands Dining Room (Wed and Sat 6:30-9:30pm at the Royal Pacific Resort).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.